What I’ve Been Playing April 2021

Thimbleweed Park

Thimbleweed Park Reviews | TechSpot

I was obsessed with Maniac Mansion when I was a kid, so getting a switch was the perfect opportunity to play Thimbleweed Park. This is such a throwback – I love the references to MM, the self-deprecating game dev humour and the twin-peaks-if-it-was-a-comedy setting.

It doesn’t feel quite as difficult and pixel-hunt-y as Ron Gilbert’s older games, which I like as it means less frustration and more irreverent humour. Its not too easy either though, and I have felt I’ve had to think while playing, so that’s great. Honestly, not too much to say here beyond I really enjoyed it.

Tokimeki Memorial Girls’s Side: First Love

Lesbian Relationships in Tokimeki Memorial: Girl's Side 1st Love (Visual  Novel) | LGBTQ Video Game Archive

I played this game again because I was both feeling nostalgic for my teenage years and was thinking about systemic relationship building. The romance focused games I play are by and large visual novels, where the focus is on the story, dialog and choices, but Tokimeki Memorial is a dating sim, where the onus is placed on planning the player character’s calendar in order to raise her stats. The goal of building these stats up is to guide her towards her desired career and boyfriend by the end of her school years.

While I like a stat based approach and really enjoy calendar balancing, this leads to a gamification of the relationship building process that doesn’t feel great. While in a VN I generally express my character how I want to and hope that matches with a love interest (at least the first time playing), playing Tokimeki is more like chess – calculating ahead, planning and saying exactly what you know the boy wants to hear in very limited interactions. As there is no linear story as such and you don’t have a ‘route’ to go on with your love interest, the dates can feel a little shallow, with one or two choices where you pick the line that the other person would like best. I wonder if there’s a way to build a system like this into a more developed story? I think Long Live the Queen does it well, but largely because the focus is on your output as ruler and not on specific relationships, so that level of personal interaction between characters isn’t needed.

One of the most interesting mechanics in the game is the bomb system. A character constantly rejected me, so I figured they were not interested and stopped talking to them. In return, a bomb popped up next to their portrait. If I didn’t fix this relationship, it was going to explode and affect my relationship with every character. This was akin to the character telling people you were horrible or gossiping about you, which I think is a really neat touch. Especially in a closed environment like a school, no relationship exists in isolation. I did feel however that there was a bit of a weird gendered feeling to this system, like as a girl I had to keep all the boys happy while they were fine to ignore me. I’m not really sure how to rectify that, as this game is full of things that could be seen as harmful stereotyping, but were also true to my teenage girlhood. Its a complicated one that I don’t think was bad enough to warrant critiquing, but I can understand how it might put some off the game.

Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds on Steam

So this is a funny one. All my friends had been recommending a game to me. Its this first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with time bending puzzles and detective work. Right up my alley. Unfortunately, the game I bought was a first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with guns and capitalism. Que the Outer Worlds vs Outer Wilds problem. You’d think someone interested in game narrative might be a little more literate when it comes to her title choices, but here we are.

I figured I might as well give the game a shot since I’d spent the last two hours downloading it, and it had been a while since I’d played anything sufficiently Besthesda-like.

The game opened with some vintage style artwork riffing off of advertisements of the 40s and 50s and a tounge-in-cheek narration espousing the glory of capitalism. That had me interested. Political critique in a cool space world was something I was most definitely down for. When it started making not-so-subtle nods to Bioshock with the opening in the pod, I was sold.

Unfortunately the gameplay didn’t quite deliver on the opening cutscene’s promise. The twin sticks on the switch controller don’t feel great for camera or movement control which makes the combat fall flat. This may just be me getting used to the switch – this is the first shooter I’ve played on it – but the fact I’m having difficulty right at the start isn’t great. Its not awful when the joy cons are docked into the controller, but playing in handheld mode feels impossible. The level of sensitivity would be fine for keyboard/mouse, and probably for standard sized controllers for those more used to playing shooters, but its just too much for switch.

