Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
What If They Miss It?
Inherent in pretty much any storytelling medium is the possibility that the audience will miss something--a cleverly-hidden detail, a hint of foreshadowing, a layered symbol, et cetera. Such details can at times be more impressive or interesting for their unobtrusiveness. There's a tongue-in-cheek term I like that's associated with this idea: fridge brilliance, or, the types of details you'll pick up on well after the fact, perhaps suddenly surfacing in your mind as you stare idly into your refrigerator late at night. There's nothing more fun than realizing weeks later that that one seemingly innocuous line was actually a clever moment of foreshadowing for that one dramatic twist. While hidden details can be present in the written word, they're easier to hide in more involved media, such as theatre and film. If you go to see a well-directed play or movie, it's pretty likely that the actors' blocking--where they stand and when they move and so on--has significance that goes beyond the surface level. The antagonist might, for example, consistently move across the stage in the opposite direction as the rest of the cast, or put him or herself physically and metaphorically above the hero. Similar levels of detail can pop up in everything from set design to lighting, in various degrees of subtlety.
The question, then, is whether the audience picks up on any of this. Any work with that sort of detail is richer for it, but if no one who watches or reads the work notices, does it matter? Does that become a failure on the part of the director or writer? Or is it a failure on the part of the audience to engage critically with the material?
And then we have video games, which add yet another layer of complexity to the question. Most games (setting aside oddities like kinetic visual novels) offer some degree of player choice, and respond to the actions the player takes. This means that most players will not experience everything a game has to offer. A book is meant to be read cover-to-cover, and a film is meant to be watched beginning-to-end, but games are usually designed under the assumption that the player will not see everything within the game. A particularly engaged player may make an effort to find every hidden detail or secret path within a game, but most will play a game until the credits roll and then be done, ignoring any optional paths or secrets they may have missed along the way. This is a fundamental difference from older storytelling media and it raises several fascinating questions when we start to look at games critically like we might approach a novel or film. Is it the player's responsibility to seek out all meaningful content within a game? If a player can complete a game without seeing some crucial piece of content, does that reflect poorly on the game? Is the player's resulting impression of the game less valid than that of a player who did experience that crucial piece of content? The questions go on and on, and there's no easy answer to any of them, but in order to tackle this idea I'd like to draw attention to one director who has grappled with this issue head-on in several of his works.
Katsura Hashino's Approach to Subtlety
I went over who Katsura Hashino is (and part of why I like his work) last week, so I'll keep this brief: Hashino is a video game director who works for Atlus. He's best known for his work on Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and the more recent Persona games. Hashino is a particularly good avenue for tackling these questions for a few reasons. First, his games are--or, at least, are clearly trying to be--serious artistic works. It wouldn't be a Hashino game without a strong grounding in philosophy, multiple allusions to classic literature, and layers upon layers of symbolism and thematic meaning, so if our goal is to examine the artistic consequences of missable content in games, Hashino's games are a solid place to start. Second--and more importantly--Hashino's games are full of missable content. In the past ten years or so, there's been a trend--particularly in Western games--towards open-ended games where things can be completed in any order and nothing can be permanently missed. Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 take the opposite philosophy to an extreme, with a calendar-based storytelling structure that is set up such that the player will miss significant portions of what the games offer. It is literally impossible to see everything in those games in the course of a single playthrough.
Hashino's older games handle this with ease. For all its minimalism and "soullessness," Nocturne is a surprisingly approachable game. While most players are not going to see all of its endings or catch on to all of its symbolism, the overall experience is cohesive and complete even without all of the details. The minimalism, in a sense, asks the player to fill in the gaps and unanswered questions, which means even if a detail or a stretch of the game is missed, the work still feels complete and the experience is not much weaker. The best comparison might be to an impressionist painting--while there may not be an abundance of fine details, the general shape and color evokes the impression of the complete work, so even if it isn't examined closely the viewer is left with a clear understanding of the overall image. Many games take this sort of approach (though rarely so effectively as Nocturne), presenting a cohesive enough overall experience that the player can fill in the gaps he or she might miss. Any detail the player experiences builds towards the same unified impression of the work, and in the course of a playthrough the player experiences enough of the game to have a reasonable understanding of the game as a whole despite not having actually played the game in its entirety.
