The Fun of Farming Games (Except Farmville)

Until recently, I never played farming-themed video games. The closest I ever came to it was basically growing berries in Pokemon. Ever since I began to play the 2014 Story of Seasons for the 3DS (previously known as Harvest Moon), however, I think I’ve come to understand the appeal of farming simulators, and to whom they hold the greatest attraction.

The first thing I noticed is how much there is to keep track of. You’re quickly told about different plants, traders arriving on certain dates, certain items being more valuable in different seasons, birthdays, all while trying to make sure you’re watering your crops and feeding your livestock. Thankfully, the game is not based on a real clock and therefore does not require you to perform chores based on time in the real world—something that was a pain in some Pokemon entries. What’s more, balancing the crops you eat to survive vs. the crops you sell seems tricky, and makes me wonder how actual farmers find that sweet spot.

Being as successful as possible requires not only intimate knowledge of the game’s farming mechanics, but also diligence and the ability to plan far in advance. In other words, farming as a game is ideal for people who thrive on creating and maintaining a schedule, and excel in efficiency. While the farming setting is fairly laid back and I’m not sure it’s possible to squeeze every last second for all it’s worth, proper planning is the domain of virtual agriculture.

The topic of farming games brings to mind the deadly specter that is the dubious “king” of the genre, Farmville. As once the most notorious of the Facebook social games out there, Farmville has been criticized harshly for basically exploiting its player base by both getting them addicted to the constant need to pay attention to the game, and for bilking them of their money by making the experience one that relies on negative reinforcement. However, I think that this does not necessarily apply to all farming-themed games, and a comparison to Story of Seasons shows the difference between a game where managing the ins and outs of a farm can be a positive and enriching experience, and one that leads down a long, dark path.

In Story of Seasons, as you get better at the game, you are not only able to do more, but there’s a greater sense of efficiency. By playing as best as you can, you spend the least amount of time necessary on a given task. Alternatively, you spend as much time as is enjoyable for you. In Farmville, however, the main function of the gameplay is to be a “time waster,” not just in the sense that it’s something you do in your free time, but that the game keeps its players glued to the screen for as many hours as possible. One rewards you for playing more by allowing you to do more, the other punishes you for not putting in as many hours as everyone else.

The Farmvilles of the world can go to hell, for they show how the fun of a genre can be corrupted, but perhaps they can lead people back to less exploitative examples. I get the charm of farming games as a kind of stress relief by way of meticulous micromanagement. I feel a simple joy in seeing my turnips fully grown and ready to be picked, and thinking about how to best use them is its own interesting strategy. There are elements that I wish were more automated, but even that brings its own strange catharsis. It’s as if stress and relaxation are balanced on a knife’s edge, a feeling I imagine might also come from a real farm.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

When Kirito Met Marcus Fenix

When looking at the generic male protagonist found in light novels, one finds that he usually has some combination of the following traits. First, he’s a guy. Second, he’s Japanese. Third, he has short hair. Fourth, he has a fairly slender figure. Fifth, he has either minor or major otaku vibes. Sixth, he has some trait that speaks towards passiveness, whether it’s an aspect of his personality or some sort of special ability that emphasizes defense or neutralization. Titles that fall along this criteria include Sword Art Online, Ore Imo, A Certain Magical Index, Baka Test, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield HeroBakemonogatari, and so on. In effect, the Light Novel Protagonist plays a similar role to the “gruff brown-haired white guy,” an archetype that has populated mainstream video games over the past ten years.

The Light Novel Protagonist’s appearance renders him the “everyman,” but taken to a kind of extreme mediocrity. His appearance is roughly that of a teenager or early 20s adult who could probably pass for a salaryman if not for his clothing and lack of a stable job. Even though he’s often a “failure” in the eyes of society, he’s ready to show himself as capable if given the right (often nerdy) circumstances. In this way, the Light Novel Protagonist resembles the Video Game Hero in that both reinforce a rough image of masculinity. Where they differ is that the Light Novel Protagonist is often a kind of “bare minimum” of manhood, while the thick-necked rugged white guys of video games are the apex of masculinity in that arena.

