Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
For the past few weeks, I’ve been on something of a “breaking games” kick, by which I mean finding ways to trivialize games in order to strip them of any difficulty they may or may not otherwise have had. There is an appeal, I think, to building teams that are so defensively stable they literally cannot lose, or that can topple powerful boss fights in a single hit, or that can lock enemies down with debilitating status ailments, and so on. In some respects, this saps the strategy and difficulty out of a game—I most often do this in games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, chess-esque tactical RPGs that ostensibly necessitate strategic thinking to win—but I find the planning and effort involved in building “broken” setups to be its own sort of strategic thinking. It is, essentially, an alternative and more general solution to the puzzles the games present. While breaking a game in some ways goes against the spirit of the game, I do think having the ability to “solve” a game generally rather than specifically can add a lot of potential depth and value.
Fire Emblem provides the simplest case of this. I’ve been gradually replaying Fates and Awakening, taking a different approach from my initial plays of the games. As a tactical RPG, Fire Emblem is built to encourage strategic placement of units. For the unfamiliar, the game plays out on gridded boards—again, not unlike chess—and you can move your units across the board to attack other units. Smart Fire Emblem play involves a combination of monitoring enemy attack ranges, blocking off chokepoints, and ensuring you always go to battle with favorable unit matchups. It’s not a complicated series, relatively speaking—if you want a tactical RPG that actually involves a high degree of flexible strategic thinking, I’d recommend the Devil Survivor games—but on a “normal” playthrough victory is dependent on learning the maps and developing tactical approaches that solve each individual fight.
I went into my current runs of Fates and Awakening, though, with a different approach. I wanted to build teams that were so absurdly powerful they could win every fight with essentially zero strategy—in other words, I wanted a “general solution” to the game rather than a collection of “specific solutions” for each individual fight. I played the Birthright version of Fates specifically as it allows for level-grinding (which is helpful for the general-solution approach), and much of my playtime in both Fates and Awakening was spent grinding to build up my ideal teams.
Theoretically, this shouldn’t be as fun as playing “normally.” Fighting generic enemies for experience in order to get powerful units that can steamroll everything sounds pretty boring in the abstract. The games have just enough customization, though, that the process ended up being quite fun, particularly in Awakening with its potentially-powerful second-generation units. The planning involved in creating the ideal skill- and stat-distributions needed for a ridiculously powerful team held my interest throughout the long level-grinding periods, and seeing my team gradually come together—an army of Aether-spamming Snipers and Swordmasters in Fates and a horde of super tanks and Galeforce-fueled glass cannons in Awakening—was highly satisfying.
There comes a point in a playthrough like this were motivation to actually finish the game dwindles. You build a ridiculously powerful team, you steamroll through a few fights, and you start to feel done. Because you have solved the game generally, there’s little need to actually play through each of the specific fights. You get the sense that you’ve pre-emptively beaten the game. It’s a fundamentally different experience from a “normal” playthrough, but not, I would say, an inferior one.
Some would say that breaking a game in this way eliminates the fun of actually playing the game, and I half agree with this. It hinders the fun of playing through the game’s fights in that the game is already generally “solved,” as noted, but I wouldn’t say it removes the fun of the playing the game so much as shifts it. The enjoyment isn’t in actually playing through the individual story quests so much as it is in building up the general solution. It’s a different sort of enjoyment that appeals to a different sort of player.
Some games actively try to inhibit this sort of play. The aforementioned Devil Survivor games approach this in multiple ways. Most importantly, the AI in the Devil Survivor games has access to all of the tools that the player does, so any potentially “broken” abilities the player can make use of can and will be used by the enemy. This unifies the “general-solution” and “specific-solution” approaches, as the player needs to build a strong team and plan in advance in order to do well—the general-solution approach—and then the player has to respond to the powerful combinations and smart play that comes from the AI—the specific-solution approach. The games also feature severe experience scaling, mitigating the ability for the player to level-grind and become overly powerful, and the games reward playing through the entire story without grinding. The player remains on roughly even footing with the enemy throughout the game, ensuring the focus remains on the actual in-battle strategy, albeit without removing the customization and planning elements that tend to make tactical RPGs fun to play.
And then you have games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that essentially require players to look for the most powerful options available in order to even survive most boss fights. Nocturne has a number of tools that are quite powerful when they become available, but it also has fights like the infamous Matador that are nearly impossible without the use of the aforementioned powerful options. A lot of people love the way Nocturne plays (and I do think it’s an excellent game overall), but mechanically it often devolves into a game of odds, with the strength of the player’s strategy only serving to reduce the likelihood of dying to bad luck. It’s often described as a hard game, but I wouldn’t categorize it as “difficult” so much as “frustrating” or “time-consuming”—It’s more a game of patience and perseverance than one of strategy.
My favorite games to break tend to be those where getting really strong is more dependent on customization and team synergy than on raw level-grinding. Persona Q and Persona Q2 are fabulous examples of this. You can play these games “normally” and do just fine, but there are also several ways you can break the game by manipulating the customization systems and building synergistic teams. In Persona Q2 (which I’m still not finished with, 105 hours in), I’ve built a team that can tear through most boss fights in exactly four turns, dealing thousands of damage per turn in a game where doing a few hundred at once is a lot. I’ve spent barely any time grinding—and what grinding I’ve done was more because I wanted to test out different team comps against powerful enemies than out of a need for levels or money—but with understanding of the game’s systems and a cohesive plan I was able to build a ridiculously powerful team. It’s all the fun and satisfaction of the “general-solution” approach to Fire Emblem but without the hours upon hours of monotony.
The best part about PQ2 in particular is that the game retains variety and difficulty even with a completely busted-good team. In the original Persona Q, bosses were mostly uniform in function (with only the fabulous second boss, the Merciful Clergyman, being notably interesting from a mechanical standpoint), so a powerful team burned through everything with ease. In PQ2, however, bosses have a lot more variety, and certain fights can still stymie powerful builds depending on how the boss operates. Similarly, PQ had a simple solution for most random encounters—Naoto, my favorite party member, could just instantly wipe most enemies with her instant-kill spells—but that solution is far less reliable in PQ2, which makes late-game random encounters surprisingly threatening, especially for a team built around boss-killing. As a result, the game avoids becoming boring even once it’s been “solved,” and you get the impressive dual sense of being absurdly powerful and yet still needing to think during battle. It’s super cool.
While Persona Q2 is among the best games I’ve played in this regard, I think I like the Final Fantasy Tactics games slightly more in this regard. The FFT games are not balanced nearly as well—on the contrary, the balance in those games is terrible—but that is itself a large part of the charm. Final Fantasy Tactics is full of hilariously powerful tools, as well as ostensibly well-balanced tools that become hilariously powerful in conjunction with other ostensibly well-balanced tools. The classic example of this is the Arithmetician class in the original Final Fantasy Tactics, which can drop expensive, high-level, single-target spells on the entire enemy team, at once, for free, with just a little bit of planning. It’s the kind of thing that you look at and go, “The developers made no attempt to balance this whatsoever.” And it’s glorious.
There are all kinds of ways to create “general-solution” teams in the Final Fantasy Tactics games, and they range from obvious to non-obvious answers. A personal favorite of mine involves the Assassin class in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Assassins get instant-kill abilities that have a low chance to hit. There are, however, certain status ailments, like sleep and stop, that raise the accuracy of all attacks and skills to 100%. If you put an enemy to sleep, Assassins can then kill that enemy immediately 100% of the time. It’s not hard to do, and there’s little actual “strategy” that goes into it, but stumbling upon and/or building those sorts of combinations is a ton of fun, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the games.
I really do appreciate games that are balanced carefully and that require actual case-by-case strategy in order to win. The Devil Survivor games remain my favorite tactical RPGs for this reason (although it helps that they’re also fantastically-written games with intriguing philosophical implications). That said, good difficulty is super hard to achieve in RPGs, and if I’m presented with a choice between unsatisfying or luck-based difficulty and ridiculously broken team planning, I’ll choose the latter any day of the week. Building a team that’s strong enough to break a game requires its own form of strategy, and there’s fun to be had in being absurdly powerful.
For my thesis this year, I’m translating a section of Nasu Kinoko’s 1998 novel Kara no Kyoukai. Nasu is probably best known for writing Fate/Stay Night, the visual novel that sparked the now-massive Fate media franchise. Nasu is an interesting author whose works straddle the line between “serious” and “popular” literature—historically two very different categories, particularly in Japan. He’s somewhat similar to Murakami Haruki in this regard. Nasu is not, however, a particularly approachable author, and it can be difficult to understand the significance behind his recurring ideas and concepts without having read him widely. To help alleviate that, I’m going to use this post to briefly outline the central thematic conflict that informs all of Nasu’s work to date. For those who have already been exposed to Fate and/or Nasu’s other works, hopefully this will be enlightening. For the rest, it’s an introduction to an absolutely fantastic living author.
Nasu’s first major published work was the aforementioned Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai draws heavily on Taoist thought, starting with its title. Kara no Kyoukai literally translates to “Empty Boundaries” referencing the Taoist concept that distinctions between things are all ultimately psychological constructs and therefore nonexistent. The simplest way to explain this would be to ask, “How high is high?” We might look at a balloon soaring away and say it’s “high,” but there isn’t a clear threshold at which point it transitions from being “not high” to being “high.” Our distinction between “not high” and “high” is a relative, psychological one rather than a concrete one, and consequently Taoism holds that there is fundamentally no difference between something that is “high” and something that is “not high.”