I may have already been soured on the combat by the first enemy you encounter being the marauders. You are given no context to who these people are, beyond that they are presumably human and they are going to kill you. There are no negative consequences for killing them (in fact, you have to kill them to progress in most areas) and stealing their things incurs no penalty, unlike other human characters.

Now, I’m not trying to go all video game violence bad here. I don’t have an issue with combat and killing as a mechanic as long as its adequately justified either by in game narrative or genre convention. I think there’s definitely a case for genre convention here and I was probably in the wrong headspace, having thought I’d be playing Outer Wilds, but it just felt wrong. We later have to make some really hard choices regarding human life and the capitalists who value profit over life are, so far, portrayed as straight up bad guys, so I don’t like murdering a whole encampment of people to steal a bloody engineering manual!

They attacked me so I attack them back feels rather cheap, but is at least fair. Justified self defence! Killing waves of these to complete an objective while you’re companion says nothing on the matter doesn’t feel justified. Some characters have mentioned how marauders barley speak, and it might be that we get context later down the line, so I am reserving full judgement for later, but I would rather context up front.

In contrast to mowing down marauders, the game has us make an incredibly difficult choice for our first major decision. We are told by the owner of the town that if we shut down the power to an outlying settlement, made up of deserters, we can have their power core to get our ship started. When I was given this task my immediate reaction was just, no. I don’t want to fix my ship if it means depriving an entire area of protection, heat and power. Upon making this objection (the dialog choices are generally very expressive and let you work through a problem before accepting it – I really like this) the owner tells you that he will take them back into his town. Of course, that means going back to his way of life, where profits are more important than people. These deserters left for a reason.

Never the less, I ventured out to the settlement and spoke with their leader, letting her know the deal. She offers a counter deal, switch off the power to the town and take their power core. Now – when I was making my over I was saying to my partner that that would be my ideal outcome, have everyone go to the settlement instead – but, the settlement leader was not offering sanctuary to the townspeople. She was after revenge.

My choice was between keeping everyone alive but under a cruel regime, or leaving an entire town of innocents to die. These people had no choice but to be complicit in the way the town was run. They were beaten down by it and scared to move out of line. Was I to doom them for this?

Ultimately, I chose to give the power to the town, with hope of not only convincing the deserters to go back, but to convince the leadership of both factions to come to some sort of agreement, where the town could be ran with an ethos more similar to that of the deserters. I got my way in the end, so that was pretty great.

I had a bit of annoyance with the game when I was given a number of side quests to do, just after I’d disabled the power. This is something that I often gripe about – I hate side quests that are given out at time-critical moments in the narrative. I don’t mind picking up a few when I’m meandering and there’s nothing bearing down on me, but you’ve just told me that without power the people of the settlement will die. By introducing side quests here, my sense of urgency and therefore my sense of immersion into the fantasy are taken away.

In my ideal game, all quests would have some sort of time sensitivity attached, and would not be able to be completed at or after certain story points. There with a persistent changing world to go alongside this. In a game that was catering to a wider gamut of player motivations however, I think the best way to deal with this is to not give out new side quests when these moments of urgency come up in the story, but to allow players to complete previously picked up quests at this time if they would like to.

Just as I was starting to decide this game wasn’t for me, it threw me a bone with some fantastic companion dialog. Parvati, who I already loved as a character, asked me for relationship advice. I was a little disappointed because in my headcanon we were already spacefaring girlfriends, but the entire sequence was really sweet, relatable and didn’t feel like I was making decisions for the character, I really felt like a respected friend giving advice. It was a fairly standard dialog tree, and I feel like I’m supposed to want more ‘interesting’ mechanics than that, but honestly I love a good bit of conversation!

I’m now looking forward to playing more and, as I’ve now picked up a fair few stragglers, thinking about my headcanons for how the crew get along. Good character dynamics really are instant fodder for my enjoyment of a game so this is good!

