The Mulan Effect

I want to take a brief pause from the usual topics I discuss on this blog to talk a little about pedagogy. I recently ran across an article by Luke Epplin in The Atlantic: “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?“:

These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather–or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears–and believe that their greatness comes from within.

This sounds like a fine theme for upbeat children’s movies, but a steady diet of these films leads, perhaps, to the assumption that life really works this way, and that furthermore all narratives should be structured this way. I have noticed this effect in my students.

Haruhi and Disaster Movies

Wherein Suzumiya Haruhi trolls an entire generation of zombie movie fans:

That worldview is so out of date. Martians invading, or biological weapons getting out and destroying humanity, those are just the things weak, suicidal people with a hatred for the world and a desire for catastrophe dream up. It’s just a bunch of people who don’t have the courage to commit suicide, so they want all of humanity to die.

(涼宮ハルヒの驚愕(後)kindle loc. 649)

Wow Haruhi, tell us how you really feel…

Final Fantasy VII as Metafiction

I already wrote a post about Final Fantasy VII, but there is another part of that narrative that demands treatment; its metafictional aspects.

One of the more interesting portions of the narrative is the revelation that the protagonist, Cloud, is not a member of an elite commando unit as he had claimed. It turns out that he is suffering from a form of self-delusion. In fact, he left his hometown hoping to join SOLDIER, but ended up failing to gain admittance. Too ashamed to return home, he becomes a common footsoldier, the weakest of various enemies inhabiting the world. Unable to reconcile his self-image with this reality, he creates a series of false memories. None of this, however, is apparent to the consumer at the outset.

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Emotional symbologies, realism and the next hardware generation

Recently I re-consumed Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997.One thing that threw me off at first was the gestures. The characters all use comically exaggerated gestures that always seem a little off: Cloud’s response to everything is shrugging, while shaking seems to denote almost anything from fear to laughter to anger. But I couldn’t recall being bothered by this during my first run-through fourteen years ago, and I realized that we used to have this whole symbolic gestural language for conveying emotion back in the ultra-low polygon count days. The gestures didn’t necessarily depict real-world body language, but had their own unique symbology that could be deciphered by consumers in order to understand character emotion. It’s impressive, actually; each of the characters has their own distinguishing gestures linked to their personalities, and the game is able to convey a fairly wide range of emotion even though the only facial movement available is blinking.

Final Fantasy VII and Genre Expectations

(Note: this post is adapted from material I wrote on another site)

Recently Final Fantasy VII became available on Steam. Originally released in 1997 for the first Playstation, FFVII is considered by many to be one of the best interactive narratives ever created (although, as with all narratives, it certainly has its vocal detractors). A cinematic followup, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was released in 2005, and the world and characters continue to be a popular subject for fan creations, reworkings and pastiche. I took the advantage of its new availability in order to play through it again and reexamine a narrative that captivated millions, and is still recalled fondly even now, sixteen years later.  

(Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII follow!)
One of the most striking features of Final Fantasy VII is it’s betrayal of genre expectations. Final Fantasy VII is a JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game), a genre with a problematic definition, but nonetheless describing a family of interactive narratives with recognizable common features in terms of both narrative and interactive mechanics.

The Forensic Narrative

One of the reasons I’m so interested in interactive narratives is that they often attempt some form of narrative innovation. Not always, of course: character building and storytelling are hard work even for traditional narratives, and interactive narratives that must center on some autotelic activity make it even more challenging.  Therefore many narratives choose to do their narrative work via “cutscenes,” clips that use all the familiar cinematic techniques developed over the past century or so (framing, camera angles, depth of field, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a tried-and-true method for telling stories.

In a way, I think right now we’re in a period similar to the early days of cinema.  In the beginning, movies took their cues from stage performances, and lots of early movies look like recordings of a play. Of course, cinema quickly started to experiment in ways unique to the medium.  Both traditions thrive today: many studio TV shows still rely on splayed-out stage sets, while other kinds of productions use techniques that could only have been developed in a mature medium.  So I expect that the cutscene variety of storytelling will continue in interactive narratives, but at the same time another vein of storytelling will develop innovations unique to the medium. We’re only at the beginning of the life of this medium, and it’s exciting to see what people are starting to do.

One of the narrative innovations we’re seeing is something I’m going to dub the “forensic narrative.” In this narrative scheme the consumer moves through the narrative world collecting fragments of narrative that they must stitch together to form a picture of past events. Often, the narrative world is the site of some disaster, and as more and more snippets of narrative are linked together they eventually coalesce into a picture of just what happened to cause that disaster, hence the “forensic” nature of this narrative technique. One of the most relevant recent works would have to be Bioshock (2007), in which the consumer explores an underwater city that seems to have once been a beautiful art-deco paradise, but is now a ruin filled with the murderously insane.