This gets much more abstract, of course, with the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s writings containing phrases like “There is nothing in the world bigger than an autumn hair.” If you’re familiar with the relatively famous quotation about a Chinese philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly and then wondering whether he was actually a butterfly dreaming it was a philosopher, that also comes from Zhuangzi. When I say distinctions between things don’t exist, I do mean all distinctions, and not just the arbitrary ones. It amounts to an “everything is one” concept, though it’s not quite as simple as that distillation makes it sound.
Kara no Kyoukai is filled with paradox, with characters who are both alive and dead, shadows so novel they’re boring, outfits that are simultaneously traditional and Eastern and modern and Western. Nasu uses paradox to break down distinctions between things, forming a foundation of Taoist thought that runs underneath everything in the novel and that helps to establish who is “good” and who is “bad.” The characters who adhere strongly to rigid, Confucian societal structures are “bad,” or at least nearsighted, while the seemingly lazy, eccentric, whimsical characters who accept the world as it is and go where their natures take them are “good.”
Confucianism is consistently cast as a very bad thing in Nasu’s work. It roughly corresponds to the concept of materialism, though not so much materialism in the traditional capitalist sense as in the literal sense. In Nasu’s writing, a focus on the physical world and on societal approval is connected with moral and spiritual decay and often obscures the truth. The alternative to this, which usually uses Taoist or Buddhist concepts as something of an objective correlative, is a focus on the mind and on one’s internal world. Pursuing knowledge out of personal curiosity is good; pursuing knowledge for societal approval is bad. Collecting things for a love of the collection is good; collecting things out of a desire for material wealth is bad, and so on.
All of this holds true more-or-less throughout the Nasuverse. Nasu sometimes draws on Buddhist concepts or images in place of Taoist ones, but the concept of paradox holds strong, along with the sense that distinctions between things do not exist, and regardless of whether Buddhism or Taoism is the framing system of thought, Confucianism is thoroughly negative.
Connection to the Root
Nasu’s core thematic question, though, extends beyond this use of Taoist ideas. Rather, Nasu’s basis in Taoist thought is the framework against which his core internal debate is set.
Nasu’s works grapple thoroughly with existentialism, and particularly with the existential idea that there is no true underlying self. Existentialism holds that “existence precedes essence” which essentially means that individuals are defined entirely by how they act and that they are fully responsible for the actions they take. Individuals are free to take any actions whatsoever, and they are not bound by any externally or intrinsically imposed labels or identities. This leads to existential dread, which is the awareness that one can take any action, even if those actions have mortifying or unrealistic consequences. Imagine sitting in a crowded theater during a play and suddenly having the impulse to stand up and shout something to interrupt the show and draw everyone’s attention. You would never actually do it, but the awareness that you could is inexplicably terrifying. That’s existential dread.
Kara no Kyoukai in particular is a strongly anti-existential work. It insists that individuals do have fundamental, underlying selves and are therefore not entirely free to make decisions. It holds that existential dread is a false fear, as truly dreaded actions fall so far outside the underlying self that they are, in fact, impossible.
Kara no Kyoukai’s central conflict involves existential dread. One of the two protagonists, Ryougi Shiki, has violent thoughts and fears she will one day snap and become a murderer. The other protagonist, Kokutou Mikiya, insists that Shiki is not capable of doing so. Shiki espouses an existentialist view—that there is no underlying self, and that she is right to fear her own free will—while Mikiya holds the anti-existentialist view.
The novel ends up supporting Mikiya’s viewpoint, gradually deconstructing existentialism and building arguments for why it cannot be true. The novel ends with Mikiya meeting Shiki’s “underlying self” in a completely literal sense, and the underlying, fundamental personality informs Mikiya that the ordinary, projected Shiki he knows is nothing more than an outgrowth of the “real self” underneath.
After Kara no Kyoukai, though, Nasu’s writing began to exhibit signs of rethinking that view. Most of Nasu’s post-Kara no Kyoukai works have been divided into two halves, which Nasu refers to as “Near-side” and “Far-side” sections. The “Near-side” sections nearly always mirror Kara no Kyoukai, to the extent that some even reuse characters or names, and nearly all of them reuse concepts and plot beats. The “Near-side” sections espouse the same argument Kara no Kyoukai makes: that existentialism is wrong, and that individuals are bound to their underlying selves.
The “Far-side” sections, though, flip this. In the “Far-sides,” central characters strain against and often break from their underlying selves. Where in the “Near-sides,” the villains assert the non-existence of the self, the “Far-side” villains (typified by Fate/Extra CCC’s Sessyoin Kiara) strenuously insist there is a binding underlying personality and claim that attempts to break from that personality are futile.
Where the “near-sides” are deconstructions of existentialism, the subsequent “far-sides” are reconstructions. They accept as fact the arguments made in the “near-sides” and piece existentialism back together in spite of those arguments. Even if it is impossible to break away from one’s origin, it might be possible to change one’s origin. That sort of thing.
Interestingly, many of Nasu’s “Near-sides” were conceptualized very early in his writing career. With Fate/Stay Night, for example, Nasu had the “Near-side” planned even before he published Kara no Kyoukai, while the “Far-side” did not come into being until Nasu revisited the concept to turn it into a full visual novel. I think it is likely that Nasu’s views on existentialism have changed over time—that when he wrote Kara no Kyoukai he fully believed it’s ideas to be in the wrong, but that as time went on he grew less satisfied with his simplistic answer
The ongoing Fate/Grand Order is particularly notable in that it combines elements of both the “Near-side” and “Far-side” arguments. It is, in many ways, the synthesis to the thesis and antithesis that are the earlier arguments. It seems as if Nasu has come to something of a conclusion here—a way to break down the “distinction” between his existentialist and anti-existentialist works and to meld both philosophies into a cogent whole.
I will be interested to see whether Nasu moves on to a new set of thematic and conceptual ideas once he has finished with Cosmos in the Lostbelt, the current arc of Fate/Grand Order. With his existential question nearly resolved, he may be preparing to shift to a new topic.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting whatever he decides to write.
Over the weekend, I happened to watch the first three episodes of Persona 5: the Animation. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly (or if you know me well), you probably know that I think very highly of Persona 5, and you might be surprised that I’ve yet to watch the anime, but if anything my fondness for the original work led me to avoid the adaptation. Anime adaptations of books, games, and the like have a somewhat better track record than movie adaptations—which is mostly a product of having more screen time to work with—but they can still be sketchy.
The first three episodes of Persona 5’s adaptation are passable but not excellent. I don’t love the animation style, and the events of the show play out at a breakneck pace in order to keep up with the game, which can be confusing when watching. Rather than delving into weak adaptations, though, I’d like to examine a few adaptations that are especially strong in order to hopefully shed some light on what makes an adaptation successful.
The “simple” approach to making a strong adaptation is just to mirror the original work exactly. For a good example of this, look to The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, an adaption of the fourth book in the Haruhi Suzumiya series. Disappearance is the longest animated movie ever made (unless you count the long cut of the fourth Space Battleship Yamato movie, which wins out by a few seconds), and it uses its time to go more-or-less line by line through the novel. It’s an obsessively faithful adaptation, and it pairs this with a willingness to slow down and draw out moments of silence. As a result, it’s possibly my favorite movie period, just by virtue of being a faithful adaptation of a great novel.
It also uses Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie #1” in its score, which is always a plus.
The biggest weakness with Disappearance actually stems from its faithfulness to the original work—specifically, as it is an adaptation of the fourth book in a series, it isn’t particularly accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the earlier books. There’s an animated adaptation of the events leading up to Disappearance as well, and watching that solves the issue, but it does mean the movie doesn’t necessarily stand alone particularly well.
Persona 4: the Animation provides a more interesting example of a strong adaptation of an original work. Given the absurd length of the original Persona 4, the adaptation doesn’t have the luxury Disappearance does of adhering strictly to the original script. Unlike the early episodes of Persona 5, though, Persona 4 handles this transition smoothly, maintaining a good sense of pacing while still conveying the important points of the game’s story.
Persona 4 benefits from a director with a lot more experience, and it shows. Kishi Seiji has directed a wide range of truly excellent shows, from Angel Beats, to Hamatora, to Assassination Classroom. Kishi demonstrated a willingness with Persona 4 to break from the direct events and dialogue of the original game. This is a huge risk as far as adaptations are concerned, and even in the adaptations Kishi himself has directed it doesn’t always work—the Persona 3 movies do the same thing and generally fall flat, for example. For Persona 4, though, it works spectacularly.
Video games are somewhat more difficult to adapt as movies or animated series than books or comics are due to their player interaction and intrinsic non-linearity. In Persona 4 specifically, the player controls a silent protagonist for the duration of the game, which means the animated series needed to essentially develop a unique characterization for a blank-slate protagonist—named Narukami Yu in the anime—and then represent a wide swathe of the things a potential player could do on a given playthrough.
The early episodes of the anime are a bit bumpy, with the low-point being the episode that contains the character arcs for the minor characters Kou and Ai. Normally their character arcs would take place over the course of several in-game months, at the leisure of the player, and condensing them into a single episode is rather ineffective. In a sense, their stories are taken too literally, and they have a similar problem to the Persona 5 adaptation in that it moves much too quickly. Ai and Kou are both strong characters in the original game, but in the anime Ai comes across as extremely shallow (and annoying), while Kou ends up being pretty forgettable.
Fortunately, the show learns from its mistakes and avoids a repeat of that particular episode. Most of the anime focuses on the direct main plot elements from the game—which are generally well-executed, as is typical of Kishi’s work—but then at about the halfway point it revisits the side-story concept. Episodes 13 and 14 combined form a two-part episode: “A Stormy Summer Vacation.” This sequence roughly corresponds to the character arcs for a whopping five of the game’s minor characters, plus Nanako, the protagonist’s younger cousin. Rather than trying to squeeze the actual character stories from the game into this short timeframe, these episodes present an entirely unique story not present in the game itself. While this could have easily gone poorly, the result is probably my favorite part of the entire show—to the extent that I recommend those who play the game to also watch at least those two episodes just because of how fun they are.
