04 October 2016

a brief look: Earthbound

"Listen Ness. I'm going to tell you something very important. You may want to take notes. Ready? ......You're the chosen one." 

Hello, everyone! I'm Troy, also known as SymPhoenix. Since this is my first article in my tenure in Study of Anime, I wanted to talk about the moment I realized that this could be my next step for my writing, as well as one of my favorite games of all time. This won't have nearly as much academic content compared to what's to come, but it might help to introduce myself to you all.
When Earthbound was released, and even on the surface now, it's pretty plain. It's a JRPG on the SNES, in an era when the JRPG was the biggest genre, and you had the greats – your Final Fantasys, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, to start. Against these, Earthbound looks like a child's game at first. Instead of massive monsters and huge worlds to explore, you're...a kid with a yo-yo beating up stray dogs and crows. Even from a technical standpoint, Earthbound – developed at a time when the SNES hardware was being pushed to its limits – was unimpressive.

I'll get this out of the way. I love Earthbound. I always have. I have fond memories of renting a SNES from Blockbuster (sure dates me, doesn't it?), and three games: Mario Paint, Super Mario RPG (which I'll talk about another time, probably), and Earthbound. I've never really been able to express why I love Earthbound so much, except that it tugged at my heartstrings in a way many games today haven't. I never finished it as a kid, with it being an RPG that took far too long to beat in a single week, but after recently finishing it for the first time, I think I can finally talk about why I love Earthbound.

The main thing that makes Earthbound stand out among its peers, I've already stated, was its very different setting. Our hero, Ness, is a young child with a baseball cap and shorts, not a sword-wielding adventurer. His first real adventure is into his town of Onett, and his first enemies are aggressive members of the local gang, the Sharks, at the arcade. There's some exposition at the beginning, with a prophet from the future named Buzz Buzz, but it's more like a trial-by-fire tutorial  - you're asked to help find the younger brother of your neighbor, Pokey. When you find Pickey at the site of a meteor crash, you also discover Buzz Buzz, who escorts you back to your home. Before you reach it, though, you are stopped by a Starman, a servant of the evil Giygas, who's doing some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to destroy the world. Or something, it was always really unclear. This is where the story starts being more like our normal JRPG.

Upon defeating the Starman and bringing the brothers Pickey and Pokey home, Buzz Buzz (a bee he is not, but he definitely looks like one) is swatted out of the sky by the boys' mother, and Ness is given a Sound Stone, and told to collect eight melodies from Sanctuaries - points of great peace in the world - in order to truly defeat Giygas. Along the way, you meet three other children who are destined to help you save the world - Paula, Jeff, and Poo. The dialogue is rich with lots of tongue-in-cheek fourth-wall breaks like the one quoted above, and the visuals and music lend themselves to the quirky, off-beat charm that Earthbound is most known for.

What really makes the game interesting, though, is just how lovingly it paints a picture of American society from the eyes of Japan. Cities like Fourside and Summers are alongside small-town settlements like Twoson and Threed, all littered with burger shops, pizza joints, and pubs. I hesitate to mention this, because it seems a bit tacky, but an article that Charles wrote actually motivated me to think deeper on Earthbound, and games in general (search up his article on syncretism - definitely worth a read). The idea that Japanese developers did all of this as a way of admiring American culture, instead of parodying it (though some things can be pretty silly - looking at you, Runaway Five) is a nice thought, as opposed to our typical views of "'Murica" nowadays.

“But Phoenix,” you all may or may not cry, “why do YOU love it?” Well, that's...difficult for me to fathom. As good as my memory is, I have a tough time remembering specific details about my childhood. I remember renting this game and playing it, but not much more. I can only guess that I played it because it was different and looked cool on the box. Now, I kept going back to it because I never beat it as a kid, and as much as I loved the game, I never got a chance to beat it until recently. I think I can say now that I enjoy Earthbound because it's a charming, unique take on a genre of video game that finds it easy to stick to cliches. We see similar concepts with Ni no Kuni, a Ghibli-produced RPG with a modern-set story, and it's got as much charm as Earthbound ever did.

21 August 2015

preview: waku waku nyc

We at Study of Anime first heard about Waku Waku NYC back in June, and wondered about it: it had been a long time since NYC had its own anime/manga/Japanese-flavored event, and here was a new event coming along with an impressive list of sponsors that seemed to guarantee Waku Waku would show up with an amazing flourish. The trick though, is hoping this year goes well so it'll be scheduled again and again.

Study of Anime will be present there as an attendee (via me, Kit), so let me tell you a bit of what I'm looking forward to or would otherwise recommend:

Savory Square: I love ramen, but Japanese style iced coffee is also a thing I enjoy. So I plan to check it out if I can! If you haven't had takoyaki or Japanese style cream puffs, you might also want to check it out. I have a soft spot for takoyaki, myself, as it still reminds me of when I visited Osaka back in 2004.

Kodansha Comics is also doing an industry panel on Saturday, and even though Kodansha (as part of Random House) is based out of New York, I always enjoy seeing them at conventions and seeing what they have to say especially with regards to the localization process, as localization is one of my key interests. So, I'm interested in seeing what they have to say at their panel at Waku Waku.

There will also be an Anime and Manga Studies panel on Sunday, right in time for the new school year, so if you're a student interested in studying anime and manga this panel will be sure to help you get more insight about doing so. I've seen the presenters give a similar panel at other conventions, but the timing of this one (again, right before the new school year) and the closeness of so many schools and universities to Waku Waku's location means this might be the best panel they give. We'll just have to see. I won't be involved with this panel, but friends of Study of Anime such as Kathryn Hemmann are.

 This event is right in my proverbial backyard, so of course I'm going to try and check it out. If you're in the NYC area, or close to it, try to check it out also if you see something interesting on the schedule.

Waku Waku NYC is August 29-30, 2015.

04 August 2015

review: otaku journalist's 15 minute workbook

Lauren Orsini wants you to write.

In fact, she wants you to write about the things you care about: so much so, that she now has a workbook out for the aspiring writer. It's billed as part of her Otaku Journalism series, and you can see it here (it's currently on pre-order special until August 6): http://otakujournalist.com/workbook/

I received a review copy, expecting myself to already know the tips in the workbook. After all, I already have the Otaku Journalism ebook also written by Lauren and by now I have written for various online publications aside from Study of Anime.

I was pleasantly surprised: and reminded how little I knew.

The workbook is designed so each sheet could be potentially completed in 15 minutes or less: perfect for those with school obligations or other jobs. However, some sheets - such as finding a beat - might take more thinking and reflecting than others. Each sheet is focused, and you'll want to refer to them or amend them over time: because of that, what I'd recommend is getting a binder, printing out the worksheet, and having the worksheet in the binder with plenty of paper or notes to serve as a "master reference" as you go about your writing adventures. That way you can keep track of pitches, where you've submitted, ideas for future articles, and more in the same place as your initial thoughts on beat, resources, contacts, and upkeep.

The quality of it is similar to the Writer's Digest published books on writing reference, but Lauren is mindful of what people are using and what they want to see. And a high-quality workbook and reference for $10 is a hard deal to beat.

People come to us asking us how they can do what we do: if you're interested in the writing angle, we turn to Lauren for tips and tricks.

13 July 2015

retrospective - persona 3

What if I told you that there are more than 24 hours in a day?”

On 7/13/2006, the role-playing game Persona 3 was released for the PlayStation 2: after years of silence from the Persona franchise, this title renewed the franchise, helped bring us Persona 4 (again, for the PlayStation 2), and was featured again in Persona Q (Nintendo 3DS). There is a set of four animated feature films for Persona 3 airing in Japanese theaters as well, one based off of each season: the first one entitled Spring of Birth, the second Midsummer Knight's Dream, and so on.

But why did Persona 3 capture the imagination?

After all, it seems very violent: the Evokers used to summon the characters' Personas takes the shape of a gun, so it often looks like (upon Persona summoning) the characters are shooting themselves. There is much talk of Death, of time, and how it comes for all. Even the imagery of Tartarus, the dungeon, seems like something out of nightmare: the walls oozing blood or ichor, the abnormally full moon shining through as if grinning at the party.

It's dark.

But at the same time, Persona 3 carries a message of hope – of fighting against the darkness. The main protagonist, who in the films is called Makoto Yuki, is shown to suffer from trauma due to the deaths of his parents in a mysterious accident 10 years before the events of the game: and surprising even him, Makoto does not seem to care whether he lives or dies. Most of his decisions are what might be interesting to him, or because he has no strong feelings one way or another: this is someone who has lost their passions and dreams. This may reflect the “depressed generation” of Japanese people who grew up after the economic bubble burst: that is a topic for another day, perhaps. But what we are shown, is someone who has to learn from those around him about life and connections, especially when he is made the leader of a group called SEES – ostensibly an after-school club, SEES is actually meant to combat the mysterious creatures called Shadows that plague the city, and investigate the mysterious Dark Hour phenomenon, the “hidden hour” that takes place at midnight every night, and the secrets of Tartarus. He has to learn to fight back – somehow – and figure out what might be worth fighting for. And in the fantastical world of Persona 3, you can fight the monsters head-on with swords and baseball bats; you can fight, and you can win.

All that's built up over the course of the game, all the little interactions, or the little storylines of the people you meet along the path of the story, build up to the climax of the story. Not only is there the rich symbolism that the Persona franchise is known for, but Persona 3 introduces the Social Link system, encouraging you as the player to find out more about the other characters in the game by spending time with them. As you spend more time with them, you get to know their problems - and see them overcome, or get closure. These Social Links range from stories of abandonment to divorce anxieties to even just anxieties about growing up and becoming an adult. There are other stories too: you adopt a dog called Koromaru (modeled after the famous story of Hachiko) whose loyalty and closeness to his deceased owner seemingly helped him gain the power of Persona, an alternate self to use in combat. You encounter Strega, another team of characters who can use the mysterious power of Persona just like your team – only their motivations are more about power, and holding on to it. As the player, you also see one of the teammates grow from having a massive hero and inferiority complex to realizing that being the hero isn't great, and that he was already good enough to begin with. You delve into stories of revenge, of tragedy, and into the linchpin of it all – the incidents that happened 10 years ago. 

(Author's Note: In Persona 3 Portable, if you play the female protagonist, the story is a bit different in that she seems to have more of a connection to life.)

And in the end?

In the end, there is a sacrifice, but the sacrifice is meaningful because of the very journey it took to get there: and it helps to show the value of each of our lives.

Life – with all its sadness, strangeness, and wonder - is worth fighting for.

29 June 2015

ramblings on digital life and death, in second life

Earlier this year, I received the news that a member of the steampunk community in Second Life had passed away; the typist (i.e., the person behind the avatar) had declined and passed away due to a form of cancer.

I did not go to the funeral.

First off, the typist in question had been from England - he was a proud Englishman both in Second Life and outside of it, and I could not afford to fly out. Besides, the real world funeral was for his family and friends there - so what could the friends and acquaintances he had made in Second Life do at all?

There was a memorial service in Second Life, also.

I did not go to that, either.

Not because I didn't mourn. I remember, in my days as a DJ in the steampunk neo-Victoriana community of Caledon in Second Life, doing a set for him before his diagnosis - to all everyone knew, he was quite well, if obstinate. And he was pleased that I had done a set themed around him, even though we had only talked in passing; after that, it led to asking how I was doing, how me-the-typist was doing, I talked with him even over Skype a couple of times. The avatar taught my avatar - and me behind the screen - how to craft tiny, tiny virtual jewelry using the basic building "blocks" called "prims" that made up user-created content in Second Life. It took patience, and attention to detail, but he was patient.

So I mourned. But I mourned in private, wanting to hold on to my memories of him as he had been, a crotchety but good-hearted yellow-haired avatar with a jewelry shop known for crashing entire regions. It is only recently - months after the fact - that there is a need for sharing in this as well; that we are not alone in our mourning.

But what is it to mourn someone whom we know from a game? People interact all the time in massive multiplayer settings: from World of Warcraft to EVE Online and more. And in MMO settings, especially those with a high emphasis on user created content, guilds and corporations and players occasionally hold fundraiser or charity events to help fellow players (whether personal events or organized through charities like AbleGamers), or even memorial services for fellow players who had passed away. 

 It's not just MMOs, either. We interact on Twitter, we interact on Tumblr, we interact on Twitch and YouTube and other social media channels, often with people we know only through digital means - digital recordings of themselves, or avatars, or a social media / game handle. When it is someone we do know more, we try and search for ways to come together; when all these factors combine, it seems that online memorials and ways to celebrate lives online would be easy to find.

But they aren't. Not yet.

We try, though. Dealing with loss is nothing new.

Dealing with loss - in an increasingly digital context, with people we may have only interacted with through a digital lens - is, however, something that we have to find ways to deal with, ways to approach, new rites and rituals of memory and moving on.

We'll try. We are human - we'll find a way to meet a human need.

Until then, celebrate and love those around you.

 Dedicated to the memory of Alistair, who was always a gentleman.

For more information, check out:

How MMO Communities Memorialize
After a Death, Celebrating a Life Online (Wall Street Journal)