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About this blog

A place for my thoughts and analysis of visual novels, anime, and games. 

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Zalor

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The monotony of school is an oppressive force on a kid's life. Psychologically omnipresent, you don't even need to be within its walls to feel its chains shackling you. Home is just made an extension of its presence with homework. And more then just the boredom of rote memorization and a lobotomizing curriculum, there is a social arena where you must interact with the other prisoners. Regardless of how you feel about them, its important to at least maintain a sociable facade.

Unlike College where education is on your own dime, and therefore your own time. The grade school schedule from kindergarten through high school is rigidly compact, and generally you have little say in what you get to study. Regardless of talent, interest, or relevancy, you are stuck in a classroom where most other students are just as unenthused to be there as you.

8th Grade, 13 years old and my last year in junior high. I didn't need to put more than a minimal effort into my studies to attain the reputation as an honor student. Although on a superficial front I got along with everyone, I lacked any true connections that extended beyond the solidarity of being prisoners of the educational system I've just described. Life was dull, but everyone told me the path I was walking down had success and stability at the end of its road. That assumed I would continue playing the honor student role I fell into though. Despite the agency of free-will, I was complacent. Despite my ennui, I had little initiative or courage to stir things up.

The irony of attending a Catholic school and passively turning a blind eye to the bullying occurring. The frustration of my sexuality awakening but being too emotionally impotent to do anything about it. This is the context in which I discovered Yume Miru Kusuri: A Drug That Make You Dream.

Past midnight, and I had just finished downloading a copy of the VN. I had promised myself to install it then go to bed. Opening the application up as a test, I was greeted with a soothing yet hypnotic track. Three girls with blank expressions were looking up at me amid an infinite expanse of vaguely drawn school desks. For minutes I just listened, utterly mesmerized. It was as though I was experiencing a drug that was making me dream.

Winter break started the next day, and I had previously installed another visual novel that I was intending to start first. But as my consciousness was drifting in the dazed state before sleep, the title theme track kept ringing in my head. The next day I decided to start my vacation playing this VN instead, and that has made all the difference.

The opening scene, an image of a generic blue sky with soft clouds. The narrator himself falls asleep and soon finds himself in an odd dream. Upon violently waking up, soothing music akin to the title screen track plays, and without even realizing it my own thoughts are absorbed by Kouhei's inner monologues. His thinking was so natural, and familiar. And that's when I noticed, I was Kouhei Kagami.

The issues of bullying, interpersonal relationships, and the desire to escape the dullness of reality (albeit not through drugs, for me anime was my escape) were all subject matters I understood, and more importantly related to. The way things play out in the various routes always remain grounded in a firm realism. Which easily allowed me to project myself into the situations. But unlike a generic self-insert protagonist, what made Kouhei so relatable was his distinct voice. He was hesitant to tread towards anything that could shake him off his honor-student trajectory, and yet he was equally tempted and fascinated by such things. Smoking, sex, drugs, standing up to social forces; all things that even the most straight laced of teenagers will probably be tempted by. If not for the things themselves, then to grab control of your own life by actively doing something you shouldn't do. This is how Kouhei and I were kindred spirits.

The way the story and Kouhei's perspective completely resonated with me led me to voraciously read something for the first time in my life. Before I always viewed reading as a chore, and I only ever reluctantly did so. Reading this VN however, led me into feeling as though everything was happening was to a slightly older, Japanese version of myself. It was that immersive quality that sucked me into the VN's world. That was my baptism into VNs.

I'm 22 now, and rereading this VN I can't help but think back on myself and who I was when I first discovered it. Not only have I long since graduated high school, somewhere amidst my early adulthood I also learned to stop being such a passive participant in life. Yet while I can no longer identify with Kouhei Kagami like I did when I first read his story, I can still understand his thinking and actions so clearly. Almost like reading his perspective brings me back to my perspective when I was in my early teens.

In that respect, Yume Miru Kusuri is kind of the Catcher in the Rye of VNs.

 

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Zalor

*This post contains no spoilers!

Before starting this post, I suppose that I should give a brief introduction and summary for Subarashiki Hibi ~Furenzoku Sonzai (Our Wonderful Everyday ~Discontinuous Existence). However, Asceai in his review of the VN probably gave the best and most condensed summary for this fairly complicated story. So I will borrow his words:

“Subarashiki Hibi is a story told in six chapters. The chapters are of varying lengths and structure, but for the most part, they cover the month of July 2012 from a number of different perspectives.