It Takes Two

It Takes Two review | PC Gamer

It Takes Two is a co-op platform adventure game, which I partially decided to play because of the co-op traversal idea I’d been playing with in my one page pitch exercise. I played with my partner, which was an interesting exercise in itself, as we rarely play together due to our conflicting playstyles – I play for story/emotion/immersion, he’s very into mastery/completionism.


I am very torn on my opinion of this game, because in some ways it is fantastic. The 3cs are incredibly polished and the game feels great to play. The platforming is intuitive and fun, just challenging enough to keep engagement up but not be frustrating, the new mechanics and tools provided to the player work well and blend seamlessly into the rest of the gameplay. I don’t normally like platformers that much and I really enjoyed this.

However, I found myself increasingly annoyed at the story and characters, which, as an aforementioned story motivated player, is kind of an issue. The game attempts to talk about a serious issue, but has both the tone and tact of a children’s movie. I found myself asking – who is this for? You play as two parents, ostensibly rectifying their marital issues through an adventure to break a curse that has turned them into dolls. The issue is that their daughter has put this curse on them for this very purpose. From an adult perspective it feels coercive and uncomfortable. The message was not that by working together they rediscovered their bond, but that they were forced into this discovery. I’ve not played enough of the game to know what the resolution is, so perhaps this angle is explored later, but considering it appears to be aping children’s movies of the early 90s, I’m not expecting it.

This is one of these situations where the mechanics and message should fuse seamlessly – co-op puzzle platforming is the perfect avenue for exploring co-operation, relationships and running a household/parenting – but the framing and tone have just let the overall theme down.

Also, the book character is the most annoying thing I have ever seen.

Mark and Lara

Buy cheap Mark & Lara: Partners In Justice cd key at the best price

This is a very short co-op detective game, where each player is given a different set of information and they must work together to make deductions about the case. I really love the premise here. It takes the best parts of detective puzzling and couch co-op to make what is usually a solo experience social.

Me and my friend had a lot of fun playing, though we did get a little exasperated by the line matching mechanic by the end of things. In order to point out a contradiction, the player must type in the number of a line in each character’s journal that contradict each other. This got increasingly less obvious, to the point that we had the right idea, but finding the line that matched that concept was difficult as suspects repeated the same things. It wasn’t heinous, but we were getting frustrated and had the game not wrapped up where it did I think we may have ended up giving up.

I really enjoyed the google mechanic, where you could look for additional information to do with the case by using keywords. This asks for more engagement from the player than is usual in a lot of detective games, as you are not led by wording of choices or hand held towards the answer. This is generally true of the game’s whole approach.

In terms of execution, there were a couple of localization hiccups, with some odd grammar and flow. As this was made by a small team, I don’t have the same expectations as I would of something AAA, but considering that the text is the focus of the gameplay and comprehending it correctly is the goal of the game, it would have been nice to have had an editor on the team who had a higher standard of written English.

Overall it was a good experience, and I’m looking forward to the next case.

Enter The Mansion Card Editor

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to work on Enter the Mansion, but I got back on it this week and finished up my rudimentary card editor. Previously, I’d been looking at scriptable assets and how to use them as a way for designers to create different ‘cards’ that could be displayed in game. This week I focused on how to make this card setup a little easier to use.

I’d initially hoped to have the TextArea boxes in the editor UI be the same size as the area in the game UI, so users wouldn’t have to check their word/character counts in game. Unfortunately I also wanted spell check, and the spell check package I used only game with extendable TextAreas that are a fixed size to start off with. Ultimately I preferred having spellcheck over the counts thing, as all content should be tested in game anyway!

The spell check feels a little clunky, as it is a separate window and does not offer suggestions, but its damn sight better than nothing and far more complex than anything I’m currently equipped to make myself.

In addition to the spellcheck, I added a slot in the card asset for an image that is then displayed in the UI alongside the text. Keeping these together is important, so that when I’m writing the room’s description, I can ensure that the text and the image match.