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Perception and the fallacy of textual objectivity in a kibyōshi by Santō Kyōden

Kibyōshi are Edo period adult “comic books,” mostly in vogue in the late 18th century. They were popular, fashionable and humorous, which means critics with a penchant for “serious” literature (i.e., the entire literary establishment for the first century of the modern period) have ignored them. However, there are a lot of interesting things going on in kibyōshi, and recently they’ve started to attract a lot of attention.

I want to look at one particular kibyōshi by Santō Kyōden, arguably the master of the genre, titled Kyakujin jorō 客人女郎. To give credit where it is due, this work was originally brought to my attention while I was reading an article by Haruko Iwasaki. Iwasaki treats Kyakujin jorō as one of Kyōden’s failed works. And to be fair, it doesn’t seem to have sold very well, and is a bit underwhelming for a work that is sandwiched chronologically between Kyōden’s greatest hits, Gozonji no shōbaimono and Edo umare uwaki no kabayaki. Nonetheless, I think there’s more going on in Kyakujin jorō than Iwasaki gives it credit for.

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Violence in Tezuka Osamu’s Works (NSFW)

I’m a huge Tezuka Osamu fan, so you’ll probably see plenty of posts about him here (eventually).  One of the things I’ve always found interesting about his work is the way he handles violence.  In his more mature works he neither shies away from depicting violence (think of the classic PG-13 device of showing a gun against someone’s head but panning away before the gunshot), but nor does he pornographically glorify or fetishize violence like so many works do (think ridiculous fountains of blood, people clinging to life so their lurid suffering can be prolonged, etc.).  Tezuka displays violence, but depicts it as tragic, brutal and cruel.

I was reminded of this while rereading a volume of Hi no tori (Phoenix).  Hi no tori is a fictional history of Japan spanning from pre-history to the distant future.  Volume 8 covers the turmoil at the end of the 12th century.  Specifically, I’m looking at the scenes that depict Kiso Yoshinaka’s army plundering the capital. This is one of those events that doesn’t get much attention in textbook history, mostly because it’s kind of just a prelude to the big historical event; Minamoto no Yoshitsune leading Genji forces to defeat first Yoshinaka and then the entire Heike clan.  But one of Hi no tori‘s projects is revealing the human tragedy behind footnotes in history.

I want to examine three consecutive pages that portray this incident. The images below are depictions of violence and might be NSFW.

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The challenges of writing interactive narratives

Gameological has an interesting interview with writer Susan O’Connor, who is thinking of leaving the gaming industry for a variety of reasons, chief among them the limitations of narrative expression in the medium, and what she perceives as a software development focus rather than an entertainment focus in the industry.  I was particularly struck by this bit:

I think games are all for good story, but they really have to justify “Why am I shooting everything?”

She finds writing a plot that basically justifies shooting things very restrictive.  That’s a fair point.  I’m very interested in the narrative aspect of interactive narratives, but these are entertainment products that are focused on some autotelic activity, whether that is shooting or something else.   The narrative has to fit in that autotelic activity and give it context. That’s easy if you don’t want anything more complex than “you’re on Mars and demons are attacking you,” but a challenge if you want to write or consume more compelling narratives.

Of course, many mediums have similar restrictions, but unlike other mediums (books, movies, TV shows) the primary focus of the interactive narrative as an entertainment product is the autotelic activity rather than the narrative itself.  Other mediums may have to write around certain expectations (action scenes in summer blockbusters, for example, or a joke every 30 seconds in comedy TV shows), but the consumer is still there primarily to consume a narrative.  Consumers of interactive narratives are there to participate in an autotelic activity.  A good story may be absolutely essential to provide context for and interest in the activity, but it’s still not the primary focus. This is, perhaps, one of the unique challenges facing the medium.

Commercials as Co-text

One of the things I’m interested in is the impact advertisements can have on the narratives they are trying to sell.  The idea that a reader will draw on other texts as he or she constructs the meaning of text is not new.  Barthes, Kristeva and others have argued that readers construct the meaning of a text as they read by, partly, applying intertextual links.  But what outside text could be more relevant in forming a text’s meaning than an advertisement for that text?  Advertisements are often syntheses of narratives that break down the text they are selling into its most crucial (or attractive) aspects and present them in an extremely compressed format.  It should be no surprise that ads can be a powerful referent in a reader’s construction of a text

Advertisements are usually developed by independent agencies with little input by authors or creators of the target text and sometimes with little access to the actual source material.  Ads may be developed long after the target text is completed (for a second printing, for example) Therefore texts rarely refer to their own advertisements.   Readers may be referring to advertisements in order to construct a text’s meaning, but a literary analysis that looks at the intertextual references within a text itself will not pick up on those sources of meaning.  Readers (or generally, consumers) are immersed in a dialogic commercial landscape that inevitably contributes to the meaning they construct for narratives they consume.  I propose that commercials can be a co-text or pre-text for the texts they advertise.

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