The story begins in chapter #1, 'Down the Rabbit-Hole" on July 12, 2012. The protagonist; Minakami Yuki; lives a peaceful everyday life with Tsukasa and Kagami; her childhood friends; when one day she meets a mysterious girl, Takashima Zakuro (a girl in another class in Yuki's school, who seems to have met Yuki before but Yuki does not remember this).

The next day, she learns that Takashima Zakuro has killed herself. Rumors in school are abuzz about predictions of the end of the world in 2012 - one of which is a Web site called the "Web Bot Project", a network of crawlers designed to harness the 'collective unconsciousness' to make predictions.

A boy in Yuki's class named Mamiya Takuji stands up and makes an apocalyptic prediction, stating that the world will end on the 20th, and that Zakuro's death was the first sign. He speaks of an event he dubs "the Last Sky", where the world will be destroyed and reborn.

The clock is ticking and more people die as the prophesied date draws closer and closer while Yuki attempts to get to the bottom of the identity of Mamiya Takuji, the Web Bot Project and the Last Sky.”

 

Although this is a highly accurate plot summary of Suba Hibi that avoids spoilers, what a prospective reader of Suba Hibi should also know, is that the story is divided into two parts. The two parts are fundamentally interlinked, but are also kept separate. And it is this aspect of the visual novel that really defines it as a masterpiece. There is the part of the work that is a story, and then there is the part that is a philosophical work. Both parts are handled excellently well, and mix together in a fascinating and integral way. Simply, these chapters: Down the Rabbit Hole 2, It's My Own Invention, Looking-Glass Insects, Jabberwocky, Which Dreamed it, Jabberwocky 2, and the first two epilogues are a complete story. The VN very well could have been just these parts, and it would have been a damn good work of art. And yet, the visual novel is not just these parts. Down the Rabbit Hole 1, End Sky 2, and all the scenes with Ayana throughout all the chapters are included as well. And by virtue of just being there, it forces the reader to question why? These parts add nothing to the actual narrative of the story, and yet it is these parts that mark the very start and the very end of the story. With a mysterious girl named Ayana showing up periodically throughout the story to remind us not to get too caught up in the events of the story. That while the narrative part of the story is fascinating, and very easy to get lost in. There is a whole deeper layer to everything going on that we will only get a clue of at the very end.

Down the Rabbit-Hole 1, which I will refer to as Chapter 0, gets a lot of flak for being considered a weak start to an otherwise excellent story. And although Down the Rabbit-Hole 1 does have a fair bit of fluff, it is an absolutely integral part of the story. As an introduction, Chapter 0 has the role of establishing what kind of mind set the reader should approach this story with. And it is for this reason that Chapter 0 is so important. Suba Hibi is a philosophical work above all else. Upon finishing this story, you get the feeling that Sca-ji (the primary creator) wanted to write a philosophical thesis of his own, but then decided to create a whole visual novel instead. And I'm so glad he chose that route. By using fiction to express these concepts, and forcing the reader to see the story not as a story but as a world of its own, it gets us to see the relevance of said philosophies. The whole story is essentially there to create a conversation about various philosophical topics, with solipsism being one of the big ones. This is what Chapter 0 exists for, to get the reader to understand that the events we will see unfold as the actual story progresses is not meant to be just mere entertainment (and oh boy is it a thrill ride), but to keep in mind that there is even deeper subtext to everything going on.

Takashima Zakuro, the girl whose suicide is the triggering point, or perhaps even the direct cause of all the events that follow, plays an entirely different role in Chapter 0. With the exclusion of this chapter, she is a normal character and even the primary protagonist of the Looking Glass-Insect chapter. But in Chapter 0, she has the role of being a character that knows what is going on. A role that she shares only with Otonashi Ayana (except that Ayana retains that role throughout the entire duration of the story, not just in Chapter 0 as is Zakuro's case). When reading Chapter 0, we are told and even see some interesting and cryptic things, but have no way of piecing those things together. Thereby giving you enough information to be curious about the under workings of everything that is going on, but with no means of figuring that out yourself without continuing into the proverbial “Rabbit Hole”.

