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About this blog

Orgling is the sound a male alpaca makes during mating, but different from what the blog's name suggests, it won't be about me trying to initiate intercourse in the most dignified and beautiful manner Mother Nature has to offer. Instead this is where I plan to write up my thoughts about VN related stuff that doesn't really fit the main forum.

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A few days ago I watched an anime about a series of child murders. The show was pretty solid except for the fact that I was able to correctly guess the culprit the moment the show established that they were going to be more than just a minor character. Was it because the show was really bad at foreshadowing? No, except for one scene where the protagonist casually mentions that the culprit could be someone he knows. Was the character behaving suspiciously? No, they were cooperative to the point of actively sabotaging the murder attempts. Then what did they do wrong to earn my suspicions right from the beginning?

Be a grown male authority figure with a more or less friendly relationship to the young protagonist without being related to them by blood. I'm relatively new to anime and visual novels*, and I've already seen characters fitting this description turn out to be villainous to varying degrees in about ten different titles (in one of them even twice within a few chapters).**  Some of these guys are just being forced into doing something shady because of unfortunate circumstances while some them are psychopathic monsters because the writers liked themselves some shock value. Sometimes they are only minor villains or even red herrings, sometimes they are the big bad. What most of them have in common is that they at least pretend to be helping the protagonist out to the best of their abilities while secretly using the information they get from their conversations against them. I found only one example where the character in question is female, and even then the same twist happens another time with the male one being the major villain (#feminism I guess?).

I get why this trope is popular with writers. The culprit should be someone who has been introduced early on and appeared in a reasonable amount of scenes for their reveal not to come out of nowhere. They should be an adult to have the necessary physical, mental and financial capabilities to properly commit and cover up a crime. Having a close relationship with the protagonist is a good justification for giving them enough scenes in a story that mostly revolves around younger characters. Add to that the betrayal of the protagonist's trust and you have everything for a good dark twist.

So in theory "the nice adult is actually a murderer" can be a very effective trope if well implemented, it's just so overused it lost most of its its element of surprise, at least to me. I suspect that the writers of some of the titles I consumed were aware of this, but instead of not utilizing the trope they took the "let's add shock value by making the bad guy psychopatically evil" route, which is something that rarely turns out well, even if you add in discussions about the nature of psychopathy. I would really love to give examples of cases where I either really liked or really hated the implementation of this trope to add a bit more substance to my rambling. But I have no idea how to discuss plot twists when even mentioning the title of the game means spoiling them, so this will have to do.



*This twist isn't exclusive to Japanese media. For example two of the first four Harry Potter books utilize it and I played one well known western storytelling game that does as well.

**I even went through my vndb profile and made a list to confirm this. The reason I don't share it here is obviously spoilers.


Let's talk a bit about Postmodernism. I don't have the time nor expertise to properly explain the term and its origins, so if you don't know the term, I'll just recommend reading the TVTropes article on it. The gist is that Postmodernism in fiction “question on the nature of narrative and plot and characterization.” This can take different forms, from deconstruction to meta-commentary, self-awareness, fourth-wall breaking, not resolving narratives, putting existing fictional elements into a new context, subverting tropes, mixing media, and many more. This sounds rather intellectual, but there are lots of examples in popular culture with varying degrees of artsy-ness, like remixing in music, more or less every Quentin Tarrantino movie, most superhero movies or comics these days (as they are either heavily self-aware or deconstructing the inherent archetypes), and even two of the most highly rated VNs on vndb are pretty postmodern: The Muv Luv trilogy deconstructs the Mecha genre by looking at how throwing a stereotypical harem protagonist into a post-apocalyptic world with giant robots would impact his psyche (you could argue that Steins;Gate does something quite similar, only using a different setting end set of archetypes), while Umineko takes a pretty basic whodunnit setup and then just keeps pouring on unending layers of meta, deconstructing the very genre it pretends to be at first in the process.