In addition to the window I added a unique, generated ID to each card. This is for debugging and tracking purposes, especially as content changes. Initially I wanted to create an ID when the asset was created and have it static, but Unity wouldn’t let me look up the asset database in a constructor, so I did it when the card loads instead. This actually turned out to be a good thing, as it meant that if I delete a card the others update accordingly.

    //assign ID to cards when they are loaded
    void OnEnable() { 
        string[] assetNames = AssetDatabase.FindAssets("", new[] { "Assets/Cards" });

        foreach (string asset in assetNames) {
            string assetName = AssetDatabase.GUIDToAssetPath(asset);
            string[] assetNameSplit = assetName.Split('/');
            assetName = assetNameSplit[assetNameSplit.Length - 1];
            assetName = assetName.Split('.')[0];

            if ((assetName + " ") == this.ToString().Split('(')[0]) {
                this.ID = System.Array.IndexOf(assetNames, asset).ToString();
                break;
            }
        }
    }

The last thing I did on this was add a button that moves through each of the cards, replacing the former random card on start logic I had in there before. This is a lot easier to test until I decide how I actually want to deliver my cards!

void setCard()
{
    try
    {
        if (card != null)
        {
            int current_index = cards.IndexOf(card);
            card = cards[current_index + 1];
        }
        else
        {
            card = cards[0];
        }
    }
    catch (System.ArgumentOutOfRangeException e)
    {
        card = cards[0];
    }
}

One Page Pitches

After my research into magical realism in games, I wanted to find a quick way to explore some potential designs in the space. I decided to create some one-page pitches.

This is something I’ve seen at all the studios I’ve worked at, but was surprised to see very few examples of this style of document online. I used Canva for these, which is (mostly) free online alternative to powerpoint.

Dream Dilemma!

As I’d realized that DD! was in fact a Magical Friendship game, I started off with this. It let me get the template down without worrying about the actual design of the game, as I’d already made it!

Random Game Ideas

I boiled my Magical Friendship idea down to a formula of:

Important Relationship + Everyday Setting * Magical Influence = Change in Outlook

This is obviously very reductive, but made for a nice way of generating story ideas quickly to let me brainstorm mechanics around them. I wrote down examples of each part of the formula and drew them at random, then created one pagers for my favorite combinations.

Cooking Murakami

Otherwise known as Co-Workers at a Fast Food Restaruant Encounter Ghosts.

The themes of being stuck, liminality and moving on are expressed though Alex’s position in life, Ronald’s position in brand-death and the common misconception that minimum wage jobs are temporary and not people’s livlihood.

I brought the calandar concept from Persona and merged it with the puzzle simulation mini-games of Cooking Mama or Papers, Please. With the core of the story being about the complicated emotions of the brand-spirits, I’ve got dialog in there too, riffing off of Christine Love’s timed dialog mechanic in Ladykiller in a Bind to promote the hectic feeling of working in a kitchen.

This idea is incredibly cursed, and I love it. When I said ‘this idea is like if Murakami designed Cooking Mama’, I knew I only had one choice for the title.

Island Obscura

or: Siblings on Holiday Encounter UFOs

In this one I explore the relationship between siblings by using co-op puzzle-traversal gameplay. Mechanics wise, I’m riffing on Unchartered, Tomb Raider and dungeons in Zelda but without any of the combat, to create an experience that feels like a more exciting version of a walking simulator. I wanted to get the discovery aspect of slower games in there.

Narrative wise, I wanted to use the way that Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus tells its story to speak about imagination. The main inspiration for this pitch comes from the time I tagged along on my friend’s stepdad’s diving holiday and the two of us were just dumped on South Uist with nothing to do. Our imaginations went wild, and we made up all sorts of things about the island’s residents and what certain pieces of architecture or ruins ‘really meant’. I’d like to blur the line between what’s real and what’s a shared dream of the kids and I intend to do this by telling the story in a way that is not explicit.

Rule the Scene!

Otherwise known as: A Found Family who are Mega-Fans of Something Encounter Faeries

With this, the first thing I latched onto was the similarity between the complex social hierarchy that exists in the Fey seelie and unseelie court mythos and the hidden rules and structure of social life in the music scene. I wanted to create something that focused on social climbing and intrigue without it being a VN/CHOA/dialog options only experience.

As such, I went with something card based, focusing on specific social interactions as battles. This was inspired by the idea of being able to ‘counter’ when met with brags or challenges to your knowledge of music or the scene.

Magically Real Mechanics

To follow on from my previous post on finding that the core of my ‘Magical Friendship’ vibe was a magical realism stint, I decided to take a quick look at some games I’ve played that employ magical realism as part of their story to see how their mechanics imbibe the genre. This is less a comprehensive review of mechanics and more a short brain dump!

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk on Steam

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Coffee Talk’s world feels rather magically realistic, as the setting is generally realistic and modern, bar the inclusion of fantasy races.

How is this shown through mechanics?

The main mechanic in Coffee Talk is drink making and serving while you listen to the patrons talk about their lives. Drink serving is used as a way to branch the story, and depending on what you serve their stories change. This feels slow and cosy, which brings in the glorification of the everyday element I discussed in my last post.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange (Time Travel, and the Mechanics of Point-and-Click  Adventure Games) | Gaming Backlog

Which aspect is magically realistic?

The world in Life is Strange is the real world, however our main character has time travel powers. These powers are not the focus, rather the focus is on the revival of old friendships and the question about whether you’d change the past if you could. This exploration of human questions though the fantasy element is indicative of the genre.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We traverse environments, picking up clues about the story then later get to use that information to make key decisions regarding characters. At certain points, the player can choose to time travel back to an earlier point, retaining the knowledge gained in order to change dialog options and open up more paths. This is a fairly literal interpretation of regret over the past as a mechanic.

Persona 4

Persona 4 Rainmeter : Rainmeter

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Everything about this game! The way mundane and magical concerns are placed alongside one another, the participation in the mc’s daily life and the TV, something very ordinary, as a vehicle for magical elements all make Persona 4 magically realistic.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We see glorification of the everyday and the elevated status of normal activities to sit alongside the fantasy hero narrative, as the game is split between the daily life and dungeon segments. Players must balance keeping up with school work, maintaining friendships and yearly events with their quest to find the murderer in the TV world. The way that social relationships affect the stats of the personas that are used in the RPG style battles show how the magical and real are intertwined in a way that supports the main themes of friendship, rebellion and longing for escape.

Papers, Please

Immigration as a game: 'Papers, Please' makes you the border guard - The  Verge

This game is not an example of magical realism, however I think the stamping and verifying mechanic is a great way to explore theme. Papers, Please is about the conflict between survival and providing for one’s family vs doing what’s right against an authoritarian state. Your work as a border guard is mundane, but can completely change someone’s life, potentially even dooming them to die by stamping a card one way or another.

Genre Quest: Magical Friendship

A couple of months ago, I intended to write a choose your own adventure game. I had the ChoiceScript IDE downloaded, its tutorials completed, and a vibe. Not a story outline, not a design doc, but a vibe. So of course, when I began to write this game, I didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. Now, I’ve ‘pantsed’ games before, but this wasn’t the sort of thing I could just write on the fly. Part of this unknown ‘vibe’, and a key element of game design according to the choice script standards was that the stats featured in the game would not only allow for player expression and multiple ways to play, but would communicate the themes and feelings I wished to explore within the narrative. That’s great, if you know what your themes are.

As such, I started analysing the media that served as inspiration for this enigmatic ‘vibe’ and, while that incarnation of the project is now dead in the water due to my realisation that I didn’t want to write a whole CYOA book’s worth of prose and that the setting was probably not for me to write, I discovered some interesting things about genre and type of media I like, so figured it was worth a write up. I’ll likely come back to this as a theme later down the line, and am interested to explore the potential within the kind of narrative I’ve outlined.

The main sources of inspiration for the project were The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Makoto Shinkai’s movies, Persona 4 and a light novel called Chain Mail. Initially, the main connection that I drew between these pieces of media were that they were Japanese in origin and I first encountered them when I was in my teens. This was not encouraging as I was concerned what I was hitting was personal nostalgia and not any particular genre, theme or convention. Via analysis I discovered that there was significantly more to link the properties than my own feelings, and I’m going to discuss each point of similarity below.

Escapism as a Form of Rebellion

The first link between these properties is the theme of escapism as a form of rebellion. In Haruhi, the titular character is bored with mundane life and struggles with the idea of insignificance in a world of so many people. As a response, she endeavors to live in a world full of aliens, time travellers and espers. (Unbeknownst to her, the members of her club the SOS Brigade are aliens, time travellers and espers – we’ll get to this point later.) She uses escapism and the search for media-like phenomena (this show is full of anime tropes) as a way to be different from her classmates and to rail against the world that made her feel insignificant.

Likewise in Chain Mail, the way the main characters – in particular Sawako and Mai – view their lives, is much like Haruhi Suzumiya’s perspective. They believe other people’s mundane concerns to be beneath them, and refuse to engage with conversation and activities they see as boring, like discussing idol TV programs or trying to meet their favorite bands.

Mai, Sawako and Mayumi all had trouble dealing with reality, and had only been able to connect with each other through fantasy. Was there something wrong with them? Or was the problem with a society that didn’t accept them? Or did both sides need to reach out more?

In contrast to Haruhi, who wishes that the real world had media-like crazy events, the characters in Chain Mail are adamant on keeping their forum separate from the real world, as they feel bringing any semblance of reality into the equation will taint it somehow – they will cease to be stalking victims and detectives and just be ordinary school girls. Their focus is on escapism over dealing with reality. This becomes a crux of the mystery, as despite the situation becoming potentially dangerous, each character refuses to meet or email the other girls with information, afraid it will ruin their fantasy.

In Weathering With You, Hodaka runs away from home as he is dissatisfied with living on a small island. The idea of being trapped or bored in a countryside setting is also explored in Persona 4, particularly in Yusuke’s story as we see him battle with guilt over feeling better than the small town of Inaba.

The central characters of all these works are teenagers, and while the desire to escape from one’s life can be present at any age, it is a fairly universal teenage trait to be looking towards the future and towards the freedoms that adult life will entail. The idea that there is a bit of a ticking clock and the characters will ultimatley have to decide to grow up or to defend their fantasty world was present in all of the media I studied and the resolutions to this question fell on a specturm between ‘fuck conformity’ and ‘joy can be found in the mundane’.

Glorification of the Everyday

Juxtaposed against the idea of escapism is the glorification of the everyday. This adds some thematic tension and is key to the particular feeling that these pieces of media invoke in their audience. A lot of the scenes in these pieces could be described as ‘cosy’ or ‘peaceful’, which stand out in contrast to their more action oriented moments.

In Chain Mail, we see one of the characters freed from a hectic schedule, and she takes the slow train, waxing lyrical about the sense of peace the train gives her.

…the air currents in the local stop trains whispered ‘it doesn’t matter what happens.

In Persona 4, we get to play not only RPG dungeons and boss fights, but dates, homework and hanging out at the local department store, for lack of anything else to do. While it is possibly portrayed as less idyllic here – especially with the malcontent some characters express towards small town life – we go through the daily routines of our heroes and find joy in the small moments together. P4 also features seasonal events that match with the Japanese high school calendar, such as holidays, exams and school trips. This immerses the player in the cycles and routines of the characters and makes daily life a fun gameplay mechanic.

Haruhi also features this, with events such as Tanabata wishes, Tests of Courage and Baseball games. While these are anime tropes, they derive from real life events.

As well as calendar events, global brands drive this familiarity. These are almost modern myths – common symbols that we all understand and relate to in some way. This is prevalent in Weathering with You, as it features many advertisements in the environment design and Hina working at McDonalds is key to the plot.

In general, Weathering with You features some particularly great examples of the magic of the everyday, with there being something warm and delightful about Hodaka’s chores montage and the cooking scene in Hina’s apartment.

‘My days were hectic but for the first time someone was relying on me.’

In Haruhi, one of the slowest episodes, yet one that comes to mind when I think about the general feel of the show, is one where they just hang around the club room for most of it. Kyon fetches a heater in the cold; Harhui and Mikuru take photos. It invokes nostalgia for a time where we could just do that. Hang around after school, nowhere to be and nothing to get done.

It’s the feel from this episode, especially in comparison with the more crazy ones, that invokes the theme at the heart of the anime – finding joy in the mundane. Haruhi spends all of her time wishing things were fantastical, but the thing that prevents her from destroying the world is a kiss from Kyon – the very ordinary boy she spends all her time with. The happiness and fulfilment is found not in the extra-ordinary, but in the connections between the group as they search for such things. Ultimately, you could say that the real aliens, time travellers and espers were the friends they made along the way. (Yep, that’s what I’m going with.)

The Real Time Travellers, Aliens and Espers Were the Friends We Made Along the Way

By which, I really mean use of Magical Realism. Magical Realism is defined by Wikipedia as:

…a style of fiction and literary genre that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements, often deals with the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality…Despite including certain magic elements, it is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.

All of these properties contain magical or fantastical events to some degree, and generally these elements are key to the escapism and rebellion that the characters are expressing. It is however, these themes and the human aspect of the story that form the core of the narrative, not the magic.

A major example of how magic is used to make a point about the key themes I’ve established is where we see a group of teens that must investigate a mystery that adults do not understand. This is the sunshine girl in Weathering with You, the TV world in P4, the strange happenings around Haruhi and the disappearance of Sawako in Chain Mail. We see an us against the world sentiment, focusing on friendship and elevating everyday bonds, and a rebellious streak, showing the gap between teenagers and adults.

In Weathering With You, we see the magical experiences of children and teenagers, and the magical wisdom of older folk, but working age adults are generally ignorant. Even the head of the occult magazine doesn’t believe in the occult, and his profession makes him somewhat of an outcast in the adult world. The magical phenomenon is used as a metaphor for the pressure of the adult world and the need to conform and fit in, again coming back to our central theme.

Just exploring themes with fantastic elements is not enough to define a piece of media as Magical Realism however. This is a common enough trait of fantasy and sci-fi, particularly those that fall on the more literary side of things. What really makes these properties magically real is the way that the real world and the magical sit alongside each other, without much explanation. The author never attempts to codify or create hard systems for the fantasy elements, instead leaving them as an ambiguous vehicle for theme and character-driven plot.

We see this in Haruhi, where the question of whether she is God is never really answered, as the answer is instead, it doesn’t matter. We also see it in Weathering with You, where elements of Shinto and Japanese folklore are used to fuel the magical elements of the story but are never explained beyond contradicting rumors that we hear from various older folks.

In Weathering with You in particular, the magic is somewhat mundane. Hina’s ability to control rain only affects a small area and the problems it solves are real, everyday ones, like not cancelling a flea market or fireworks display. Rain is a universal, everyday problem. This is true of our other pieces as well, with a possible kidnapping being a misunderstanding in Chain Mail and alien powers being used to win hackathons and baseball games in Haruhi.

This magic is always set alongside and compared to everyday things, using the glorification of the everyday we discussed above. We see this when fish fall from the sky as Hodaka has his first visit to a girl’s house in Weathering with You, or when Kyon finds a love letter in his locker in Harhui, which leads to an alien battle in a pocket dimension. These first-love sort of events are incredibly nerve wracking and important in the real world, and these feelings are never diminished, with the magical storyline having equal if not less import.