It is for that reason that Suba Hibi is first and foremost a philosophical work, because above all else our purpose is to try to figure out what is going on. And once the story really gets rolling in Down the Rabbit-Hole 2, we experience the main events from a myriad of unreliable perspectives. Meaning that trying to figure out what is going on is less like a puzzle as would be in a typical mystery, but more about determining what makes the most sense from the scrambled information we get. In fact, without giving any major spoilers, it is made quite clear at the very end of the story that interpreting the story is the only solution we have, meaning that everything isn't laid out clearly by the end. Which once again, adds significance to Chapter 0.

Upon finishing Suba Hibi (meaning reading End Sky 2), you will want to reread Chapter 0 since now we as readers will no longer be in Minakami Yuki's shoes as we were the first time. Throughout the whole first reading of the story, Chapter 0 was nothing but a source of questions. Upon the second time, it is our source for answers. We have the necessary knowledge to be sharing the table with Takashima Zakuro and Ayana, since this time around, like them we will also know what is going on. When Zakuro and Ayana spoke to Yuki in our first reading, it felt like the two characters with any sort knowledge of what was really going on were keeping us in the dark. They would give subtle clues, but those clues were useless at that time. In the second reading of chapter 0, as readers we are equals in knowledge to Ayana and Zakuro and can finally make use of those clues. And the VN understands this. In fact, Ayana first introduces herself in Chapter 0 by saying “It's been a while”, addressing herself not to Yuki, but to the audience. The true meaning of this remark is very apparent to a second time reader, and instantly reminds you of the conversation you had with Ayana in End Sky 2.Although in a first reading, you probably will easily disregarded this, thinking that Ayana and Yuki briefly met before, and that Yuki simply doesn't remember. And it is here where the role that Ayana and Zakuro play differ in Chapter 0.

(Here is an upload of that entire first encounter with Ayana in Down the Rabbit Hole 1, English subtitles are available)

When Zakuro speaks, she is speaking to Yuki the character, not us the audience. Ayana however, really speaks directly to us, the audience (in all the chapters of this story), and that “it's been a while” (久しぶり) is essentially proof of that. As you progress in the story and work through the other chapters, Takashima's role is quite different from Chapter 0's, and she is much more ignorant compared to her chapter 0 self. Ayana however, no matter what chapter you read (and therefore which character's perspective you are seeing), is the exact same. In a story so filled with inconsistency, she is always the one consistent factor. Which goes back to my first point, just as Chapter 0 and End Sky2 are separate from the main story, so is Otonashi Ayana.

Suba Hibi is not a simple story, and it is not meant to be only enjoyed for its emotional highs and lows; it's strange beginning makes that clear. Furthermore, during the process of reading, in case you ever forget that, Ayana is always there to remind you of that fact. Especially with the appearances she makes near the climax of the story in various chapters.

But perhaps what I love most is the use of perspective. Returning to a previous point, in your first reading of Chapter 0 you will naturally orient your own perspective with Yuki's since all the information we receive in that chapter is from her. In fact, the whole story is told from the first person perspective of various unreliable narrators. And in every chapter we will identify our understanding of things from that character's point of view.

But by the second reading of the story, because we have a complete picture of everything, there is a dichotomy between the reader, and the protagonist's narration. An artificial feeling that we are in a third perspective emerges. Because at this point we can balance what the protagonist perceives, with an objective understanding. Which causes us to identify with out own (third person) perspective of the story, rather than submitting to the protagonist's point of view. The more the reader develops their own personal perspective of things, the more they can relate to Ayana. The one character whose role is simply to be an objective observer.

In a first reading, conversations with Ayana seem like she is teasing the reader for how little they actually know of what is going on. But this is because in a first reading, we identify with whichever protagonist's perspective we are seeing. Ayana is teasing us the reader by teasing the character she is talking to. The more we identify with the character's point of view, the more annoying and weird Ayana seems. But the more we identify with our own perspective (meaning by having read everything already), the more Ayana feels like an equal talking to us. Since just like the reader, she is the only other objective perspective on everything.

In fact, this brings us back to the fact that unlike a book, where a first person narrative is without dispute a first person narrative. This is a visual novel, with choices. Even with all the information presented to us is in first person, it is by nature of its medium a third person experience since we dictate the story at certain key points. And Ayana is there to remind us that we like her, are experiencing things from an objective point of view.