For a postmodern element to work for the recipient, they have to understand the context of it to some degree, not necessarily intellectually, but in the form of certain expectations not being met or a reference putting something known into a new context and a feeling that the subversion or reference is happening with a purpose. For example, when the aliens attack for the first time in Muv Luv Alternative, you expect a fight scene, with some sort heroic moment towards the climax. Without spoiling too much, that's not what happens, and the reason why is to show that there are actual stakes that are too high for some random guy who thinks he's the hero. If the recipient can't see any indication of an apparent purpose to a subversion of expectations, it just feels random to them.


Anyway, how is your sex life? I really didn't expect a The Room reference to appear in some Japanese art game.

Which brings us to The Silver Case, the first game the notorious experimental game developer Suda Goichi (better known as Suda 51) wrote and directed for his own company Grasshopper Manufacture. Originally released in 1999 for the original Playstation, it was only localized and remastered for the West as a PC release as recently as 2016. It's an interactive adventure game consisting of two story threads that sometimes intertwine to some degree. In one (called “Transmitter”) the protagonist becomes part of a special police unit after his original unit becomes exterminated by a serial killer and walks around crime scenes and in the other (“Placebo”) you're a journalist investigating the same cases. As for visuals, you're constantly watching a background on which windows pop up that contain the 3D environments, painted CGs and character portraits, written and spoken text, and sometimes even full motion video. According to Suda 51 this system was implemented due to the newly founded studio not having enough manpower to animate the complete screens in 3D, but it looks pretty stylish and unique. There is gameplay that consists of you moving through grids in the aforementioned environments and occasionally interacting with someone or something and solving a few puzzles, but more on that later. There is an overarching plot about a serial killer, I guess, but the game is really vague about it and there already is a very good Eurogamer.net article on its themes, which makes the game sound way more accessible than it is though.

It's a game that takes a postmodern approach to everything, not caring if it makes the experience less enjoyable in the process, be it gameplay, visuals, characterization or storytelling. The Silver Case constantly forces you to figure out of you're supposed to take what's on the screen for its face value or on some kind of meta or thematic layer, willingly breaking the rules of what makes games and stories good by traditional standards, making you connect the dots yourself and even question certain game and storytelling mechanics itself. Going by some of the reviews, not everyone who played it was aware they were supposed to do that*, and it's easy to see why: The game never explicitly tells you to read some deeper meaning into anything, not even implicitly. It just assumes you read it as art, something video games nearly never do.

Take the protagonist of the Transmitter sections as an example. He is nameable and completely silent, so he basically is your run-of-the-mill self-insert MC. After the incident exterminating his unit, he just gets taken along by two detectives of a different unit investigating said incident without any explanation and is just assumed to be part of the team from then on. His colleagues treat him like he knows what is going on or don't care about leaving him out of the loop, but either way the player never gets any necessary exposition. The MC is only ever given footwork tasks instead of actual detective work, but still gets the nickname “Big Dick” and of course it turns out he is the Chosen One (spoilers, I guess, not that it matters in this case). Now you could either say that this is bad writing, or see it as a deconstruction of the silent protagonist trope, showcasing how nonsensical it would be for a troupe of badass cops to take someone like this along and turning a character like this into the hero of your story. I'm not advocating for reading deep meaning into every mundane thing or excusing every bad decision as “terrible on purpose”, but in this case I have more evidence. For example in one of the chapters about cyber crime your unit decides that you should infiltrate the crime ring. The rest of the chapter basically consists of you waking up in your apartment every morning, reading a new mail about how it's just going to take a little while longer until you become an official member, and then going to work, where you and your colleagues just sit around and do nothing. When you finally become a member of the internet group, you go to their quarters, where someone tells you you're late to the party and the leaders are already gone, and then there is a citywide power blackout and the chapter ends. I just can't imagine the writers just couldn't think of a better way to include the MC into the plot, so I assume they did this on purpose.


Of course there is fourth-wall breaking in a throwaway line. Even though it may seem different going by my screenshots, The Silver Case is not a comedy. At least I think it isn't.

