Expectation, Adaptation, and Kyoukai no Rinne’s Episode Order

This post addresses something caught my attention—an appropriate time for “気になります” if ever there was one—when I saw the preview for episode 4 of Kyoukai no Rinne. Now that we are finally getting a portion of the anime that solidly follows the manga (full disclosure: said manga is quite possibly my favorite thing in the world), at least for a few episodes, I feel comfortable discussing the changes made to the content order for the anime adaptation thus far before any more crop up.

furinkan.com
furinkan.com

The Rinne manga never follows any particular plot trajectory for more than a few chapters in a row, and is generally episodic in nature—it’s most similar in structure to Ranma 1/2 among Takahashi’s other works. That’s not to say that there’s no ongoing conflict; Rinne’s poverty is the major theme of the series, and as much as it’s played for laughs, recurring “villains” (even the bad guys are so likable it’s hard to characterize them as villains, but that is their purpose) like Masato and Sabato show up frequently enough to cause conflict over money that readers can’t forget that it’s a serious problem. The distribution of different types of content is unusual, but works incredibly well: the story skips among chapters about ghost problems, the shinigami world, Rinne’s rivals, new characters, and the relationships between the protagonists frequently, so the series never feels repetitive or formulaic, despite its simple premise.

The anime begins in the same way as the manga, with the introduction of Mamiya Sakura and Rokudou Rinne (and accompanying chihuahua shenanigans), followed by the signing of Rokumon’s contract. After that, though, it diverges quite a bit. In the manga, Rokumon’s introduction is followed by two short ghost stories: “Afraid to Fall Asleep” and “Diva of the Pool”. Then comes Masato’s introduction and the story of Reiji’s living spirit, followed immediately by the first appearance of Juumonji Tsubasa and the trip to the amusement park. Next is the chapter about Hanako-san, then the story of the pumpkin-headed damashigami. There’s then one more ghost story (“Draw Me”) before we’re introduced to Rokudou Sabato and the Damashigami Company. The chapters about the bakaneko duo and the drama club’s wig are one-offs that don’t appear until rather later. The anime, on the other hand, uses the order: Tsubasa/amusement park, Hanako-san, bakeneko, Masato, pumpkin-head, Sabato and the Damashigami Company. While I assume the changes to the content order aren’t arbitrary, they nevertheless seem more to the detriment than benefit of the anime.

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Episode 4 is definitely too soon to include the trip to the amusement park. This is when it becomes clear that Rinne and Sakura maybe-sorta like each other (in the fashion of all Takahashi protagonists), but in the anime timeline, they haven’t known each other all that long. Rinne and Sakura’s relationship is based on familiarity and trust (again: Takahashi protagonists), so implying feeelings between the two before those things are established seems forced. In the manga, they have 12 extra chapters (about 3-4 episodes’ worth of content) in which to work together and get to know each other—most significantly, the chapter where Sakura follows Rinne to hell to help him defeat Masato. In that context, Rinne’s crush on Sakura and jealousy of Tsubasa is much more natural.

Delaying Masato’s introduction has other consequences as well. As mentioned above, it is the first hint of ongoing conflict in the series. This adds an amount of substance that rewards the audience for paying attention and gives viewers something to look forward to—and it seems like Brain’s Base knows this, as they’ve gone to all the trouble of adding recurring characters to the ending animation one by one. This is not to say that anime without cohesive subplots can’t or shouldn’t succeed; they just require a specific type of viewer. But waiting until halfway through the first cour to really show what kind of series Rinne is does it a disservice, and the early episodes are where the anime should be trying to grab the viewers that will want to follow the anime throughout its—hopefully lengthy—run.

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I take issue with episodes 5 and 6 for the same reason: they’re not bad excerpts, but neither are they sufficiently representative of the bulk of the series’s content. Though Takahashi adds her usual cleverly funny twists to each, the fact remains that Toire no Hanako-san and bakeneko are some of the most well-known and commonly depicted Japanese spirits; they’re pretty much guaranteed to appear in any given piece of supernatural-oriented Japanese media. Most of the supernatural phenomena depicted in Rinne are much weirder, and typically completely unexpected. The manga basis for this anime has a guitarist possessed by a poorly singing cicada, teeny weeny kitty ghosts, the spirit of a pet alligator wandering around wearing a trenchcoat…it would have been nice to have seen something more unique animated to give newcomers a sense of what makes Rinne special.