This difference is evident when looking at how generic light novels and generic mainstream video games approach the topic of homosexuality. Putting aside a few exceptions from both sides, the protagonists of light novels are more willing than their angry, shooting counterparts in games to dance the line when it comes to gender. Kirito’s video game avatar gets long hair in later parts of Sword Art Online. Hachiman in My Youth Romantic Comedy and Akihisa in Baka Test find themselves attracted to extremely effeminate male characters. However, not only is the possibility of a homosexual ending unlikely, but the sheer femininity of those ambiguous characters’ appearances renders them essentially girls in all but name. As a result, masculinity and heterosexuality are preserved.

Nevertheless, that difference between portraying a masculine world versus a hyper-masculine world seems to be what allows light novels to attract a female audience a little more easily. This is actually something girls have learned to do for a long time, navigate the “boys’ world of entertainment” and carve out their own spaces, but games like Gears of War seem to actively reject any notion of appealing to people beyond their assumed young, male, heterosexual audience. In contrast, light novels pull from the many tropes of anime, manga, and Japanese games, which exist in a complex relationship of pulling aspects of girl-oriented titles toward male audiences and vice versa (e.g. shounen sports being made for girls, magical girls being made for guys).

The irony might be that, while both the Very Japanese Light Novel Protagonist and the Gruff White Video Game Hero are all about protecting their audiences’ masculinity, the two archetypes probably would not get along if they had to interact with each other. The video game hero is an embracing of old ideals of manliness, while the light novel protagonist tends to be a partial rejection of the former. The Light Novel Protagonist is often a “loser,” while the Video Game Hero is more frequently a “winner,” and the active acknowledgement of both might just be two different approaches to dealing with male insecurity.

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Why Consuming Melee is Like Eating Super Spicy Food

As a general fan of Smash Bros. I enjoy watching almost every game, but I prefer Smash 4 above all else. However, I’ve noticed that, if I watch Smash 4 after a couple hours or more of Melee, Smash 4 just seems to move muuuch mooore slooowly. If you’ve played a game with a speedy mode, like the Dodrio Tower in Pokemon Stadium, 8-star turbo in Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting, or indeed even Lightning Melee in Smash Bros. Melee, this is probably a familiar feeling to you once you switch back to the default. While I know in my head that the decision-making in Smash 4 is plenty quick, I find that it takes a bit of time to re-acclimate my brain to Smash 4 from Melee.

I have no studies or evidence beyond my personal experience, so I’m not writing from a place of thorough research, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. What’s more, I suspect that, for those who are less interested in Smash 4, the effect is likely exacerbated.

In this respect, Melee reminds me a lot of super spicy food. Like Melee, spicy food has its diehard enthusiasts. If you like chilis and scoville ratings in the hundreds of thousands, then no other kinds of foods compare. Once you try the most flaming hot dishes, there’s no turning back. And if you like it that much, you’ll want to aim for even spicier foods. After all, why settle for less? Similarly, when Melee viewers and players alike talk about why they love the game and why they see it as near-perfect, they mention the blazing fast speed, the difficulty in learning it, and the sense of freedom. They speak of Melee as a unique experience like no other, and that no other games can compare.

The side effect of this, I believe, is that it ends up essentially “dulling” the senses and making other game seem worse, that they require significantly less skill even if that’s the case. In the spicy food analogy used thus far, this would be the equivalent of just eating vindaloo non-stop for an entire day and then taking a bite of a much milder and more subtly flavored food, such as sushi. It’s not as if Indian food isn’t full of a robust variety of tastes, or that flavors matter less in Indian or Japanese food, but if your palate is inundated with spices, then it’s not the fault of the sushi if you can’t get much out of it. And if Smash 4 seems as if its players have to think “less,” it might just be a product of having your senses overloaded by Melee.

Voltron: Legendary Defender, Gurren-Lagann, and Human Connection in Robot Cartoons

Voltron: Legendary Defender is huge in a way I think few would have predicted. Previous attempts at reviving Voltron have been iffy at best, and super robots just aren’t an attractive feature to many current anime fans. What gives the series so much presence in the general fandom space is that its characters are charismatic, but more importantly their interactions with each other fuel the burning desire in fans to see relationships form and grow.

The fandom situation with Voltron: Legendary Defender reminds me a lot of when Gurren-Lagann started to hit it big with anime fans of all stripes. In light of its popularity, you could sometimes find more dedicated giant robot enthusiasts wonder what the big deal was with Gurren-Lagann. After all, didn’t works like Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon, Gaogaigar, and Aim for the Top! all exhibit the escalating scale of power and war long before that? The difference, it turned out, was the characters and the way they bounced off of each other. Even those who cared little about fighting robots connected to the friendship and camaraderie shared by the members of the Dai Gurren-dan, and moments like Kamina’s famous speeches (“Believe in the me that believes in you!”) opened up the opportunity for viewers to become fans of these close, emotional bonds.

I hardly find fault in how non-mecha fans connect to mecha series, but I do get the impression that the majority of fans of Voltron: Legendary Defender don’t really care about the robots at all—a far cry from the impact made by the old 1980s series. In that case, if people remembered anything at all, it was Voltron itself. This approach isn’t wrong, but as someone who always holds a soft spot for giant robot appreciation, I sometimes feel as if there’s a crucial part of Voltron fandom missing. In a way, it reminds me of when I first stumbled upon Gundam Wing fanfiction as a kid, hoping that it would be stories of awesome unique Gundams. What I got instead was swathes of stories pairing all of the Wing boys together (as Relena got killed over and over to make room for them).

The fandom that Voltron: Legendary Defender has garnered sometimes feels reflected in the design of the new Voltron itself. This updated version is much rounder, giving it an appearance almost like a human athlete. It comes across as more “organic” in some sense. Yet this makes the robot Voltron itself more like an action hero and less like an imposing mechanical colossus, which is the impression I always get when looking at the classic Voltron/Golion.

Voltron: Legendary Defender might very well be what brings giant robots back into the forefront of fandoms, but it might be something less recognizable to those who have dwelled in the caverns of Planet Mecha. I have to wonder, then, if the robots themselves can ever hold great appeal to those viewers who prioritize the passionate interactions between characters. Perhaps the more the robot lions and Voltron itself are given hints of personalities, the more even non-mecha fans can come to appreciate them and their aesthetic.

The Safe Appeal of Fallen Champions

After a small drought of first place finishes, famed Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 of Cloud 9 Gaming recently took home the gold medal at Royal Flush 2017. The tournament’s viewership was fairly modest throughout the tournament, but by the time grand finals rolled around the viewer count spiked to an impressive 73,000. While Mang0 is a perennial crowd favorite for his flashy, yet intelligent play and his devil-may-care attitude, I think there was another factor at work drawing eyeballs to his Mother’s Day victory: the appeal of a dominant champion turned underdog.

People love an underdog, as the saying goes, but there’s often an emotional investment to trying to cheer on a player or team with the odds stacked against them. For every Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs breaking their decades-long curses, there are many more across various competitive fields that wither and die in the early stages without achieving anything. Is it really worth cheering on someone who loses in the first round of a tournament every time? If it is, there’s typically some other element to consider: regional loyalty, character loyalty, etc.

But when it’s a known commodity, i.e. a former champion with a record of winning but who’s fallen off more recently, then there’s a different appeal at work. Think of Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, an aged George Foreman, or JulyZerg in Starcraft: Brood War. In each case, they arrived to make up for a loss of physical prowess with skill, experience, and ingenuity, but in their pushes for victory one thing was certain: though they fell behind, there is historical evidence of an “it” factor: the will to win, and the potential to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.

In a certain sense, cheering for former champions become a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. People cheer for underdogs, yes, but they also like to cheer for winners. When you have a former great, you get the best of both worlds. They’re a comforting pick because, even if they lose, a person can simply look back in time and say, “But I know they have what it takes!”

Mang0 is not the same as the examples I gave above. He’s still a top 3 player in his game, and slumps are often exaggerated in the world of eSports because the concept is so young and people think 3 months is a long time. However, if it were a true veteran of the past who enjoys legendary status such as Liquid’Ken, the “King of Smash,”  then I believe even more spectators would have flocked to Royal Flush.

Return to Genshiken: Volume 3 – Stimulation Simulation

What is Return to Genshiken?

Genshiken is an influential manga about otaku, as well as my favorite manga ever and the inspiration for this blog, but it’s been many years since I’ve read the series. I intend to re-read Genshiken with the benefit of hindsight and see how much, if at all, my thoughts on the manga have changed.

Note that, unlike my chapter reviews for the second series, Genshiken Nidaime, I’m going to be looking at this volume by volume. I’ll be using the English release of Genshiken as well, for my own convenience. Also, I will be spoiling the entirety of Genshiken, both the first series and the sequel, so be warned.

Volume 3 Summary

Love begins to claw its way into the awkward otaku world of Genshiken. Tanaka shows Ohno the wondrous world of Gundam models. Madarame finds himself alone with Kasukabe Saki in the clubroom, and the situation is too much for his poor nerd heart to handle. Keiko tries to put the moves on Kohsaka by trying to understand the otaku mind. Sasahara gets his first computer and his first private dating sim “experience”…

But trouble is on the horizon, as Saki accidentally sets a pile of old Genshiken garbage on fire. The volume ends with a lot of burnt paper and a frantic Saki.

Love, not Lust?

The “Madarame alone with Kasukabe” scene is, in my opinion, the most significant part of Volume 3. Madarame trying to use his dating sim knowledge IRL is of course quite humorous, but in hindsight, the repercussions of this moment are tremendous. It is essentially when Genshiken as a series began to transition its characters out of the cocoon of their otaku worlds. As we know from later volumes, they never stop being otaku, but this is where the chinks in Madarame’s armor begin to show.

When Madarame finally confesses to Saki in Nidaime, Madarame considers this the point when he first fell in love with her. Looking at the chapter, the symbolism is right there: he forgets his bag full of doujinshi, an item which he’d have treasured above all else. In that moment, 3D overwhelms 2D, and not even Madarame himself fully realizes it until much later in the series.

This first attraction on the part of Madarame is not based purely on the physical aspects of Saki. It wouldn’t make him nearly as nervous otherwise. In the same volume, when Ohno tries to get her to wear a cat ear-adorned frilly maid headband, the guys in the club are quick to fantasize about a cat-maid Saki slowly becoming more subservient. In the previous volume, more than one of the guys intends to use Saki as masturbation material. And when Ohno falls in the water at the beach and ends up showing her polka dot swimsuit, the guys are clearly aroused. With Madarame and Saki, it hits him deeper than where his desires typically lie.

The Impenetrable World of Otaku

Aside from the ratio of boys to girls, one of the major differences between the first Genshiken and Nidaime that really stands out to me is just how much the former tries to introduce the world of the otaku. There’s a chapter about building Gundam models, there’s another about buying a computer, and the use of “normal” folks like Keiko and Saki positions the manga as easing laymen in. At the same time, there’s something about the portrayal of otaku that renders their conversations as opaque, and it’s not just the knowledge itself that creates this sensation. As someone familiar with most of what the characters are talking about, the way they present information just sounds very exclusive, as if it were a kind of defense mechanism. When the girls of Nidaime chat about their favorite pairings, the space they create through conversation somehow feels more accessible.

Turning Points

While this volume features what is arguably the most important moment for Madarame in Genshiken (especially the first series), it’s also of great significance to Saki. Her panicking over accidentally starting that fire is the first time Saki comes across as vulnerable. While she’s usually able to handle everything, this makes it clearer that she’s invincible when it comes to social situations but not physical dangers. While her full transformation into a member of Genshiken (not just in letter but in spirit too) comes in Volume 4, this is the pivot, the point of evolution.

Keiko also begins the transition here, as she slowly begins to understand the otaku mind. This comes out full force in Nidaime when she tries to seduce Madarame, but by then it’s tempered by a slightly more forethought. This is only the beginning of the beginning, though. Her actual key moment, in my opinion, comes when she stops calling Sasahara “monkey.”

