Monday, June 30, 2014

News Dump

Various bits of news and future planning today:
  1. My Little Po-Mo, Book 2: Book 2 is running a bit late but proceeding apace. I will almost definitely miss the July deadline, but hopefully by no more than a couple of weeks. I will also be writing the commissioned essays during the next couple of months, so expect to see those soon.
  2. My Little Po-Mo, Book 3: The next book will compile the Fanworks Month and Derivative Works Month articles, plus Season 3. I expect to run a Kickstarter for it in September, October at the latest. (Kickstarter fail rates skyrocket in November-December, so if I don't get it by then it's not happening this year.)
  3. My Little Po-Mo, endgame: This past weekend's Equestria Girls post was the final Derivative Works Month article. Ever. Next week begins Season Four, which as I've said several times is the end of the project; I will do Season 5 liveblogs, but I am not planning on doing full articles for it. Season 4 coverage will begin, as I said, with the ending, then jump back to the beginning. I do not expect any lengthy breaks, just the occasional guest post here and there while I'm at a convention, so My Little Po-Mo should end in about 30 weeks, give or take.
  4. Site redesign/move: So, I got an e-mail this morning that the domain name I registered last year expires in two months. Eh-heh-heh... oops. I really do want to get moving on this, but I am very much at sea with these things, so it's taking a long while. It WILL be happening at some point, though.
  5. The Very Soil book: No Kickstarter for The Very Soil, as I said. I am hoping to have it off to the editor by the end of the month. It will of course contain all of the The Very Soil articles, with expansions and revisions, and right now I'm looking at adding three more, one each on Kazumi Magica and Oriko Magica, and one additional "Against _____."
  6. Let's Plays: Recording begins tonight, if all goes according to plan. Our first two games will be Final Fantasy III (the U.S.-released Super Nintendo game, FF6 in Japan) and The Ur-Quan Masters HD. Not sure yet if we're going to go straight through one and then the other, or alternate. Our next game after that will probably be Terranigma, but that's pretty far off. Not sure yet about formats and release schedules; we'll play it by ear.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gak (Equestria Girls)

If you average their expressions, you'll basically
get what I looked like while watching this movie.
It's June 16, 2013.The top song is the controversial "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, and the top movie is the dour Superman-as-kaiju flick Man of Steel. In the news, Edward Snowden is revealed as the source of the NSA leaks in the U.S. and defects to Hong Kong (he will ultimately end up living in Russia); Russia bans positive depictions of homosexuality; and it comes out that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against its own citizens in the ongoing civil war there.

Meanwhile, the Friendship Is Magic movie Equestria Girls, written by Meghan McCarthy opens to a limited run of 200 screens. So let's start with the obvious: This movie isn't very good. The animation is not as much better than the show as one would expect for a theatrical release, the story is redolent with high-school drama cliches, and the songs are (deliberately, according to composer Daniel Ingram) modeled on contemporary girl-group pop, which is to say simplistic, autotuned to oblivion, and lacking in variety.

So let's take that as a given, set it aside, and try to find something more interesting to say, because somewhere underneath the "new girl transgresses established high school factions, becomes darling of all" is the potential for a good movie about more interesting topics.

Consider the intense contrast between settings. Ponyville is practically defined by a lack of cliques or classes. Government officials of wildly differing rank, farmers, artists, artisans, and the apparently unemployed are fast and easy friends in this world, while different races of pony live together and interact harmoniously. Certainly there are circles of friends--the Mane Six themselves form one--but they are not as insular or exclusive enough to be cliques. Most of the Mane Six have friendships outside and distinct from the rest of the group, most obviously Pinkie Pie, but in addition Rarity has her friends in high society, Twilight has Cadence and arguably the other princesses as well, and Rainbow Dash's interactions with the other pegasi in Ponyville are at least readable as implying friendship. The closest things to cliques in the show are, unsurprisingly, among the schoolchildren: the Cutie Mark Crusaders are very nearly one, with the exception that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can assume Apple Bloom and Twist are still friends. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, on the other hand, are definitely a clique.

By contrast, one of the first things Twilight Sparkle learns about Canterlot High is that it is defined by cliques, which operate as independent factions. Fluttershy outright states this ("Maybe it was different at your old school, but at C.H.S., everybody sticks to their own kind,") and lists off several such cliques, including "the athletes, the fashionistas, the dramas, the eco-kids, the techies, the rockers..." and notes that Sunset Shimmer dominates over all of them. This is the familiar world of high-school cafeteria politics, but something interesting is very subtly implied later in the movie, when we learn this world's versions of Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie were friends early in high school, before Sunset Shimmer split them up.

Look at that list of cliques again. Athletes? That's Rainbow Dash. Rarity is definitely a fashionista, and Fluttershy would doubtless fit right in among the eco-kids. Fluttershy's list doesn't have a clique for every member of the Mane Five, but it's not likely to be a complete list of cliques, either; what it does do is establish a pattern. Applejack and Pinkie Pie don't really fit into any of the cliques she mentioned; it's possible that they could be in some kind of baking-centric clique together, but the interactions of the Mane Five throughout the film suggest that they haven't seen each other much in the years since Sunset Shimmer targeted them. More likely is that each of the five are in separate cliques (indeed, Pinkie Pie's party-planning committee may be one)--which means that they initially had a strong, cross-clique friendship.

The existence of that friendship, in turn, implies that the school's cliques were much less isolated prior to Sunset Shimmer's arrival; more like the friendship circles typical of Ponyville, in other words, than the rigid and frequently hostile cliques of high school cliche. It is an outside force, a manipulator seeking control, who drove the Mane Six apart; it seems likely that she has done the same to the school, dividing and conquering.

The cliques, in other words, are artificial. They are constructs created specifically to divide the students, to prevent them from accomplishing what they could if they were united. This exploitation of the instinct for tribalism to divide people against their own interests resonates with many phenomena throughout our culture, particularly in the political arena, but let us follow the movie in keeping the focus on high school: where do cliques come from? They cannot be an instinctive and inevitable part of adolescence, though they are often depicted or implied as such--there's little trace of such behavior being a particular and peculiar feature of youth in media before the 1950s or so, for instance. This is a recent cliche, which is to say a recent cultural phenomenon.

And as a cultural phenomenon, it is necessarily constructed by its participants. Cliques come from the students within those cliques, from the ways in which they choose to act on their attitudes and biases. For all that the "Help Twilight Win the Crown" sequence seems impossibly utopian even by Friendship Is Magic standards, the film has been quietly building an argument for it throughout: cliques are not inevitable. Students create and enforce them, and can choose to relax them if they wish.

Notably, it is Twilight who persuades--leads--them to do so. The film makes rather a point of contrasting Twilight's initial discomfort with her wings to the necessity of adapting to bipedal locomotion and hands, with Twilight noting near the end of the film that adjusting to her wings should be much easier now. But those wings are simply a visual marker of her ascension to political authority, and her discomfort with them an echo of her uncertainty about her new role, a major theme of the coming Season Four. Likewise, her assumption of human form is a visual marker of the alien environment into which she is thrust in this film, high school. If she could climb to a leadership role there, and do a good job of uniting the students behind her in pursuit of a positive end, surely she can do it in the more familiar and convivial environment of Equestria.

Next Week: Season Four begins. And as I sometimes like to do, we'll start with the ending--which is in itself a reflection of the past...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Priority override. New behavior dictated.

Did you know that there's an HD version of The Ur-Quan Masters now? And that it's really pretty and has sweet little tweaks like planets and moons actually moving in their orbits, or resource blobs no longer evaporating if you only have room for part of the blob?

In news that is entirely and completely not at all related let me assure you, no Fiction Friday today. I apologize to all one and a half of you who actually read it. ;)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Let's Plays?

Sorry this is late. I forgot to actually queue it, so even though it was written in time, it didn't show.

My friend Viga and I have been talking about possibly recording some Let's Plays. Now that she's in town for a couple months, it's suddenly become actually feasible to do.

So, would there be any interest in seeing this? Current leading game candidates are leaning toward early-90s RPGs. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Nutcracker, the Mouse King, and the Puella Magi

The following is the record of a conversation I had with 01d55 regarding further resonances between E.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. 