Persona 3 takes the opposite approach, as it is a game full of detail and life. In a typical playthrough, the player will miss a great deal of what the game has to offer, but this works well for two key reasons. First, Persona 3 is crystal-clear with regards to its thematic goals. The game is strongly an anti-suicide work, and it touches on concepts such as depression, drug addiction, and self-harm in ways that ensure the symbolism cannot be missed. All of the issues the game tackles are approached through layered symbols and extended metaphors--to the extent that many of these core issues are never referred to by name--but they're exceptionally hard to miss. Some would say that the game is a bit too heavy-handed with its symbolism, but it's certainly no Catherine in that regard (I'll get to that later), and many of the game's symbolic moments tread the line between literal and symbolic in ways the open up fascinating layers of potential meaning. It works quite well in practice. The second reason allowing players to miss things works in Persona 3, though, is that missing things is itself a major component of the game's theme of valuing life. The game opens with the protagonist signing a contract stating that he agrees to take responsibility for his usage of time, and the player is told multiple times throughout the course of the game that your time is limited and that you have to appreciate the time you have. By limiting the time the player has to experience everything the game has to offer, Persona 3 fosters in the player an awareness that life is short and time is valuable in an experiential way that is more profound than anything achievable through words alone. Hashino's games are consistently willing to make sacrifices for the strength of the overall concept, and this is one of them--the player won't see everything in the game, but that very fact strengthens the overall experience in a way that outweighs anything the player would miss. It's really brilliant.
Lost to the Fog
And then we have Persona 4. Like its predecessor, Persona 4 is full of missable content, and the existence of that missable content is directly relevant to the game's overarching themes. Persona 4 is primarily about the concept of truth, and about not being content with appealing stories that may satisfy our personal biases. The game contends that we need to actively work towards identifying what is true and what isn't in order to make sense of our worlds and lead satisfying and productive lives. Within that context, being able to miss significant portions of the game is perfectly natural. The game even has several false endings prompted by poor player choices, and one of them even plays the full credits sequence, complete with an ending montage and a satisfying-sounding credits theme. I know at least one person who stumbled into one of these false endings, thought it was real, and never played the final quarter or so of the game. In a meta sense, this is really cool. This is a game that contends that the truth is difficult to find and that people can be easily deceived and satisfied with appealing lies, and the game's false endings essentially demonstrate the truth of this assertion. The rationale on the part of the developers is likely something to the effect of, "If you've been paying attention to what we've been saying all along, to what this game is about instead of just what's happening, you'll know to push through to the true ending." It's a bold move, and part of me really likes it.
What about the players who don't see the end of the game? What about the players who are left with a lackluster ending and unanswered questions? By Persona 4's logic, the fault lies with those who did not push through to the game's end... sort of. The problem with this is that while not searching for truth amplifies misinformation, it does not create misinformation. In Persona 4, the misinformation and rumors that cause problems for the cast stem largely from the game's antagonists. If the game's false endings are a metaphor for the themes of the game, wouldn't that make the game itself the enemy of the players? The concept of allowing the players to miss a significant portion of the game is neat, but at the point people actually do miss important content, some of the blame lies with the developers. As I said, Hashino's games are willing to make sacrifices for concept, and while those sacrifices are always appealing on an intellectual level, I have to wonder: Is a creative decision that comes across as brilliant to those who catch it worthwhile if it hinders the experience for the vast majority who don't? It's a tough question, and it leads those of us creating works like this to think about who we're writing for.
Persona 4 is filled with cool artistic choices that won't mean anything to the average player, though. Last week's post was all about vague literary parallels few people who play the game are going to pick up on, and the way the game treats its themes and concepts is so subtle and nuanced most of it is easy to miss. Most of the characters are pigeonholed into particular roles or tropes by society, and their character development and personal growth revolves around them reconciling the way they view themselves with the way the people around them expect them to behave. Unfortunately, this often leads the game's players to write the characters off as the very same stereotypes the characters are attempting to stave off, which is equal parts ironic and disappointing. As much as I'd like to say "You're missing the point!" and criticize those who misread the game, some of the responsibility falls upon Hashino and his team for not being clear enough. Again, we have the same question: Is an artistically interesting choice truly strong if most of the audience doesn't understand it?
Let's Not Do That Today
To be clear, Persona 4 was a hugely successful game, and it was received well. That said--if you'll pardon some speculation on my part--I think Hashino is aware that a sizable chunk of the player base didn't understand the purpose behind certain aspects of the game. As evidence of this, his next work Catherine, swung drastically the other way.