Ohno is still extremely shy at this point, and it reminds me that she almost becomes a completely different character as the series progreses. The change is to some extent gradual, but if I recally correctly, the actual moment that triggers her more drastic metamorphosis into open, motherly figure is when Ogiue is introduced as an antagonistic force of sorts. Naturally, I’m looking forward to that next volume!

Doujin Fighting Games

This volume’s Mebaetame (the Genshiken club doujinshi magazine) is a review of the various characters in a fictitious fighting game based on everyone’s favorite series, Kujibiki Unbalance. The portrayal of this game is a real throwback to the days when doujin fighters were all the rage. Nowadays, the qualities that defined doujin fighting games—long combos, air dashes, anime aesthetic, etc.—have all become features of official, professionally produced games. BlazBlue, Arcana Heart, Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax, Aqua Pazza, and of course Melty Blood (which began as a doujin game before transitioning into something found in arcades and played in tournaments) are all of this lineage.

The Genshiken members talk about how the game is more faithful to the characters than trying to be a balanced (or good) fighting game. Personally speaking, it’s what one wants out of a doujin game: a love of the series takes priority over trying to be, to use a more recent term, “eSports now.” It reminds me of a doujin fighter I really enjoyed back in the day called Magical Chaser. It was themed around magical girls!

The English translations for these Mebaetame entries are rather awkward, and suggest someone who is unfamiliar with fighting games in general. I say this from the perspective of having many more online resources, as well as a long history interacting with fighting game enthusiasts, so I understand that it’s simply not easy trying to adapt that lingo. If you know fighting games at all, you’d probably have a fair idea as to what the characters are trying to say.

Final Random Thoughts

Two little details in this volume really date the series. The first is when the club is giving Sasahara advice on buying a new computer. The second is when Madarame talks about watching the episode of Kujibiki Unbalance he recorded.

As the other members guide Sasahaa, they talk about how 200gb is needlessly large for a hard drive—a sentiment that predictably would garner laughs today. Madarame also talks about how the US is obsessed with big hard drives, and to my American perspective I don’t quite understand what the big deal is. It’s not excessive if you use up all the space!

Later, when Madarame suggests they watch Kujibiki Unbalance again, he pulls out a VHS tape. I always wondered at what point I would see video cassettes as artifacts. I guess now’s the time…

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Aikatsu Stars Season 2 and Notions of Perfection

The second season of Aikatsu Stars! begins from an interesting place. After the end of the first season, heroine Nijino Yume becomes a member of S4, the top idol group at her school. In Pokemon terms, this would be equivalent to having Ash start a series as a member of the Elite Four. She’s not just improved, she’s established as one of the best. Given this setup, I find it interesting how Aikatsu Stars! season 2 brings up the difference between “great” and “perfect.”

Confronting heroine Nijino Yume is a new rival idol academy called Venus Ark, which travels around the world on a cruise ship looking to poach idols from other schools. At the head of Venus Ark is Elza Forte, who, much like deceased pro wrestler Curt Hennig is known by one word: Perfect. There’s even a tangible symbol of perfection in the form of wings that appear only when a perfect performance is given, and at the start of the series “Perfect Elza” is the only one who has them.

But what does it mean to be perfect? Does it mean to never lose? Does it mean performing in such a way that it would be the equivalent of a perfect score in the Aikatsu Stars! arcade game? As the primary rival of the season, Elza is there as a goal to aspire towards and overcome, much like Shiratori Hime in season 1. Whether Yume will beat Elza or not is up in the air, but my hope is that Yume challenges the concept of “perfection” as presented by Elza. Perhaps Yume could show that the best possible performance is not necessarily a perfect one, but the one that connects to the audience best even if mistakes are made.

I understand that Aikatsu Stars! is based on a card-based arcade game that has a more concrete idea of what it means to play a “perfect game,” as well as cards that just have better synergy. However, the first Aikatsu! series (back when Ichigo was the main character) went above and beyond those restraints, and season 1 of Aikatsu Stars! really emphasized a balanced mix of product placement and story. I don’t need for the development I’ve described above to happen, and it’s not even the only way for the series to be strong, but I’d like to have a series where the kids watching don’t feel the need to strive for “perfection,” only their best.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

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