[14:55] <Froborr> You wanted to talk Nutcracker and Rebellion?
[14:55] <Arrlaari> Yeah
[14:55] <Froborr> Is it okay if I log this and use it for Wednesday's post?
[14:55] == FoME [442704d2@gateway/web/freenode/ip.] has quit [Quit: Page closed]
[14:55] <Arrlaari> Of course
[14:55] <Froborr> Cool.
[14:55] <Arrlaari> I think I'll start by talking about Pirlipat and Marie, but first  I gotta look up how to spell Pirlipat correctly
[14:56] <Froborr> lol
[14:58] <Arrlaari> Dang, I got it right by memory this time. Here's the translation I'm using
[14:59] <Froborr> Okay.
[14:59] <Arrlaari> So, I'm going to call the Nutcracker "Prince Drosselmeier," and his uncle "Judge Drosselmeier", because Prince Drosselmeier is not the only Nutcracker in the story. Princess Pirlipat, like her destined prince, was a Nutcracker.
[14:59] <Froborr> *nods*
[14:59] <Arrlaari> She was born with a full set of teeth, and the clue that led Judge Drosselmeier to the ritual to remove her curse was how happy she was cracking nuts
[15:00] <Arrlaari> So Mouserinks' curse didn't turn either of them into Nutcrackers - they both always were and remained that - but it made them ugly, giving them the appearance of a toy Nutcracker
[15:01] <Arrlaari> When the curse is transferred to Prince Drosselmeier, Princess Pirlipat is repulsed by his ugliness and her father reneges on the promised reward (marriage into the royal family) and instead punishes Judge Drosselmeier, Prince Drosselmeier, and Gilder Drosselmeier with banishment
[15:01] <Froborr> Now, when you say they were Nutcrackers, do you mean the physical object, or do you just mean that they enjoyed cracking nuts?
[15:02] <Arrlaari> They were Crackers of Nuts
[15:02] <Froborr> Okay.
[15:02] <Arrlaari> Not simply that they enjoyed it, but they had notable talent for it
[15:03] <Froborr> Okay.
[15:03] <Arrlaari> Even though it was the King who decided to punish them instead of compelling them to accept a different reward, the story rather problematically condemns Pirlipat for rejecting Prince Drosselmeier and aggressively contrasts her with Marie
[15:04] <Froborr> *nod*
[15:04] <Arrlaari> In particular, Prince Drosselmeier himself asks the princesses of the Kingdom of Sweets if Pirlipat can compare to Marie, and they all immediately agree that Marie is way better
[15:05] <Froborr> Yes, it's the "how dare you have physical standards, person whose entire society treats ugliness as a terrible curse" thing.
[15:05] <Arrlaari> This website deliberately makes it hard to copy and paste from it
[15:06] <Arrlaari> The last time Pirlipat is spoken of, it is the Prince calling her "the cruel Princess Pirlipat for whose sake I became ugly"
[15:07] <Froborr> Urgh.
[15:08] <Arrlaari> But there's something interesting that happens much earlier: Marie sees a face looking up at her from the water of a lake in the Kingdom of Sweets and says that it is Pirlipat, smiling up at her. Prince Drosselmeier tells her that it is not Pirlipat, but Marie's reflection
[15:09] <Arrlaari> And Judge Drosselmeier tells Marie that she was born a princess like Pirlipat, to which her mother replies that she thinks she knows what the Judge is talking about, but can't explain why
[15:10] <Froborr> Huh.
[15:11] <Arrlaari> A buddhist reading is clear: Marie is Pirlipat's reincarnation (it is implied that a great time passes between the tale of the hard nut and the events of the story), but Prince Drosselmeier does not want to forgive Pirlipat and therefore committs himself to the illusion that they are different people
[15:12] <Froborr> Wait, when did Pirlipat die?
[15:13] <Arrlaari> It's not explicitly said, but it's implied that Judge Drosselmeier, a wizard, outlives all the other characters in the Tale of the Hard Nut except the Prince, who is ageless as a Nutcracker doll
[15:13] <Arrlaari> This might be a tenditious reading but I think it works
[15:13] <Froborr> All right.
[15:14] <Froborr> (I am no stranger to tenuous readings, you may have noticed.)
[15:14] <Arrlaari> And now I turn to Madoka magica. Madoka is Pirlipat and Marie (who are the same), and the moment Homura "becomes ugly for her sake" is when she, at roughly the same time, reverts the timeline in which Madoka killed Mami but killing Madoka herself.
[15:15] <Froborr> *nods*
[15:15] <Arrlaari> Where the Prince commits himself to the illusion that Marie is not Pirlipat, Homura commits herself to the illusion that Madoka is blameless for the self-loathing that she feels for this
[15:16] <Froborr> Ahhhh I think I'm starting to get it.
[15:16] <Arrlaari> The idea of Madoka's innocince (I know I mispelled that) becomes next to sacred for her
[15:17] <Arrlaari> Note that this moment is when Homura suddenly changes her self-presentation, which subsequent iterations of Madoka finds frightening and off-putting
[15:18] <Froborr> yep!
[15:18] <Arrlaari> The last episode of the series, when Madoka suddenly rescues Homura from defeat at the hands of Walpurgisnacht, parallels the end of the battle between the Nutcracker & dolls against the Mouse King and his army - in the book, this is not when the Mouse King dies, and in the series, Kyubey basically escapes unscathed
[15:20] <Arrlaari> Afterwards, Marie is bedridden because she cut herself putting her had through the glass doors of the toy cabinet (nitpick time: in Against Homura you write that Prince Drosselmeier leads that battle from a clockwork castle. In the book, the Nutcracker and Dolls sally from the toy cabinet, and all but Drosselmeier retreat to the cabinet by the end)
[15:20] <Arrlaari> While Madoka becomes an existence outside of time and space
[15:21] <Arrlaari> Judge Drosselmeier tells Marie the story of the hard nut while she is convalescing, and also repairs the Prince's jaw. Madoka can see Homura's past from outside space and time.
[15:22] <Arrlaari> But shortly after she recovers, Marie wakes up in a state of sleep paralysis, and the Mouse King emerges to threaten the Nutcracker's life, demanding Marie's candy in return
[15:23] <Arrlaari> The Mouse King's mother, Mouserinks, came into conflict with Pirlipat's family over fat (which was to be used in sausage), and the Mouse King demands candy. Sugar and Fat are known for being more or less "pure calories" - and calories are a unit of energy. The mice want energy, just as Kyubey does.
[15:24] <Froborr> Bit of a stretch, but I'll go with it.
[15:24] <Arrlaari> And so Kyubey threatens Homura's life (or afterlife), effectively demanding additional energy from converting magical girls into witches
[15:27] <Arrlaari> Marie gives into two nights' worth of the Mouse King's demands before the Prince asks that she instead give him a sword, and he uses it to slay the Mouse King off camera. As he reports his victory to Marie, he invites her to tour his Kingdom. Madoka gives Kyubey nothing, instead breaking Homura out of the seal. Homura takes Madoka to her own Kingdom of Sweets (named by the signage in the last shot before the credits) without
[15:27] <Arrlaari> while the universe is being rewritten, conqueres Kyubey decisively
[15:28] <Arrlaari> It's a little bit out of order but basically fits
[15:28] <Froborr> A bit, yes.
[15:28] <Froborr> And arguably Madoka actually does give Kyubey something--the Incubators still get to collect their energy in Madoka's new timeline, it's only after Homura resets it that they're cut of.
[15:29] <Froborr> *off
[15:29] <Arrlaari> The Incubator's decide to cut themselves off (too dangerous!), but Homura insists that they continue to collect the curses that have been spread about the world - so she isn't yet cutting them off
[15:30] <Arrlaari> Although she later implies that Maju, and hence the cubes, are finite
[15:30] <Arrlaari> It is significant that the movie ends on this note, because The Nutcracker does not. The death of the Mouse King does not break Mouserinks' curse, and Homura's triumph over Kyubey does not break the self-loathing that is her curse.
[15:32] <Arrlaari> After the tour, Marie returns to her home, and it is from there that she does break Mouserinks' curse, whereafter Prince Drosselmeier appears in his true form to ask to be engaged to marry her. Only after that, plus an unspecified delay (Marie is nine years old) does Marie come to permanently reside in the Prince's kingdom.
[15:33] <Arrlaari> Reading Homura's life as a retelling of Prince Drosselmeier's therefore leads us to predict that Madoka will indeed escape as she threatened to do in the hall scene, but also suggests that there is hope that this could lead to a true healing experience for Homura.
[15:34] <Arrlaari> So I got this far and I haven't even mentioned Sin, which is a big part of my thinking on this
[15:34] <Froborr> Okay. So let's talk sin.
