Stories For Ugly Animals


In addition to the criticism writing, ecology writing and game design you all have grown to love here, I’ve started an additional side blog for sharing some of my illustrated stories.

The name ‘Stories For Ugly Animals’ comes from an anthology I once pitched which was to be a collection of children’s stories about non-stereotypical animal protagonists (heroic mosquitoes, nuturing sharks, wise hyenas, that sort of thing) and when I started putting this new blog together I decided to reuse the name. Eventually, some of the stories from that anthology will appear there as well. Some of my other narrative projects that had (I thought) trouble finding a proper form in game design (like Clione) may find their way there as well.

This week I posted the first story, The Princess Who Married The Moon.

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How do you solve a problem like the Ancient One?

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Taken in isolation, there isn’t anything particularly strange or wrong with a character like Iron Fist. He’s a C-list superhero who’s had some good costumes and bad costumes, moments of popularity and moments of obscurity, and a generic enough power/origin story that combines several other story beats like “poor rich dude” and “given knowledge by hidden experts.” Unfortunately for Iron Fist, he doesn’t exist in isolation. He exists in the larger context of the Marvel universe and the even larger context of comics and pop culture history. In that context, Iron Fist has problems. He’s a white dude who is so good at martial arts that he’s the chosen champion of a nation in Asia with more vaguely exotic magic than identities or names. He, a white dude with the power of “trust fund” and “being the protagonist by default,” is better at his vaguely defined martial arts than any of the thousands of literally magic people who invented it, perfected it and have practiced it daily for a millennium. Again, in isolation even that wouldn’t be that big a deal, but he exists in a fictional universe with a serious dearth of Asian characters.

Try to name a few Asian super heroes in the Marvel universe. If you grew up in the 90s you’re probably already thinking of Jubilee. Good, she’s a cool character. You might also be thinking of Psylocke and then already wondering if she counts because of the whole “white British lady’s brain shoved into a Japanese woman’s body” thing. If you’re a hardcore nerd you can probably rattle off some more of the D-listers like Shang Chi, Jimmy Woo, Karma, Sunfire, Sister Grim, Amadeus Cho… maybe even Jolt of the Thunderbolts? Yeah, a lot of fun characters. Ok, great. Now how many of them can a non-nerd name based on their movie appearances? How many are going to headline something set in the Marvel cinematic or television universe or are even expected to appear? How many are going to define an actor’s career? … Yeah, exactly. So Iron Fist, the white dude whose power is being better at secret vaguely Asian magic-punching than anyone in Asia gets a TV show but we can expect to see an Asian super hero in…. Marvel Phase 7?

On top of that, we have Dr Strange. Dr Strange is slightly higher up on the hero food chain than Iron Fist (let’s generously call him B-list). In fact, Iron Fist takes a lot of his “rich schmuck stumbles into exotic greatness” origin directly from Dr Strange’s template. Stephen Strange is a wealthy, accomplished, dickish surgeon who injures his hands and is forced to give up his calling. In a fit of desperation, he travels to a monastery in Tibet and is trained in magic by the Tibetan mystic known as The Ancient One. After hard work, he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful magician in the universe, and decides to use that power to fight bank robbers. Oh, and his hands get perfectly healed because why not? Pretty basic stuff, and falling into the same trap of orientalism we saw with Iron Fist. Stephen Strange, white drunk failure, is destined to be better at Tibetan magic than any Tibetan.

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But Marvel had a plan! They wouldn’t allow themselves to be accused of stereotyping Asian cultures or people. The Ancient One, generic ‘exotic mystic’ archetype, would be played by a woman! What progressive casting. Except… She was a white woman who was still playing a character who lives in Asia running an mystic monastery. So now instead of subverting any expectations we simply have a story where TWO white people get to be better at a culture than anyone belonging to the actual culture.

To be fair, nothing in the Ancient One’s appearances in comics has EVER been authentically Tibetan. Both the “magic Eastern magic” of Dr Strange and the “magic Eastern Kung fu city” of Iron Fist are based on reductive stereotypes. Asian actors are already pigeonholed into roles like those, so should we really be upset that Disney/Marvel is electing not to throw more generic stereotypes onto the pop culture pile? Isn’t Marvel trapped in a position where they either get grief for not casting an Asian actor or get grief for contributing to racist stereotypes?