The first of the two episodes is entirely from Nanako’s perspective. She sees Yu engaging in suspicious activities over his summer vacation, and she decides to dress up as Magical Detective Loveline, in reference to a fictional in-universe TV show. The episode has Nanako join with the other members of the Investigation Team (Persona 4’s main cast) to figure out what Yu is up to. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense initially, but Nanako is such a likable character pretty much any scene with her hanging out with the Investigation team has a wholesomeness it’s impossible to dislike.
The payoff, though, comes in the following episode, which shows the same period of a few weeks from Yu’s perspective. In the space of twenty-some minutes, the episode provides answers for all of the questions raised in the episode prior (many of which are hysterical) while also breezing through the five side-characters’ story arcs. Yu spends the weeks frantically racing back and forth between the five characters, helping them with their individual problems, all because he more-or-less is unable to say no to any of them.
The brilliance of these two episodes cannot be understated. While they are a thoroughly entertaining standalone story with no direct grounding in the original game, they actually represent the game better than a direct adaptation would. They capture the time-management element of the game’s Social Link system in a linear narrative format, which is quite impressive, and they provide important development for Nanako in particular that’s otherwise skimmed over in the service of advancing the show’s main plot beats. They also characterize Yu brilliantly, showing his desire to help others, his close relationship with Nanako, and (most importantly) his fabulous sense of humor.
Yu’s characterization is a triumph of the Persona 4 adaptation. His personality, while totally new to the anime, doesn’t feel out of place or overbearing—it’s entirely natural despite being entirely original. He’s still mostly a blank slate in that he has relatively little in terms of personal stakes, and his role is mostly as a facilitator for the development of the other characters, which is in keeping with the game. The anime brings an understated humor to this, though, that’s absolutely wonderful.
Yu is almost always straight-faced. His tone is level, and he’s exceptionally calm. This could easily lead to a boring or one-note character, but Persona 4 avoids this through a combination of irony and context. Yu often responds to situations with a hyper-serious melodrama that contrasts strongly with the mundane nature of most of Persona 4. While the anime should probably be classified as supernatural detective fiction, the meat of it is spent on the daily lives of its characters in the small town of Inaba. The protagonist’s universally stoic demeanor means he approaches murder investigations with the same projected sincerity as he brings to a summer afternoon spent fishing.
For a character with few facial expressions, he’s remarkably expressive, and it’s easy to tell whether his seriousness is genuine or feigned—what comes across in one context as intensity reads in another as amusement at the absurdity of daily life. Both types of situations earn his full attention and effort, but the emotion behind them is entirely different. For serious scenes, it feels as if Yu is meeting the plot with the appropriate degree of care, while in lighter scenes his melodrama both energizes the other characters and diffuses tension. His unflagging level of effort pushes the other characters on, while the self-aware silliness of it all keeps them from getting too caught up in their daily minutiae.
The end result of this is that Yu is a highly likable character. Two other characters—Yosuke and Naoto—still drive much of the plot, as they do in the game, but Yu becomes the emotional and thematic backbone for the rest of the cast, which mirrors the protagonist’s role in the game and doesn’t get in the way of the existing story.
The takeaway here is that if an adaptation doesn’t have the time or capability to be literally true to the original work, it can still work exceptionally well so long as any changes made stem from the purpose of the original. The summer episodes don’t come from the game, but they feel as if they could have. Their central conceits—Nanako’s precociousness and her affection for her cousin, Yu’s demanding schedule, the melodramatic urgency of the mundane—all stem directly from the original game. Similarly, while the protagonist’s personality is new to the anime, his role is nearly identical to that of the silent protagonist in the game, and his behavior and attitude are reflective of how many players approach directing his actions. As a result, he blends perfectly into the story despite being essentially a new addition.
When you look at other adaptations that change things from their source material and remain strong, you see a similar pattern. The Kara no Kyoukai films, for example, change a number of elements from the original novel, and yet all but one of them feel like faithful adaptations. They adhere to the concepts and thematic ideas behind the original work, and adapting for the screen becomes less a matter of directly converting the novel’s words to a visual medium and more a matter of creating a movie that embodies the heart of the work.
To go in the complete opposite direction, the Sword Art Online adaptation (which is widely panned and has turned many people off of ever looking at the books, sadly) makes a number of changes for entirely the wrong reasons. The adaptation focuses on providing a literal representation of the action of the novels while completely ignoring the thematic significance of everything that happens (most of which is contained in the novels’ narration). You’re left with what looks like a generic action series with characters who seem either too perfect (Kirito or Asuna) or whose motivations are confusing (such as the many female characters who have implied romantic connections to Kirito in the anime where no such relationship exists in the novels).
I would actually argue that thematic adherence is more important than complete matching of the literal elements of a work. Disappearance, for example, works not because it follows the book’s text directly, but rather because the book’s literal events are themselves largely metaphorical, and therefore representing them visually intrinsically covers the thematic purpose of the book. Where Sword Art Online’s narration is pivotal to understanding how its characters think and why they do what they do, Haruhi’s narrator often narrates contrary to how he feels, meaning the narration itself gives less thematic insight than the characters’ actions do. Haruhi’s narration characterizes the protagonist, but dialogue accomplishes the same purpose in Disappearance, and the meat of the work lies in the outward decisions the characters make over the course of the story.
I hope Persona 5’s adaptation gets better as it goes, but I’m not holding my breath. At least it isn’t offensively bad like Sword Art Online’s is. Enough of Persona 5’s thematic ideas are buried in its overt literal symbolism that even a direct-but-poorly-paced adaptation is likely to capture them passably. A weak-but-literally-accurate adaptation is preferable to one where changes are made that devalue the original work. Not every adaptation can be Persona 4.
The recent release of From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has sparked discussion about difficulty in video games. There's a lot that can be said about the topic -- and I've written about difficulty before -- but the conversation about Sekiro has me thinking about an unrelated and somewhat retro series: Touhou.
Touhou is an indie game series created by Ohta Junya (who goes by the pen name ZUN). It's a type of game called a "bullet hell," which (for the unfamiliar) is essentially an extreme version of old arcade space shooters like Galaga and Gradius. Touhou functions in essentially the same way as its arcade ancestors -- the screen scrolls continuously, and you control one character near the screen's edge as you dodge projectiles and shoot down enemies. Where Touhou differentiates itself from its predecessors is in its pace and resulting difficulty. As is characteristic of the genre, Touhou floods the screen with projectiles to the point where it's not uncommon for more of the screen to be filled with enemies than empty. Galaga's less crowded screens mean the game tends to rely more on snap reflexes, while Touhou play often centers on pattern recognition -- on learning enemy and projectile patterns and finding ways to reliably avoid incoming attacks. This is a useful skill when playing Galaga and the like as well, of course, but it's necessary for Touhou.
Touhou games are hard. I've only personally played the sixth game, Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil, and even playing on "normal" difficulty and using all available continues, I've never been able to beat the game. You might expect this to engender the sort of frustration many have reported experiencing with Sekiro, but for me, at least, it never has. Touhou is a series that can feel nearly impossible, and yet the difficulty rarely, if ever, comes across as annoying or unfair.
Touhou succeeds in this regard largely due to the implicit goals it sets. Touhou games are short, and when you lose, you have to start over from the beginning. These two factors combined mean losing is separated from failure. The goal when playing Touhou is not to win but rather to improve, which means losing is itself a valuable step in the process of learning to play the game. Similarly, beating the game is not an endpoint, as you can always try for a cleaner run or for a higher score.
Touhou's arcade-esque structure gives it a natural advantage in tackling this approach -- it's how the series "gets away with" being so dang hard. I see From Software as striving to apply this same core philosophy to a completely different type of game. The heart of Dark Souls (and presumably Sekiro) is not progression so much as building mastery. The games are good at this, no doubt, but they aren't perfect. Even with the focus on mastery, the games' sense of progression is still present and necessary. This isn't inherently problematic. Where games like these run into issues is when the progression-related and mastery-related goals come into conflict. After several hours of slamming your head against the wall that is a difficult boss fight, odds are you're going to get frustrated, even though you've likely gotten better at the game in that time.
This is especially true when the player just wants to move on with the game. For example, when the player is at the very end of the game, and the final boss is the only thing standing in the way of the satisfaction that comes with completion. Regardless of your stance (if you have one) regarding players cheating through Sekiro's endgame, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this cheating is happening. I understand and mostly agree with the sentiment that cheating in a game like Sekiro undermines the purpose and vision behind the work, but at the same time, the apparent prevalence of this behavior means there's a disconnect between Sekiro's reward systems and its difficulty. Mastery-based motivation works easily in games that are structured like Touhou. It's much more difficult to strike the necessary balance between mastery and progression in a game where overall progression actually matters. It's possible to get it right, and From Software consistently gets really close, but I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. It's something developers need to be cognizant of, and it's likely a case where extensive playtesting is necessary to make sure it works as intended.
...On a tangentially related note, I can't go through a whole post that's (partially) about Touhou without bringing up its music. There's a jazz band I'm quite fond of called Tokyo Active Neets that's done a number of covers of music from the series. It's top-notch stuff, and I've linked one of their renditions of "Shanghai Teahouse" below -- check it out, if you get a chance.