[15:36] <Arrlaari> You've associated Homura with a form of Care Ethics, as that's the system that justifies Homura's decisions. For exactly that reason, Care Ethics cannot be the system to which Homura conciously subscribes. Homura does not believe herself to be justified, even before she declares himself a demon and the embodiment of evil.
[15:36] <Froborr> An excellent point.
[15:37] <Arrlaari> Homura appears to subscribe to the Christian value system in which Virtue is opposed to Sin. When thinking about the illusory world she has been trapped in, she thinks, in regard to forsaking their duty to hunt Maju, "such a sin should be unforgivable"
[15:39] <Arrlaari> One of the key elements of the idea of Sin is expressed, imprecisely, in "whosoever lusts after his neighbor's wife, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The idea can be clarified with a story about stealing an apple.
[15:40] <Arrlaari> Four people pass by an unguarded apple cart. The first is not hungry, and gives the cart little notice.
[15:40] <Arrlaari> The second is hungry, and thinks "I would like to take one of those apples and eat it, but they do not belong to me, therefore I have no right to take one."
[15:41] <Arrlaari> The third is likewise hungry, and thinks "I would like to take one of those apples and it eat, but I may be caught and punished as a thief"
[15:41] <Arrlaari> The fourth thinks "I would like to take one of those apples and eat it", and then does so
[15:42] <Arrlaari> The first man is innocent. The fourth man is guilty of theft. The second man has resisted temptation through virtue, and the third is no less a thief than the fourth - he has stolen the apple in his heart.
[15:44] <Arrlaari> And so even though Homura has reversed the timeline in which she shot and killed Madoka, she still believes that she carries the sin of murder in her heart. In Rebellion, there is a scene where she says that "she thought she could bear any sin" - and because she is willing to do anything for Madoka's sake, she has, "in her heart" already done everything
[15:44] <Arrlaari> Including, for example, murdering  Sayaka in cold blood.
[15:45] <Froborr> Wait, when'd she do that?
[15:45] <Arrlaari> She didn't - but only because Kyouko prevented her from doing it
[15:46] <Arrlaari> Therefore, by the standards she believes in, she had already killed Sayaka "in her heart"
[15:47] <Froborr> Ah.
[15:50] <Arrlaari> On the other hand, Homura thinks of Madoka as being purely innocent - she not only would refrain from murder (or any other bad act), she would not even think of it. Only the horrible circumstances of being a magical girl could spoil that innocence and cause her to kill Mami, and Homura believes she erased that timeline
[15:51] <Arrlaari> But after her ascension, Madoka can percieve that the distinction between things that did and did not happen is an illusion - as a Goddess she is no less the person who killed Mami than the person who merely witnessed Mami's death, or the person who never met her
[15:52] <Arrlaari> That is something Homura, so far as I can tell, never processes. She thinks of Madoka Law of Cycles as being sacred like a god, especially pure.
[15:53] <Froborr> It likely helps that Madoka is not Christian and therefore has not been subjected to this particular brand of bullshit.
[15:53] <Arrlaari> More importantly, Madoka is the person who asked Homura to kill her even though that timeline was about to be reverted. She is cruel Princess Pirlipat, for whose sake Homura became Sinful.
[15:54] <Froborr> Ahhh, that's how we get back to the Nutcracker.
[15:57] <Arrlaari> And if Homura's curse is to be broken, it will have to be through forgiving Madoka - but that cannot happen while Homura denies Madoka's responsibility, and therefore also her agency.
[15:58] <Arrlaari> And that also leads to the prediction that before that, Madoka will escape her current circumstance.
[15:59] <Arrlaari> As far as I can remember, that's all, except for a very tenuous reading of Judge Drosselmeier
[15:59] <Arrlaari> Which is tangential to the themes
[16:00] <Froborr> Go for it, though, this is very interesting stuff.
[16:01] <Arrlaari> Alright. It's hard to map the Judge to any of the characters who appear in Madoka Magica or Rebellion. As the one who leads Prince Drosselmeier to get into trouble in an attempt to rescue Pirlipat, he lines up with Kyubey, but afterwards he works to get the Prince out of his predicament - and Kyubey is already the Mice.
[16:02] <Arrlaari> Furthermore, he's a blood relative to the Prince, but Homura appears to have no relatives.
[16:03] <Arrlaari> However, there is a figure who is metaphorically related to Homura. To contrast Madoka and Homura, Gen Urobuchi once said that Madoka is an "Ume Aoki character", while Homura is a "Gen Urobuchi character."
[16:05] <Froborr> Hmm.
[16:05] <Arrlaari> Judge Drosselmeier is described as a clockmaker as well as a judge, but it's clear that Judging pays the bills and clockmaking is a passion - he's simply a gear geek. There is a clockwork castle in the book, but rather than being the Prince's castle, it's one of the Judge's works of art
[16:05] <Froborr> So the Judge is Urobuchi?
[16:06] <Arrlaari> When Fritz and Marie ask him to make the people in the castle move differently, he tells them that "once it has been put together, it only goes one way" and when they lose interest, he sulks until their mother asks him to show her how it works, which cheers him up.
[16:07] <Arrlaari> And yes, The Judge is Urobuchi - when he is about to begin telling Marie the story of the hard nut, their mother says "I hope, dear Mr. Drosselmeier, that your story won't be as horrible as the ones you usually tell."
[16:08] <Froborr> Heheh, which of course draws this and Princess Tutu inexorably closer together.
[16:09] <Arrlaari> The Judge is the one who brings the Prince to Marie, but he also brings the Mouse King to the both of them - he stops the Grandfather clock from striking twelve, which is implied to have either summoned the Mouse King or prevented the chime from warding him away
[16:10] <Arrlaari> Also notable: The Prince clearly resents the Judge. When Marie tells him that the Judge will fix his jaw, his eyes shoot green sparks. During the tour, when Marie recognizes the lake as being like one the Judge once promised her, the Prince dismissively says that she is as likely to make such a lake as the Judge
[16:13] <Arrlaari> The Judge knows that only Marie can break the curse on the Prince, and manipulates the circumstances to bring that about, just as Urobuchi knew that only Madoka could break the curse on his works, represented by Homura
[16:15] <Froborr> Innnteresting.
[16:16] <Froborr> And again, the fact that Drosselmeyer is the main villain of Princess Tutu and his primary motivation is a preference for stories that end in tragedy makes this whole interpretation hilarious in the best way possible.
[16:16] <Arrlaari> I didn't know that about Princess Tutu, which I haven't seen, but that is pretty great.
[16:17] <Arrlaari> I brought up the Judge's gear geekery for two points - one, Urobuchi is evidently a firearms geek, two, the line about "once it has been put together, it only goes one way" suggests fatalism.
[16:17] <Froborr> You should! Drosselmeyer is the main villain. He is more than a little bit implied to be the same character as from the Nutcracker, though more the ballet than the book.
[16:18] <Froborr> Plus there's all the clockwork imagery associated with Homura.
[16:18] <Arrlaari> Yeah. In the book, the clockwork castle goes on the top shelf of the toy cabinet, with the rest of Drosselmeier's "works of art"
[16:19] <Arrlaari> I found that element of his characterization quite endearing
[16:19] <Arrlaari> Perhaps mostly because I am favorably inclined towards geeks, even of things for which I am not myself geeky
[16:23] <Arrlaari> But I think it's really cute how this man, who is an ancient wizard, goes into a childish sulk when children don't appreciate his clockwork castle, and then cheers up as soon as he's asked to explain it
[16:24] <Froborr> Fair enough.
[16:26] <Arrlaari> I think that's all I've got. Do you have questions?
[16:26] <Froborr> Nope. This was a really interesting interpretation.
[16:26] <Froborr> I clearly need to actually read the Nutcracker now.
[16:27] <Arrlaari> Oh, one observation: When Kyubey is explaining the experiment to Homura, she is standing in a glass cabinet
[16:28] <Arrlaari> After reading the translation I linked above, I was able to see several visual callbacks that I hadn't associated before.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A video game story structure I'd like to see more of