Zalor

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To provide some context, Deemo is a Taiwanese rhythm game developed for the iOS and Android by Rayark Games. For the most part, I think this game has escaped the notice from most western otaku. Which honestly would make sense, since it isn't marketed towards Otaku like other rhythm games (notably Love Live and Osu). In fact, the game play is arguably not even the primary purpose of the game. Rather, the songs serve the broader purpose of telling a story together with the visuals.

The word "visual novel", by its name suggests a story that emphasizes the visual aspect to express the story. Taking this loose understanding of the term (and not the conventional definition), Deemo certainly qualifies as an interesting example. In fact, Deemo mostly relies on its visuals and audio to convey its story, hardly using much text at all. This aids the experience excellently as the story is quite simple, and most of the experience is emotional. And nothing conveys emotions as well as music.

The game begins in a cut scene showing falling sheet music, and a mysterious figure that resembles a walking shadow (Deemo). The next thing we see is Deemo peacefully playing a piano, when he is suddenly interrupted when a girl falls from the sky into his house. Catching her, they then ponder on the best way to return her where she came from (in the sky). It is then that they discover a little sapling growing on the ground, and they realize that when it grows into a large tree, she could climb it up. Thankfully, the tree grows through the power of music, and that is where the game play becomes relevant.

The tree grows by playing music, but in order to keep it growing you need to keep discovering new music. This is where the other key game mechanic becomes important. For the most part, you unlock new songs when the tree reaches certain heights. But usually you can only get the music by finding it. So you have to search through Deemo's house to find new songs. In doing so, you discover all sort of other clues that provide hints about Deemo's true identity. As you search through Deemo's house, you are not only discovering new music to progress the game, but also learning about the weird world you are in. Deemo's house, is essentially the whole world in this universe. By exploring, you will inevitably ask yourself 3 questions. Who is Deemo, who is the masked lady, and what is this world? 

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Visual Novels typically use choice structures as a means to direct the story. Similarly, but also quite differently, you guide the story and its progression in Deemo through exploration of the limited areas. There is not much to explore, just like how VNs usually only provide a few branching choices, which provides the same sense of confinement that VNs give. You are given some room to explore and deviate, but you are mostly restricted to a few places. 

The art cover for each song also adds a level of storytelling as each picture captures an image of Deemo's and the girl's relationship developing. The song itself provides the mood to interpret the picture. In other words, the song is essentially the words. Or another way of thinking about it is that each song could be broken down into musical notes and transcribed on paper as sheet music. Well that sheet music, is the script to this story. The game focuses all the comprehensive aspects of the story to imagery and exploration (with minimal use of text), allowing for character development and all things emotional to be expressed by the music as opposed to text. And while narrative can always communicate plot points more efficiently than music, music trumps narrative in terms of emotional expression. And ultimately Deemo's story is more focused on mood, than it is on plot.   

The game wants the player to use their imagination to string the plot together by using images and the music as the core tools to do so. In much the same way that novelists want the reader to use their imagination when visualizing descriptions. In this way, I think this music game, captures the true heart of music; emotional expression.

The title of this article suggests that I think that Deemo is in some way a visual novel, and using the term loosely, that is true. As I briefly mentioned before, the term “visual novel” implies a story that is primarily expressed through visuals (this is of course ignoring the historical context to how the term was coined in the first place). And I have seldom seen any story that has relied on the visual aspect as much as Deemo. The game almost solely relies on images to express what is going on, and music to infuse emotional meaning to those images. And it is truly impressive how effective a story can be told in this limited way. To the extent where by the end of this journey, I was in tears. And when I return back to replay certain songs, or to view certain cut scenes, the feelings I initially felt are still there.