Yoshimori Makoto is probably not a composer you've heard of. As anime composers go, his list of credits is not especially long -- his best known scores are for Baccano! and Durarara!! -- but he is nonetheless exceptionally talented. To demonstrate why, I'd like to provide a few pieces from my favorite score of his: Hamatora.
I often cheekily describe Hamatora as a show about detectives with OCD superpowers. One character can move really fast while snapping his fingers in time to music, while another gains super strength any time he pushes his glasses up, for example. The first half of the show suffers from spotty plotting and mixed visuals, but it has a lot of style and the setup is great. By the time the studio Lerche takes over for the latter half, Hamatora is a true tour-de-force. The members of the Hamatora Detective Agency -- Nice, Murasaki, Hajime, Birthday, Ratio, and so on -- start as cheeky buddy-cop-style characters but grow across the whole work into compelling character arcs that address a wide range of weighty themes. Taken as a whole it's among my favorite animated series. Highly recommend.
That said, while Hamatora has a number of strengths, its music stands as its highlight. It is both eclectic and unified, spanning a range of styles while still maintaining a consistent jazzy vibe that runs underneath the tone of the whole show. It's really good stuff, and I've attached links to a few of the pieces below.
The Streets of Gold City:
Do or Die
Nagatsuki no Waltz
A Final Showdown
The most striking thing about much of Hamatora's soundtrack, I think, is how it manages to be simultaneously experimental and listenable. These five tracks are far from the weirdest the show's score gets, but even within them you have elements of unusual timbre, rhythm, and (at times) pitch. "Do or Die," for example is full of technical components that are highly uncommon for what is essentially a violin feature. The violin's introduction is a screeching and barely parsable glissando, and it transitions into a brief section that features chopping, a bowing technique designed to create a harsh, percussive sound. This is rare even in harmony lines -- for a featured, solo violinist to dedicate several measures to pure rhythm is quite strange.
And yet, in spite of all this, it just works. Yoshimori doesn't ask you to work to understand the strange compositional tools he's using. Experimental music is often distracting in its strangeness -- look at Kakegurui's score for a comparison -- but Hamatora's music has the "feel" of standard jazz. "A Final Showdown" is an ostinato in mostly seven that's frequently covered by completely atonal string-fueled sounds, but it's not difficult to listen to in the slightest. It's weird, but still fun.
Last week I brought up (in the context of poetry) how obscurity can keep experimental work from being truly great. "Yata MisaKi" was an example of a fascinating experimental work that pushes somewhat too far and becomes impossible to comprehend as a result. Yoshimori's music -- particularly in Hamatora -- is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It is experimental and yet approachable, and it completely avoids the trap of being too obscure to enjoy. He employs dissonance in a way that doesn't feel dissonant. He blends recordings of laughter into his music in a way that makes intuitive sense to the listener. One of Hamatora's pieces is a duet written for piano and slide whistle of all things. It's all bizarre, but it doesn't feel bizarre, and it's completely and totally brilliant.
If you get a chance to listen to the whole score, definitely do so. It's divided into two parts, one for each half of the show: the first is "Soup with Columbus's Egg," and the second is "Everyone Has It!" It's really good stuff.
2012 produced a fairly strange and mostly obscure anime series called K. Its reception was generally mixed, and although I like it quite a bit most of its value rests on its aesthetics -- stylish art, likable-if-flat characters, and (most importantly) a truly phenomenal score. Endo Mikio is not exactly a well-known composer -- K is basically the only notable thing he's done -- but the sound of K's score is super distinct and remains a go-to playlist when I need inspiration to think creatively. It's good "writing" music.
Most of K's score is instrumental, using primarily strings, piano, and light percussion, but there's one track within it that stands out as particularly unique. The piece, called "Yata MisaKi," would probably be classified as a rap, although I feel that genre to be somewhat of a poor descriptor. It's almost more like a spoken word poem, or perhaps a beat poem. It lacks the structure and driving rhythm rap tends to have, and the music serves as more of a tonal background for the words than as a true foundation for the piece. The poetry of the work comes out even written down on the page, though, and it's quite evocative if nothing else. I've provided the lyrics here for you to read:
A long day's night training
Shou toll plumber pasta bowl
Incognito shimedgy fortinero, shibby da
Sword genkai gamera brain
Wielding trucks, decks
Switching and grinding
The tourists with the digi and a camera flash
Crisp roasted garlic bread breath
Slaw limmer bomb hills
Riding the sneaks, he sneakers
The ramps and empty pools
This looks like a blunt wielding,
Speedy and chest bamboo
Café smoking papers
Bunker buster buster bonk headbutt
Stone, silly, stupid, brown and cupid
I'll rush in kitchen stadium puppets
Human daisha michibata shimagaki wax
Makita whack chasers.
Chocolatey smooth grip
Java street script
With sunny side banana split
Your best necks like guitars that use
Diffuse, stro molotov cocktails
Against the agnostic atheists, we are trying to save the whales.
AHABS, that mitt, black dragon
Emerald Lieutenant, predator vests
Fashion, liquid mercury
Surf on concrete
Terminating Monday hangovers with rice spirits and ceramic bearings
For all your Mabus
The wild fang pitching the two seamless
Judo brats leaving a strange look in your face
Don't break me, that's years of bad luck
Stuffed porcelain pork
That's what hammers are for
5-6, 360 back to dog's town
The dragon's dungeon, plungin'
If you are what I left out
And other types of paradoxical crossword puzzles
Scramble the backsides of the one God's fee I trust
Cross-eyed, tongue bow-tied, moth balls for raw kiss
Skid marks all over the walls
Street paper maché
Ash trays made from college degrees trying to be free
Don't get me wrong I bong bost the foot clan too
That's emperor's English
Street dodger, dunking dog-catcher nets
Knowledge distiller du vais villa
Season, fabulous Idaho
How she can see lazy boy forget chips
Crown Athlete Manuel Chuck Wagons
Chuckles and Sniggers
Always playin' it close
Not one to boast
Rocking to make sure my hammerhead stays afloat
Cowboy boy soil
Round up, grip tank
Sandy beach sunsets to sunrise, Vay-Cay
Caramel and peanuts
Blue cows ski, skates souls
Grinding, flip tricks
Kicks and pay day
Kick, push, play
Before the nonsense English leads you to write this off as an April Fool's joke (the timing is coincidental, I swear), take a moment to appreciate how crazy impressive this piece is from a craft standpoint. Setting aside the meaning issue, the actual technical elements of this work are highly impressive. Let's just start with this one stanza:
Chocolatey smooth grip
Java street script
With sunny side banana split
Your best necks like guitars that use
Diffuse, stro molotov cocktails
Against the agnostic atheists, we are trying to save the whales."
The stanza builds up a complex series of aural and semantic associations even without creating a clear or comprehensible meaning. Conscientious leads aurally into Chocolatey, while Chocolatey provides a color association with Java, which is semantically related to sunny and banana. Smooth, after Chocolatey, sets up the alliteration found in later lines with "street script" and "sunny side banana split." Sunny and banana split are themselves associated terms. The blue Java banana is also called the ice cream banana, which again ties the terms together semantically. The word split prepares us for the harsh enjambment of use with diffuse, which itself dissolves all of the associations that have been built throughout the stanza in order to allow for the next set of ideas to build.
The work also makes frequent use of paradox, starting with its first line: "A long day's night training." The confusion of day and night is not original to this piece, of course, but it immediately establishes the semantic impossibility that flows throughout the whole work. Paradox as a concept returns again and again, with lines like "Surf on concrete" -- presumably a reference to skating but a literal impossibility nonetheless -- and "rocking to make sure my hammerhead stays afloat," which has two paradoxes: the first is that rocking a boat would usually sink it rather than keep it floating, while the second is that a hammerhead should either sink (if it's a literal hammer's head) or swim (if it's a hammerhead shark). The work isn't just nonsensical, it's deliberately nonsensical -- which is to say, it isn't random words thrown together, it's words put together in ways that should be completely impossible by conventional semantic measures. It's as if someone expanded the classic meaningless phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" into a full-length poem.
It has shades of Lewis Carroll, I think, and of Literary Nonsense more broadly. Literary Nonsense is not nonsense because it is meaningless but rather because it has so much inbuilt meaning no overarching thread emerges. Yata MisaKi operates similarly in that it toys with language and association in really interesting ways, but it's extraordinarily difficult -- if not impossible -- to determine what the piece is about.
There are certain concepts and ideas that do jump out as perhaps being more significant, though. A few ideas are repeated or referenced multiple times. The first stanza ends with "Switching and grinding" while the last begins with "Ginding, flip-tricks," for example. Similarly, the lines "Café smoking papers" and "Ash trays made from college degrees trying to be free" convey nearly the same idea. The work also draws attention to certain lines -- such as the ash trays one -- by inserting longer, comprehensible thoughts in the middle of the apparent word salad that makes up most of the work. These longer phrases often follow patches of short, isolated nouns and adjectives, which means lines like "And other types of paradoxical crossword puzzles" immediately seem more important if only because they're less obviously nonsense.
Unfortunately, these emphasis points don't themselves create any clear or obvious meaning, and any guess I could make as to the message of the work would, I think, be reading too deeply into certain lines without accounting for others. For all the care that went into crafting this poem, its meaning remains frustratingly opaque (which is why most people write it off as nonsense). I don't claim to know what the purpose of this work is, although I'm fairly confident there's supposed to be something behind it.
The one thing I will say, though, is that it reminds me of a certain style of classical Japanese poetry: specifically, renga, or linked verse. Renga is a style of poetry where poems are written in halves, with each new section of poem forming a "complete" five-line poem when added to the section before. Imagine a poem that goes ABCDE, where each letter represents a stanza. AB would form a complete poem. BC would also form a complete poem, with a distinct meaning from AB. CD would be a distinct poem, and DE would be yet another, and so on. The "point" of Renga is to add a new ending such that the prior stanza takes on a different meaning from what it meant in context of the poem prior.