Apologies for lack of posting. I got really, really sick on Sunday and remained such throughout yesterday. Still a bit wobbly, but I can work.

So I've been thinking a little bit about video game storytelling. Basically, most genres of video game tell their stories indirectly, through visual and musical cues and the gameplay itself, without much in the way of traditional text. (See Mega Man II for arguably the moment at which this technique was first perfected.) The player themselves constructs most of the narrative, imbuing their character with personality through the decisions the player makes in the game.

Of course, as video games have become more filmic, this approach has been somewhat superseded by the use of tools such as cutscenes and voice acting to firmly establish the characters' personalities, while increasing amounts of text (both written and spoken aloud) permit the establishment of more complex, concrete stories. There's nothing wrong with this shift (unless you're substantially worse at coming up with compelling characters than your players were, see Final Fantasy series, history of), and some truly great games have been made which give the player no say in the story at all--I like Xenosaga as much as, and probably more than, the next person.

But one structure I really like, and wish there were more of, is a combination of the two: a game where you both control a character and shape who they are and what they do, and participate in the telling of a complex and interesting story. Specifically, one that does this by distinguishing between plot and story, between a sequence of events in linear time and the presentation of those events to the player.

Namely, I'm referring to video games where the story begins very near the end of the plot, and part of the game consists of discovering what happened up to this point. Two games come immediately to mind as doing this well, and both use similar mechanics to accomplish it: Metroid Prime and The Ur-Quan Masters.

In the case of the former, by the time Samus arrives on Tallon IV, virtually the entire plot has already happened: the Chozo encountered, were corrupted by, and then annihilated by Phazon, then years later the Space Pirates began experimenting on it, creating Metroid Prime. All that is left is the final chapter, in which Samus stumbles onto the Space Pirate base, finds her way to Metroid Prime, kills it, and destroys the base. From the perspective of the Space Pirates, it is a story of their hubris and resulting humiliation and destruction by their equivalent to the boogeyman; from Samus' perspective, it's the story of another day's work blowing up Space Pirates and their dangerous biological experiments, albeit one with long-term consequences explored in the sequels. But the plot of both stories is the same--and within the game, which is from Samus' perspective, it's revealed almost entirely through files the player has the option of finding and reading.

In The Ur-Quan Masters, once again by the time the player's ship arrives at Earth virtually the entire plot has already happened, a span of thousands of years of which the game itself comprises at most five to seven (depending on how quickly the player moves and whether they manage to get the time limit extended). It is a rather more text-heavy game than Metroid Prime, as befits an action-RPG as opposed to a first-person shooter, but since the player both picks their dialogue options and is not voiced, there is still significant freedom for the player to shape their character's personality. More importantly, the player is simply dropped into a world in which there are quite a lot of things going on, with no walls and no limits except the fuel capacity and fighting capability of their ship. The number of tasks which have to completed to end the game is quite small compared to the number of tasks available, and there are few restrictions as the to the order in which the player can complete those tasks, meaning the story is very much up to the player to shape. But optional conversations with others can reveal a plot stretching back thousands of years, full of pain and revenge and tragedy (quite astonishing in a game as generally lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny as this), with more recent events generally easier to discover than more ancient history.

In both games, because relatively little of the plot happens during the story, it is possible for the writer to exert fine control--and thus finely craft--that plot, creating something compelling, interesting, and professional, while the final few beats are provided by the player, creating something immersive, interactive, and personal. It's a fine compromise between the demands of story and the demands of game, and one I'd like to see more of.

*The greatest game of all time, previously titled Star Control II before the owners of the trademark on the name screwed over the owners of the copyright on the code and story. If you have not played it, go get it, it's been open-source for years now. No, really, stop reading right now and go play it. I don't care if you're at work, do it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ponify everything! (My Little Investigations Case 1: True Blue Scootaloo)

I mean, there's definitely still Ace Attorney in its DNA.
It's April 9, 2014. The top song is "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, arguably the best to date of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the news, the High Court of Australia takes a step in the right direction by establishing a third, "other" gender, while the U.S. Supreme Court takes another step toward plutocracy by overturning the limit on how much an individual can donate to a political campaign; pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine declare an independent Donetsk People's Republic; and on the day this game is released, a student stabs 20 people at a high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

Friendship Is Magic is on a two-week hiatus before the final four episodes of Season Four, but pony fans have something else to occupy their time: after three years of development, the fan group Equestrian Dreamers releases the much-anticipated first installment in a planned series, My Little Investigations. The premise of this series is to combine the setting and characters of Friendship Is Magic with mechanics based on Ace Attorney Investigations, a spinoff of the Phoenix Wright series that focuses on investigating and solving crimes through point-and-click adventure game mechanics.

I have written before about Friendship Is Magic crossovers, and noted with both Doctor Who and Phoenix Wright that there is a tendency for said crossovers to consist of Friendship Is Magic characters having an adventure in the style of the other work in the crossover--that is, for the narrative structure of Friendship Is Magic to deform in order to fit into the other work, as opposed to the two meeting in the middle. In the case of Doctor Who I explained it in terms of that series' flexibility and ability to emboit and absorb other stories; in the case of Phoenix Wright I pointed to the rigid, ritualistic structure of the series as necessitating Friendship Is Magic to change to match.

However, it is worth considering that Friendship Is Magic itself may be the cause of this phenomenon. The series has notably strong characters, clearly defined and with readily accessible, idiosyncratic personalities, but relatively less worldbuilding and continuity than most of the geek-culture icons that tend to show up in crossovers. The very strength and diverse personalities of those characters makes it both easy and appealing to imagine them in different settings or story types, such that, for example, it is easier to immediately imagine what Twilight Sparkle would do upon finding herself in Middle-Earth than to imagine what Frodo would do on finding himself in Equestria--and easier to imagine how Applejack's response would differ from Twilight's than it is to imagine how Pippin's would differ from Frodo's.

But this isn't a crossover; it is literally an attempt to place the Friendship Is Magic characters into the structure and mechanics of another game. Why, then, does it feel more like Friendship Is Magic than any of the genuine crossovers I've looked at for this project?

Which is not to say that it perfectly emulates Friendship Is Magic's feel. It is very much a fan game--like "Double Rainboom," it is at times more interested in depicting the characters as fanworks tend to than as they are depicted in the show. This is most notable with Pinkie Pie, who, rather than merely interacting with the medium or occasionally showing hints of knowledge she would not be expected to possess, instead flagrantly and directly addresses the player, makes references to being in a video game, and provides tutorials which, according to her, she learned by reading a walkthrough of the game. From the perspective of other characters, especially Twilight Sparkle, this comes across as typically incomprehensible Pinkie Pie behavior, but the player knows exactly what she's talking about. The result is that Pinkie becomes predictable, her actions completely explicable, and therefore no longer funny.

But despite this gaff, it does feel very much like Friendship Is Magic's world and themes. Several familiar, but non-obvious, Ponyville locations are used, namely the town center, Carousel Boutique, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders' clubhouse. By avoiding some of the more iconic and outlandish, locations, such as Golden Oak Library, Fluttershy's house, or Rainbow Dash's house, the game creates a real sense of Ponyville as a place where people live.

The story also feels like something that could be an episode. The premise of it is that Scootaloo accidentally rode her scooter through Rarity's window while practicing stunts, and witnessed the theft of a large emerald called "True Blue." However, since Rarity only saw Scootaloo there, that makes her the prime suspect, and the investigative team being sent from Canterlot is not known for competence. Twilight thus takes it upon herself to find Scootaloo, who has disappeared, clear her name, and solve the crime before the investigators arrive.

Much of the story is predictable from the opening scene; this is very much the sort of mystery story that the audience solves long before the detective, as is often the case in the Phoenix Wright series. It is fairly obvious that Scootaloo is hiding because she's afraid of being punished for breaking Rarity's window, and that the Diamond Dogs from "A Dog and Pony Show" are the thieves. Far more interesting, in the end, is why they stole that particular gem--and again, that seems fitting for Friendship Is Magic, with its strong emphasis on character.

The game even has friendship lessons--notably, ones broadly related to honesty and kindness, which is interesting because Applejack and Fluttershy are the only members of the Mane Six who do not appear. Indeed, in having two friendship lessons that play off of one another, it rather anticipates Season Four's practice of doing precisely that. (Although it was released late in Season Four, the long development time makes it highly unlikely that Season Four had any influence on the game's story.)

One of the game's mechanics also enhances the feel of it being a pony game, rather than an Ace Attorney game with ponies in it: the Partner System. Introduced a little over halfway through the game, partners are characters that follow Twilight around and have up to two abilities, one passive and the other needing to be triggered by the player. The first partner available in this case is Apple Bloom, who has only a passive ability because she doesn't have a cutie mark--namely, she causes interactions with the Cutie Mark Crusaders to change, because of her friendship with them. The second is Rarity, whose passive ability is to change interactions with Diamond Dogs because she intimidates them, and whose active ability, based on her gem-finding spell, triggers a sort of Hot and Cold minigame that can be used to find otherwise invisible clues.

This reliance on friends is a welcome addition to the standard point-and-click mechanic, and as I said works well with the Friendship Is Magic characters and setting. I imagine that future games will have puzzles that require switching between partners, which could be interesting.

Ultimately, My Little Investigations shows that it is at least possible to create a "crossover" that retains a strong Friendship Is Magic feel. Time will tell if more begin to appear in other media.

Next week: I guess I don't have any choice, do I? There's no legitimate way to skip discussing this.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy: Episode 4

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. That is back to the usual time.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Good movies can be problematic too

I dunno what's wrong, I just can't make my brain do fiction today. Since I already had this post queued up for Monday, I'm moving it up, and I'll swap Fiction Friday to Monday.

So, I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Edge of Tomorrow. Both are quite entertaining high-concept action movies, and I recommend them both.