The problem with that line of argument is that it presumes representation is an either/or proposition. The premise that you can ONLY have Iron Fist be a “mystic martial artist” of a racist variety if he’s played by an Asian actor, or that the Ancient One HAS to be a generic stereotype stock character, is faulty to begin with. It also presumes that you can only cast Asian actors in stereotyped roles. “Well, it’s either the wizened Tibetan mystic or nothing, sorry” isn’t a great argument, and yet I keep seeing nerds and nerd reporters uncritically repeating it. For another thing, it takes the movies in isolation from each other, when in fact, they are part of a much larger pattern of Marvel media. The great innovation the Marvel Method brought to pop culture was an interconnected fictional world on a scale never before heard of. If the Marvel cinematic/television universe had actual diversity, no one would bat an eye at the current Iron Fist or Dr Strange issues. But as already noted, this version of the Marvel universe is incredibly white. Asian people are just one of the many groups not represented by heroes of this world. In this larger context, the fact that Asian actors can’t even get to play such stereotypical roles doesn’t look like a blessing, it looks like another example of an entire group of people being shoved aside. This is only looking at it through the lens of one specific fictional universe of one company too. It gets even worse when we look at it in the larger context of American movies where any Asian character deemed “cool enough” gets cast as Scarlet Johansson. We steal Aang, Goku and others for our own, without even the pretense of reciprocation.

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White characters in nerd media get to be anything they want. If a white boy wants to be the King of the African Jungle, then of course he can, it’s part of a grand tradition. If a white girl wants to dress “like a geisha” and be the best ninja ever, then its her right. How dare anyone suggest that such character types be reserved for any one group of people, isn’t that racism? Yet the presense of one black actor as a Norse God sends certain white people into pangs of existential horror. White Iron Fists and Ancient Ones are normal, expected to be uncontroversial even, yet mere discussion of Black James Bonds or Asian Dr Stranges are met with fury. Why is it so easy for us to conceive of a story about a white dude being the best at anything, yet not the inverse? Why do we never see the Iron Fist archetype as, say, a wealthy Vietnamese dilettante getting lost and stumbling upon a secret city of Roman descendants who practice a magic-infused version of cestus boxing? Or a Tarzan archetype story where Jane is a woman from Mali who finds an wild-man who had been lost in Alaska as a child and raised by bears, battling and surpassing the superstitious white villagers, and whom she must help adapt to the modern urban center of Timbuktu? Or the heir to the last great viking poet-king turn out to be from China? Why is a white Japanese cyborg normal but a black Batman not even suggested?

As far as we have come, too many of us white people still want to simultaneously have access to every space while angrily guarding our own. One “white space” is opened and we rant about “creeping PC culture” and “authenticity” but we throw our generic white trust fund protagonists into other cultures en masse and respond to their complaints with “its not serious, why do you want to keep people out! It’s a compliment! We’re saving you from stereotypes!” If you go by what the loudest white nerds scream, white identity is marked by a terrifying cross of fragility and entitlement. Luckily for white people everywhere, we’re actually not as fragile as we allow our worst nerds and studio executives to tell us we are. Whitewashed movies like Gods of Egypt, Dragonball Evolution, Last Airbender, etc have all bombed. Bombed HARD. Marvel is scrambling to damage control with Dr Strange so hard right now because they KNOW that even white people avoid these movies. Yet conversely, movies with diverse casts do well. Look at how white men came out to see The Force Awakens in huge numbers despite the presence of a woman and a black man as central characters. Studios insist that only white actors are bankable and yet all measurable evidence points to the contrary. The truth is, white people, like all people, like seeing many different kinds of characters on the big screen, and are fully capable of seeing themselves in the actions and emotions of people who are not like them on the surface. So why have we allowed inept, racist studios and their useful racist nerd fans to dictate the idea that white people are by definition fragile, xenophobic and petty? Why do we allow “whiteness” to be defined by a group of us who thinks so little of ourselves? Why do we ignore the simple economic reality that, even if they weren’t morally justified goals, diversity and representation sell?