An example of this may be helpful, so here are a few sections from "A Hundred Stanzas by Three Poets at Minase" (translated by Earl Miner).
Despite some snow
the base of the hills spreads with haze
the twilight scene
where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers
In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color
day break comes on distinctly
with sounds of punted boat
Earl Miner. Japanese Linked Poetry. 1st Princeton Paperback ed. Princeton, NJ. 1980. Print paperback.
So, for clarity, this would be a complete poem:
"Despite some snow
the base of the hills spreads with haze
the twilight scene
where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers"
As would this:
"where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers
In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color"
And as would this:
"In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color
day break comes on distinctly
with sounds of punted boat"
"Yata MisaKi" has somewhat similar in the way it operates, although it does it in even smaller pieces. Most words or phrases in the piece have two meanings: one in context of what precedes it, and one in context of what follows. In this respect it resembles Renga, more a combination of micro-poems than one complete work.
Reflections on Obscurity
The issue "Yata MisaKi" and works similar to it run into is this: if your work is so strange almost no one can understand it, is it still good? There are certainly examples of mostly-inscrutable works that are nonetheless excellent -- look to Tom Stoppard for some great examples of this -- but at what point have you pushed too far? I really like "Yata MisaKi" but it probably falls into the "too far" category, unless it's just meant to be an exercise in form and nothing else. Perhaps by divorcing itself from meaning it forces a renewed attention on sound and style, or perhaps it's meant as a commentary on meaninglessness... but whatever it's trying to do, it's not clear.
Experimental works can be really cool when they work well. I have no problem with an author or composer asking me to work to understand something, but there comes a point where a work passes beyond "intriguing" and drops firmly into "confusing" territory. The line is fuzzy, and something can be too obscure well still having elements of value, but even in a work where the meaning is intentionally unclear there should be at least an identifiable purpose or concept behind the work. "Yata Misaki" is brilliantly constructed, but I have no idea what it's trying to do, and in that respect, at least, it does not succeed.
This past weekend, while I was busy watching what was an underwhelming start to the year's NCAA basketball tournament, a few friends talked me into attempting what's called a Nuzlocke run of Pokemon Emerald. For the uninitiated, a Nuzlocke is a run of a Pokemon game in which you treat any knockout as a death -- that is to say, if a pokemon drops to zero health, it's treated as permanently dead, and you have to release it or permanently store it, not using it for the rest of the game. There are a few other rules (and a nearly limitless number of variant rulesets), but the permadeath constraint is key to the game's appeal.
Nuzlocke runs are by nature time- and grinding-intensive, so I've avoided them in the past, but one particular comment intrigued me: specifically, that Nuzlocke runs give Pokemon a sense of stakes, something the series generally lacks outside of the unusual case that is Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Given my complaints last week about Pokemon's stagnation and its dated gameplay, I thought committing to a Nuzlocke might give me a renewed appreciation for the series.
Long story short, it did not.
I'm glad to have completed most of a Nuzlocke, if only for the experience -- I stopped just before the game's ending sequence, as there's a significant jump in enemy level at the end of the game and I didn't feel like grinding for the final boss -- but it's not something I see myself doing again. It did, however, get me thinking about the concept of permadeath as a narrative and gameplay tool. It's a fairly rare thing and it always seems to be polarizing when it does appear, so I thought I'd delve into the ways in which it does and doesn't work.
It's impossible to talk about permadeath, of course, without addressing Fire Emblem. FE is an old tactical RPG series that used to be known for its large casts and its permadeath mechanics. If a party member dies in battle in Fire Emblem, the character is permanently dead, and the story dialogue changes to reflect this. Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates allowed players to turn this mechanic off, a decision which was met with mixed feelings. Longtime players felt that the very option of disabling this series stable undermined the purity of the games, while newer players felt the more forgiving "casual" mode made the games considerably more accessible to a broader audience -- especially important given the games' renewed focus on character appeal over raw strategic gameplay.
The thing about permadeath in Fire Emblem is in most practical cases it doesn't work as advertised. Typically, players respond to character deaths not by proceeding through the game without the dead characters, but rather by reloading their saves and replaying the fights until they can be cleared without any deaths. In one sense, this serves to heighten the games' difficulty, as the effective win condition changes from "defeat the enemy" to "defeat the enemy without losing any allies." This makes the permadeath concept somewhat misleading. It doesn't raise the stakes of individual decisions so much as it slows progress through the game, and it also means bad luck can be much more of a factor in Fire Emblem than in looser tactical RPGs (such as Final Fantasy Tactics).
What makes Nuzlocke runs of Pokemon games interesting is the commitment it forces on the part of the players. As Nuzlocke rulesets are self-imposed rather than mechanical, it feels against the spirit of the run to reload after an unfortunate fight. Fire Emblem's system-imposed permadeath has the counterintuitive effect of leading players to work around the imposed stakes rather than embracing them. An "honest" run of Fire Emblem would require never reloading from a prior save -- but this isn't realistic, and players could easily get stuck or discouraged after losing a few key units. The older games are balanced around permadeath in the sense that it's possible to win fights with no unit deaths, but they're not balanced around permadeath in the sense that later fights are balanced around you having a full team of powerful units. The games' narratives adjust for loss of character life, but gameplay-wise they do not.
It's a clunky system, ultimately, and the decision in Awakening and Fates to allow players to disable permadeath feels to me like an acknowledgement that the mechanic doesn't work well -- or, at least, that it doesn't work the way it was initially intended to. It adds difficulty (and potentially frustration), but it does not create a sense of stakes.
It's also worth noting that Pokemon games are not balanced around Nuzlocke runs, which means the Nuzlockes essentially boil down to "grind forever" and then "steamroll boss fights and hope you don't get unlucky." It's a reverse of Fire Emblem, essentially -- it definitely creates a sense of stakes, but it lacks any coherent difficulty curve, unless you consider the patience required a form of strategic challenge.
This is not to say that permadeath is an inherently flawed mechanic. It can work well, but it requires two factors to be present: first, it must be presented such that the player voluntarily opts-in to the system and cannot easily "reset" to avoid character deaths, and second, the game must be balanced around the presence of the mechanic.
Before I get to the main example I want to use for this, I'd like to address a strange DS game called Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. For reference, I haven't played the game, but the way it handles permadeath is interesting enough that it occasionally gets brought up in discussions of the topic regardless. The game is a tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, and in-battle character deaths do not result in permanent death. However, the player can choose to temporarily strengthen party members during a battle in exchange for having them die permanently afterward. Permadeath in this case is not a penalty for strategic failure but rather a trade-off associated with a powerful strategic tool. It is entirely in the hands of the player and not subject to luck (a common frustration with Fire Emblem and with Nuzlocke runs), and it opens up interesting mechanical trades. You can, for example, choose to strengthen an underperforming party member for the duration of a particularly difficult boss fight, with the knowledge that after the character dies you can replace them with someone more powerful. It's a clever take on permadeath, though it's also not really what people usually mean when they talk about the mechanic.
The best usage of a permadeath-like system I've seen in an RPG comes in Atlus's Devil Survivor games. These games are structured somewhat like Fire Emblem, but they approach permadeath on two separate-but-related fronts.
The first and most important of these is narrative. Permanent character deaths happen not because of gameplay failures but rather as a result of narrative decisions the player makes over long periods of time. This creates the sense of stakes permadeath seeks to create, but it does so narratively instead of mechanically, and the drawn-out nature of these sequences of decisions makes them difficult to reset and fix. In Devil Survivor 2, for example, there is a character who is presented with a harrowing personal trial near the game's end. If the player has taken the time to speak with her and help her throughout the course of the game, she finds the mental and emotional strength to succeed and survive. If the player has ignored her, she lacks the mental fortitude she needs, and she fails and dies. The plot and dialogue change to accommodate character deaths, as in Fire Emblem, but the deaths are the result of accumulated player choices rather than freak dice rolls, which adds a significant weight to any failures.
Additionally, the games contain a sort of mechanically-monitored equivalent to Pokemon's Nuzlocke runs. The Devil Survivor games each have a wide array of endings, and players are encouraged to replay the game five-or-so times to complete them all. Depending on how well the player does, the player is allowed to carry various tools over to the next run, making future playthroughs easier. If the player manages to go through the entire game without any in-battle character deaths, the player is rewarded with a considerable bonus in future runs.
This means there is an incentive to play as if the game had permadeath, even though there are no direct consequences to losing characters. It allows and encourages players to add the additional level of strategic difficult Fire Emblem's permadeath system creates, but it doesn't punish players who choose not to do so, and its status as a strictly mechanical option (as opposed to Fire Emblem's ludonarrative hybrid) keeps the inevitable resets to avoid deaths from undermining the weight of the games' stories. Cool, no?
Most importantly, Devil Survivor also rewards playing through without grinding, and as such the games are balanced around no-deaths, no-grinding runs. They're crazy hard games, as RPGs go, but they rely on true strategic difficulty rather than sheer numbers (as in Fire Emblem) or luck and patience (as in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne). Devil Survivor is the pinnacle of RPG difficulty that is legitimately challenging but also entirely fair. You have access to the exact same tools as your enemies do, and you play by the exact same rules, so the games become 20% preparation and 80% strategy. It's super fun, and the bulk of the game is spent in the actual meat of the fights rather than in the time-sink that is grinding.