That said, holy crap are they incredibly white. HTTYD sort of has an excuse, in that it's in a fantasy setting with Vikings... except not really, because they've already given the Vikings fucking dragons, having some variation in skin tone wouldn't be more of a departure. Plus, I do think it says something that most of the escapist fantasy worlds our culture provides, from Leave it to Beaver to, well, How to Train Your Dragon,  are suspiciously monochrome.

Edge of Tomorrow, meanwhile, depicts a massive multi-national fighting force, in a world where continental Europe has already fallen (that's not a spoiler, it's established in the opening montage), and it's got maybe three black guys and one Latino. Most notably, apparently no one in all of Africa and the Middle East is paying any attention whatsoever to the massive alien army knocking on their gates, since there's no mention of them being involved on the Mediterranean front.

And again, yeah, we only see the forces stationed in Britain, but the accents imply that most of the forces there are American. The American military is nowhere near that white--but of course this is an escapist action fantasy, and apparently part of what filmmakers and audiences want to escape from is the existence of people of color.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

And now, it's once again time for Controversial Opinions Stated Without Context!

Some of these may be repeats from last time, I dunno. I didn't bother checking. Heck, I can't actually remember if this was something I posted on this blog or my old one--based on the fact I seem to recall getting comments, I suspect it was this one.
  • Yes, and claims to the contrary are just conspiracy theories.
  • The non-alarmist position is that it's an existential threat to the continued ability of our civilization to exist.
  • It's honestly neither a particularly original nor a particularly appealing story.
  • It should be a civil offense, not a criminal one.
  • I honestly don't care either way.
  • Yes to both, because they're not contradictory.
  • It's largely illusory.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Against Ourselves (Rebellion)

The precise moment at which Rebellion turns us against ourselves is about a fourth of the way through the film. Up until that point, it has depicted the happy world that, as any viewer with a trace of empathy must concede, the characters have more than earned. Throughout the series, we followed these young women, suffered with them, hoped against hope that they would be able to find some form of happiness.

In the end of the series, arguably, they did, but there is little denying that the ending to the series is bittersweet. Homura is alone, the only one who remembers Madoka. Madoka is gone forever, never born to begin with. The rest of the magical girls still fight, still suffer, still sink into the uttermost depths of despair to become witches--but are mercy-killed by Madoka just as they do. 

Sayaka still died for a boy who barely noticed she was there. Mami and Kyoko are active as magical girls, so we can presum Mami's parents are still dead and Kyoko's family still perished in a murder-suicide. 

The end of the series was an honest ending, not a happy one. It depicted the creation of a new, better world, but far from a flawless one. 

That flawless world is what we see in the first segment of Rebellion. All five magical girls are alive and working as a team. Their interpersonal difficulties are reduced to flirtatious teasing between Sayaka and Kyoko. The psychic damage of Homura's time-travel shenanigans seems healed: Homura is back to her shyer, less confident, but more pleasant and cheerful glasses-wearing pigtailed self, and Madoka is both more cheerful and more confident, more like the version Homura first met at the beginning of Episode 10. 

The Nightmares are almost laughable as a threat. If Hitomi's Nightmare is anything to go by, they pose no physical threat to the girls, don't torture them psychologically, and can be reduced to literal moe-blobs. What's more, they release a massive abundance of Soul Gem-cleansing light when killed, which as I've noted before not only permits, but encourages, the girls to work together, and in addition provides more than enough energy to keep them from blackening their Soul Gems and dying. Instead, the girls get to be magically powerful and visually impressive, fighting as a team against jus enough difficulty to feel useful without ever experiencing the horrors of the series. 

This is what we, collectively, as an audience, wanted. Oh, most of us understood that the ending as it stood was probably aesthetically better, but enough fanfiction by those too inexperienced to know better or too invested to care exists to make it clear: we wanted better for these girls. And here the movie comes, and gives us exactly what we asked for--until Homura starts to figure it out. 

Like Paradise Lost before it, the show tricks us into rooting for someone who is trying to destroy our paradise. Homura knows this happy world is untrue, and therefore we know that by investigating it she will destroy it. From her initial conversation with Kyoko, the world becomes less and less realistic, until by the time the two realize they are trapped in the city the world is an abstraction of red field and white lines, the bus the only recognizable object. Soon after, Homura becomes the familiar glasses-less, straight-haired, darkly stoic girl we remember from the series, and the familiar site excites us even as it means the happy world is deteriorating still faster. 

Soon after, we see the battle teased throughout the first three episodes of the series, as Mami and Homura come to blows. The resulting battle is visually stunning, as Homura and Mami both employ their respective powers and extensive arsenals to the fullest. It is exciting, dramatic, well-animated and scored--and horribly, horribly wrong. As a set piece, it is a long sequence that advances the plot little, the characters and themes not at all; it is exciting, but blatantly gratuitous, a pure piece of audience pandering of the sort the show deliberately shied away from most of the time. And then Homura shoots herself in the head, and Mami dissolves into ribbons, the pandering turned suddenly to horror. 

Getting what we want is a disappointment and leads to horror. Nowhere is this as clear as in the film's climax, when Homura and Madoka are reunited and it all goes horribly wrong, resulting in a world where all the girls are free and alive and Madoka doesn't have to be a magical girl--a corrupt world ruled by a demonic demiurgic Homura who is holding Madoka prisoner. 

We bought our tickets, sealed our contracts, and got our wishes, and they turned to ashes around us. Desire leads inevitably to suffering. 

Why? Because we might wish for happiness, but we need truth. This is not to say that despair is truer than happiness, but rather that the truth of Madoka is entropy and the inevitability of decay, and the series ha consistently equated physical entropy and decay to the feelings of depression and despair. To end straightforwardly, uncomplicatedly happily, to give us what we wish for without corrupting it or snatching it away is to deny itself. 

So the film forces us to reject our own desires for the series. Those who revel in its darkness and spiky difficulty must endure being pandered to with fanservice, pushing them to deny their own fandom. Those who embrace the fanservice must face where it leads. Both must deal with the deeply ambiguous final arc of the film, as Homura creates a world simultaneously darker and brighter than the world of the series, yet more coherent than the dream-world of the film.

Thus, the series places the viewer into the position of the magical girls. Pursuing our desires for the series leads to it becoming tragic. Our wishes transform into curses as down the spiral we go, until we find ourselves, at the climax of the film, wishing for Homura the witch to tear apart the world--and then when she does, we must live with the reality created by that wish.

By turning us against ourselves, and showing how our wishes for the series betray us, the film makes one last effort to push empathy onto us. Like the series in its first few episodes, it offers spectacle and fanservice to draw us in, and then, once the trap is baited, it makes us feel for the characters. Even more so, however, it makes us feel as the characters--empathy as opposed to sympathy--by placing us into a situation analogous to theirs. That moment of confusion, of alienation, of wrongness when Homura pulls Madoka apart? That is a small taste of what it feels like to be a magical girl.

I said above that this is a series about entropy and decay, depression and despair, and it is. But it's easy to forget that it's about other things, too, and by turning us against ourselves it reminds us of those other things.

This isn't just about Buddhism, or German literature, or the magical girl genre. It isn't just about entropy and suffering, or just about thematic complexity or the possible psychological issues of its implied, gestalt author. It isn't even just about characters, blobs of light and color created by animators and voiced by actors. It's also about us.

In the end, as in the beginning, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story about people.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A thought regarding JRPGs...

There are very few JRPGs which would not be improved by having enemies take less damage and do more. The single biggest flaw of the JRPG genre as a whole is that most combat is fairly tedious and lacks a sense of risk.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections on Nintendo's E3 showing...

Though I am most assuredly an ex-gamer, I watched Nintendo's E3 show. (I did not bother with the other two consoles because I am enthused with neither the Car nor Gun genre of games.) There was a lot of interesting stuff on display--particularly heartening was the large number of playable women in their games, though sadly, except for Midna (who is an imp) and some of the Mii Fighters they showed for Smash Bros., POC were nonexistent.

Smash Bros. continues to surprise with its character roster, though I remain saddened by the loss of Subspace Emissary, which was essentially an unusually entertaining crossover fanfiction wrapped around a fairly solid Kirby game. Hyrule Warriors is shaping up to be actually interesting--if you've played one Dynasty Warriors, you've played them all, but I haven't played one in a decade and it looks like the Zelda skin they're slapping on is pretty well-crafted.

Speaking of Zelda, I have no opinion about the new Zelda game because they haven't shown us the new Zelda game. They've shown us an open field that may or may not be pre-rendered, and a chase scene that definitely is.

Yoshi's Woolly World looks good. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse looks good. Xenoblade Chronicles makes my Xenogears/saga-loving heart sing. Pretty much the only things they showed that I'm not enthused about are the Amiibos, which are blatantly a way to favor players with extra cash to throw at games, and Bayonetta, which is a series I don't care about in a genre I don't care about.

