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