Zalor

      I told a couple people I would post my thoughts about Sayonara wo Oshiete when I finished it, and just a few days ago I finished a bad end and Mutsuki's good end. So here are my impressions, thoughts, and analysis of that experience. Also, this post does not contain any significant spoilers to the VN. So its safe for all those that are curious. (Also from here on forward I will refer to Sayonara wo Oshiete as 'Sayooshi')

Before I start talking about Sayooshi, I want to briefly describe the circumstances in which I discovered it. During this past summer, after having studied Japanese (with a grammatical focus) for a while,  I wanted to get a few easy moege under my belt before attempting something I actually wanted to read. I was honestly having a miserable time, as I hate moege. I was reading them for no other reason than to practice and learn Japanese, as they were appropriate for my level. I wasn't having fun, and it honestly felt like work more than anything else. Just as I was about to give up on Untld Vns for the time being, I read a post by Vokoca talking about Sayooshi, and he linked to this video. The unsettling music and ominous imagery instantly piqued my curiosity and I set out to get this VN. For a while I was saving it, still thinking "My Japanese isn't good enough yet", but then at some point in the fall I decided "Fuck it, with the help of dictionaries and text hooking software, I can make this journey", and began reading it whenever I had time. And boy was this a journey worth taking, even if I did proceed through it a bit slowly. 

I love the first person narrative because getting inside the heads of interesting characters is truly experiencing the world through a different person's eyes. And VNs in my view are the best medium for first person narration, as they allow you to to see and hear what the MC experiences. Furthermore, back ground music enriches the story by immersing the reader in the moods of various settings and situations. Sayooshi takes all these strengths of VNs and the first person narrative, and uses it to put you inside the head of a madman. A man whose sense of reality is slipping further and further away by the day. The unreliable narrator is a literary trope that I really enjoy, but this is an area where I think VNs by default have higher potential than books. It is one thing to solely read the mind of a madman/untrustworthy narrator, it is another thing all together to see and hear that man's world, on top of reading his narrative.   

Too often I see wasted potential in the artistic side of VNs. Visual art is important for not only conveying ideas (i.e. a picture of a hallway should look like a hallway, a picture of a girl should look like a girl, etc.), but art can also convey moods. VNs of the same era usually have extremely similar character designs, and there is usually a lack of creativity in artistic style in VNs. While the character designs aren't anything revolutionary (it is admittedly nice that this VN came out before moe blobs became popular though), what is special about the art, is the eternal twilight. Hitomi's world is a world drenched in the orange and reddish hue of twilight, as the VN takes place exclusively during the evening. And coupled with all the things Hitomi experiences, the color of twilight really makes things even more ominous. It instills a feeling of loneliness, or at the very least detachment.

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Supporting the artwork in creating an unsettling atmosphere, is the music. The main theme that plays when Hitomi is wandering the school alone (this theme), only reinforces the feelings of detachment that the visual art and writing create. Character themes as well are quite well suited for each of the characters and the moods they represent, further successfully reinforcing the tone of the writing.

Now onto the writing itself. Things are confusing, and they only get more confusing. Any sense of orientation is screwed around with, and this only gets worse as the story continues. You are left thinking "Did what I see actually happen?", until it gets to the point where you just altogether give up on distinguishing reality. In this way, you yourself submit to the insanity and fall further into Hitomi's world. Not knowing what to make of his situation. The only difference between you and him, is that you know he is crazy, but nonetheless identify with him because you experience the same sense of the world as he does. And perhaps weird to say, but the H-scenes in this VN serve to further sympathize with his madness.

When I was telling a (non-VN reading) friend of mine about Sayooshi. He admitted that it sounded interesting, and even could appreciate the use of the H-scenes from an intellectual perspective. But he then told me that what he thought was truly disturbing, was not the use of H-scenes, but that "inevitably there will be people out there that will find it arousing". For him, (and his understanding of what I told him about Sayooshi), the sex scenes, which are exclusively rape scenes, serve to reinforce Hitomi's insanity, and therefore their portrayal is justified. But finding the scenes arousing yourself, is horrific as it is identifying with a monster; like the monster that plagues Hitomi's dreams. But it is here, where I disagree. The VN does everything in its power to have you identify with Hitomi's insanity, and the sex scenes are no exception.

The sex scenes are arousing, despite knowing that they shouldn't be. It isn't just rape, but the Heroines are (supposedly) middle school girls for Christ's sake. Perhaps eroge players (particularly nukige fans) maybe a bit desensitized, but this is certainly fucked up. But just like when Hitomi experiences the dream that plagues him for the first half of the story, he knows he is the monster raping the angel, and there is pleasure still drawn from this. A pleasure that Hitomi knows is horrible and monstrous. But just as Hitomi submits to the role as the monster as he views his nightmare; we are in an identical role, viewing (and partly identifying) with his sexual misdemeanors as he commits them. It coerces you into submitting yourself to the madness of these H-scenes. By doing so an enjoyment is found in them, but for you and Hitomi alike there is a darkness implied in that pleasure. Furthermore, Hitomi seems to understand that he is defiling them. There is a guilt and sense of disgust felt, but also a feeling of extreme excitement, just as we as readers feel. This is shown through the multiple references he makes to 'contaminating the purity of the angel/Mutsuki', to paraphrase what he says. The H-scenes, and our feelings towards them, mirror Hitomi's perspective; furthering our identification with his insanity.