And so the whole thing makes me a little sad. It's the first time I've missed video games in the months since I last played one--indeed, the first time I noticed it's been months since I played one. It's not like I made a conscious choice to quit gaming. It's just that for a few months now, when I have free time I've picked up a book or the TV remote, not a controller. It's just that I didn't finish the last three games I bought, even though I enjoyed them. It's just that video games cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, two things I don't really have at the moment.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that I can either do this blog or play video games, and I know which is the better choice. But still... twinge of regret.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

RIP Golden Oak Library (The Elements of Harmony)

It is June 4, 2013. The top song is "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Ray Dalton, which from what little I can follow of the lyrics seems to be about hedonistic spectacle as a form of revolution. Appropriately, the song is overlong, but has a nice brass bit near the middle. The top movie last weekend was Fast & Furious 6, and the top movie next weekend is The Purge. You will know doubt be utterly unsurprised to learn that I know nothing about either of them; in my defense, I did watch three movies in May and June that all hit number one at the box office, just not either of these two.

In the news, the Obama administration expands sanctions on Iran; the trial of Chelsea Manning--at the time frequently misgendered and misnamed in the press as Bradley Manning--for leaking classified documents in the WikiLeaks scandal begins; and over three million people take part in the world's largest gay pride parade in Sao Paolo. Equestria Girls comes out in two weeks.

And, the reason we are discussing this day in the first place, The Elements of Harmony: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: The Official Guidebook by Brandon T. Snider. There is fairly good reason not to tackle this book. It is in many ways the anti-My Little Po-Mo, and official, hardcover, slickly produced, full-color, heavily illustrated guidebook. It is informative, straightforward, unpretentious, and unchallenging; this is not the sort of book whose author likely ever giggled to himself over the tricks his latest entry played on the audience.

Which is not to say it is entirely without tricks. The cover of the book is, quite cleverly, designed to mimic (other than the title and the Friendship Is Magic logo) the book which was the very first object seen in the series. The inside of the front cover and the frontispiece are filled with quotes from the show, in different colors, fonts, sizes, and orientations, which is reflected by a similar patchwork of (entirely different) quotes on the last page and inside back cover. The book is an island of order within the chaos of the show, a straightforwardly organized and neatly summarized guide to the messy, mazelike realm depicted by the quotes.

Which is to say, it is mostly far less interesting than the show itself. The majority of the book (pages 82-213 of a 255-page book) is taken up by quick summaries of every episode of the first three seasons, and most of the rest is a dramatis personae. There are occasional quotes from the writers and staff of the show, which can sometimes be quite interesting, and the attempts to quote friendship lessons in episodes that lacked letters to Princess Celestia can sometimes be entertainingly odd (Princess Celestia's speech quoted in the entry on "Magical Mystery Cure" sums up to "Twilight is great"), the book is sorely lacking in production details or anything else not easily available in wiki form. This is odd, since the only people likely to purchase a book like this are adult or teen fans who probably already have access to the wiki.

The book is quite aware of those fans. The final chapter is a strange discussion of the fandom, shifting from the light, children's book diction of the episode descriptions to a (213-250) patter that would fit right into a press release from Hasbro's marketing department. Compare "At first, Twilight believed the spell had no effect, but now she knows it accidentally switched her friends cutie marks, causing them to do things they aren't good at!" to "In a market flooded with animated programs and requisite toy lines, My Little Pony has excelled because of its combination of branding and substance." Most curiously, although the final paragraph of the chapter is written as if it is the conclusion of an apologia for teen and adult, non-parent fans, the bulk of the chapter talks about the show empowering young girls and being a useful teaching tool for families. It sits strangely within the book, and it is perhaps appropriate that it is hemmed away from the rest of the book by song lyrics on one side, and the quote-maze of the back cover on the other.

By far the best parts of the book are the two segments where Lauren Faust is given space to speak. In her an interview near the middle of the book, she talks a little bit about process, about how she views the characters, and most interestingly, explains her thinking behind having some villains reform and others not, gesturing toward what I have noted before is one of the show's most-needed lessons, that some people will never be friends and that's okay. Even better is the foreword, where she talks about the magic of "frilly pink silliness." It is well worth reading in its entirety, but the core of it is the penultimate paragraph, a justification of not only Friendship Is Magic itself but its fandom, this blog, and everyone who's ever written thousands of words about "frivolous" entertainments:
If we give little girls a respectful treatment of the things they like--if we dare to take it as seriously as they do--we will see for ourselves that it's not so silly at all. We can truly appreciate the merit they see in it. And, amazingly, we can enjoy it ourselves.
This is a silly book. It is an information-light guidebook to a series too simple to require one, easily dismissed as just a cash-grab from deep-pocketed fans in the lead-up to the show's theatrical debut. But nothing is silly--which is to say, everything is equally silly. If this is a show worth taking seriously--and there are people who take it seriously, so it must be worth taking seriously--then it is a show worth having this sort of book for.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Special Early Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy: Episode 3

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 12:00 p.m. EST. That is two hours earlier than the usual time.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pulling a thread

Onwards with Felda!

Dinner that night was a quiet affair, at least for Felda. She sat in the eye of a cyclone of noise and activity, picking at her food while her mind flowed down the threads connecting her to Brom. Felda supposed it should have been disorienting, seeing and feeling through two minds at once, but she found it surprisingly easy. So while Lal told off the twins--fifteen and full of what Felda's mother called "barley" and Felda called "being obnoxious little brothers"--for slipping some of their greens onto her plate, and Felda's sisters Lem and Hanni (eleven and eight, clever and ever-conspiring) chattered rapidly and loudly to one another, Felda slipped away to relax with Brom, even while her body remained at the table.

She could see the stars through his eyes, tiny points of light and color just starting to come out on the east side of the sky. Below them were the mountains, small and dark purple against the darker-purple sky. Somewhere between here and there, Felda knew, were the Blightlands, where the realms of the Dark One had been before the Great War. She liked that they were there--anywhere associated with that many capital letters had to be an interesting neighbor. But they were too flat and low to be visible over the gently rolling hills of southeastern Toftor, and perhaps that was for the best, given the stories.

When she was younger, Felda had tried to imagine it. From her books she had an idea of what war was like back in the olden-times. She could picture the long lines of sword and archer crashing into each other while bondlings tore through them like puppies scattering beetles. She could envision great spells lashing through the air above the armies, fire and lightning exploding. Where her imagination failed, however, was the end of the war. All twelve dragons on the field at once, eleven against one, all the energies of creation imploding against an entire kingdom. A people, a language, a realm, snuffed out in a moment.

The said the Dark One survived, or came back, and lurked around the edges of the world, scheming still. Felda believed it. Everyone knew you couldn't kill a dragon for very long. Even eleven other dragons probably couldn't do it for all the centuries since. She was less sure about the stories of his bargains, that he could appear to humans and offer them contracts, his power for their servitude. That made for too good a story to be real.

She finished her food, then asked to be excused. Her mother grunted a reply, then returned to arguing with the twins, while her father attempted to deal with a sudden barrage of questions about whatever it was the girls had gotten in their heads. 

Felda walked outside into the cloudless, moonless night. The last of the sky was fading into darkness now. She looked up at the stars and felt the earth extending just as far beneath her feet. 

She would, she realized, never be able to explain, to anyone in her family, any of what she experienced that day. 

She looked at herself with Brom's eyes. She had the same straight, thick dark hair as her mother, the same dark eyes with little flecks of lighter brown as her father. Everyone in the family--practically everyone she knew, except Lal and Laal--had the same red-brown skin and oval faces, and like the rest of her family she was tall and wiry. To look at, she was one of them, sister to her brothers and sisters, daughter to her parents. She could walk down to the village and talk to countless cousins and old friends of her parents and children of those old friends. 

But none of them would ever understand what she felt when she felt down into the earth and looked up into the sky. 

She felt something wet and cool in her palm, and a rush of hot air over her fingers. Brom nuzzled her hand, and without looking she ruffled his fur. 

Well, almost none of them. It was getting late. She went back into the house to go to sleep.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Update on Future Plans

First off, in case you missed the announcement yesterday, The Very Soil is ending next week. As I mentioned before, there will not be a Kickstarter for the book version, but there will be a book version, including both revised versions of all the blog posts making up The Very Soil and new articles exclusive to the book. I am currently projecting release some time in the fall.

Now, a few months ago I talked about starting immediately on my next big blog project, The Near-Apocalypse of '09 as soon as The Very Soil was done. That's not happening for a couple of reasons. First of all, the DCAU is both enough older than Madoka or Friendship Is Magic, and distributed over a long enough period of time, that something like a true psychochronography is possible for it. I therefore wish to attempt one--and that requires a lot more advance research and planning than more traditional forms of analysis. I'm just not ready to start yet! Second, there is another project I want to do--the very nature of which requires that I not publicly discuss what it is until it's complete--and there's no way I can do it, My Little Po-Mo, and Near-Apocalypse at the same time.