I'm generally an advocate for making gameplay forgiving and keeping stakes to storytelling. By "forgiving" I don't mean easy, either -- I mean forgiving in the sense that games shouldn't heavily penalize failure. Look to Super Meat Boy as an example of this -- it's a difficult platformer, but there's no penalty for failure. Players are encouraged to try again as many times as needed, which keeps the difficulty from feeling frustrating or unfair. Severe penalties for death are more likely to breed frustration than to create a legitimate sense of challenge, and except in the most well-balanced of games permadeath generally falls into that mix.
It's entirely possible to make character death feel meaningful and fights feel dangerous without actually punishing the player for failure, too. I have a love-hate relationship with Dark Souls, but it's excellent at this. For all its difficulty it's a highly forgiving game, but even though death tends to only set players back a minute or two close calls and dangerous fights inevitably lead to the burst of adrenaline you might feel in a game where a death can mean hours of lost progress. The game accomplishes this not through practical stakes so much as through aesthetic ones -- its foes are visually imposing, and its stellar sound design creates psychological tension without artificial mechanical difficulty. If death in Dark Souls meant more significant losses that its small experience penalty -- if, for example, you lost all of your equipment when you died -- this would make failure more frustrating, but it wouldn't meaningfully raise the sense of stakes. Strange as it seems, gameplay stakes are best created through narrative means rather than through mechanical methods.
Ultimately, permadeath is somewhat of a dangerous game, especially when it isn't predicated on player buy-in. It can be done well, but it usually isn't. It makes games more difficult, but difficulty is better achieved through careful balance and strong enemy design than through mechanical quirks like permadeath. Like any other mechanic, it has its place, but it shouldn't be used thoughtlessly.
Nintendo recently announced the next main-series Pokemon game, and once again I find myself entirely unexcited. There was a time not all that many years ago when a new Pokemon title was cause for intense speculation and excitement, but my reaction to the announcement of the eighth generation of the games was one of general dismissal.
Part of this, of course, is age -- I'm sure there's a group of (mostly very young) people who are thrilled at the prospect of another Pokemon game -- but the more significant issue is that Pokemon has grown exceptionally stagnant. The new games will add a few more Pokemon to collect and will produce a new set of areas to explore, but if the past several generations of games are anything to go by, the overall formula will be almost entirely unchanged. You will play as a new Pokemon trainer setting out alone on an adventure, you'll battle with a rival a few times, you'll run up against a flat antagonist and his nameless lackeys, you'll complete a set of formulaic challenges, and then you'll face off against the champions of the new region. There will be a a forest or two, and an ice area, and a desert, and a few caves, and maybe a volcano. There may be a flashy new mechanic that shakes up the competitive scene a little but doesn't impact ordinary players much. And if you've played the earlier games it will feel like the exact same thing with a slightly different coat of paint.
There's something to be said for sticking with a formula that works. The brand power of Pokemon is such that so long as its developers don't seriously mess up, the games will continue to sell well (and even strange design choices like those of Let's Go are unlikely to do much damage to the brand). Pokemon is a true cash cow, and all Nintendo and Game Freak need to do to profit from it is to milk it. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.
My problem is the Pokemon games have become so formulaic as to be boring. It first hit me while playing through Pokemon Black 2 -- the sense that I'd done this all before, and that there was nothing new to experience. I haven't been able to finish a main series Pokemon game since, and not for lack of trying. For every person who leaves the series out of boredom there are likely two entering for the first time, so, again, there's not much motivation to change things up, but as someone who actually cares about game design it's rather painful to watch. The most recent games, especially, feel lacking in identity. If asked what fundamental things separate the sixth and seventh generations of Pokemon from the earlier ones, I'd struggle to come up with anything meaningful, and I'd probably have to settle for something like "X and Y have a pretty big world map" and "Sun and Moon replaced gyms with a nearly-identical functional equivalent." These are superficial differences and not enough to make the games feel like anything more than an obligatory continuation of the franchise.
Nintendo has shown some willingness to experiment in recent years. Look at the hugely successful The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for an example of this. The Zelda games also tend to be formulaic (though not so much so as Pokemon), and Breath of the Wild completely broke with tradition, mostly to good effect. If Pokemon wants to recapture the attention of those who have lost interest, it needs to exhibit a similar level of creativity.
Thing is, it wouldn't even be that hard, and Pokemon has actually done it before. Look at 2003's Pokemon Colosseum for an example of this. Colosseum was released during Pokemon's third generation, as a semi-spin-off for consoles. It plays just like the main Pokemon games, but (on top of being 3D, which was unusual at the time) its aesthetics and structure are completely different from the main games. And it's awesome.
Colosseum is a rare example of an established series trying to make a "darker and edgier" game and managing to pull it off in a way that both works well and keeps the general feel of its source series. Instead of the typical "youngster on a journey" setup, Colosseum casts the player as an ex-criminal whose had a change of heart and wants to set things right. The game opens with the protagonist setting off a bomb in the criminal organization's base, stealing their secret weapon (a device that allows trainers to steal Pokemon), and riding off through the desert on a motorcycle, eventually stopping at a small bar on the outskirts of the nearest town.
You know right from the get-go that this isn't your ordinary Pokemon game.
To complete the image, your Pokemon start out at about level 20 (rather than the usual 5), which establishes that the protagonist is somewhat experienced. The first main story beat involves foiling a kidnapping. The antagonists are suspect researchers and corrupt politicians and two-faced stars and a ridiculously tall dancer with a fabulous afro. They're memorable, and it actually makes sense for the protagonist to be the one taking them down. Colosseum doesn't get bogged down in the details of its storytelling -- it's still gameplay-focused, as Pokemon always is -- but it has a sense of personality and style that's exceptionally rare for the franchise and nearly nonexistent in recent years.
Additionally, the game breaks the typical Pokemon structure, removing gyms altogether (except for one that's present for world-building reasons) and replacing them with longform dungeons capped with boss fights. Many of the areas are connected in surprising and interesting ways, and each one has a clear purpose and identity. You go to each location with a specific and unique goal, which makes the dungeons themselves far more interesting than the traveling-for-the-sake-of-traveling locales of the traditional Pokemon games. Colosseum is also notable for defaulting to double battles instead of single battles -- which is to say, you and your opponent each have two Pokemon out at once instead of one. This exponentially increases your strategic options in a given turn and allows both players and enemies to use interesting strategies not possible in typical playthroughs of the main games.
All of this is hugely unusual for Pokemon, but it's actually not unusual for gaming in general. All Colosseum really did was take several cues from more standard JRPGs and apply a Pokemon flavor to them. It wouldn't be hard for Pokemon to do this again, and the change in structure would also likely necessitate a redefining and clarification of Pokemon's identity. Do I expect Game Freak to actually do this? Absolutely not. Would it make the series as a whole better? For sure. It feels to me like Pokemon has exhausted its toolbox of new and interesting ideas. It exists in a vacuum chamber of its own creation, trapped by its own uniqueness. It needs to not be afraid of drawing on other games for influence and ideas. Pokemon was not at all the first series to use the monster-catching-and-raising concept -- the Megami Tensei franchise predates it by more than a decade, and it's possible there are even older examples (though I don't know of any offhand) -- and Pokemon's original developers almost certainly looked to outside influences for early ideas.
If Pokemon is to once more become a legitimately great series -- not just a set of scheduled, obligatory, formulaic, incremental releases -- it needs to allow its overall identity to weaken and to take in outside ideas. Somewhat paradoxically, this would allow the individual games in the franchise to establish stronger identities, developing unique personalities that aren't stifled by the Pokemon formula.
There's a risk, of course, that experimentation could go wrong and produce a failure, but I'd rather Game Freak take risks and occasionally mess one up than play everything safe and settle for repetitive mediocrity.
A few weeks back, the North American version of Fate/Grand Order added a new story chapter: Shinjuku. Shinjuku is the first of a series of "interlude" chapters spanning the time period between the end of the game's first story arc and the beginning of its second (which is currently underway in Japan). Shinjuku is generally regarded as the point at which FGO really steps up its narration -- the point where it goes from being a quirky mobile game modeled after a strong group of existing works to being, in essence, a serial visual novel. Shinjuku is, however, structured as a mystery, so although it's noticeably better than what comes before in terms of dialogue, it's not quite as readily-apparent how well-crafted it is as a whole. To that end, I'd like to focus on a discovery a friend of mine made yesterday.
It has to do with Isaac Asimov.
Shinjuku Spoilers from Here On
For this to make sense, I need to start with a very brief synopsis of Shinjuku's story. FGO is something of a time-travel narrative, and each chapter in part 1 and part 1.5 (the aforementioned interlude section) is, loosely speaking, built around the concept of going back to a pivotal moment in human history to make sure nothing falls apart. This story chapter opens with an alert that something strange is happening in Shinjuku -- in Tokyo -- in 1999, which seems strange because there should, in theory, be nothing particularly important happening at that moment.
The protagonist travels to Shinjuku and finds the city in a state of disarray. There are two versions of James Moriarty -- Sherlock Holmes's notorious archenemy -- running around. One is good, and sides with the protagonist to help fix things, and one is evil, supposedly working on a plot to physically destroy the earth (something we're told shouldn't be possible). After a significant bit of detective work and a cameo appearance from the Great Detective himself, we learn that in the context of Shinjuku, Moriarty is associated with a German opera called Der Freischutz, in which the devil gives the central character a gun that never misses. The first six bullets always hit their targets, while the seventh always hits someone dear to the shooter. We also learn that evil Moriarty plans to use this to fire an asteroid into the core of the earth to destroy it, and that this "Shinjuku" is a fictional place disconnected from the real world -- in other words, than nothing that happens in this chapter really matters to the world at large and the protagonist could just leave if she wanted to. She decides to stop evil Moriarty regardless, and things proceed apace.