I appreciate that Hanako-san was the obvious choice for episode 5, given that her story comes after the amusement park chapter in the manga and adds some character development for Tsubasa, but the pacing is painfully slow and awkward. This is partially because the Hanako chapter doesn’t really have enough content to support a full episode, but it’s not helped by choices necessitated by the rearranged episode order. Stopping at several points, including in the middle of the action of the battle with Toichi, to explain what a shinigami scythe is and where it’s come from all of the sudden doesn’t make for a particularly engaging flow. Episode 6 has slightly better pacing, but really should have been built around a different chapter. I see no reason that “Afraid to Fall Asleep” or “Diva of the Pool” couldn’t have been slotted in instead.

rinnetsubasa

When I consider why these changes were made, I can’t help feel that in some way, Brain’s Base is trying to give the audience what it assumes we’re expecting to see. The specific expectations built up around Takahashi’s series clearly played a part: romantic rivals are the cornerstone of Takahashi’s romantic comedy, and episode 4 screams “look, we have what you came for!” in a lot of ways.

Also, for better or worse, anime in the fantasy genre tend to begin with episodic stories and then build up to longer arcs. Personally, I don’t care for that structure, particularly now that it’s been done to death, but there is something to be said for keeping the early episodes non-vital for viewers who don’t start watching immediately and only hear about the show through word-of-mouth (though that’s much less applicable to overseas viewers who are watching anime online and can access any episode anytime). Brain’s Base does seem to be trying to ease viewers into the show by putting the most innocuously conventional spirits first, and by adding the damashigami into the bakeneko episode so no one could possibly forget who they are before Sabato has the chance to show up.

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I question the necessity of this. Rinne is weird, sure, and it has an unusual structure, but those are both key parts of its charm, and viewers who would find the original hard to follow probably won’t stick with the anime either. An anime will never be exactly like its manga; it shouldn’t be, that would defeat the purpose of adapting a series into a different medium to begin with. But an adaptation should do its utmost to maintain the spirit of the original for a new audience, and I think the first cour of Rinne isn’t living up to its potential in that regard.

rinnedamashigami

Thankfully, none of this will matter much to those of us who continue watching Rinne; the content order matters less as the series goes on, so it’s really only an issue in terms of introducing new viewers. And not all of the changes have been bad: combining the wig and pumpkin-head stories into episode 9 did wonders for the pacing, so hopefully we’ll see more such combinations in the future. Despite my qualms detailed above, I can’t imagine the anime version of Rinne ever being actually bad; rather, it’s overflowing with voice actors that make the characters even more charming than they are on the page, quirky in a way reminiscent of classic anime, and most importantly, a lot of fun.

In Medias Res: Spring 2015 (Part 2)

I’m back with Part 2 of my mid-season check-ins, featuring the anime that most made me want to vomit all over myself! Let’s dive right in, shall we?

oremonogatari

Ore Monogatari: I don’t particularly dislike shoujo, but I rarely gravitate toward it when it comes time to chose anime. Luckily, this show started off pretty strong. Yamato is adorable, of course, and it’s awesome that she actually struggles with being seen as a “pure” girl and is attracted to Takeo, instead of falling face-first into the stereotype (even if she still does seem a little too perfect for reality). Takeo is decent as far as protagonists go: he’s an upstanding guy, so it’s easy to see why someone would like him. His bromance dynamic with Sunakawa is probably the best part of the show so far; they complement each other perfectly despite having amusingly disparate personalities. The sense of humor behind the series is also a high point. I’m embarrassed to admit that I laughed out loud at the butt-tree joke…but it was too funny not to. Takeo’s constant hero behavior can also be funny, though it gets to be too much at times. His winning Yamato’s friends’ favor by rescuing them from a burning building was eye-roll worthy, and I hope that the show backs off on that type of thing as a plot device in the future. It’s also difficult to see where the anime is going for lack of any decent conflict, but perhaps it can stay cute and funny despite that.