Catherine is a bizarre block puzzle game with two connected story threads: a man having an affair with a strange woman, and a rash of men suffering nightmares night after night before eventually dying in their sleep. It's not an especially long game--it was originally meant as sort of a tech demo for Persona 5's engine--but it's an interesting experience with a modest fan base. That said, there is one moment towards the end of the narrative that makes me think quite a bit less of the game as a whole. The game is presented as a frame story, and after the conclusion of the story within the frame, the player is brought out of the frame by the narrator. The narrator then explains, explicitly and in detail, what the game's core themes and symbols mean. It feels almost like a tutorial, and it comes across as quite arrogant, as if the developers assumed that the players would not understand what the game meant and felt the need to explain it outright, just in case.
With the context of Persona 4, though, this starts to be understandable. If Hashino saw that many of the people who played Persona 4 did not understand what it was trying to convey, he may have wanted to ensure the same did not happen with Catherine, and the odd end-game fourth-wall-breaking exposition starts to make sense. It's an extreme antithesis of Persona 4. Where Persona 4 allowed players to miss things--and, in fact, was structured such that a player not thinking critically was likely to miss core components of the game--Catherine spells out its major themes and symbols such that no player can possibly miss them.
Personally, I prefer Persona 4's approach, but both, I think, are flawed. Ideally you have the best of both worlds (as in Persona 3), where the audience is allowed to interpret the work but given enough guidance so as not to miss crucial points.
Persona 5 takes a more nuanced approach than Catherine does, with the help of the character Morgana. Morgana accompanies the protagonist throughout most of the game, and he has a tendency--particularly early in the game--to point out symbolic or thematically-significant details to the protagonist, in a way that leans on the fourth wall just a bit. It can be a bit grating at times (Yes, Morgana, I understand that this teacher's lecture about Jungian psychology is symbolically significant in a game that's literally named after a concept from Jungian psychology), but it's a lot better than the way Catherine handles it, and it could serve as a slight nudge to get other players thinking. Having an in-universe character draw attention to the sorts of things that would normally be more hidden could help to train Hashino's audience to identify the sorts of things he likes to hide in his games, and it turns picking apart Hashino's symbolism into a sort of miniature game in its own right (on top of providing reassurance that yes, it's all intentional). It's not as organic as it could be, but it's probably a better approach than throwing players into the metaphorical deep end and allowing them to sink or swim. The raft that is Morgana may be a bit of a nuisance to experience swimmers, but to new people it might be valuable.
Without Love, It Cannot Be Seen
There's a mystery-themed visual novel called Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (which, sadly I have not played) that's known partially for the line, "Without love, it cannot be seen." The phrase is in reference to detective fiction, and it means, essentially, that in order for a mystery to be solvable, there has to be a bond of mutual respect between the reader and the writer. The writer promises a solvable mystery in which the world adheres to its own rules and the general rules of detective fiction are not violated without strong buildup and/or good reason, and in exchange the reader accepts the world as the writer presents it, suspends his or her disbelief, and works to solve the mystery. Without that bond, the truth of the mystery cannot be found.
I think this concept applies to hidden meaning in art as well. An audience member or reader has a responsibility to meet the work wherever it is and to make a good faith effort to understand what the work is saying. Someone who goes into a game or play or book expecting something in particular, and who is unwilling to accept anything but that expectation, is almost certainly going to miss whatever the work's creator might be hiding, and that responsibility does not lie with the creator. If a good-faith audience member is unable to discern what a work is supposed to mean, though, I think that speaks to a weakness of the work. Even if--as in Persona 4's case--there is a great deal of value below the surface, if a work's intended audience misses core elements of the work, then the work itself is at least somewhat flawed.
It's a complicated issue, though, and there are plenty of other possible takes. I love reading things that make me think, things where I can find hidden meaning long after my initial read, but something that doesn't appeal on the surface level and that doesn't make its lower layers visible is going to have a hard time finding an audience. It's a challenge to balance, to be sure.
8/6/2018 08:12:17 pm
Great questions. Is this a question of art vs entertainment? And is possible to do both things? Do people who play games, watch movies, read books, see plays, want to think or I they just looking for entertainment? Can you make art entertainment? Does entertainment have any reason to be artistic? Great article. Fun to read.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition