Saturday, May 23, 2015

[BoRT May 2015] Complicating Mechanics in Sentimental Graffiti

I don't have a large collection of dating sims, but I do have a sizable collection of excuses for owning any at all. “I’m trying to broaden my gaming horizons!” “It’s considered a classic in Japan!” “No, seriously, it’s for research!” “This one doesn't even have any naughty scenes!”
Despite the stigma attached to dating sims, I would guess that most of us are familiar with the basic concept. The player reads a story and makes decisions that branch off into multiple story paths. These story paths involve pursuing a romantic partner - going on dates, learning about their interests, etc. The "gameplay," such as it is, is limited to reading text (with pictures and music) and choosing dialogue options from a list like the following: 

A). “I have always loved you.” 
B). “I have always loved your best friend. Can you set us up?” 

Choice A will lead to a romantic scenario with one character and choice B will lead to a different romantic scenario with another. 

Figure One: Branching paths 
Once the player has started down a particular story path, they must make further choices. Some options are “good,” in that the computer characters react to them positively and some are “bad,” in that the computer characters react to them negatively. Through reading the story and learning about their romantic targets, the player learns to anticipate what they want to hear. Good choices lead to good endings, bad choices lead to bad endings. 

For example: 
A). “I love dogs too!” 
B). “I love hunting dogs!” 

Choice A leads to a good ending, where you bond over a mutual love of canines, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Choice B leads to a bad ending, where your canine-hunting hobby means you die loveless and alone (which you deserve, you dog murderer). 
Figure Two: Multiple endings
One of the effects of this system is that players must play the game multiple times in order to access all of the content. Choosing romantic target A usually precludes experiencing romantic target B’s story. The player must intentionally make different choices on each playthrough in order to see every ending and get the maximum content bang for their purchase buck. 

Figure Three: Multiple Playthroughs
Up to this point, we have been representing the branching story paths solely as exclusive straight lines. However, this is often not the case. Many dating sims combine branching story path with a point system. For example, let’s say that a given dialogue branch has three options:
A). “You look beautiful in that skirt.” (+2) 
B). “You’re pretty. (+1) 
C). “What, was your nice mumu in the wash? (-1) 

The story proceeds based on how many points the player has accumulated with each target, not simply off of binary branching paths. These points are generally not visible to the player, but rather inferred through the computer characters’ reactions. For example: 

A). “Your eyes are like limpid pools of starlight from the summer evenings of my youth.” 
Response: “Oh my! *swoon* 
B). “You’ve got pretty eyes.” 
Response: “Uh, thanks?” 
C: “Wow! Your eye boogers are huge!” 
Response: “Get away from me!” 

Not all choices in the game award the player with points. For example, choosing to visit the library may not get you any points, but it will give you a chance to interact with Romantic Partner A (whereas visiting the pool lets you meet with Romantic Partner B). The player can leverage information to find these events – “Oh, A likes reading, so I should go to the library.” 

This score is influenced by things other than dialogue choices. Some games allow the player to give gifts that increase points, some have mini-games, and so on. The game’s ending is determined not only by which branch of the story you follow, but also by how many points you have. 

Figure Five: Point system 

Even taking points into account,  the player only has two resources to manage: information and choices. Through reading the story and paying attention to the object of their affection, the player is able to make choices that move the story in the desired direction. 

That's the basic structure. Now let's complicate it. 

Sentimental Graffiti has most of the standard features of a dating sim. There are multiple romantic interests, you make dialogue choices, and the story progresses based off of how many points you accumulate. However, the story never truly branches - the best ending can only be received by jugglingi all of the romantic partners. 

The protagonist is a Tokyo high school student who moved to twelve cities around Japan in his early childhood. During this time, he met twelve girls with whom he formed a special relationship (surprisingly, this in not a euphemism). One day, he receives an unsigned letter that simply says "I want to meet you." He believes this letter came from one of the twelve girls, and so he embarks on a quest to figure out which one sent it. 

Because these girls live all across Japan and the protagonist is still a student, Sentimental Graffiti is as much of a resource management game as a dating sim. He can only travel to meet them on weekends and holidays, and travelling requires the expenditure of time, money, and energy. The player has to balance these resources to maintain relationships with twelve girls in twelve different cities in order to achieve the best ending.

Traveling costs time, money, and energy
AKA, Waifus in different area codes
The player can telephone the girls to set up dates for a specific day and time in advance, which requires carefully constructing elaborate travel plans. A poorly planned three-day weekend involves crisscrossing the country multiple times and can leave you too broke to travel the next weekend. Finding yourself stuck in Hiroshima when you need to be in Sapporo in five hours is a nasty experience. 

The mystery letter also complicates the usual dating sim formula. The protagonist's motivation is not the search for true love, but rather figuring out which girl sent the letter. Why he leads them on with months of dating instead of just asking them if they sent the letter (or asking for a handwriting sample) is perhaps a greater mystery. 

Seriously, just check the handwriting!
At any rate, my original plan was to meet all of the girls once and then follow up the ones I thought were most likely to have sent the letter. Imagine my surprise when the eight I decided to give up on started leaving me passive-aggressive voice messages. At first they complained that I wasn't meeting them, but then they just started leaving silent voice messages. This went on for months of in-game time.

I  saw a lot of this dialogue box
Finally, I got tired of the silent voice messages and called them back. Their family members informed me that they were so broken up over not dating me that they ran away from home/fell in with a bad crowd/gave up on life. Remember, this is after meeting them one time after years of no contact. 

Oh faceless protagonist, you heart-breaking cad.
This was something that I had truly not planned for. I can work out train schedules and finances, but there's just no anticipating insanity/the deeply misogynistic attitudes of Japanese game developers. 

Ultimately, I enjoyed the resource management aspect of Sentimental Graffiti more than the story. It was an interesting twist on the standard game mechanics of the genre, but figuring out how I was going to get places was more interesting than what happened once I arrived. Between the mercenary protagonist and the all-too-eager girls, it seemed less of a dating sim and more of a cautionary tale about codependence.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

[DC011] Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody: Plastic Databases

Previous: [DC010] Pixar's Woody: Normativity in Toy Story

                Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody (“Revoltech Woody”) was released for sale in Japan in July of 2010 as part of a series of Revoltech figures modeled after Pixar characters. Of course, Pixar's Woody is a computer animated representation of a cloth doll, which is itself a representation of a wooden puppet from the fictional TV show Woody's Roundup. Therefore, when we talk about Revoltech Woody, we are talking about a plastic representation of a computer simulation of a cloth doll version of a fictional wooden puppet - which is itself constructed to recall the cultural ideal of the Wild West Cowboy. Strictly speaking, Revoltech Woody is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of a fictional imitation of an inaccurate portrayal of a semi-historical group of human beings.

                Kaiyodo has taken great care in making Revoltech Woody an accurate representation of Pixar's movie character. As the blurb on the back of the box states, “Pixar's CG toy becomes a real toy!” Care has been taken to tie the toy to the movie character by attention to the smallest details - Andy's name written on the right boot in a childish scrawl, an empty gun holster. Perhaps the only major departures from the toy depicted in the movie is a difference of materials (a plastic toy instead of a cloth doll), size, and the lack of a pull-string voice box (although a non-functional string is included).

"I'm a real toy!"
                Revoltech Woody figure comes in a cardboard box decorated with images of the toy and diagrams of its accessories and functions. A text blurb on the back explains briefly who Woody is, accompanied by a technical breakdown: what scale the Revoltech model has been crafted in, its size, its number of posable joints. Another blurb on the right side extolls the virtue of the “Revolver Joint System” which gave the Revoltech series its name and allows for their wide range of posability and customization.
Inside the flap
                 A flap on the front opens, revealing the toy itself (behind a plastic window). The other side of the flap has an essay on Woody's role in the Toy Story movies by manga artist and essayist Yamamoto Naoki.    Beneath the essay is a series of images from the movies, with explanatory footnotes.  The essay begins with a nostalgia-inducing speech about the plastic models and toy robots of youth. Yamamoto uses the bulk of the text to outline Woody's personality and important events in the Toy Story trilogy. Beneath the text are images from the movies, with further explanatory text. Revoltech Woody is placed side by side with Pixar's Woody, showcasing the iconic scenes which the consumer can reproduce with the Revoltech toy.

                Additional notes detail the movies' release dates, director, production company, and other details of a distinctly historical nature. This reflects Kaiyodo's concern with models as a tool for transmitting “cultural heritage.” The box serves both to appeal to potential consumers, but also as a vehicle for preserving and conveying cultural information. So then, contrary to what we might expect from a toy aimed at supposedly postmodern, animalistic otaku, the box text takes care to record Woody's historical context.

                The packaging does not just put Woody (the character) into a historical context, it also takes pains to establish the historic position of value of Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No.10 Woody. While Azuma's Third-Generation otaku supposedly place no special attachment to the position of author, artist, or creator, Woody's packaging proclaims the toy to be “sculpted by Matsumoto Eichiro”  no less than six times (four times in English, twice in Japanese). Describing Woody as “sculpted” frames it less as a toy and more as a work of art, echoing Miyawaki Osamu's “art plastic.”

                The concern with historicity also manifests in information which assures the consumer of Revoltech Woody's exact technical specifications. The box lists the toy's size, scale in relation to the original character, and number of movable, posable joints. These posable joints are a particular point of interest, since the box boats that Revoltech Woody is a “realistic model with the ability to be put into any pose imaginable.” This posability (along with the accessories) fulfills a historical function, in that it allows the consumer to reproduce Pixar's Woody with the highest possible accuracy.
The Revolver Join system
                As opposed to traditional sculptures (or plastic models and garage kits), which reproduce a figure in a single point of time in a static pose, Revoltech Woody has the ability to be constantly recast as an almost infinite number of “Woodys.” It attempts not just to reproduce an accurate physical likeness of Woody, but rather a dynamic emotional likeness of Woody, mimicking the original Pixar character's full range of expressivity.
                This attention to detail is surprising, given Azuma's claim that Third-Generation post-modern consumers are animalized, ahistorical beings. Not only is fictionalized history from the Second Generation present in Yamamoto's essay detailing the world of Toy Story, First Generation concerns are also addressed by defining Toy Story's place in real-world social history as the world's first fully computer animated feature-length film. 

                However, the packaging does not simply present Revoltech Woody as an accurate representation of Pixar's Woody. It also takes pains to establish it as part of the Revoltech brand. This second appeal is, if anything, more strongly made than the first. The word “Woody” appears 17 times on the entire box (5 times in English, 12 in katakana), including Yamamoto's essay and the captions for the accompanying pictures.

                In contrast, the word “Revoltech” appears 28 times on the box (18 in English, 10 times in katakana), not including the usage of similar words such as “Revolver Joint.” The entire bottom and right sides of the box are given over to advertisements/explanations of the Revoltech brand, with no reference to Woody. In fact, the only surface on the box which does not prominently display the Revoltech name is the inside flap with Yamamoto's essay. The Revoltech brand name is even more important than the Kaiyodo company name, which appears only 10 times total.

                This emphasis, this repetition of the Revoltech name is not simple advertisement of a brand name, but an attempt to emphasize the unique functionality of Revoltech toys. The bottom of the box has a series of four diagrams and explanatory text on “How to make poses like the ones on the package.” The right side of the box is dedicated to a full explanation of the Revolver Joint system, specifically mentioning that parts from one Revoltech figure can be swapped out for those of another. 

                The back of the box details all of the different parts and accessories included with the figure - different hands, faces, articles of clothing and so on which can be swapped out to create the consumer's preferred version of Woody. This is the essence of the appeal to Revoltech; it is not a simple appeal to brand loyalty, but a promise of flexibility, customizability, and adaptability. To say that a figure is “Revoltech” assures the consumer of a certain level of control over the consumption experience, the ability to easily create and recreate infinite versions of a character through the Revolver Joint system.
Options and accessories
                The toy itself provides any number of examples of this. Revoltech Woody has fourteen primary Revolver Joints (neck, right shoulder, left shoulder, right elbow, left elbow, right hand, left hand, waist, right hip, left hip, right knee, left knee, right ankle, left ankle). The hands can be removed and replaced.  Revoltech Woody comes with seven different hands, one of which “belongs” to Buzz Lightyear.

                Revoltech Woody also comes with two faces, one with a normal expression and one described as the “evil plan” face. The faces can be removed and the positioning of the eyes can be adjusted to “look” in any direction. Finally, Revoltech Woody comes with a detachable cowboy hat, a microphone, and “Lenny,” another Toy Story character that Woody uses as a pair of binoculars.

                What we have in Revoltech Woody is a figure custom-made for the Third-Generation consumer. Whereas garage kits come as a set of dissected pieces meant to be assembled into a pre-determined whole, Revoltech Woody comes as a pre-assembled whole intended to be dissected. The arms of a garage kit model must be carefully cut from a plastic frame, painted, and glued into place. Revoltech Woody can be disassembled and reassembled in seventeen different places with the absolute minimum of effort. While the packaging presents Revoltech Woody as a vehicle for cultural information, the figure itself resembles nothing so much as Dejiko - a simulacra made up of database elements which can be switched around at will to cater to the particular tastes of consumers.