The other problem with the “either/or, damned if they do” argument is that it presumes that a Dr Strange movie or an Iron Fist tv show NEED to exist. Despite what some nerds might think, none of the current new Marvel movie franchisees are based on popular enough characters to exist for their own sake. Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy knew this, and worked hard to justify why they deserved to exist. Audiences didn’t care that these versions differed from the comic book versions in significant ways. The Daredevil TV series, despite being based on a character at least more popular and known than Ant Man, still had to actually justify its purpose as part of Marvel’s larger narrative and themes, as well as demonstrate it had value and appeal to audiences on its own. So far, the Dr Strange movie has not tried to show us it has anything to it other than “hey here’s that one character you might know.” Corporate properties are rarely successful if they can’t justify their existence beyond “hey we own this thing, go see it.” This is why Avengers originally found huge success in focusing on strong character-focused drama, giving audiences a reason to care about what had previously been one of Marvel’s more aimless main properties (and the reason Fox and Sony had originally jumped on X-Men and Spiderman instead of any Avengers). On the flip side, not even the presence of beloved, near mythical icons like Batman and Superman could save the execrable and aimless Batman Vs Superman for very long and it has hemorrhaged ticket sales following its opening weekend. This is why the Jem and the Holograms movie tanked while the comic reboot is such a fan favorite. People will only reliably pay money to see media that justifies itself to the audience.

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Marvel now insists that their movie version of the Ancient One is “Celtic” and therefore the casting choice is not erasing anyone, and yet the character still lives in Asia (now Nepal to avoid angering the lucrative Chinese market) and runs a Magic Eastern Monastery(tm). Why not move the location to Ireland? Or somewhere else in Europe? It would make more sense for that interpretation, and there is no shortage to wonderful stories of magic traditions to draw from. Hell, if you are so desperate for a story of someone from another culture being drawn into a world of old magic, why not then cast an Asian actor as Dr Strange? The amount of people who would go see a Dr Strange movie simply because it was a Dr Strange movie is negligible. The amount of people who would go to see a character-driven story that justified its existence, combined with the amount of people who would go to see a character like themselves represented in a movie, is significantly more than that. On the other hand, they could have just as easily kept the original Ancient One backstory and just put thought into it. There’s no reason Dr Strange AND his mentor can’t both be not-white, if you really want to move away from the orientalism of the original comic. There is not shortage of Asian actresses that could have played the Ancient one and allowed Marvel to retain their “subversive” casting plans without whitewashing the film, and no shortage of Asian actors and actresses to play Strange or any number of other Marvel characters across any number of genres and backgrounds. How could Marvel have solved the Ancient One or Iron Fist problems? A better question would be, of the near countless ways, which would have been the most interesting? That is a larger discussion, and I wish Marvel/Disney had enough respect for their audience to ask it.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine


Star Trek is finally getting a new television series again. With that in mind, it’s a good time to revisit Deep Space 9, the 90s Star Trek series that managed to be excitingly ahead of its time as well as provide a perfect cap-stone for a century of space opera. While the Original Series and Next Generation focused on a utopian world of endless exploration, every episode being in a brand new part of an every expanding universe, Deep Space 9 went in the opposite direction. It takes place almost entirely on one small space station, right in the ass-middle of a known and uncared for segment of the universe. Sure, soon this tiny speck of space becomes incredibly important due to the presence of a stable worm-hole leading to another galaxy, but even then it’s a backwoods part of the universe struggling with that newfound attention. Previously, Star Trek was about exploring, about envisioning the impossible, about endlessly looking forward. Now for the first time, Star Trek was about building things, about working with what you got stuck with, about making choices about what was possible, about looking backwards to understand history and context. It was an adjustment that some fans would never be willing to make, but it makes Deep Space 9 resonate today in a way Next Generation doesn’t.

Star Trek has never felt the need for subtlety. The alien species humanity interacts with out in the stars are one-dimensional stereotypes with very little variation. One species might be nothing but “logical” while another is nothing but “pacifist.” A few species (usually the ones that appear more than once) get to have two dimensions, like the Klingons being “aggressive” BUT “honorable” or the Romulans being “logical” BUT “total dick heads.” In the end, the alien species of the Star Trek universe have extremely reductionist societies, and no one watching the show is going to miss what real world political situation each alien is supposed to evoke in their minds. Deep Space 9 starts out with the same attitude towards its main alien conflict: the Cardassians are vampy, cartoonishly evil and the Bajorans might as well rename their planet “Space Israel/Palestine.” However, fitting with Deep Space 9’s focus on building and understanding what we already have rather than endlessly seeking the new, this gets subverted a bit. Deep Space 9 relies on fans having been trained to expect each new alien to only be a superficial reference to a real Earth culture in order to surprise and challenge them.