Magical Realism

With all this in mind, I wondered if I had just come across a name for a genre that I’d been enjoying without knowing that it was in fact a genre. I had been concerned that the ‘vibe’ I was chasing was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon and wouldn’t translate well to a Western setting, so exploring literature and fiction with a wider cultural heritage seemed like a good way to test this theory.

I had read Kafka on the Shore not too long before exploring these themes, and while it certainly had this core of teenage rebellion and magical realism, it was considerably darker in tone than the other pieces I explored and didn’t feel like a good fit for my ‘vibe’.

In addition, I read a number of short stories in the genre from a few different cultural backgrounds, including the opening of Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is credited with sparking the entire genre. While some of these stories were charming and all had strange phenomena set alongside the real world (a particular favorite was Americca by Aimee Bender), they never quite held the same feeling I was chasing.

While these pieces of writing were all Magically Realistic, they did not share the same themes as my original inspirations. There was no teenage escapism, and the portrayal of the everyday was considerably darker in tone. I was looking for more than just genre.

For the next step in my quest, I turned to film. Particularly, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Funnily enough, this just so happened to be another film that I enjoyed when I was a teenager, but had later on disliked for what I saw as more problematic elements. It does actually exemplify many of the traits I’ve discussed so far. Its incorporation of magical, video game inspired elements into a realistic world of music subculture and this as a vehicle for telling the story of Scott’s romantic drama makes it a good example of Magical Realism. The young, slacker type characters, with their derision of their home city of Toronto as not-as-cool as Montreal or New York exemplify the teenage escapism and rebellion aspect. Here, music and video games take the place of folklore or religion as the myth-making vehicle for shared symbols and motifs that drive the magic.

Like the other properties, Scott Pilgrim never seeks to explain its magic, dismissing the hyperspace corridor in Scott’s head with ‘I forgot they don’t have those in Canada.’ and seamlessly weaving the narrative of fighting evil exes with more mundane concerns such as cheating and trying to get noticed as a band.

Its key themes are explored though its fantastical elements, with Ramona being quite literally Scott’s dream girl and Ramona’s dilemma of people getting hurt because of her coming out as a physical fight with evil exes.

The glorification of the everyday is less present in this movie, as the main characters lead fairly chaotic lives, but we still see the routine element come out when we see Scott and Knives’ date is repeated twice to show the change in their relationship. Often, the everyday is less glorified than elevated, with video game sound effects used during key moments to make it feel like the characters are gaining something, winning or levelling up.

Despite the similarities, Scott Pilgrim vs The World didn’t fit into my ‘vibe’ either. Not entirely.

One of the things that is most dissonant between what I’m exploring and Scott Pilgrim is that of a core group of friends against the world. Here, everyone knows everyone to their detriment, as this causes untold amounts of drama.

The largest issue however, is with the lack of sincerity. While this movie shares a lot of the key themes I’ve highlighted, it lacks an emotional core that really made me invest in the other properties. The main character is utterly unlikable, and there is a disaffected and aloof air to the movie that makes it difficult to take seriously. While Scott grows to be less of an asshole to the women in his life, it doesn’t really feel as if the characters grow due to their bonds and face growing up. In fact, Scott and Ramona sort of just run away.

Despite this, it has given me confidence that the themes and genre are not particular to Japanese culture and therefore could be successfully explored in a Western setting. I’ll update this space if I do find something that fulfills all my criteria – I’m sure it’s out there!

Magical Friendship

So, having explored all these different properties, I came up with a framework for my ‘vibe’.

It must:
– Contain elements of magical realism.
– Explore themes of escapism and rebellion.
– Glorify the everyday so that it sits alongside the magical elements in terms of importance and reverence.
– Have a sincere emotional core that focuses on friendship.

For now, I’ve chosen to refer to it as ‘Magical Friendship’. While this isn’t all encompassing, it does well enough to describe this very particular feeling that I’m looking to achieve.

In my next post on this subject, I aim to explore how this Magical Friendship theme could be used in a game narrative.