                In Millennial Monsters, Anne Allison defines the “polymorphous perversity” as consisting of “continual change and stretching of desire across ever new zones/bodies/products” (277). While Allison points out examples of this in diverse Japanese media products from Power Rangers to Pokémon, this quality of polymorphous perversity is perhaps most clearly seen in the Revoltech line. Whereas a Tamagochi may be gender-queer and Pokémon may take place in a deconstructed, ultra-fluid postmodern environment, the Revoltech system has the capacity to break down media properties that started with social narratives (such as the morality of play in Toy Story) and convert them into polymorphous perverse collections of database elements. 

                The Revoltech line is not simply a brand to which consumers are meant to form an affective alliance with. It is a physical database of moe elements, the Tinami search engine rendered in plastic. While First and Second Generation consumers may be attracted to the cultural and historical information provided by the packaging, the toys themselves consist of continual change, of an infinite variety of possible bodies which can be easily assembled and disassembled.

                Whereas a garage kit consists of a limited number of parts intended to be assembled into a single “correct” finished product, a Revoltech figure comes with too many parts. No matter how a consumer puts together Revoltech Woody, he or she will still have “left overs,” extra hands and faces. Revoltech Woody is not designed to be completed, he is designed to be eternally “incomplete.” Like a split atom, his power consists not in wholeness, but in the released energy of separation.

                One of the main features of Azuma's Database Model is that it has a “double-layer structure of information and appearance” (33). The underlying information forms the database, which is “read up” by consumers into individual small narratives. Kaiyodo Woody has the exact same structure. First, Pixar's Woody was converted into the underlying structure, the “accumulation of encoded information” comprised of the individual Revolver Joint pieces (32). From these pieces, any number of small narratives can be constructed, of which the “historical” one presented in the essay or Toy Story are only one option among many.

                 Whereas Toy Story presented physical disassembly as an act of horror which destroys a toy's ability to speak, the Revoltech system presents physical disassembly as a means of creating any number of Woodys suited to the consumer's particular tastes. Instead of destroying a toy's ability to communicate, the Revolver Joint system, with its excess of hands and faces, allows for the toy to “communicate” a much wider array of potential emotions than a traditional, static toy.

                Unlike Sid, who dissects his toys from a position of egocentric non-recognition, postmodern animalistic consumers engage in recombinative play because they feel an emotional attachment to characters and to the moe elements from which they are constructed. Like the gamers Azuma describes, who “break” the code of their favorite visual novels so that they can create new scenarios and engage in further play, animalistic consumers of Revoltech Woody are able to pull him apart and reconstruct him in order to engage in an almost infinite array of emotionally engaging play scenarios.

                Like the toys in Toy Story, Revoltech Woody comes with a pre-constructed corporate narrative. In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear internalizes the marketing blurb that appears on his package, a short description of his role as a Space Ranger. Kaiyodo's marketing blurb far outstrips this message both in length and in detail. However, while Buzz Lightyear struggled to create a new identity distinct from his built-in blurb, Revoltech Woody has had no such trouble.

                In a sense, Revoltech Woody is a microcosm of Kaiyodo and of Azuma's three Eras. He addresses Grand Narrative concerns of historicity and technical accuracy while also functioning as a Database-driven simulacrum. Here we see Miyawaki Osamu's concern for plastic models as art and as vehicles for cultural heritage, Miyawaki Shūichi's concern for accurate representation of fictional characters, and Third Generation concern for polymorphous perversity in a single product. Consumers can relate to Revoltech Woody in their own manner of choosing.   

                While Pixar's Woody was clearly from the Era of Fiction, the international response to Revoltech Woody leans more toward the Era of Animalization. By breaking down Pixar's Woody into a series of Database elements, Kaiyodo transformed an Era of Fiction character into an Era of Animalization toy. It should not surprise us that Third Generation consumers were able to easily repurpose a toy with parts that can be interchanged with hundreds of other Revoltech figures away from its original corporate narrative to an original one. It may surprise us just what form this new, consumer-driven narrative took.

Next: [DC012] Creepy Woody: Polymorphous Perversity