The Cardassian Empire is not quite as cut-and-dry evil as we see. There is a huge disconnect between the average Cardassian citizen and the expansionist military often operating a galaxy away. Despite the military government’s convoluted systems of oppression, the Cardassian citizens live in relative luxury. Like nearly every space-faring people in the series, on their home planet there is no poverty, crime is low, there are resources to spare, and their artistic culture is at its zenith. They have successfully shared their culture with the other planets in their system, so wouldn’t everyone else want that too? Enter the Bajorans. Bajoran culture pre-Cardassia was a rigid, fascist caste system. Civil war was often and bloody, religious fanaticism rampant, and apocalyptic death cults the norm. A perfect place for the enlightened Cardassia to practice nation building! The Bajoran government, eager to control its populace, even invited the Cardassians to set up shop. It backfired, both because the average xenophobic Bajoran wanted nothing to do with any other species and because exercises in neoliberal nation building are always doomed to backfiring. How does the Cardassian government and military deal with this crisis? By not telling anyone back home what’s really going on. They’re bringing civilization to a place torn by war and oppression. Meanwhile the military reacts to every altercation by becoming more and more indignant and violent, and using it as an excuse to grab more and more power back home without struggle. While the Cardassian government begins committing war crimes, all the people back home hear about is the Bajoran backwardness and their despicable terrorist attacks on Cardassian civilians. The conflict is light years away, after all, and Cardassian culture is based around trusting the state as much as possible. A campaign of dehumanization (well, de-bajorization) allows the military to run wild. An enlightened, even liberal (by their standards) people become monsters because they can’t deal with their entitlement or the opposition rejecting them. Defensive narcissism on a national level. Does this sound familiar? It should, because Cardassia is the dark mirror of American exceptionalism in the same way the Federation is the “good” version of it.

On paper, nothing Cardassia wanted to do is different from what the Federation does when it meets a new planet. Despite the important “first contact” rules, the Federation LOVES bringing new planets and people into its fold. Its universal translators and enlightened future philosophy helping “backwards” planets adjust to a new life as part of the Federation. They take what they like best from each new world and let the rest transform into Federation hegemony. When the Federation enters the Cardassia/Bajor conflict, it is much later when the unaccountable Cardassian military has already committed horrific acts of genocide and slavery, and the Bajoran people have spent learned to survive as best they can (hence things like rigid caste systems getting tossed out). The Bajor we meet at the start of the series is not the Bajor first encountered by Cardassia. The past atrocities of Bajor, such as the caste system, were dropped so they could survive the looting and pillaging of their world, but now that peace is there there is no shortage of Bajorans eager to bring them back. Not that ANY world, no matter how fanatic or oppressive, deserves what the Cardassian military did, but it is very important to note that the original Bajorans were closer to Original Series or Next Generation “enemy alien” stock characters than potential allies. The idea that Cardassia as a whole might be closer to our own society, or that Bajor’s history of fascism might actually be a powder-keg waiting to happen, is something the Federation never considers.

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This theme of the Federation being so self assured that it doesn’t bother looking at larger context or questioning itself comes up again and again, and that original Cardassia/Bajor conflict is what trains the viewers to begin looking deeper. Cardassia never truly overcomes their current oppressive regime or cartoonish evilness, and Bajor never truly slips into barbarism, but we see enough attempts to make us question our original expectations. While we watch as progressive forces on Cardassia try to wake their world up to the truth and reactionary forces on Bajor try to reinstate the vilest parts of their history, the federation is shoving exploration vessels into the worm hole without a care. What new life will they meet? What new discoveries will be made? Huzzah! A new chance to boldly push forward with reckless abandon in the name of utopian discovery and knowledge!

The idea that the people on the other side of the worm hole might not want them there never occurs to anyone.