In the chapter's climax, it is revealed that the "evil Moriarty" was in fact someone else in disguise, while "good Moriarty" was the true Moriarty. "Good Moriarty" is identified as the true culprit, and because Shinjuku is "fictional," it is bound by the rules of detective fiction, so his identification is synonymous with his defeat and he loses his ability to use the devil's gun. The meteor is stopped and all is well. This is a highly abridged summary, of course, but the important points for this post are there.
That's no Doyle!
Supernatural/sci-fi concepts aside, Shinjuku is ostensibly based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. The chapter ultimately revolves around a showdown between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, and it obeys all the typical rules of detective fiction. Fairly straightforward.
The thing is, though, Moriarty only appears briefly in Doyle's works. The image we now have of Moriarty as the Napoleon of Crime, the ultimate evil in the Sherlock Holmes universe, comes more from later adaptations than from the original works. A chapter that was truly an homage to Doyle would probably not include Moriarty at all, much less place him in a more prominent role than the Great Detective. So how do you explain that? Do you just assume Shinjuku's author wasn't really all that familiar with Sherlock's source material?
Turns out there's a concrete answer to this, and it's surprisingly clever. To get to it, though, a little background is needed. Each historical/literary/mythological hero who appears in Fate has what's called a Noble Phantasm, which is something like a special ability that's emblematic of their greatest moment or their most iconic item or something to that effect. King Arthur has Excalibur, for example, while Sherlock's is "Elementary, My Dear." These Noble Phantasm's usually have two names -- one written in Japanese, and one in the language of the character's origin. Moriarty's English-language Noble Phantasm name is "The Dynamics of an Asteroid."
This is an obscure reference to Doyle's works. It's mentioned at one point that Moriarty is a professor of mathematics by trade, and that he published a book on math that was so complex and so far beyond its time that no one else could understand it. The book is called "The Dynamics of an Asteroid." There's no indication beyond this of what the book contained, so it seems, in the context of FGO, to be a neat little nod to the original Sherlock Holmes works that was probably selected for use here mostly because its name sounds cool.
...But, again, there's another reason for this. The Noble Phantasm's Japanese name translates to "The Ultimate Crime." This happens to be the title of a different story -- not by Doyle, but by Isaac Asimov. The story centers around a group of men discussing "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" and trying to come up with a plausible theory as to what it might be about. The conclusion they come to is that it centered on a particular asteroid that long ago exploded into many smaller pieces that became what we now think of as the asteroid belt. They speculate that this fascinated Moriarty because he was intrigued by the idea of potentially doing the same to Earth.
Which, of course, is exactly his goal in FGO's Shinjuku chapter.
When Sherlock Holmes is a Red Herring
The end result of this is that Shinjuku leads us to believe its based on one of Doyle's stories, when in fact it is modeled after Isaac Asimov's. With the Asimov context, the science fiction elements present throughout Shinjuku also seem much more fitting -- Asimov is, after all, mostly known for being a sci-fi author. The true "mystery" of Shinjuku has nothing to do with the culprit or the crime, but rather with the story itself. There's a reference early in Shinjuku to "The Final Problem," the Doyle story in which Moriarty and Sherlock fight each other to the death, but Shinjuku is not "The Final Problem" -- it's "The Ultimate Crime."
This flip is hinted at even by Shinjuku's character concepts. Each of Shinjuku's unique characters is a hybrid of two literary sources. Moriarty is tied to Der Freischutz. Sherlock disguises himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow rides atop Lobo the King of Currumpaw. Yan Qing, from Water Margin, is also a doppelgänger. In the same way, the story itself is simultaneously Doyle and Asimov. Neat, huh?
This flip becomes a trend throughout all four of FGO's interlude chapters. There's one later, for example, that's set in Salem, during the witch trials. It's ostensibly based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but it's eventually revealed to be based off of Lovecraft's works. Shinjuku's "trick" in this regard is subtle, but it sets up for the later chapters perfectly, and it firmly establishes the two main themes for the entirety of part 1.5. The main, surface-level concept is "classic literature," while the secondary, underlying idea is "mystery."
Once you have this context, though, other things that seem odd in Shinjuku start to make more sense and -- in some cases -- become quite clever. Yan Qing, for example, is strangely out of place amidst the other characters who hail from mostly modern, mostly Western works, but his very presence is a play on Knox's Laws for detective fiction. Knox's fifth, the most-commonly-ignored of the ten, says literally that a "Chinaman" cannot be the culprit. Nowadays this is usually broadened to mean "the culprit must not be an out-group member" or is disregarded entirely. Due to Yan Qing's doppelgänger status, the reader might suspect the "good" Moriarty of being Yan in disguise. Knox's fifth is what tells us this can't be true, as Yan is quite literally a Chinaman, but given that the wording of the law is almost never taken literally, Shinjuku subverts it just by playing it straight. Shinjuku isn't an homage to detective fiction so much as it is a subversion of detective fiction. It plays upon the expectations of readers who are familiar with the genre and its tropes in order to accomplish clever or surprising effects.
The Ultimate Crime
Even beyond this, though, there's an extra bit of intriguing potential meaning that comes from Shinjuku's allusions to Asimov. While "The Ultimate Crime" is ostensibly about a group of people reasoning their way to a plausible reading of the purpose behind "The Dynamics of an Asteroid," that's not really what the story means. The true purpose of Asimov's story comes out in the back-and-forth between its characters, and specifically the ways in which they mock and praise fan culture and literary criticism.
There are multiple references in the story to The Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes fan club that writes analytical papers about Doyle's works, trying to make arguments about different points, resolve plot holes, et cetera. Asimov acknowledges in his story that Doyle's works were likely written in a slapdash manner, with only the loosest care for consistency and little thought to depth or hidden meaning. He mocks his own search for an argument very much unintended by the author even as he makes a compelling case, simultaneously glorifying our tendency to look for deeper meaning in works of fiction and laughing at the silliness of the endeavor. This is the "reason" for the story, beyond the conclusions about Moriarty.
It's interesting, then, that a story featuring Sherlock and Moriarty, which clearly holds detective fiction in very high regard, would be based on this story, which holds what almost reads as ambivalence towards Doyle's work. This idea, though, appears at times within Shinjuku as well, such as in the in-universe reveal that Shinjuku itself is fictional and nothing that happens in this chapter matters in the grand scheme of things. The game tells us outright that none of this matters and yet we still care and want to see how it resolves.
It reads to me -- and this is very much a matter of interpretation, but -- as if Shinjuku's author means this chapter as a defense of detective fiction, and a defense of Doyle, and a defense of looking deeper into a work of fiction than its creater may have intended. It accomplishes this on two fronts. For one, Shinjuku is layered as heck. If you look deeper into it you will find things you missed. It actively encourages and rewards that thought process, thereby reinforcing the idea that it's a good thing to do. Second -- and perhaps more importantly -- it says that meaning is not intrinsic to a work but rather is created by its reader. Shinjuku (the place) is not meaningful because of its connection to the world, but rather because the protagonist cares about it. In Shinjuku's climactic moment, a horde of less-memorable fictional detectives from the past century or so arrives to collectively strike down Moriarty with their truth. While their individual stories may have little grander meaning, the collective significance of all of it, and of the way other authors have interpreted them -- they're summoned to Shinjuku by Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare, after all -- does have meaning.
That last bit is especially important. We don't know for sure which of FGO's five writers wrote Shinjuku -- the question of which author wrote which part of 1.5 plays into the overall theme of mystery -- but compelling speculation holds it's Ban Madoi, an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and other such detectives. Shinjuku reads very much like the other segments of the game he's been confirmed to have written, and it also contains certain "calling cards" typical of Ban, like its use of Knox's Laws.
Ban's writing always feels to me as if it contains a deep respect and admiration for Nasu Kinoko (the author around whom FGO is built -- I've written about him multiple times before). Ban tends to emulate, in particular, the way Nasu likes to utilitize whatever medium he's writing in to create "tricks" that aren't possible in other media. Doing things like, for example, switching narrative perspective in unusual ways that aren't possible in film.
In the context of Fate, Hans is something of Nasu's authorial persona. Nasu himself is heavily influenced by detective fiction -- although his stories aren't mysteries, he often uses mystery techniques in his writing, and his first novel, Kara no Kyoukai, centers around a detective-type character and brushes up against several distinct murder cases, always just out of frame but influential regardless. In the same way, detective fiction is always just out of frame in Nasu's works, but regardless of the genre he's writing in you can feel the mystery influence. Nasu writes about more abstract themes and concepts than mysteries typically tackle, but he gets at his themes using tactics developed by mystery writers, misleading readers with perspective shifts and ambiguous phrasing and time jumps that only appear on a second, closer read. It's really good stuff.
So then you look again at Shinjuku's climax, which has Hans -- Nasu's self-insert -- standing alongside William Shakespeare and channeling the entire history of detective fiction to get at a world-altering truth.
It's, uh, just a little bit on-the-nose.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
In this context, Shinjuku's climactic image reminds me of a certain line from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
"I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."
This is Shinjuku's point. Shinjuku says it's meaningless, and the works Shinjuku is drawing from are themselves meaningless, but occasionally, at the right angle, some part of them gets at a deeper truth. Shinjuku isn't trying to argue mysteries are inherently deep or meaningful, but it does argue that a good reader can extract meaning from anything, and even if the author didn't necessarily mean for it to be there, that learning can have value. It can, for example, fuel an author like Nasu to challenge the historically sharp divide between high lit and popular lit that existed in Japan until the 90's-ish.