The gameplay is basically the same. You often get interrupted while moving around by not really necessary dialogues (although these often imply that the other characters are actually doing something), you never actually see anything in the 3D environments which consist of samey looking rooms, and places you can interact with are even marked by symbols and if there is something of note, you just get a dialogue, a CG or a short FMV sequence. There are a few riddles, but they have nothing to do with the plot and are way to easy (in the remastered version the game there even is a button giving you the solution). Often you just have to look through several identical rooms until you find the place that advances the plot. Again, on its own, the gameplay sections are pretty tedious, especially as the controls are just incredibly counterintuitive. It's repetitive, wastes a lot of time, and does nothing to advance the plot. If you look at the MC's role in the story it becomes clear that this actually serves a narrative function in purposefully disconnecting the MC and thus the player from the actual action which you can also read as meta-commentary on how the gameplay in interactive adventure games often has little to do with their plots. In the Placebo chapters you even only walk between your sleeping couch and your working space, where can either read E-Mails (important ones even get opened automatically, so the game even robs you of the interactivity of clicking them, and the MC answers them without any input from you as well and occasionally writes Memos to himself), answer your phone whenever it happens to ring, or talk to your pet turtle, which you sometimes actually have to do to advance in the story. If you read the Eurogamer article you can probably figure out what function this serves on your own**.

I mostly talked about game mechanics in this blog entry but you can dissect the plot, storytelling techniques, characters, pop culture references and the scene direction in the same way (I included two examples in the screenshots). For instance there is the fact that the Big Bad and the McGuffin don't get established until the short cliffhanger epilogue. Or that the short titlecard at the end of each episode shows a full moon and the title of a song by either Joy Division or New Order (maybe somehow playing into the whole “Kill the Past” theme Suda 51 has going on, with the band not only changing their name but also their musical style after their lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide). I could go on, but the whole experience is just to long and confusing to talk about everything.

So is it worth reading? Probably, as long as you're not allergic to artsy-ness (at points even pretentiousness) or and okay with a game challenging your intellect as well as your patience. Is it actually good? The answer is the same as the one to the question of why I spent quite some time writing an essay on a game nobody actually played: No f*cking clue. Did I mention that there is a lot of swearing in TSC?


*Which isn't to say that everyone not liking The Silver Case “just didn't get it”, just that some of the negative criticism in these reviews was about aspects that were most probably deliberately "bad" without acknowledging the not that hard-to-spot meta aspect. A lot of the criticism is still valid as The Silver Case definitely has its major flaws.

**The most interactive scene in the entire game funnily enough is also the most pointless one. At one point during the third case in the Transmitter section, the chief of your police unit and one of its members decide to test if you're qualified for the job by making you take a 100 question pop quiz, including questions about everything from Japanese geography to jazz music (and even implying the cop testing you already cracked the case you're currently working on, but he still sends you do more footwork later on). You pass no matter how well you perform and you don't even get to know your score because "there are no points to be gained in policework", as the chief says. At some points I just can't help but admire how much The Silver Case hates its readers.


In my previous blog entry I talked about protagonists in fictional media by comparing their ability to advance a plot vs. how much they actually do in their respective stories. With the model I came up with I identified four archetypes (in the meantime I remembered a possible example for “useful idiot” characters, which I edited into that post, in case you missed it). This time I'm going to focus on visual novels and why they seem to produce mainly “weak protagonists” by my metric (which doesn't say anything about how interesting they might be as it doesn't really account for blandness). There certainly is a cultural and psychological component to this, but I think I'm not enough of an expert on Japanese society to talk about the former and the “self-insert”-aspect is kind of obvious and also something I already talked about in the last post in the paragraph about Harry Potter. So instead I'll try to focus on the unique way many visual novels are structured from a narrative standpoint and how this in my opinion often makes choosing a weak protagonist kind of the logical choice from the writer's point of view.

I think there are two main aspects to this. The first one is pretty obvious solely from looking at game mechanics. Most VNs have a choice system, and the character the reader makes these choices for should be able to believably carry them out in-game. A writer either needs a lot of very good ideas about how to bring the protagonist into situations where they could go either way without breaking character, or let them have a personality that's just bendable enough to always do what the plot requires them to.