The fact that the Dominion War is largely started by the Federation refusing to acknowledge another culture’s sovereignty is key to understanding Deep Space 9. Federation ships are told not to come to the Gamma Quadrant, a section of space occupied by an existing people, and the Federation refuses to stop traffic through the worm hole or colonizing the planets there. On paper, the Federation is entirely in the wrong here. They’re lucky their new enemy is so conveniently vile. They are an empire ruled by a sociopathic hive mind that barely acknowledges other species as living, their will enforced by an army of drug-addicted genetic soldiers that have had free will surgically removed and its last vestiges beaten out of them with each new generation. The Dominion responds to even accidental or benign incursions with overwhelmingly disproportionate force. But, again, it is also their quadrant, and anyone paying attention would know that the Federation would want access to that new section of the galaxy even if the empire ruling it was one of fluffy socialist tree huggers. After being told they are not welcome, the Federation builds its first war-only starship and sends it through the wormhole “to tell the Dominion we want peace.” A cloaked, massively armed warship, obviously the interstellar symbol of peace and harmony. Despite everything that followed, the real origin of the conflict is that the Federation feels entitled to the Gamma Quadrant, an entitlement that comes from their unquestioned cultural superiority. An entitlement that the audience has already seen transform the Cardassian Empire for the worse.

It is how Deep Space 9 challenges our idea of the Federation as a utopia that led so many fans and even previous cast/crew members to criticize the series. Gene Roddenberry’s vision was to create a world that would show people what could be achieved by using the best of what humanity had to offer. A future where the impossible was possible because we put aside the worst of our barbarism and embraced science and humanism. Roddenberry even famously made writers downplay or remove conflict between the crew, because his vision was of a future where people had no conflict with each other. Class, race, gender (somewhat) and even personality conflicts were gone in Roddenberry’s utopia. If Star Trek had been willing to show any actual queer people in its vision of the future, they probably would have shown no conflicts about sexuality either. Now here was a sequel showing that even in the best possible future, we could repeat the same mistakes. It showed a universe that might not be a place where objectivity rules and a combination of scientific logic and good ol’ American gumption could fix every problem. It showed a universe where good people from different backgrounds might still have conflicts despite being enlightened and futuristic. It showed maybe we all had differences that weren’t so easy to push aside, or had value even as they “separated” us, that maybe subjectivity rules supreme and maybe endless expansion, union and knowledge weren’t inherently good. That utopia could make mistakes.


Deep Space 9 reveled in exposing the cracks of the Star Trek universe. At best, the Federation is naive, believing their elaborate “first contact” rules mean they are safe from any criticism of imperialism. Before long, the Federation is revealed to play the same games its citizens despise the Romulans and Cardassians for, with its shadow military performing horrific acts in the name of security and willing to engage in every crime the Federation claims to stand against. The much lauded future where racism is a thing of the past revealing that the myriad humanoid aliens are still willing to dehumanize and lash out against aliens that don’t fit the standard humanoid mold. Every classic Star Trek species is shown to be hypocrites. We never meet a single Vulcan who isn’t a putz whose “logic” merely an excuse to avoid what they don’t like about reality. Klingon honor is shown to be an easily corrupted political game and the empire a dying relic. Not even the Ferengi, Next Generation’s first new villains who were quickly demoted to comic relief after it was realized no one watching could ever consider them to be a threat, are spared. At first they are revealed to be more worthy of respect than previously expected, with bartender Quark mixing his usual comic relief with pointed monologues on Federation hypocrisy, only to be revealed to be even more pathetic than previously known, with their beloved ideals of capitalist meritocracy being a farce to keep most of the populace poor and naked. The Federation and its allies are not an end point, but part of a never-ending struggle that moves laterally as much as it moves forward.

It would be a depressing commentary on our likely future, if it wasn’t for the larger focus on space soap opera stuff like being a dad, romance, and friendship. From the very first episode with Commander Sisko trying to explain linear existence and baseball to a species of omnipotent beings living outside of linear time, Deep Space 9 was primarily concerned with moments and the people living them. Previous Star Trek series opted for a mostly episodic approach, with the characters largely remaining static and a status quo restored at the end of each episode. Next Generation even makes a joke out of how ridiculous it is that a character like Riker never chooses to advance his career. Deep Space 9 opts for cascading plotlines, with small moments in each episode building towards larger stories, and a real sense that nothing is certain. As a result, Deep Space 9 is perhaps the most human Star Trek. The tapestry of politics, disillusionment and clashing beliefs is not the story. The story is about the people stuck there, trying to make it through each day, and how they change. Change on a political, social or scientific level cannot happen until individual people allow themselves to change. The worst villains of Deep Space 9 all share a defining flaw of wanting to force the universe into their view of utopian perfection by any means, regardless of whether their actions represent this ideal.