So, the current plan is that Wednesdays will become normal "thought of the day" days. I'm building a backlog of Thoughts About Utena Episodes I posted at Mark Watches, so I'll probably use those for the first few Wednesdays. Maybe I'll dedicate them to variable-length musings on anime or something, but they won't have any "official" recurring feature. Fridays will continue to be Fiction Fridays, and I'm going to be sticking as much as I can to Felda and her adventures. Sundays will be My Little Po-Mo until I run out of episodes, at which point they will become The Near-Apocalypse of '09.

Finally, a bit of near-future planning: I'm busy Saturday and can't do the liveblog. Options are:
  • Skip this week.
  • The usual thing where you folks do it and post it in a comment, and then I come behind and do my own liveblog later.
  • Move it two hours earlier.
I'm mildly against skipping it, but basically open to all three options. Sylocat, it's your chatroom, so I'll leave the decision up to you--please comment and let me know what it is.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Against Homura (Rebellion)

You're gonna carry that weight.
There is a recurring image throughout the Madoka Magica movies, one we have briefly mentioned before: a rather sweet tableau of two white chairs on a grassy hill, Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side in them. In the opening credits of the first two movies, they cuddle, sweet and adorable, and innocent. In the third movie, the image turns rapidly rather less sweet.

As she goes through the process of becoming a witch at the climax of the second arc of Rebellion, Homura returns to the chair scene. But this time, Madoka stands and casts herself sideways off the chair, splattering into a pink stain on the grass while Homura reaches for her helplessly. Homura crouches beside her, eyes wide in shock and horror, while a crowd of tall, attenuated Homuras surround her, gazing down. And then the vast fist of a raging Homura smashes the crouching Homura, railing and weeping beside the remains of Madoka.

Madoka is gone, her coherent identity replaced by a diffuse abstraction. Homura failed. Now Homura stands in judgment over Homura, and finds her wanting. Her rage and grief at last unleashed, she smashes her own identity to become an abstract and esoteric being herself: a witch.

Just like Sayaka, and presumably every other witch, before her, Homura's witch form is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, a psychodrama in which she acts out the events that brought her to despair and punishes herself for her failures. She tries to shoot herself, and the self she shoots becomes the Madoka she had to mercy-kill. She cannot die, does not deserve to die, the way that Madoka did, because she has failed to save Madoka.

Not only failed to save her; Homura is the reason Madoka is gone. Her looping through time empowered Madoka to become the Law of Cycles, which erased Madoka from reality. Her discussion of Madoka with Kyubey gave the Incubators the information they needed to construct the trap now closing on Madoka--and they used Homura to create that trap. Homura is Madoka's greatest liability.

Homura's witch form is among the most literal. She has the peaked black hat, the prominent nose and chin--other than being a skeleton hundreds of feet tall, she looks rather like the standard Halloween costume of a witch. Homura knew about witches and where they come from, and yet she still failed to avoid that trap, even embraced it deliberately in a bid to foil Kyubey. Unlike Sayaka, who believed herself a knight and so still looked like one as a witch, Homura knows what she is choosing to become. Likewise, she is deliberately sacrificing herself, as she tells Kyubey: she trusts Mami and Kyoko to kill her. Thus her familiars lead her to the guillotine, the mechanism of her sacrifice and instrument of judgment for her crime.

At the same time, she is surrounded by imagery related to the nutcracker. One type of her familiars is giant teeth with nutcracker jaws. Another resembles toy soldiers, but with their high fur hats resemble the traditional Christmas nutcracker as well. An image of a grinning mouth clenching a walnut in its teeth appears when she first starts to realize that she is the witch in whose labyrinth the magical girls are trapped. And she loses half her head, leaving only the lower jaw--a mirror of the titular nutcracker of E.T.A. Hoffman's story and Tchaikovsky's famous ballet based on it, who lost his lower jaw. The doll-like appearance of many of her familiars and prominence of clockwork also recall the original story of "The Nutcracker," in which the Nutcracker led an army of dolls from a clockwork castle.

At a basic level, the image of a nutcracker without a jaw is an image of uselessness, an object without purpose. There is a deeper resonance here, however, if one recalls the tale-within-a-tale of the origin of the nutcracker in Hoffman's story. The nutcracker was once the chosen one, described in prophecy as the only one who could rescue a princess cursed by the Mouse Queen. He had to perform a complex ritual to save her, but just as he completed it, he tripped over the Mouse Queen, and so the curse fell on him instead. This is Homura, relaxing because she believed she had helped Madoka escape her fate, only to discover that she'd failed in the end because of the intervention of that little rat Kyubey. It is, in other words, yet another way to blame and punish herself.

But the magical girls refuse to cooperate. They refuse to join Homura in judging her. They refuse to hate her and refuse to kill her. Instead, they work to free her, break the labyrinth and the Incubators' trap so that Madoka can take her off to magical girl heaven. Despite her raving and her pleading, they insist on forgiving her. They reject Homura's judgment, and demand that she reject it as well. They want her to forgive herself and free herself.

But Homura has been fighting Homura from the start of the movie. Throughout the first arc of the film, Homura seeks the mysterious and invisible tyrant who rules the seemingly happy world in which the magical girls find themselves, with the intent of destroying it. It is the discovery that she is that tyrant which leads her to call down a curse on herself and transform fully into a witch; all of this is part of her rebellion against herself.

That rebellion has not ended by the end of the film. Homura describes herself as evil and embraces the role of the scantily clad, black-winged devil-woman. But what difference is there between saying "I am evil" and "I deserve to be punished?" This is simply another expression of her guilt, a new way of tormenting herself.

She has elevated herself to a cosmic being, a demiurgic entity who appears to have near-unlimited powers over material reality and the people in it: she can rewrite Sayaka's memories, bring back the dead, construct an entire new history for Madoka's family in order to reverse the first episode. And yet she chooses to make a world where she is alone, isolated from the friendships she was starting to build with the other magical girls. She chooses to let Sayaka tell her off before the memory erasure.

The only real emotion Homura shows in the new reality she created is panic, when Madoka threatens to reconnect with the Law of Cycles. When, in other words, Madoka nearly brings about the return of a cosmic entity of hope and forgiveness, capable of ending Homura's suffering. Above all, Homura cannot allow that; she must suffer for failing Madoka, making things worse for Madoka. She must preserve Madoka eternally in a state of innocence and safety, cut off from her potential, because protecting Madoka is Homura's only concept of "good"--and so her failure to do so is her only concept of "evil."

It could have ended. If the other magical girls had simply killed her, she would be beyond further punishment, and her suffering would have ended. But they, in their cruel mercy, forced her to go on, forced her to find another way to keep protecting Madoka and punishing herself. She hates them for that, for failing to hate her as she hates herself. In her new world, she expresses her hatred by passive-aggressively mocking its targets. She breaks a teacup behind Mami. She taunts Sayaka as her memories decay, mimicking Sayaka's loss of self when she became a witch. She tricks Kyoko into wasting food.

And, in the stinger, she throws herself off a cliff next to a white chair, mirroring Madoka tipping off of it earlier. Her hatred for herself has not changed. All that has changed is that now she has the power to make the magical girls hate her, to position herself as their enemy in the hopes that they will finish the job.

Ever since the movie aired, there has been debate over Homura's new status. Is she hero or villain? Here, then, is the answer to that question: Yes. Homura is both the villain of Rebellion and the hero battling that villain.

And here, also, is the answer to that question: No. Homura is the villain's victim, whom the hero must rescue.

Her witch's barrier expanded to encompass the universe. She is the entire story, now.

Next week will be the final post of The Very Soil.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I think the Sight from the Dresden Files books could make an interesting game mechanic

The idea is a survival horror game, right? And you can enter a mode where your senses are enhanced. Maybe items you can interact with get a sort of aura, some metaphorical-type stuff happens like maybe a killer has bloody hands or something, I dunno, and there's no direct cost in the sense of a meter going down or whatever. But the scary shit gets even scarier, because you're seeing partway through the Veil, and maybe there's a good game-mechanical way to reflect the whole "nothing seen with the Sight can ever be forgotten" thing. Increased SAN damage, maybe? Or bits of stuff you see with the Sight start drifting around the screen like afterimages, even when it's off? Interface screws?

I dunno, I'm not a game designer. Just think it could be cool.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Good feminist-ally role models

So, Amanda Marcotte has a piece up where she takes Ross Douthat* to task for his claim that male film characters predating second-wave feminism were less prone to misogyny than modern male characters. She does a pretty good job of giving examples of appalling misogyny in characters played by famous leading men like John Wayne, Carey Grant, and Jimmy Stewart.

What I'm now wondering about is the opposite: What are some modern (let's define this as 2000 and later, to put us firmly in the third wave) examples of male characters who are actually worth emulating, particularly from a feminist perspective? Not necessarily perfect, obviously, but basically decent men who aren't sexists. I can think of a couple--Steve Rogers in the MCU, Big Macintosh in Friendship Is Magic--and I'm sure there must be more, but I'm blanking on them. Any suggestions?

*Fun fact: You may occasionally see me describe particularly vile people as "douchehats." His name inspired me to coin the term. I have never pretended that I am not occasionally childish.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hit its weak point for massive damage (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Volume 3 and 4)

I met Jeff Keane at a party once.
Perhaps inevitably, it turns out Little
Jeffy grew up to be a boisterous,
hard-drinking,  foul-mouthed, bull-necked
mountain of a man with a linebacker's
build and a red crewcut. He made by far
the strongest impression of the dozen-odd
newspaper cartoonists I met that day. And
yet the strip he draws is the most
notoriously insipid, toothless crap on the
comics page. And so I was enlightened.
June is Derivative Works Month, when I take a break from analyzing Friendship Is Magic and instead focus on a mixture of fanworks and officially licensed works other than the show.

The comics that are the topic of today's post were released over a six-month period, from August 2013 to January 2014. As such, giving top songs, films, and news stories is once again unfeasible.

Unlike the first two volumes, the third and fourth volumes of IDW's Friendship Is Magic comic do not each comprise a single four-part story, but rather two two-part stories instead. As each individual story is thus too short to really get its own article, I shall cover all four arcs here in a series of two-shots.

"Zen and the Art of Gazebo Repair"
This and the following story restore the creative team of the first comics arc, writer Katie Cook and artist Andy Price, and it shows. Particularly welcome is the return of Price, whose busy, gag-filled backgrounds and fascinatingly complex layouts work extremely well in this comedic slice-of-life story following Big Macintosh as he desperately searches Ponyville's end-of-summer fair for the one pony that can sell him the nail he needs to repair the Apple family's gazebo. The first issue in particular is quite fun, as Big Mac is dragged repeatedly into the chaos of the fair, most notably a series of standard festival contests (a three-legged race, a pie-eating contest, and so on) partnered with Princess Luna. Also quite entertaining is the scene where he collides with the pegasus Fleetfoot and she, in a marvelously busy splash page, falls instantly in love and envisions their entire life together, including marriage, children, and retirement--only to be revealed on the next page to be suffering a concussion, not lovesickness.

Price plays extensively with the way time is portrayed on the page. Basic comics literacy tells us that splash pages establish a single moment in time in detail while breaking the page into panels shows a progression of time. Price starts the arc calling this into question by employing a technique he used heavily back in "The Return of Queen Crysalis," namely using a visual element of a splash page as panel borders into to achieve the effect of both simultaneosly. In this case, the first page of the comic looks into the Apple farmhouse through a window, using the window frame as borders to embed three panels of dialogue into the splash page. However, he also employs several other techniques to the same effect. Fleetfoot's coma-induced daydream is in some ways the inversion of this technique; she serves as a frame around the page, while countless little images with no borders fill the space she thus creates, telling a story but relying on the reader to supply the order. Somewhere in between the two is the technique he borrows from Bil and Jeff Keane's Family Circus: a single full-page image showing an aerial view of the fair, including multiple amusing micro-scenes, and a dotted line showing Big Mac's meandering quest, a montage in a single image. Our usual rules for depicting time on the comic page are not as absolute as we might think; the page can convey time in any way the artist can make work, because the page contains only space. Time in comics is an illusion. How very Zen.

"Neigh Anything"
Speaking of time, the next arc is a nostalgia trip, a journey back into the teen romantic comedies of the 1980s as first Shining Armor and then Princess Cadance relate the story of how they first met and fell in love. Price's artwork continues to be strong, but it is Cook's writing which shines here, as she subverts the romantic comedy formula common to such films. First, she quite deliberately tells the story twice, once from Shining Armor's point of view and once from Cadance's. In the first part, we see Shining Armor as the underdog nerd, picked on by the handsome bully. Of course Shining Armor falls for Cadance and believes he is unworthy, while the bully gets to go out with her, and of course Shining Armor and his friends concoct a series of wacky schemes (themselves homages to movies from the 1980s, most notably them dressing as the nerd band from Revenge of the Nerds). All of this is standard for the genre, in which, very frequently, women are depicted as agency-less prizes to be won via scheming and manipulation. (Revenge of the Nerds is particularly noxious on this front, depicting rape by fraud as both funny and a positive act which "earns" the rapist the love of his victim.) However, in a subversion of this narrative all of Shining Armor's schemes fail, and he is left alone.

This thread is picked up in part two, subtitled "Presentable in Periwinkle," in which we see Cadance's perspective and discover she is anything but agency-less. She never fell for the bully, who is as transparently obnoxious in her story as Shining Armor's, but he kept maneuvering her into appearing to be with him--in other words, his selfish behavior includes doing precisely what Shining Armor is trying and failing to do in the first part. In the end, it is Cadance who "wins" her preferred partner, not by game-playing but by first honestly telling the bully she has no interest in him, and then finding Shining Armor and telling him about her feelings. Romantic success, in other words, is not a product of flashy gestures or elaborate schemes; it is simply two people honestly expressing that they care for one another.

"My Little Pirate: Friendship Ahoy"
For the fourth volume, "Nightmare Rarity" writer Heather Nuhfer and artist Amy Mebberson return, joined by new co-artist Brenda Hickey. This first story, while an energetic and fun adventure romp on the high seas, lacks the energy and panache of the Cook-Price team. In particular, Mebberson and Hickey's art has more expressive faces, but this does not quite make up for the loss of Price's layouts and backgrounds. Nonetheless, it's a fun little story, a pastiche of pirate stories and particularly the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in which Hoofbeard, a pirate stallion clearly modeled on Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, leads the Mane Six in a quest for his lost treasure, which turns out to be his mermare lover. Along the way we get to see Twilight demonstrate why you do not try to kidnap an alicorn princess in a bar brawl and an extended reference to the short-lived brony meme of Rarity fighting giant crabs.

There is nothing much going on in this straightforward adventure-pirate-love story, but it does have a nice counterpoint in its B-plot, which follows Fluttershy's overprotective smothering of a fish she nursed to health shortly before the start of the plot, and her eventual realization that she has to let him go back to his family for his own sake and theirs, just as Twilight's magic empowers Hoofbeard to join the mermare's family. The two stories balance one another nicely, and help make clear that, like the previous arc, this is not a story about chasing down and controlling the object of affection, but instead about mutual care and love.

Untitled Sixth Comic Arc
The second story of the fourth volume is the most enjoyable of these two volumes, a metafictional romp as the ponies jump in and out of different stories pursuing a bookworm, whose eating is causing the stories to fall apart and the characters to emerge in Ponyville, where they cause chaos. The ponies discover that they can recreate the stories by filling in the roles of the missing characters, but since they do not get the stories quite right, the resulting books are distortions of the originals--and the bookworm soon realizes what they are doing and eats the story from around them, leaving them stuck in extradiegetic white space. Eventually they realize they can make up their own stories and fill the white space, which they hope will draw the attention of the bookworm and cause it to create a path they can use to get home. Meanwhile, stuck out in Ponyville with the fictional characters, Applejack, Fluttershy, and the fictional Daring Do team up to create their own comic, which they use to communicate with the rest of the Mane Six in the white space. Ultimately, it turns out that the bookworm loves the stories he is devouring, and is searching for a story with a worm hero. Twilight then tells the tale of how the worm used his memories of the stories he loved to restore the eaten books and return all the characters to their rightful worlds, saving the day. The story ends with the worm announcing his intentions to go out into the world, have adventures, and tell tales of heroic worms that all worms can take joy and pride in.

Metafictional fun aside, this story is a paean to fiction in general and fanfiction in particular. As fans of the various stories they travel into, the ponies create distorted versions and thus make space for themselves within the original narrative, which is one of fanfiction's major social functions. This is particularly important in the case of the worm, who is a member of a marginalized group that don't get to be heroes in the narratives of pony culture. By serving as the deconstructive critic, shredding the stories that have no place for him, he calls the attention of readers and gatekeepers (of which Twilight, as a voracious reader and politically powerful librarian, is both) to the problem. Then, inspired by someone at last making a story with room for someone like him to be a hero, he is able to model that behavior himself, and go on to make more stories for his people. This story is thus more than a metafictional romp; it is an object lesson in the importance of inclusivity and diversity in fiction.