The second aspect is a bit more complex and has to do with most VNs being multi-route. This poses a great challenge to a writer as it's not that easy to tell several stories from the same setup without them ending up too similar. And even if the plot of each route is completely different, chances are the protagonist's character arcs are still going to end up more or less similar. A route feels incomplete if the main character's central personal struggle isn't resolved to some degree. The most common workaround for this is centering the routes themselves around a supporting character, usually a hero(ine), and giving the protagonist just a minor character arc, often in the veins of something like "love gives me the determination to achieve every goal". This basically means creating subplots where the overall protagonist isn't the literal main character anymore as entering someone else's route means also entering their story and character arc most of the time. These characters' development would be diminished though if the protagonist just went along and solved the respective heroine's problems for them, as for the development to be believable the character going through it has to do the substantive part of the emotional work (this is why white-knighting isn't just problematic from the viewpoint of gender roles but it's bad writing as well). 

In other media the protagonist most of the time either isn't present during most of the subplot or at least not involved too much. In visual novels both of these options in general aren't viable as from the point of entering a route the subplot becomes the narrative focus and it would be pretty weird if the protagonist just disappeared or at least decided not to interfere in the third act and climax of a playthrough, especially since the choices leading up to a route usually involve the MC trying to get closer to the character it revolves around. The fact that routes are often based around romance and the necessity to include a justification for H-scenes involving the MC further complicate this issue.

As you can see, a capable protagonist is incredibly hard to employ under these circumstances. They have to fall in love with a hero(ine), yet shouldn't get so involved with them too such a degree that they decide to essentially rob said love-interest of their character arc. In many cases there is no proper solution to this dilemma. And this is where the weak protagonist comes in handy as them not becoming proactive once they have a reason to act can be justified by them simply not being able to. This setup also already has an inherent starting point for the aforementioned minor character arc for the protagonist.

I don't want to imply that weak protagonists are always the best choice (or ever), but they often are the most viable compromise imo when a VN main character has to be so passive that they don't outshine the supporting cast but at the same time be a justifiable lead character. The most important feature in a VN protagonist in general simply isn't being proactive, as their main purpose is a structural one, namely to connect the game mechanic aspect of making choices to access new parts of the story with the way these new segments are set up from a narrative standpoint. This sounds kind of convoluted, but I hope by now you get what I'm trying to say. Of course the points I made don't apply to every visual novel or even every genre of VN, but I think they cover a reasonable share of weak protagonists out there. And of course this doesn't excuse bland MCs, but many of the things I pointed out don't exactly make it easier to give them colourful personalities.


Protagonists perceived as weak seem to be something a lot of people reading VNs complain about, and as this is an interesting topic imo, I've been spending some time trying to organise my thoughts on it and write them up in a way that's not completely incoherent. In the process I started reflecting on main characters and their role in fiction on a more fundamental level and came up with a very basic way to categorise main characters, by comparing their personalities to how much it advances the plot in their respective stories. I even made a very professional looking diagram to explain my thinking:


As you can see, the y-axis is supposed to be a measure for the MC's personality, while the x-axis shows how much they actively influence the plot. As each quadrant marks a certain general category of protagonist, I also named those in a way I found fitting (in italic) and added a few examples from VNs I read.

The measure for personality I chose is a mixture of a protagonist's general determination to face problems head on and to which degree they are actually able to solve the ones the plot poses. I know this is kind of a soft category but this whole thing isn't supposed to be a scientific essay and I couldn't come up with anything better so it will have to do. On the top end of this scale you would have someone like Superman, on the bottom end probably Bella Swan.

The question about how proactive a protagonist is at least in this metric boils down to if they mainly react to plot points happening or if they themselves make plot points happen. This category also isn't perfect though. For example almost any character arc involving a protagonist in the "weak" category is about them turning stronger. In my opinion this doesn't make a character more proactive though as this is usually driven by plot necessity.

In this metric you can define four broader types of protagonists. The weak protagonist is someone who usually stumbled into his situation and mainly goes with the flow. The strong protagonist makes his own destiny. The observer is someone who isn't getting too actively involved in the things going on around him, either by their own choice or some external reason. As for the fourth category, I don't know if there actually are protagonists that combine being incapable or weak willed with being proactive. I used Phoenix Wright as an example as you could at least argue that he's only getting by through luck while he always keeps fighting till the end, but that should also move him further up on the personality scale.

You will probably also disagree with other choices I made about where to put certain characters. So as you can see, this is more of an orientation to think about characters and their roles in fictional media than an objective measure. It also doesn't tell us anything about how well a character is written. There are bland action heroes as well as super well developed wimps. I still thought this self-made graphic might be an interesting thing to share. It might also turn out to be a good place for me to reference whenever I might think about writing something about an MC. At least until someone comes along and completely destroys all of my personal theories I based this on.


edit: I thought I'd add and explain a few examples for each category (except the useful idiot as I can't confidently name any) from other media so people who don't know any of the guys in the chart or find my explanations too abstract or incomprehensible can get a grasp on what I mean. But first to give an example of what I mean by proactive vs. passive, because just doing a lot of things is not the same as being proactive: Imagine a story where someone dear to the protagonist gets murdered. If this turns into them killing everyone responsible, the MC is extremely proactive. they could just wait for the judicial system to prosecute the bad guys and testify as a witness, but his thirst for revenge drives everything happening from then on. A passive protagonist in such a scenario might be someone who struggles with the loss and is overwhelmed by everyone else not caring and instead fighting over the inheritance. But now for the protagonist types:

Weak protagonist: Harry Potter - Although everyone in universe talks about how special he is Harry Potter doesn't have that much of a personality, does he? The Sorting Hat talking about how he would be a good fit for any house is true (except for Slytherin as that's basically the Hat telling you you're a bigot) as he shows reasonable degrees of bravery, intelligence and blandness. He doesn't have the magical skills to beat the most powerful wizards either and more often than not gets bailed out by his mother's love or whatever. His personal struggles are always pretty similar to what any kid his age goes through and rarely impact the plot in any major way. In most books he either ends up as a part of the main either through witnessing certain events by chance or because the bad guy plots to get him killed. And most times he gets a "becoming a stronger person and beating the bad guy" arc without him actually groing as a person that much. Harry Potter is also a good example of why a weak protagonist isn't necessarily a bad thing. When the world around the main character or the plot are the actual star of the story, a too strong protagonist could take away from that. The role the protagonist fills is basically to  go through the world with the same sense of wonder the audience would while providing an "everyday person becoming a hero" arc. Which is probably the reason why people who don't like the Harry Potter franchise in general are usually the ones complaining about its protagonist. Frodo would be another example for this kind of protagonist. As mentioned above I'm going to write another blog post about why I think weak protagonists are very common in certain types of VN and why they often seem more annoying than in other fictional media.

Strong protagonist: James Bond - While his stories always start out with him getting a mission he certainly approaches them in a very unique fashion. I don't know if I have to write a lot more about him. Most iconic action heroes fall into this category.

Observer: This type of protagonist seems to be more common in Japanese than in western media. Stories with this kind of protagonist usually have them coming in contact with the plot through either coincidence or their line of work and often involve them providing some kind of service while the narrative focus is on the ones the MC comes into contact with and these side characters tend to have the biggest arc. To name an example in western media Mad Max (at least from the second movie on) is pretty good at surviving in the post-apocalypse but he doesn't have some higher goal beyond that. In Fury Road he might be the main character, but the plot is driven by Furiosa's goals and he just happens to help out as it aligns with him trying to flee from the same people. He still helps out a lot, but technically it's just not his story. Which is why he just leaves at the end. As for Japanese Media Gingko in Mushi-Shi might be the prime example. The anime has more than 40 episodes and three specials, still we learn next to nothing about him. Every time he walks into someone else's story, helps them realise their respective arcs without ever getting too personally involved, and leaves again. Violet Evergarden also fits the description for the major part of the anime. She is a killing machine and apparently quickly becomes very good at her new job as well, yet, while there are episodes focusing on her, in most of them she just helps someone else come to terms with their emotions through providing them the service of writing a letter. Violet Evergarden also shows that it's possible to develop protagonists in episodes not focusing on them.


edit 2: So I managed to come up with an example for  a"useful idiot" (although I don't really like that name, I couldn't think of a better one): many characters in movies by the Coen brothers fit this category. While the protagonists themselves usually are straight man characters, the plots (especially in Fargo and Burn after Reading) often revolve around how bad decisions by incompetent characters lead to catastrophies.

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