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Owari no Seraph: Before the season started, a lot of people were saying that this show would probably try to be the new Attack on Titan. Well, it seems like at least one anime per season now has to at least aspire to that spot, so we can hardly fault the studio for trying. Seraph certainly has the same penchant for melodrama as Attack on Titan, but it’s not willing to approach the same level of brutality. In pop culture media, a vampire’s means of killing is typically depicted as beautiful, if frightening, and Seraph doesn’t deviate from that portrayal. Even the scene with all of Yu’s fellow orphans being slain wasn’t nearly as horrific as any given death in Attack on Titan. Actually, Seraph reminds me much more strongly of Code Geass: conflicting ideals, two friends facing off, lots of dramatic tension. It’s not as clever as Code Geass; there’s less nuance to characters’ motives, and the dialogue is completely unsubtle—I really thought Yu might have some character development when he made the contract with the demon, but in the next episode he was right back to “Revenge kill vampires revenge yay.” Still, despite not having the brutality or subtlety of other series, it remains a fun watch. There’s a lot of interest in its world: vampires, a plague, the Horsemen, and demon-infused weapons are all fun in themselves, and the interactions between various forces have potential. That world is gorgeous as well—whoever came up with the color palette for the series did an excellent job, and the green-and-black of the Demon Company’s uniforms and weapons is particularly eye-catching. Though it may not be deep, Seraph is worth its 20 minutes a week.

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Plastic Memories: This anime’s concept is excellent; there are so many intriguing possibilities for interaction between humans and A.I.s who are essentially human but with much shorter lifespans. Unfortunately, Plastic Memories seems rather committed to not properly exploring any of them. Most of the series’ time so far has been spent on the non-starter romance between Isla and the boring lolicon main character. There are some actual sources of conflict introduced—the fake Giftia retrievers, the pressure from the top of the organization, the idea that expired Giftias become…zombies? or something—but they’re all basically mentioned and forgotten about rather than being incorporated into the plot in any meaningful way. It seems like the central drama is intended to be Isla’s impending expiration (despite the fact that the show hasn’t really started addressing that until episode 8), but the characters just aren’t developed enough for that to feel as ominous as it should. There’s no pathos here. I honestly was more moved by Leo’s burger-based friendship with that little mushroom dude in a single episode of Kekkai Sensen than by all of the episodes of Plastic Memories put together.

punchline

Punch Line: I set out to watch the first episode of this, but it took me two tries. Two incredibly agonizing tries. I think I was kind of hoping this would be a fun action series that took on the panty-shot thing in a tongue-in-cheek way, but as far as I can tell it’s about as un-self-aware an anime as I’ve ever seen. Who is the target audience of this show? Do men actually like being portrayed as incapable of keeping it together when they happen to see underwear? If the entire point here is to show panty-shots, why so much boring talking? It’s not worth my time to find out.

rekan

Re-Kan!: I made it through the first episode of this in one shot, so it could be worse. The characters are so boring I want to murder them, though. I…actually have nothing else to say, so it’s pretty clear this anime failed to do anything interesting whatsoever.

shokusouma

Shokugeki no Souma: Much like Punch Line, this anime leaves me wondering what I’m supposed to be enjoying about it. I was hoping it might have some Top Chef-style appeal, with intense cooking and creative recipes. Perhaps it does have moments like that, but clearly I will never get to them. I began with episode one—naturally—but was so incredibly disgusted by the soft-core tentacle porn scene that I had to stop. Tentacle porn happened for a reason, and we all know it was part of anime history, but it never needs to be in anything again. Ever. Even Sword Art Online fans disliked the part in the second half of SAO season 1 where that happened; if SAO fans admit something is cliche and in bad taste, I think it’s safe to say that it should burn in a fire. Anyway, in the name of due diligence I decided to skip ahead to episode 2 to try and get an idea of what the show would be about while still sparing my eyes. Things did not improve. This sexy eating thing that has been cropping up in anime lately is definitely not for me. And if I did happen to have an anime-girls-eating-food fetish, I would still question a lot about episode 2. Why, oh why, does it take so long for anything to happen? Why must the girl stare at the food for what feels like 81375810365 minutes before actually eating it? This anime is terrible.

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Sound! Euphonium: As with Rinne, I would have a hard time coming down too negatively on this show regardless, because Kyoto Animation can make anything aesthetically pleasing enough to keep staring at, if nothing else. Happily, Euphonium plays to KyoAni’s storytelling strengths as well; it’s a story that’s so ordinary that it can really come to life for the viewer. Everyone has their own idea of how good they should be at their hobbies, and self-imposed feelings of inadequacy can be really tough, especially for young people. So I’m sure everyone can relate to some of the characters in Euphonium, who are thrown together despite all having different ideas of how good they can be and how good they need to be, and suddenly find themselves aiming for Nationals. The characters are endearing individually, as well as on the level of what they represent; I already have a particular soft spot for Taki-sensei, despite his limited screen-time thus far. This is definitely an easy one to make time for whenever a new episode is up.

nagatonoshoushitsu

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan: I really love The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. I adored The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan still does nothing for me. It does have some funny moments, but that’s about it. I think the bulk of the problem is that the main character is Nagato, but not the real Nagato, or even The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya‘s alternate-universe Nagato. The original alternate-universe Nagato was painfully shy, but this one seems practically daft and incapable of functioning like a human. She’s a character born of the twisted ultra-moe idea that if a character needing protection is moe, than a character that’s incapable of doing anything for herself is ultra-moe. Except that’s not true, because that kind of character isn’t actually a character any more than a cardboard standee is a person. Bleh.

If you missed Part 1, click here. Part 1 includes the following series:

  • Arslan Senki
  • Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works
  • Gunslinger Stratos
  • Houkago no Pleiades
  • Dungeon de Deai […]
  • Kekkai Sensen
  • Kyoukai no Rinne

And if I missed checking out an anime this season that you think is fantastic, please do let me know!

In Medias Res: Spring 2015 Anime (Part 1)

We’ve reached that halfway-ish point in the season, and now it’s time I reflect on the degree to which I regret what I’ve watched these last 7-ish weeks. Thankfully, there are a few really strong anime this season that make up for the utter vileness I unwisely put in my eyes for testing purposes.

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Arslan Senki: It’s appropriate that they’re making a Dynasty Warriors game for this series, since it has very similar plot elements; I am certainly expecting many a face-off between two master strategists in the future, since seeing the yield of well-employed strategies has been the high point of the first 6 episodes. A lot depends on where this show is going, since as of now it’s proven to be good at keeping the viewer’s attention with the overall plot, but not so good at executing details in the moment. My largest specific qualm is Arslan’s father: is there any more transparently in-the-wrong character? He’s a complete ass whenever he shows up on screen, and then gets killed in half a second when he meets a decent fighter—if anything, it’s a wonder that Pars hasn’t been annihilated before now with that guy at the helm. His poor characterization also sucks the drama out of the whole slavery issue; as a viewer, it would take a heck of a lot for me to relate to the country that’s still keeping slaves (even if the other guys are also jerks), and the king’s “BECAUSE I SAID SO” explanation is not exactly compelling. Arslan’s naivety is slightly better, since based on that we can assume that the people of Pars don’t free the slaves because they just don’t know any better, but overall there isn’t a lot to keep the viewer from siding with the opposing force. And that’s how we end up with the need for a comically maniacal opposing force, including a priest who licks his lips creepily before beating the crap out of a guy and some other dude who says stuff like “I sometimes wonder if spearing babies maybe isn’t the best way to be loved by God.” Like, seriously. I’m holding out for the man in the silver mask to have some compelling reasons of his own, so that when he meets up with Arslan we can finally have some properly nuanced conflict. Preferably some that doesn’t require CG, because for the love of god the CG in this show is terrible.

Thankfully, the main characters, at least, are well written and sympathetic. I’m surprised Arslan didn’t turn out to be more of a stereotypical well-meaning weakling, but overwhelmingly pleased that he is shown in every episode to have both the resilience of a hero and the temperament of a just ruler through his small actions. The current three members of his group are equally endearing, so luckily I can root for Arslan himself despite not feeling particularly weepy about Pars’s possible destruction.

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Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works: I remain pleased that I picked this up despite my original aversion to Fate/Anything (developed from watching the original travesty of a Fate/Stay Night anime). I still have some complaints—ok, mostly my only complaint is that Shinji is a terrible character and I wish he’d died ages ago. His only motivation seems to be a desire to be as awful as possible, which makes him particularly lackluster in comparison to the show’s other villains like Caster and Archer. Otherwise, though, the series has been pretty high quality throughout: the art and animation are fantastic, and the battle scenes are delightful. The abrupt way in which confrontations typically end was surprising to me at first, given that anime tends to drag things out as long as possible, but it doesn’t feel out of place in this series, and actually adds a sense of brutal realism to the fantastical events. The characters are solid, as well: Rin, though tsundere, is defined by a lot more than just that characteristic, and the progression of Shirou’s focus from ideals to actions has made him a better protagonist than I imagined when the series began.  And wow, I did not see that twist with Archer coming. All-in-all, it’s been fun to watch every week, and as the conclusion approaches I feel satisfied with this adaptation.

gunslingerstratos

Gunslinger Stratos: I didn’t hate the first two episodes of this show, but I also haven’t been compelled to keep watching since then. The premise is vaguely interesting, and the characters aren’t terrible. At the same time, the show does a poor job of convincing the viewer to be invested in those characters and the universe they inhabit, so the threat that it will be destroyed in favor of their other selves’ universe doesn’t have a lot of weight. Perhaps I’ll pick this up again before the end of the season, but it’s definitely a backburner-level show.

pleiades

Houkago no Pleiades: As with Gunslinger Stratos, I’m finding myself struggling to get further than the first few episodes of this one. It’s not atrocious, just bland. Everything takes far too long, and while there are some creative additions like the drive shaft, can mostly be categorized as “magical girls doing magical girl stuff” (and not in a fun way). Also, the fact that pink-hair and red-hair don’t recognize each other despite the fact that they don’t look at all different when in disguise is just ridiculous.

dungeonde

Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?: I have no idea why I started watching this, or why I’m still watching it, but I’m pleased that it’s picked up somewhat in the last few episodes. The first episodes were abominably boring, particularly the part about Hestia’s knife; honestly, the time Hestia spent not giving Bell the damn knife when they were about to die was long enough for me to go from concerned to “ok can you please just die then,” and then stay in the latter mood for a good 10 minutes before things got resolved. Thankfully, things got better with the introduction of Lili and her role as both the hunter and the hunted, and Bell got a chance to become slightly less dull himself in stubbornly insisting on getting wrapped up in her problems. There’s still a lot of pointless nonsense we’d be better off without—mainly every girl on earth being in love with Bell and not shutting up about it—but there’s just enough charm and potential to keep things watchable for now. Oh, and Loki is best goddess.

kekkaisensen

Kekkai Sensen: This was a bit difficult to get into due to just the sheer amount of stuff going on at any one time. I absolutely cannot watch it when I’m tired or distracted, and I’m often confused as all hell. Regardless, I am super glad that I made the effort, because this show is unbelievably fun and I love it. Every episode is like an explosion of pure creativity, on a beautifully surreal backdrop of unfamiliar familiarity rendered in unusually nice detail. It’s a rare gem that embraces the absurd and has a frenetic energy that makes every second enjoyable (plus, the ending animation is adorable to the nth degree). Kekkai Sensen reminds me of a brighter, less melancholic FLCL, though whether it will end up having as strong an overarching trajectory and themes as FLCL remains to be seen. Either way, I know I’m going to be watching it at least twice to digest everything.

Rinne

Kyoukai no Rinne: I couldn’t dislike this show if I tried, as it’s based on one of my favorite manga by my very favorite manga-ka, Rumiko Takahashi. No unbiased review will be found here, but you’ll have a biased one and you’ll like it: Kyoukai no Rinne is a classically funny series, very much what one would expect from the creator of Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2. From what we’ve seen thus far, the anime does a surprisingly nice job with the comedic timing, and the voice acting never fails to hit the right note. So far I’ve particularly enjoyed Ryouhei Kimura as Juumonji; episode 4 had me in tears. And Kappei Yamaguchi will be playing Sabato, Rinne’s father, so I can barely restrain my glee when thinking about future episodes. It’s definitely a solid anime so far, and from my knowledge of the manga, I know it only gets better. That said, there are definitely elements of the anime that make me shake my head. As I’m not the first blogger to point out, there is very little movement in most of the shots, and too much time is spent with just talking heads in the frame. The art is nice, but could we please have some dynamic animation as well? The opening animation is lovely, and I’m hoping that some of the future more action-oriented arcs look more like that than what we’ve seen in the first 6 episodes. I have some qualms with the episode order that I’m planning to expand on in a future post as well, but suffice it to say that using the less quirky and unusual spirits like toire no hanako and the bakeneko before approaching any of the odder stuff does the series a disservice, because Takahashi’s unique interpretation of mythology and history is the cornerstone of her manga’s charm. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’ve found the last couple of episodes a bit dull, keep watching. And if you haven’t started this show yet, do!

Part 2 will cover the following, and possibly end in my vowing to never sample so many anime in one season ever again:

  • Ore Monogatari
  • Owari no Seraph
  • Plastic Memories
  • Punch Line
  • Re-kan
  • Shokugeki no Souma
  • Sound! Euphonium
  • The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

Illness in “Your Lie in April”

shigatsu

One thing that Your Lie in April handles remarkably compared to other anime is the concept of dealing with illness. The ill girl is hardly a rare trope in anime—in fact, I’d put it up there with “hit by a car” and “that exact same cicada noise” in terms of things likely to crop up in any randomly selected series. We don’t often see anime that tackle what it’s like to be chronically or terminally ill for the person who is actually ill, though.

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Story Is Everyone’s Responsibility, Part 1: How the Oculara in Dragon Age Inquisition Make Collecting Junk Worthwhile

One thing that I took away from Game Developer’s Conference this year, and was highlighted in several panels, is the idea that a game’s story should be fully integrated into its mechanics, and vice versa. This was central to BioWare’s “Worlds Collide: Combining Story and Systems in Dragon Age: Inquisition” panel, hosted by Mark Williams (Lead Technical Designer) and Kaelin Lavallee (Lead Narrative Designer). BioWare is definitely an appropriate studio to be leading this discussion, given that all of their games overflow with lore connecting the smallest of discoveries to the biggest themes.

//Spoilers from here on//

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Life Is Strange (Part 1)—Yep, Worth Playing

I want to get through this without too many spoilers, so I unfortunately won’t be discussing the plot in detail, but the basic setup of Life Is Strange is this: you play as Max, a girl attending a high school in her rural hometown for its photography program, who one day has a (very reminiscent of Alan Wake) vision of the future and discovers she can rewind time.

The story is front-and-center in this game, along with the butterfly effect system that promises to reflect player choice later on. On the spectrum of “movie but with a controller” to “just shooting at stuff!!!” the game is far closer to the former, but with enough interactivity provided by the dialogue/action choices to make it feel like the videogame medium does add value. The story is compelling enough to make me want to keep playing, which I suppose is necessary when it comes to episodic games, but nevertheless surprised me a bit. Part 1 is mostly about the setup of characters and the environment and doesn’t contain a lot about the big ol’ mystery that will presumably dominate the rest of the installments, so I am impressed by how what threads of intrigue were there captured my attention so successfully.

The main gameplay mechanic, the ability to rewind time a few minutes, is at its best when it’s supporting the player-driven narrative. There are puzzles that require use of the mechanic, but they’re all pretty easy and not terribly worth remarking upon. More fun is choosing a dialogue or action, seeing how it turns out, and then rewinding to see if the other choice’s consequences are more to your liking. Many times have I made a choice in a game only to see my character carry it out in some bizarre way that was not what I intended at all, so being able to rewind for once probably gives me more nefarious joy than it should. A lot of times Life Is Strange becomes a game about manipulating people—but if I’m honest, these characters kind of deserve it.

The main character, Max, is at times easy enough to relate to, at others rather frustrating. “Teenage girl” has to be one of the most difficult characters to write, since high school is a period of drastic change that everyone experiences differently. I think most of us have something of a difficult relationship with our teenage selves; personally, I get annoyed by characters that don’t act like I would have in high school, but if confronted with one that did, I would probably want to punch her.

It’s hard to say which type Max is, since her character is all over the place in this first episode. She’s smart, earnest, and seemingly unfairly ostracized by the other kids one minute, and then bratty, lazy, and pretty clearly uninterested in making friends the next. She apparently knows a ton about photography and books on the subject, but doesn’t study for her favorite photography class enough to know the Daguerreian process? A lot of this is forgivable when looking at her as a stressed-out teen—it’s dumb to get mad at someone in class for knowing an answer that you didn’t, but maybe not so much if that person is a snotty Queen Bee—but it still can make playing as her aggravating at times.

Thankfully, there are a few dialogue branches where you’re allowed to play Max as a meaner or nicer person—or one willing to fake niceness, in some cases. I very much hope that choosing those options will have an effect later in the game of making Max more consistently level-headed, or at least that such options will continue to appear. Overall, she’s a likable enough protagonist, and it’s always hard to write for characters whose decisions are supposed to be molded by the player, so hopefully this will even out in later episodes. And really, despite my complaints, I’d much rather play a teenager with attitude problems than a middle-aged man with a dark past again.

A bigger concern is the depiction of pretty much everyone other than Max. Media tends to portray American high school as if it’s one of the circles of hell, and my greatest disappointment with Life Is Strange is that it doesn’t try to eschew that tradition. Yes, high school is horrible for some people who are bullied or struggling or not getting the help they need, but I would wager that in most cases it’s not because every single person in the entire school is striving to win Most Horrible Person 2015. All of the characters other than Max, Warren, and the custodian are just nasty. The best you can hope for in your first interaction with each character in Episode 1 is being blown off. The principal gets angry with Max when she brings up that another kid brought a gun to school. The teacher that Max loves so much doesn’t say anything when another girl insults her in front of the entire class. Even Max’s “friend” Kate tells her to bug off. I’ve felt less hostility from the environment in games where I’m being actively shot at.

Could the characters’ personalities be there for plot reasons? It’s possible, but starting a character from as low a point as possible so their development will seem more drastic (I’m looking at you, shonen anime) is a worn-out trick that was never any good to begin with, so I’m guessing that at least some of these characters aren’t salvageable. Still, there are some characters that seem capable of genuine development, like Max’s childhood best friend Chloe, and I do look forward to seeing the two’s friendship properly reestablish itself as the game continues.

Overall, there’s enough good here to make it worth overlooking the cliche high school caricatures. Plenty in Part 1 piqued my curiosity; with Chloe’s bizarre circumstances, a missing girl, and an incoming disaster, there’s a lot to take in in this installment, and good reason to continue on to the next. Plus, I’m dying to know what effects the choices from this Part will have on future ones—will they be superficial, or provide one of those rare truly player-driven gaming experiences? This game has a lot of potential.

The bottom line is, at $5 and a few hours, what the first part of Life Is Strange has to offer is plenty worth your money and time. Bring on Part 2!

Dragon Age Inquisition: Already Showing the Medium’s Storytelling Potential in the First Hour

I’m replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition for what is sure to be the first of many, many times, so this is likely the first of many, many posts on the subject. This contains some spoilers for the first hour or so of the game.

So, you, the Herald, have been mentally acquitted by Cassandra, Solas, and Varric of being the one who murdered everybody, which is apparently good enough, and the party heads off to the now-exploded Temple of Sacred Ashes to poke at the rift with mysterious hand-powers. Now, you have the option to comment on how horrible the destruction at the Conclave was before this, but, for most of us I think, it doesn’t really sink in until arriving at the still-burning ruins.

You walk into the once-Temple, now lacking most of its structure, and there are just corpses everywhere. But not normal corpses: no, petrified corpses resembling something out of post-excavation Pompeii. There are a lot of them. Some of them are still on fire. All of them seem to have had just enough time to recognize the horror about to be visited upon them before turning to statues of ash, judging by the twisted expressions on their faces. You look, really look, at these people, struck by the contorted faces and the burning and the sheer number of them and oh, what it must have been like in that moment. And that’s the brilliance of it: this is something you discover, without outside forces framing it. It’s on you to look at it, to consider it, to really take it in before moving on.

A lot of games would introduce this kind of thing as a cutscene (and the toasty dudes do appear in a cutscene right after this, in case the player speeds on by the in-field version, but they’re there as part of the background). There’s nothing really wrong with that—it gives the advantage of perfectly polished graphics and dramatic music to the presentation of the Impressive Scene. Still, doing that completely ignores the strengths of the videogame medium. It’s important that the player discovers things for herself in this medium, because that is precisely what allows her to have a closer connection to the story than a movie or book can provide. As a player, the actual playing part is what makes the character you.

Not all games are designed with need for story immersion, of course, particularly ones that are more action- than story-focused. But to me, these are the moments the medium truly shines. When, at the end of Bioshock, you realize that obeying every command like games have taught you to do was driving the plot the whole time. When, in Silent Hill 3, you feel pure horror when asked, “They look like monsters to you?”

I’m impressed by such a seemingly small thing because that seemingly small thing—one moment in a game that is easily 100 hours—managed to impact me, even the second time around. Because it was carefully crafted, but not presented. It is these small moments that allow videogames to be something greater and more profoundly connected to the audience than traditional media, and I hope that this potential won’t be lost under a varnish of cutscenes before we’ve really explored it.