Yet, just like the reoccurring nightmare, the H-scenes almost always end abruptly, and are divorced from continuity. It is not uncommon for an H scene to abruptly happen, end all of a sudden, and the next thing you know you are placed into a completely different context. And not only do the H-scenes lack continuity immediately before and after, but the characters never make reference to it afterwards, and act just as they did before. Further questioning whether they ever really happened. And this confusion surrounding the reality of the h-scenes, makes it easier to identify with Hitomi during them, since the normal consequences and damage caused by rape, do not apply.  

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(Perhaps this would be a considered spoiler if I could guarantee that it actually happened ;))

And for all these reasons, I feel that the thesis of this VN is the fragility of the human mind. Often we draw huge differences between the mentally deranged, and functional normal human beings; but what Sayooshi points out is that the difference is actually rather subtle. In seeing the world Hitomi experiences, and sympathizing with him, it gets us to realize that we ourselves are not that different. That given his circumstances and what he experiences (and seeing it through his eyes), his reactions are actually understandable. The atmosphere of his world, and reading the thoughts of his mind, gets us to question his sanity, and in doing so, eventually gets us to question our own sanity as well.     

Sayooshi in an incredibly strong atmospheric experience. And it is for this reason that I feel Sayooshi is a great representative of the strengths VNs offer as a medium. This VN took advantage of all the tools it had as a VN (music, sound effects, visuals, and narrative) to provide a full experience of what the wanders of a madman look like. I really felt like I understood to a degree what it was like to be insane reading this work, and I don't think I would have been able to identify as well if it were told in any other medium in any other way.  

 

 

Zalor

Zalor's Seminar

Just an introduction to my blog, but being me I had to take advantage of a pretentious sounding title just for the fun of it. In any case, on to the point.

At their best, I find Visual Novels to be the most immersive medium of written fiction. I enjoy literature, but often I appreciate it more from an intellectual/contemplative standpoint than through an enjoyment factor. Great VNs however, are in my mind the best of both worlds (I can read them for fun, and they leave me with something to think about and to intellectually digest.) Perhaps I am a bit jaded, but there are a relative small amount of VNs that fit my tastes. But when I do read VNs that truly impact me, I like to organize my thoughts on them through writing. I've already written a few articles in the past (Kanon: Mai and Sayuri AnalysisNarcissu and Death, and Perspective in Saya no Uta), but I think I will place future submissions here. Also, I may write my thoughts on anime and some Japanese Video Games on occasion as well. This is meant to be my all purpose Otaku blog.

Getting on a bit more of a personal level, I've been reading Visual Novels since my early adolescence (since I was 13). The first VN to really introduce all the bewitching and immersive powers of this medium to me was Yume Miru Kusuri. Admittedly I did dabble a bit in VNs before YMK, but they were more like 1-off experiences. They didn't really get me interested in the broader VN medium like YMK succeeded in doing. I still remember that one day during my 8th grade winter break when I first read it. Everything from the music, characters, art, and especially the MC's witty narration took me away. I spent that whole day in bed reading it until I finished. Whenever I search for a VN to read, I always hope it will have the same captivating and magical effect that YMK had on me all those years ago. 

Additionally, I've been a part of Fuwanovel for almost 3 years now, joining back in March of 2013. I've met many interesting people here, and it is one of the few forums that I actually still participate in. Granted, it should be known that my activity functions through bursts. Usually I get really active for a while, and then spend a long while on hiatus, and then return to being really active again. This has been true for not only my whole time on Fuwa, but I functioned similarly in previous forums I used to be active on. So if you ever see that my account hasn't been active for months, I'm not dead, just hibernating.

This post maybe a bit short, but I think it served its purpose as an introduction. And besides, I should have my first real blog post submitted a little later today, which should make up for the brevity in this one.

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