As a reminder, this is all from a mobile game, and from a mobile game that historically did not have very good writing. It would be very difficult to write something this detailed about FGO's pre-Shinjuku chapters. This is where Shinjuku excels -- not only is it tightly-written, but it has a purpose beyond just telling a story that's an excuse to keep players playing. This attitude, which only gets better from here, is the reason FGO is as successful as it is. (It was the most talked-about game on Twitter last year, surpassing even Fortnite).
If there's a lesson to be learned from this, I think, it's that strong storytelling -- strong art -- can pop up in pretty much any context or medium. I'm glad I stuck with FGO past its rocky beginning, and I'm glad its writers decided to take the time to make FGO's writing legitimately good. It's always intriguing to see excellent narrative work appear in surprising contexts.
For my Honors Thesis this semester I'm translating a chunk of Nasu Kinoko's novel Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai -- hereafter abbreviated KnK -- is a strange (and very long) novel that divides its narration across a wide range of perspectives. I'm translating the second section of the novel, Satsujin Kousatsu, which is split evenly between the novel's two protagonists: Ryougi Shiki, the daughter of an eccentric-but-wealthy family, and Kokutou Mikiya, an aggressively normal guy who happens to see the world with a detective's eye. Shifting perspective is not itself a particularly unusual literary technique, and within Satsujin Kousatsu the perspective shifts are especially controlled -- the shifts are infrequent, with extended sections of the story told from the perspective of each character.
That said, the section's structural simplicity (relative to the rest of the novel) is itself misleading. A close read reveals inconsistencies within seemingly stable narrative passages in ways that serve to characterize the two narrators. As Shiki and Mikiya directly contrast each other, Shiki's narration contains inconsistencies in narrative place, while Mikiya's contain (less obvious) inconsistencies in narrative time.
I'll Be Back Sometime Last Night
Despite being the more subtle of the two, Mikiya's narrative inconsistencies are easier to parse, as they operate more in the realm of the literal. The first 20 pages or so of Satsujin Kousatsu are told from Shiki's perspective, and her unreliability is readily apparent (even if the exact mechanics involved are less clear). When the narrative switches to Mikiya's view, things seem to stabilize. Mikiya is presented as a logical, rational, level-headed individual, and it shows in his narration. Things follow clearly from one step to the next and his thoughts are presented more honestly to the reader than are Shiki's. Mikiya has little reason to hide his thinking and he has a firm grasp on who he is as a person. His narration is, in a word, straightforward.
For the most part.
Mikiya's narration is presented such that the events appear to follow in chronological order. If one scene follows another it is fairly safe to assume that the second scene takes place after the first. This is, of course, standard in writing in general, but Mikiya's narration contains frequent time cues to assure the reader that, yes, things are happening chronologically.
Except sometimes they aren't.
There's a sequence towards the end of Mikiya's narration that begins with a specific date: the first Sunday in February of 1996. This happens to be February 4th. Mikiya has a conversation with his cousin, a detective working on a serial homicide case, and the discussion leaves him resolved to take action to help Shiki through her personal issues. In the following scene, it's evening, and Mikiya is on his way to visit Shiki's home. Through the course of events, Mikiya stumbles upon of murder scene. He's taken in for questioning and eventually released. The sequence ends with the police report, which also includes a specific date: Saturday, February 3rd, 1996.
In other words, somewhere in the course of this seemingly continuous sequence of events, the narration jumps back in time 24 hours. These details are so incidental that most readers are likely to gloss over them -- I certainly did when reading through initially. Mikiya's narration does this elsewhere in KnK as well, though, presenting events as continuous and chronological when in fact they are disordered or have large time gaps scattered throughout. The sense of place in Mikiya's narration is entirely solid. The sense of time is discretely confused.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, the first being that while KnK is not a mystery, it is heavily influenced by detective fiction (and Edogawa Ranpo's works in particular), so the confused timeline adds a "mystery" for a detail-oriented reader to solve. The deliberate choices involved in what is portrayed and when lead the reader to jump to mistaken conclusions. If the events in Mikiya's narration are realigned, certain scenes take on new meaning and hint at eventual answers to the novel's questions. It's a nifty structural trick, if nothing else.
More importantly, though, I think the temporal confusion characterizes Mikiya himself, though I don't have one solid answer as to why that I can point to and say "this is definitely the purpose here." A friend of mine has suggested it relates to the ways Mikiya himself rationalizes the strange events that happen around him. This interpretation holds that Mikiya is so steeped in normalcy he truly cannot fully comprehend the things that happen around him, so he remembers things out of order, reorganized such that his behavior and the behavior of others makes more sense. His narration is consistently portrayed as reflective -- as Mikiya looking back on things he remembers -- so the disjointed temporal order is reminiscent of someone trying to process impossibly confusing sequences of events in hindsight. When relaying a story from the past, we often share things in the order they seem relevant rather than in the exact sequence in which they happened, and Mikiya's narration is structured in much the same way, albeit with a self-confidence that inhibits the reader from questioning Mikiya's memory. Mikiya is presented as a reliable narrator in contrast to Shiki's unreliable narration, but Mikiya is in fact every bit as unreliable as Shiki is, albeit in different ways.
Shiki, then, is a more complex case, and delving into her narration requires a bit of background info.
First off, Japanese prose is much looser with grammatical tense than English is. Generally when you read a novel or a short story in English, it's in either present tense or past tense. If a writer mixes the two, saying something like, "I will go to the store today. It was cold out when I got back," this seems amateurish, wrong. Japanese has no such compunctions -- or at least not so directly -- to the point where Japanese prose will regularly mix grammatical past and present tenses in the service of creating meaning. It's a normal thing, and it's not inherently significant when an author does this.
Japanese prose is, however, relatively consistent when it comes to what's called psychic distance, which essentially refers to where it feels like the narrator is located. For example, read the following sentences: First, "It was below freezing outside, and fresh snow was still accumulating atop the 3 inches that had already fallen." Second, "He stepped outside into the furious blizzard and trembled with displeasure at the thought of braving the storm." Third. "I hear the crunch of the snow beneath my feet as ice seeps through the gaps in my clothes and burns my skin."
These three sentences feel progressively "closer" to the mind of the central character. The first is very distant, indicating a sort of omniscient narrator providing a factual recounting of events. The second is in-between, giving us insight into the thoughts and feelings of the central character without putting us directly into his mind. The third is told through the character's eyes, giving us access to his senses and telling the story in the moment. Psychic distance exists on a spectrum, but it's almost always ideal to maintain a consistent level of distance in writing -- as with tenses in English, mixing up psychic distance can feel amateurish.
I ran up against this while trying to establish which tense to write in while translating Shiki's narration. Usually in Japanese translation the translator picks a tense and sticks with it, judging by the apparent "position" of the narrator. Is the narrator looking back on past events? Then stick with past tense in English, even where it's grammatically present in Japanese. Is the narrator observing things in the moment? Use the reverse. My struggle with Shiki's narration was that it shifts back and forth between the two. Sometimes she's experiencing things as they're happening, exhibiting surprise and shock, and sometimes there are semantic cues that indicate she's telling her story from a distance -- lines like, "Later I'd look back at this and think..."
The translation is still a work-in-progress and maybe I'll settle on one perspective, but it seems to me for now that the only way to faithfully render this into English is to meet Nasu where he stands and accept that KnK needs tense shifts in places. Where Mikiya is unstable with regards to time, Shiki is unstable with regards to place, and specifically psychic distance. She isn't sure whether she's in the moment or not, and one of the most striking scenes in Satsujin Kousatsu starts off thoroughly in the moment and gradually transitions until it's very clearly reflective by the end. This is something that the flexibility of Japanese prose enables in a way that English struggles with, and it may partially explain why, as the aforementioned friend of mine has observed, translated Nasu almost always feels like a patchwork attempt to plug the gaps where English simply can't retain the meaning created by the original text.
The "meaning" component is key here. If Shiki's narration shifted its narrative perspective just because it could, there would be no issue with picking a perspective in English and sticking to it. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it -- Nasu does this for a reason. Shiki struggles to define who she is, what she wants, what she thinks, and where she stands, and the shifting sense of psychic distance reflects this. There tends to be less psychic distance when Shiki is comfortable, and as unsettling things happen she distances herself more and more. Shiki's inconsistent psychic positioning reveals her inherent weaknesses and struggles in the same way Mikiya's lack of consistent chronology reveals his. In both cases, Nasu is revealing character through structure -- a tactic that is brilliant for its sheer strangeness.
Developing character through description, dialogue, and action is typical, and there are plenty of subtle and creative ways to accomplish this. Creating meaning on a metatextual level is also not rare. Combining these things, though -- developing character through unusual usage of structural elements -- is not normal, and the best example I can think of of another work that does this is actually William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the fairies have a different, more playful rhythmic meter than the rest of the cast does. To eliminate Nasu's bizarre structural tactics -- to try to "unravel" his writing in translation -- would be tantamount to removing the meter from Midsummer. Sure, it might make it more accessible to a modern English-language reader, but you'd be losing so much artistry and meaning in the process.
It can be hard to fully appreciate Nasu's writing, especially in translation, but the detail and craftsmanship that goes into his works -- and especially Kara no Kyoukai -- is nothing short of stunning. There's a reason he's as popular as he is in Japan. Sure, he has benefited from strong animated adaptations of his works, and sure, those adaptations have him more accessible, but he would not be where he is today if his writing wasn't really dang good to start with. Nasu is notoriously difficult to read in Japanese, and he's even harder to translate effectively -- and I love his writing all the more for it. He's an author who truly challenges his readers, on multiple levels. It's super fun.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition