Anime Expository: Persona 4 the Animation

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I finished the True Ending episode this evening in its semi-raw form (Sorry, I cannot read Chinese.) and it has left me feeling a little ambivalent about the whole series.  I must begin by saying that I am a horrendous Persona, and by extension Shin Megami Tensei, games, some of which I own across multiple platforms.  If you haven’t played any of the games, I highly recommend them for some very thought provoking games that elicit a fair degree of emotional investment (Yes, I did cry at some points) from a jaded man like myself.  Persona 4 is one of my favorite games in the franchise and holds a special place in my top 5 games of all time.  Naturally, when I heard about the anime, my roommates wanted to strangle me after my fanboy zeal about the project.  Now that it has ended, I scratch my head and wonder if it was all worth the subscription I bought to Hulu just to share it with friends.  It has had its ups and downs, and rather than doing a traditional review, I want to highlight just a few things that struck me on journey.  Keep in mind that I am not here to persuade or dissuade you from watching, rather I am going to catalog observations of the video game to anime conversion process.

The Good

  • Yu Narukami, THE NON-SILENT PROTAGONIST!:  I understand that silent protagonist with dialogue wheels assist in the process of immersion for some players, but it is an overdone trope that often leaves me feeling distanced from a game.  Also, as an aside, silent protags often suffer from some weird form of flattened affect, which often makes them as emotionally robust as kitchen sponges.  However, in the anime, YU TALKS…A LOT!  In fact, he oddly gets a lot more characterization in the anime from the sheer fact that his fixed dialogue gives him dimension.  I do enjoy how many of his lines act as the smartass dialogue options from the game.
  • Boss Battles Translated Correctly:  In most games, boss battles represent small climatic pushes to the narrative designed to keep the momentum of the story moving forward.  Persona 4’s boss battles often contained a strong story element that enhanced character development, and in the anime, the battle screen and turn-based combat, have been replaced by stylized combat and a strong emphasis on the audience investment.  The anime bosses are some of the most poignant moments in the entire series and often fill out details absent from the game.
  • Mechanics and Music:  In translating most video games to a film/television medium, most directors often reference the mechanics and music of the game through either subtle nods (place names in Silent Hill) or sheer brutality (1st person perspective in Doom).  P4A usually opts for the former, with the town of Inaba filled in slowly through the series through the development of the plot.  The persona sequences and battles again reflect a movement away from the traditional JRPG model to one of more fluid storytelling.  Music has also been an important feature for setting the tone of the games, and the anime not only uses music from the game, it also features new songs, as well as remixes of the original soundtrack.

The Bad

  • Social Link Shrinkage:  Personas 3 and 4 introduced the Social Link System, wherein the protagonist spent time with various people in the game, such as other party members and side characters, and developed social bonds of friendship and romance with them.  Mechanically, this served to provide in-game bonuses to creating other personas to use in battle, but in terms of the story, the system worked to fill in backstories and details referenced in the main plot.  Due to the time limitations of the anime, many of the social links are truncated to between one and two episodes, trivializing the depth of the social interaction and creating the sense of filler rather than purposeful exposition.
  • Episode 26 – The True Ending:  I reference this episode in particular because it is the most egregious example of a distinct problem with the anime:  narrative flow and timing.  The social link translation is only the tip of the iceberg, as the narrative really collapses toward the end, as the developers seemed frantic to finish the anime within the allotted amount of episodes.  Ergo, when the series nears its end, which coincides with some of the most memorable and tense scenes in the game, the pacing tears through any emotional connection from the audience, leaving them exhausted and unable to see how the entire narrative fits together.  Here is some unhelpful math to illustrate the point:  Game [~60 Hours or 3600 Minutes] > Anime [~13 Hours or 780 Minutes] = Narrative Collapse.  The last episode illustrates this problem with uncompromising elegance, as it manages to squeeze what should have been a three-episode ending into one convoluted nightmare that lost much of the meaning from the original game.  Furthermore, in their efforts to address absent information necessary for understanding the true ending, they substitute another event (being spoiler-free sucks) that has absolutely nothing to do with the ending to smooth it over.  The overall effect of this compression process is that if we decided to draw a narrative line, it would appear like a first-time driver hitting that brake just a little frequently, except in the home stretch, where it is both feet on the gas.

The Facts…of Life?

If you have no desire or time or system to play the original PS2 version of Persona 4 or the upcoming PSVita Person 4 the Golden, the anime will fill in the story, but leave some unanswered questions.  If you seek out answers, I recommend watching a Let’s Play on Youtube for the Social Links and the True Ending Final Battle and Dialogue, which are a little less aneurism-enducing.  If you intend to play the game at some point, I would suggest playing the game first, and then watching the anime.  The game is definitely worth it and makes the anime feel much more like an extension of the experience.  If you have played the game, then you have to realize that a lot is lost in the translation, but there are a lot of great scenes in the anime that are worth watching alone.  If you do watch the final episode, find some way of holding back the rage…it is very palpable when you watch.

(Actual Play 4e) Episode 1, Part 1: Can’t Keep My Wagon on the Road OR Too Many Tampons Eaten*

This was a big night for me since I had not played a D&D 4e game in years.  It was a fun, relaxed game, which has been quite a change of pace given my other 4e experiences.  Rather than do a painstakingly in-depth blow by blow retelling of the evening, I am going to start off with the general tenor of the story, followed by some observations.

The General Set-Up

The set-up for the game was pretty solid for a fantasy tabletop opening session.  Three out of the four players were assigned to a traveling group of academics and hired guards charged with reclaiming a shrine before it succumbed to local mercenary groups.  The session started rather abruptly with a rather nasty ambush from said mercenaries who proceeded to slaughter most of the guard, sans my character, and drive the PCs away through the forest in our wagon.  As far as 4e combats go, this one went surprisingly fast, as it was a light introduction for those new to the system on how the basics of 4e combat worked.  The sheer number of adversaries meant that we had to execute a speedy retreat, which prevented the combat from getting bogged down.

The following scenes saw our group being chased through the woods by the remaining mercenaries, whose tenacious pursuit led to the destruction of our wagon and our desperate escape into the woods.  Taking as many muskets as we could, we proceeded toward a nearby campfire, where we were introduced to our fourth member, the only PC who wound up saving our collective asses.  After hasty introductions, we headed off to a nearby elven village, where in the next session, we will see how receptive they will be to helping us on our plans.

Thoughts

The session was quite entertaining.  There were a number of traditional fantasy tropes in the first session, but the homebrew world really offset them.  I am usually very nervous about homebrew worlds in the wake of adventures in Greek Tragedy World, which had a degree of immersion not yet replicated in another campaign in which I have taken part, but at the same time, left me feeling isolated and disconnected from a world with so much exposition.  However, in this campaign, much of the framework has been developed, but there is seemingly a lot left to pencil in throughout the campaign, allowing for more character connection.  I must also add that the use of Obsidian Portal has helped me engage with the world in a more accessible manner.

My character really does not have a distinct personality yet, but that is more due to the relative lateness of my character creation and the anxiety of RPing with a completely new group of people.  I modeled him a little after Dalt from the second half of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, but I am going to spend the next two weeks fleshing him out a bit more.  This is also the first pure martial character I have played in quite some time, so it will be entertaining to see how I do with him.

Concluding Thoughts

With D&D Next creeping up from over the horizon, it has been rewarding, although briefly so, to have a chance to do more 4e.  It has been a contentious issue within many of my gaming circles, as well as across the internet, so gaming with a table full of players either new to the system or supportive of it will hopefully allow me the opportunity to dig into it more aggressively and experience it more fully than previous attempts.  The sheer prospect of being able to do some fast-tracking will undoubtedly enhance this feeling.  The next session is two weeks away, and I am already gearing up for it.

*The wrap-up discussion at one point revolved around dog shaming, so the secondary title ties into that conversation.

The Character Sheet Chronicles: Why Does CN Often Translate in Jerkwad?

I had originally planned this first article to be somewhat more aligned with discussions of gender performance at the roleplaying table, a topic with which I have much fascination, but instead it has become about one of the more problematic alignments that I have dealt with in my gaming history:  Chaotic Neutral.  This alignment has been the genesis of so much agony and discord at the gaming table that I often question the motivation of those who choose to play it.  The problem is not so much that the alignment is tremendously difficult to play or that it does not allow for in-depth, complex roleplaying, it’s that people use it for a host of unsavory activities that end up being destructive to the table atmosphere of the game.

What is “Chaotic Neutral?”

Chaotic Neutral, as an alignment construct, defines a character much more mercurial in natures.  Some editions of books have labelled it the “free spirit” alignment, as its prototypical characters tend to shy away from laws and polarizing good or evil actions.  In many respects, Paizo’s definition is the most useful for this argument:

A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. A chaotic neutral character does not intentionally disrupt organizations as part of a campaign of anarchy. To do so, he would have to be motivated either by good (and a desire to liberate others) or evil (and a desire to make those others suffer). a chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as he is to cross it.

 

Chaotic neutral represents freedom from both society’s restrictions and a do-gooder’s zeal.

When reading this definition, I am struck by the attention to “purposeful randomness,” in that the character’s actions, while seemingly unpredictable, do follow some type of system of personal ethics, however distorted they may be.  What motivates the character might even be a system of beliefs not immediately apparent to the character (more on this later), but a system that he/she does not question. 

Our Internet Meme Prototypes

A quick search of the internets can provide a host of demotivational graphics designed to attach a popular figure and witty phrase to the concept of chaotic neutral.  For the purposes of this blog, we will select three:

  • Captain Jack Sparrow (“Whose side is Jack on, anyway? …at the moment?):  Ah, old Captain Jack!  He is one of the more popular CN figures online, but it is important to note that one of the primary reasons for this comparison, aside from piracy as a CE CN act, is that his motives and actions are incredibly unpredictable.  This is quite true in the movies, and it does stand to chance that much of his motivations are highly self-centered.  But it is important to note that in the end, he still shows up to save the day and do the heroic deed, albeit a comically.  His motivations often work to push the heroes forward in a very unorthodox manner.  In the end, he floats somewhere between a CG and CN.
  • Deadpool:  Deadpool fits the category a bit more easily, though the parallels end rather quickly.  His motives and actions are indeed unpredictable, and he is affront to many of the traditional traits embodied by superheroes.  He will join a band of villains, only to destroy them from the inside out.  He breaks the fourth wall with pithy rhetoric about comics and pop culture.  If it weren’t for the fact that he is batshit insane, or least mentally unstable, he would fall into this alignment without too much problem.
  • Snake Plissken (Escape from…):  In my opinion, Snake is one of the better cinema examples that I have found online.  Anti-establishment criminal out for his own interest, he often finds himself coerced into performing a service for his country, which he ultimately satisfies, but rewards with a final shot screwjob to the president and law enforcement.  What is interesting about his character is that he represents the duality between self-interested and heroic quite well.  He seems a bit numb to some of the crime and depravity of New York and L.A., but he will then save a person whose help he requires, and often try to assist that person in escaping further harm.  It is this fundamental duality between heroism and selfishness that in my opinion really defines the alignment and gives the framework needed to create a character and roleplay it.

To pull these prototypes together, one can begin to see commonalities to what constitutes an imagined CN character:  1) a morally ambiguous, pivoting between good and evil acts, 2) a roguish nature, defying convention and authority, and 3) non-villainous, with the capability and possibility to do villainous acts.  This definition is vital to construct because it helps demonstrate the radical difference between the invoked image of CN and its occasional use at the gaming table.

What Happens at the Table:  CN=Asshole and the Tension between Players

Now, in my experience, CN comes across often in one of two ways:  the player invested in exploring the duality and the player grounded in using the alignment to justify problematic table antics.  The latter can become major problems in any campaign because the compartmentalize the character in such a way that they fail to see how their character actions affect the larger group dynamic.  The actions, often disruptively selfish, utilize CN as a defense, with the penultimate statement that “[this action] is how my character would act.”  Here are some of the major offending actions in no particular order:

  1. Refusing to take part in scenes that involve the major characters or acting socially aloof without a motivating reason (i.e. skulking the corner to be brooding for the simple sake of being anti-social).
  2. Stealing items from the party for personal use on a semi-frequent basis
  3. Failing to assist other party members when they are in trouble or only assist tepidly or begrudgingly in most situations
  4. Skulking off to do tones of shady, often “E” acts outside of the party’s view

There are likely many others,but what I find fascinating is that many of these activities have out-of-game consequences in terms of souring table relationships and promoting atmospheres of distrust.  In many of these instances, the CN character, and associated player, become a force of suspicion and strife, never to be trusted as the character or as the player.  I am not saying that this is an issue isolated to CN characters and players, as certain playstyles, table atmospheres, and gaming environments can often lend themselves to these actions, but there is something about CN that seems to “push” certain players to engage in disruptive behavior contrary to the original definition and provide a means of defending such actions within the scope of the game and the gaming table. 

Question:  What makes Chaotic Neutral so prone to problematic player behavior?  Is it the description of the alignment itself?  Is it a misinterpretation of cultural symbols of the alignment? 

I pose these questions, because I am seeing this behavior becoming more prevalent.  I am interested hearing thoughts, comments, and/or dissenting opinions.

Update: Setting Up a Vlog Account and Picking Tonight’s Topic

I actually have a short break in between classes and have pounded out my brief assignment, so it felt helpful to map out some territory for the coming days.  Hopefully, by having tomorrow off, aside from pleading for more monies, I should be able to churn out a vlog post for the week and get my account set up for my endless osmotica, but that still leaves tonight for a lengthier post and since we just recently wrapped up a brief Pathfinder session, I will probably connect to a much larger issue that I find important in the endless discuss of tabletop RPGs.

Kickoff Post – 2 Days Post-Gencon

Hi all!

This is my first foray into the gaming blogosphere.  I know that it is a few years too late, but since I do not have enough time to devote to a consistent vlog about gaming or a repository for generating tons of custom content, I feel that this blog might serve as a means of channeling my creative energies into something a bit more manageable that would allow the same generative experiences in more controlled space.  In plain English, I hope to wrangle in all my thoughts and put some of them down on digital paper.

What will I be covering in the coming posts for August and September?  A lot of it will revolve around post-Gencon activities, particularly swag that I purchased from the conventions, games that I witnessed and/or played, and general updates about events related to my geeky and gaming interests.  I hope to do some vlogs, but since school has started back up, I am not sure how soon I will get around to making them.

If you know me by real name or digital persona, or if you just happen across my blog due to chance, please stay tuned, as I hope to invite everyone into the mercurial world of my hobbies.