Fall 2015 – Week 7 in Review

Things didn’t go so well this week! The majority of the shows I’m watching demonstrated some pretty lackluster episodes, from my favorites down through the bottom of the pack. Owarimonogatari’s new arc started off poorly, The Perfect Insider stumbled over its worst episode yet, and Utawarerumono tried to perform the same mediocre trick for a third time straight. In contrast, One Punch Man actually consistently impressed me, working as a satisfying episode of anime even outside of its visual tricks. We’ve got a lot of doldrums to get through, but let’s start with that positive note, and then maybe finish up with a guest appearance by something I really, really did enjoy.

So yeah, One Punch Man was solid. And not even the show’s usual “six minutes of gorgeous action, fifteen minutes of kinda meh comedy” solid – this week actually worked as a show I could legitimately invest in. In the episode’s first half, I was mainly thinking to myself how much more satisfying One Punch Man is when Genos takes the protagonist position. Genos has a compelling personality and can actually fail – his earnest articulation of the genre Saitama is only riffing on makes him far more interesting as a dramatic player. But then, in the second half, even Saitama got some great scenes, with his frustration at the city for not appreciating his help actually feeling like a rare point of emotional vulnerability. It’s still kind of weird to compare One Punch Man to something like Mahouka – there are clear similarities in the ways each show highlights a hero who’s awesome at everything, but everyone is just too dumb to appreciate him. But One Punch Man occasionally finds some fairly universal unhappiness in Saitama’s efforts, so it’s working for me so far.

One Punch Man

Beautiful Bones took some time away from the main characters this week, which I think was probably for the best. The actual mystery this week wasn’t at all interesting, but the mysteries never are – instead, it was the atmosphere that mainly benefited, with a side of character interaction. Sakurako is just an extremely uninteresting character – her personal mysteries are obvious, she possesses very little personality, and what personality is there conforms extremely closely to a classic “eccentric detective” type. In contrast, Kougami and her teacher Isozaki both felt like actual people, and because they’re not the genius-wizard stars of the series, they were able to be petty and caught up in personal annoyances and not particularly great at solving the mystery. Plus there were lots of scenes that simply used the festival to create a great sense of space or put you in Kougami’s head, and plenty of beautiful backgrounds. I don’t ask a lot of Beautiful Bones, and this episode met my expectations.

Beautiful Bones

This week’s Utawarerumono was underwhelming in pretty much exactly the same way the fourth and fifth episodes were, because it was basically an exact copy of those episodes. Like in the fourth episode, all the main characters were tasked with tolerating a new companion who was determined to cause trouble; and like in the fifth episode, the “surprising” last minute reveal was that this companion was an imperial princess, Anju. Utawarerumono got off to a strong start in its first three episodes, but it’s been faffing around with protracted character introductions for much too long now. I’m not going to drop the show, because its strengths still exist and it’s clearly going to get moving eventually, but it’s disappointing the show is taking so very long on every single one of these intros. If they were integrated into actually relevant narratives, or entered the plot as their roles became important, that’d be one thing – but all three of the recent introduction episodes have basically followed the format of “here’s a new person, here’s some incidental scenes establishing that new person’s personality, whoa-a-a looks like they’ll be sticking around for a while!” That is not particularly graceful storytelling!


Owarimonogatari’s new arc also didn’t start off all that well, unfortunately. Kanbaru can be an interesting person, but she’s one of the characters who suffers most through proximity to Araragi. Hanamonogatari, where she was trapped with her own problems, was wonderful – this stuff, where she mainly just makes sex jokes because that’s her Araragi comfort zone, is not. Not even in an “ugh, characters fawning over Araragi” sense (although that too) – it’s just that we’ve seen all this stuff before, and it wasn’t particularly funny the first time.

That said, the base concept of this arc is still very interesting to me. Araragi and Shinobu have one of the strongest and most weirdly broken relationships of any of the show’s characters, and until Ougi rose in prominence, I felt pretty sure it was going to be their separation that centered the finale of the series altogether. That might still happen, in fact – this arc is setting pieces in place long before stuff like Yotsugi Doll, and it seems very possible that Ougi and Shinobu each represent a different aspect of Araragi. Shinobu pushing him towards safety but also complacency with his early anxieties, Ougi shoving him towards danger but also potential self-knowledge. These characters work as people and as ideas, and I’m eager to see where the chips eventually fall.


As far as The Perfect Insider goes… look, at least this mostly-worthless, largely-infuriating recap episode had drunk Moe. You can’t take that away from me. Sure, maybe an eleven episode series that’s already slow as hell shouldn’t really be dabbling in useless episodes that switch between telling us things we already know and focusing on character relationships we don’t even care about, but hey. Drunk Moe. That’s pretty alright.

The Perfect Insider

And then there was Iron-Blooded Orphans. I played up One Punch Man in this week’s intro, but Gundam’s episode was actually significantly stronger – I’ve just come to expect excellence from Gundam, and so it didn’t feel as noteworthy. But yeah, this was a fantastic episode. I briefly wondered at the end of last week’s episode how they’d tie their old boss into the show’s brilliantly consistent momentum, and we got the answer immediately here – their boss has joined up with their potential guides, and so this hurdle comes as the obvious next step between them and earth. Basically everything in this show feels purposeful and weighted; I feel like I can have near total faith that this story knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there. And the journey is just as thrilling, with this week’s battle making use of basically every character and throwing out a pile of new tactical tricks and fresh dangers.

Mikazuki and his friends don’t fight like they have nothing to lose – they fight like they have everything to lose, gambling every single chip on every single encounter because they’ve nothing to do but press forward. It’s thrilling to watch these well-constructed characters fight with their backs against the wall, and I’m already wondering what broader conflicts might be hiding in the show’s second half. Gundam is basically the opposite of Perfect Insider – it is the rock-steady, utterly consistent narrative, assured in its strengths and never disappointing on any level.

Iron-Blooded Orphans

Finally, I also got around to playing through Undertale over the last couple weeks, which was a whole bunch of fun. I don’t think I had the earth-shattering emotional experience with it a lot of people seemed to, but I certainly enjoyed it. The soundtrack was great, the visual style was excellent, and there was a clear, strong sense of personality to the writing all throughout. Good structural tricks, and gameplay that ended up being enjoyable all the way through even though it didn’t feel like the focus. A great sense of humor complete with an internal joke vocabulary that built up over time, like a self-assured TV series referencing old favorite gags. The creativity to include lots of tonal and genre shifts, and the confidence to pull them off. The game was just excellent in general, really – I’d figured it was going to be one of those “quirky but flawed” indies that people gravitate towards, but this was just a really fully realized experience in every respect, from the aesthetic qualities to the style of storytelling to the cohesion of the gameplay.


It also presented a much stronger version of the “morality system” than most games get. That was the intent, of course – the game’s hook is that you can negotiate with everybody, and that you don’t need to kill anyone. Normally games basically ignore this necessary agency and still try to reap the emotional benefits of pretending it’s there – the classic “you were a monster all along” reveal that so many games jump for. But that reveal doesn’t have any emotional grounding if you weren’t given the choice to not be a monster, and Undertale prioritizes making sure that’s always true. I’d heard you only get the “real” ending of the game on a pacifist route, which I actually felt kind of limited my options – yeah, I really did like all the main characters, but I still felt Undertale was playing into that classic “being good won’t reward you… except it totally will, the game actually does want you to be good” dilemma games like Bioshock suffered from. And I’m not sure what the solution there is, because in this case, the “reward” is the narrative content you rightly receive for earning the trust of Undertale’s inhabitants.

This isn’t really a criticism against Undertale, either – the game makes a specific set of choices, and I respect the choices it went with. It’s “one possible solution” to a seemingly intractable problem, even if it still comes with its own issues. All I know is that personally, I wasn’t always playing in the way I would have felt inclined to play if I weren’t worried about screwing up my game progression. I’d have killed one of the final enemies – not because I wanted to out of some sense of violence or revenge, but because in my personal estimation their continued existence was far more dangerous to all the other characters I’d come to care about than me killing them, and I was willing to accept that blood on “my” hands even if the other characters would hate me for it. Was there an ending designed specifically to engage with that fear, the fear for people you care about that ends up instigating its own violence? After all, one of the other core characters is motivated by that exact fear to that exact action. But as far as I know, the game has “Genocide,” “Neutral,” and “Pacifist” endings, and that makes sense – no one can design a million permutations to make narrative sense of a million possible emotional journeys.


And again, it’s a credit to Undertale that it raises these tricky questions at all. The closer we get to an emotionally cohesive game, the more we see what games really can do, and the more we ask of them in turn. I definitely recommend picking up Undertale – it’s cheap, funny, creatively constructed, and actually satisfying even as a conventional game, outside of its whimsy and charm. In the way I once described my “10” category on myanimelist, I’d say it’s a game that’s good enough that the conversation about “grading” it is silly, because it’s a cohesive work that should prompt more interesting conversations than that. I hope it does prompt some conversations, and I hope some ideas result from that. I hope we get more games like it, or at least games in response to it. It’s a very nice thing.

15 thoughts on “Fall 2015 – Week 7 in Review

  1. Yea also really like what they did with this weak one punch. I feel like it had more impact in anime form than when I read it in the manga.

    And yea undertale is great! My only complaints are smalls, like having more options when sparing a monster, more nuanced story options has you mention. But the variety of monster attacks really surprised me by how creative it. The boss fights were also really great at conveying emotions and grandeur, really show how good writing and music can be has important has gameplay in those situations. Also really liked how it wasn’t always really clear how you could spare someone, sometimes it felt like fighting was the only option which makes loads of sense. I also really feared that it would be just a series of meme but even the cheapest jokes felt earned because the game had built this internal language has you say.

    • Hmm, I’m not sure what I’d actually cover for a full Undertale essay. The points about player agency and gameplay were the things I found most interesting, and I basically covered them here.

  2. “I still felt Undertale was playing into that classic “being good won’t reward you… except it totally will, the game actually does want you to be good” dilemma games like Bioshock suffered from.”

    Just curious, when do you think the game played into beeing good not being rewarded?
    I felt like the journey was a reward already. Making friends with many characters felt really great, and being with them and hearing from them later on (or: being friends with them) also felt great. For me, the whole journey felt like it’s what can naturally result from being good to people. Which isn’t without its difficulties – particularily the difficult fights felt like a way to show how hard it could be (especially if you contrast it to how easy many fights get when you use violence) – but I always felt like it was ultimately worth it.

    • Oh no, I don’t think it played into that specifically by itself, I meant the game didn’t really present consequences for being good all the time – that being good actually felt too rewarded. Though I suppose the difficulty of the fights that you mention might be the intended “struggle to do the right thing.”

  3. I actually liked how the game didn’t reward you for being in a gameplay sense. By playing pacifist, you don’t earn any experience points, so you’re sacrificing extra levels and HP for the sake of being a good person, which is more important.

    Then there’s the genocide route, which is a rather dull, soul-crushing grind with difficult boss fights designed to make you rage want to rage quit. On the other hand, the Genocide route lets you gain levels, and the game really sells you on your intense demonic power. It’s simply playing with the ideas of what is truly rewarding in games/life, and I found that really interesting and heartfelt.

    But I can totally see where you’re coming from, of course, and I hadn’t thought about that final choice at the end of the neutral route that you brought up. I really hope more games will be able to ask of the player more nuanced questions in the future.

    • I kind of want to see what the Genocide route looks like, but I also feel like even watching a Let’s Play of that would make me sick to my stomach. It’s definitely a credit to the game that I’d feel very uncomfortable seeing its characters hurt!

      • Genocide route is worth at least watching for sure. It’s depressing, but simply fascinating. You’d want to find a LP that shows the differences and cuts or fast-forwards the (thematically appropriate but really slow) “murder all inhabitants of an area” grinding that gives the route its name.

        I can’t say much more for fear of spoiling, but it does offer a ton of interesting content and insight into the characters that even a Pacifist route lacks. It has some piercingly clever meta commentary, and a bunch of “oh… ohhh shiiiiiiiit, wow, I did not anticipate that” moments of awful realization. Genocide route actually has my single favorite moment in the game, although it leads into the one I find the saddest.

        It offers one of the coolest boss fights I’ve seen in a game too. I couldn’t beat the route myself (some monsters CAN stand up to you and they sure kicked my ass, which resulted in my save file ending in a weird limbo I find quite poetic) so I had to go the LP route from a certain point onward.

      • Genocide is one of those nasty, depressing experiences that one should really see for themselves for all the great moments it contains, and gut punches it delivers, even if you’re watching and ‘not really doing it’. It’s not really about ‘you’re a monster’, (even if the character you’re playing as is, and the actions you’re taking certainly are monsterous) but I shouldn’t say any more if you intend to watch it.

        The people who talk about having a rich emotional experience with the game are usually the people who have played through both Genocide and Pacifist, because pacifist can either become that much more precious or more depressing due to your choices in other playthroughs.

  4. Really love your writeups on anything, agree with what you say about Undertale. It struck a cord for me, not that it was especially life-changing, but that the game articulated a lot of ideas with which I agree. One thing that made its message slightly weaker, though, was the nature of player power in relation to mercy: the player only ever extends mercy to others (usually the bosses) from a position of superior strength. I feel like the hardest part of the philosophy Undertale supports is being peaceful when a person can seemingly only gain power through violence. Especially at the end of the game, all of those situations of powerlessness get turned on their head, with some force emerging from the woodwork to aid the player and make them once again the superior force. It’s not really a gripe about the game’s construction, though — more an observation. Like you said, once a work gets to a certain point, talking about the ideas and how that work handles its ideas feels far more productive than suggesting the work change to encompass all of human experience.

  5. There actually are a surprising number of permutations to undertale’s story based on what you do. The bulk of that variety exists in the “neutral” path. Pacifist and Genocide are binary, you either get them or you don’t. There’s a few bits of incidental dialog that can change based on whether you found some side quests but they don’t have much impact. The neutral endings all have more or less the same sequence of events but the story on the way there can be wildly different and the post boss fight phone call from Sans will be totally different.

    Also, I hate to do this, but I feel obligated to recommend the webcomic MSPaint Adventures if you enjoyed Undertale. Toby Fox sharpened his music skills writing compositions for it and there’s a lot of narrative similarities. I’m sure other people have mentioned it already, but I thought I’d throw it in here just in case.

  6. So there’s an interesting point about Undertale that you didn’t touch on: the “neutral” ending — specifically, the phone call from Sans — actually has about 20 different possible variations depending on the choices you make. It’s actually one of the most complex and dynamic parts of the entire story, in the sense of your choices having interesting effects.


    The ending that you get on the way to a pacifist run is pretty much the best possible one: Asgore is gone, and Toriel can’t forgive you for that, but everyone else seems to recognize that you were trying hard to do the best you could in a tough situation.

    If you weren’t a complete pacifist, things go very differently. In one outcome, if you befriend Undyne but she finds out you killed innocent monsters, she vows to track you down and avenge them. BUT, if you kill Mettaton, Alphys is guilt-ridden about betraying her friend and locks herself in her lab and/or commits suicide (open to interpretation)… leading Undyne to abandon her plans for revenge and slide into depression.

    Or to use another example: the default ending is that Toriel takes Asgore’s place as ruler, and declares that any other humans who fall in should be welcomed. Depending on how violent you were, the citizens can take that idea poorly and overthrow her, and how that goes depends on whether Undyne and/or Papyrus are still alive.

  7. One of my favourite things about Undertale is something that only really comes to light in the Genocide route, in terms of the way the story mythologises game saves as human “determination”, the way that impacts your view of the story, and the way that interacts with the people in the story who are in a, shall we say, less privileged position.

    Thematic spoilers follow, I guess?

    Remember Azuma’s contention that visual novels reflected the cultural structure of otaku media, because the value was in the system that generated story routes, not in any one story route by itself? Undertale feels to me like a grand counterargument to the attitude described, as it tries very hard to make you care about which version of the game save is sitting on your hard drive, and the effects you-as-player trying out different routes have on the world.

    The “determination” of your player character, the ability to load and reload save points, is the impulse to progress that we all take on in interactive media. The ability that gives us to explore the system from the position of someone outside it is rendered as basically an eldritch horror to the characters inside. And so while the game cheers for your Determination in Pacifist, it very much… does not, in Genocide.

    It feels like an argument for stepping wholly inside the magic circle, letting that experience be what you value, and for not stepping outside to poke at the systematization of it.

    And I think that’s super cool, that it could articulate that kind of complex argument, even if in the end it comes via… well… a reading of the game as system!

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