In some ways, Deep Space 9 didn’t go far enough. As I noted before, Cardassia never stops being cartoonishly evil by our standards, and a lot of the most interesting parts of their culture and the civilian/military conflict are left in the background. Likewise, the Dominion goes from zero to genocide far too quickly, forcing even the most ardent Federation critics to agree that they must be stopped. The moral quandary is not “should we get involved in everything” but “since we are clearly the best and should get involved in everything, how can we best do that?” The series is defined by its era; a 90s America flush with a post-Clinton surplus, a certainty of its own progressive future despite actual legislation, and not terribly keen on overthinking its treatment of its own poorest citizens or the victims of its imperialistic games abroad. The national shame of Vietnam was replaced by back-patting over our presence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the fallout from that still years away. The series ended two years before the September 11 attacks, and as a result it asks questions that immediately post-9/11 sci-fi was too scared to ask again for a long time, but also posit answers that occasionally seem hopelessly naive in a way only sheltered, Cardassian-esque 90s America could manage. The epic space operas that would come later, most notably the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, would owe a lot of their grim and gritty-outlook to Deep Space 9’s willingness to challenge its roots, but the most successful sci-if would also owe Deep Space 9 for its focus on real people and humanity within that cynical world.

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Harvest Moon Primer and Playlist

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When the first Harvest Moon came out, the press generally marveled both at how unexpected a game it was and whether a niche concept like “farming” would sell on the console market. I doubt anyone expected it to spawn such a long-lived series with multiple spin-offs and copy-cats. The Harvest Moon series’ ongoing success shows how a lot of the the “common wisdom” about “gamers” and what they “really want” can be wrong. Here we have a farming simulator with a dating/marriage component that is popular across demographics. It is also, sadly, kind of stuck in a rut. No less than two companies are currently in control of the franchise. Marvelous is the original creator of the series and owns its original “Story of Seasons” name in Japan, but the series’ former publisher Natsume owns the Harvest Moon name here in the West and has created a competing series of games. Yet both companies seem unsure of how to grow the series. What was it about the original Harvest Moon games that was so unexpectedly compelling and can it be brought back to either of its successor franchises? With so many games in the series, where does a neophyte start?

Contrary to popular narrative, I don’t think the success of Harvest Moon was in how unique its subject matter was. It wasn’t the first farming simulator in gaming, nor was it even the first quirky simulator for the Super Nintendo. It arrived late in the console’s life, before the N64 and PlayStation would really battle it out, but after the Super Nintendo started to run out of titles. In particular, it was one of the last RPGs, still a niche genre but one that had grown a steady market for itself in the West during the previous console generation. Strong word of mouth and massive coverage in magazines like Nintendo Power at a time when every young nerd had seen every Chrono Trigger ending and was desperate for ANYTHING Japanese rpg-related certainly helped, but it wasn’t the only reason for its cult success either. What I think solidified Harvest Moon as a classic was how it built on the expectations of previous games and communicated that to the player.

“Simulation games” are one of the oldest genres of video games, especially on PCs. The term is incredibly vague, and can cover many different styles of play, but there is definitely a certain, slow-paced style of simulator that long-term game players would be familiar with. The classic simulation game is usually pictured as very text and menu-heavy, with less emphasis on action and more on planning and patience. There are exceptions of course, but even the simulation games that borrow from other genres tended to be very complicated and require a lot of experimentation to learn its systems. In comparison, Harvest Moon is almost ludicrously simple. There are just four plants and two animals to raise, all with the same basic rules, and the romance option is as simple as throwing flowers and cakes at a girl until she likes you. You can lose the game, but you almost have to actively be trying to do so.

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However, that simplicity is necessary because of how fast the game moves. You only have a few real-world minutes of daylight with which to make money, after which the town closes down and your work options are limited. Not only are you limited in time, but also in stamina. Each action you take uses up a little stamina, and you need to manage that at the same time as you manage time. These limits mean you can’t do everything in a day, but the simplicity of the game means you can easily learn to fit enough in. You can basically do almost anything and still progress, and this allows the player a great deal of freedom despite how few options there are. But the game doesn’t stop with you figuring out the best pattern and endlessly repeating it. The game’s beauty lies in enticing you to continually break the patterns you create.

Trying to fit the best actions into a tight time limit can sound like an arcade game, but Harvest Moon borrows its controls from a different game: The Legend of Zelda. Instead of menus and text, you manage your farm using what is essentially the same control system as Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy. You hold two tools at a time and use them the same way Link wields a sword or hook shot. Your little farmer works the land, clears fields, woos ladies, forages and cares for animals the exact same way Link fights moblins, uncovers hidden caves and trades items. This means that anyone raised on consoles (i.e., the target audience of a late-era Super Nintendo release) can instantly pick up and understand the game despite it being a different genre and subject matter than what usually warrants those controls. The fact that it apes the controls of a game that is also very friendly to first time players means that people new to any and all video games, not just simulators, also learn how to play it quickly.

More importantly, the fact that it plays and resembles an early Zelda title conveys another key point to savvy players: this world has secrets. Harvest Moon sprinkles its extremely simple world with strange mysteries. Hidden caves contain treasures, tools can be upgraded, there are mysterious local legends to uncover, and not everything is as it seems. Nothing hidden is dramatic or going to interrupt the fast-paced-but-relaxed attitude of Harvest Moon‘s world, but it’s enough to entice players to break from their effective schedules and explore. That is in turn what transforms a generic “work simulator” into an adventure that resonates. Harvest Moon successfully transformed the Legend of Zelda into a farming/dating simulator, and I believe THAT is what made it a critical success. Playing Harvest Moon had the same effect on our brain as seeing a YouTube video of a non-puppy animal acting like a puppy: that feeling of the familiar and the alien joining forces to become just plain appealing.

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The Nintendo 64 sequel continued this. The game’s appearance is kind of a fascinating look at what an extremely low-budget alternate universe Legend of Zelda that was released between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. Like what an off-model Legend of Zelda released for the Sega Saturn in a universe where Nintendo fell on hard times might look like. The game itself builds on its predecessor by increasing the number of things you can do, while keeping the fast pace. The townsfolk also play a more important role, providing you reasons to learn about and interact with characters other than the ones you want to marry. The clock is slightly more forgiving to accommodate this, but in exchange you no longer have an endless night. This evens out so that you’re still playing through multiple days in a session, and having to think quickly even as you relax on your idyllic farm. There is never nothing to do because you cannot finish a task without having to figure out how to then make the most of your remaining time, but at the same time you’re never stressed. That balance of both being forced to make choices and move quickly, while still feeling relaxed and free, is key to the series’ success.

It is worth talking about the dating elements for a second and how they start to change from the original. We’re not talking about grand love stories here, but the 1 dimensional characters have now grown into 2 dimensions. Characters interact with each other without you, and will even fall in love and marry someone else if you are uninterested or too slow. The game even gives us a surprisingly (though still simple and cartoony) dark story about an alcoholic family that can end with one of the characters fleeing in the night never to return if you can’t become her friend and support her. Like the farming aspect, the romance is simplified and relies on the quick pace and ease of understanding to be compelling.

The series would run into one big problem with the switch to disc-based systems: loading times. This interrupted the fast pace, but not by providing you more to do. As a result, later Harvest Moons learned to compensate in different ways. PlayStation 2’s Save the Homeland tried to focus more on story, giving you a short time to find one of many ways to, well, save your homeland. Unfortunately this came at the cost of being able to really build and define your own farm or take part in even simple romance. The later Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life also went for a slower paced game, this time focusing primarily on the romance and child-rearing aspects. The arrival of the Gameboy Advance and its cheap 32 bit cartridges meant that a “classic” Harvest Moon could be released again that focused on the already established, well received themes of creative freedom via time management. The last game of this era, Magical Melody, ends up combining elements from all the previous games, and is probably the most successful of the PlayStation-to-GameCube era Harvest Moons.

But even with these successes, critics were complaining about how each new Harvest Moon was feeling same-y. Each new game tended to have the same crops, the same animals and the same non-farming activities. The towns even had the same archetypal villagers each time. Long-term players already knew the basics enough to make a ton of money early on without experimenting, and adding additional activities and time just slowed down the game. The weirdest example of this is Harvest Moon DS, which deals with the fact that you can pretty easily do everything in a day by simply making every long-term goal take longer to achieve. It also throws in a ton of bizarre mini games to do with all the extra time you have each day. Sure, it now takes thousands of presents to make someone like you more, but you can explore a cave full of evil cows or go to a fairy casino. The weirdness aspect is oddly fitting with the series, but the ridiculous amount of time it takes to do things simply makes the game feel banal long after the weirdness wears out its welcome. The next Wii and DS-era Harvest Moons tried to get around this problem by adding new hoops for the player to jump through to prevent them from doing everything at once. Instead of being forced to do the same tasks over and over, you are instead forced to unlock each new tasks. This may require ringing magic bells, uncovering magic stones or reaching a certain farm level, but it kind of stood out like a sore thumb. Every bottleneck in the previous games could be understood visually, or at least explained in a single text box. Now you have to explain to the player why magic stones that can only be achieved by friendship must be brought to a magic temple to raise islands that can be populated by blah blah blah. The resulting tutorials and cutscenes slow the once fast-paced games to a crawl. Worse, their less-obvious methods of completion required the time you have each day to be extended yet again. Where once you could watch a season pass by in an hour or two, now you only see a few days pass by in that time. The relaxing pattern of learning and developing an in-game routine, and then being enticed into breaking that pattern to explore, is not as easily accomplished if each in-game day takes too long to get through.

rune-factory-box

Ironically, the game that best found the balance between the original simplicity and demand for more to do was the series’ seemingly more complicated spin-off: Rune Factory. Just as Harvest Moon took a fantasy adventure game and turned it into a simulator, Rune Factory takes that same simulator and turns it BACK into a fantasy adventure. Not just in the obvious way of copying the original adventure games it originally aped controls from, but by using the Harvest Moon rules and themes in new ways. Every action still takes up stamina, from farming to fighting monsters. The only way to survive the long dungeons and intense fights is to use your farming techniques to manage the dungeons. Growing crops creates safe spaces you can recover some of your stamina, allowing you to slowly make a dungeon easier to beat. Later Rune Factory games put the simplified romance system to use by letting it not only decide who you marry, but also allow you to turn anyone into a fellow adventurer and develop their abilities through socialization. Rune Factory‘s leveling system is also connected to the same open-ended gameplay as the original Harvest Moon, as you gain stats based on the activities you like to do the most, and thus encourages the player to both specialize in tasks they like for long-term growth and branch out and try new things for quick short-term gains.

But as the Rune Factory games grew more polished and focused, the main series became anything but. New animals and crops were added, but they were always functionally simillar to the previous turnips and cows. Relationships were no more complicated from a narrative or emotional standpoint, but now featured longer cutscenes. Travelling across the world took longer, but since the days were lengthened to compensate you never felt like you had a lack of time. You spent more time doing nothing than every before. The 3DS’ A New Beginning remedied some of this by adding a focus on customization, allowing players a better chance to define themselves and their farms. From a commercial standpoint, the 3DS entries have been some of the most successful of the entire series, with the most recent Story of Seasons doing extremely well. Unfortunately, the modern era Harvest Moons also brought a terrible new problem: buggy frame rates. I am as far from a “frame rate purist” as you can get, but the most recent Harvest Moons have such a painfully inconsistent frame rate that I am physically incapable of playing them for long before I get a headache. With the current pace of the series, that means I only play maybe one or two in-game-days at a time. That is excruciating, but I accept that I may be more sensitive to it than everyone else is.

The biggest lesson I wish future games would take from the best Harvest Moon games is that simplicity doesn’t mean simple. Dumping numerous, but identical, tasks onto a time-management game doesn’t mean more or better gameplay. However, appealing moments and secrets (and more importantly COMMUNICATING those secrets to the player) is how you make the simplest tasks worth exploring. The best Harvest Moons offer both the illusion of total freedom with the illusion of rigid progress, but actually offers something more. Rather than a capitalist fever dream of repeating mantra-like work routines in the pursuit of endlessly increasing amounts of money, Harvest Moon is actually about learning to let go of pursuits. They are about learning to fit the moments and interests you care about into a life. What keeps bringing us back to the farm, and what keeps us from wanting to return to the existential dread of a similar world like that of Fantasy Life, is the acknowledgement that these tasks exist for our own purposes, rather than trying to trick us into believing we exist for theirs.

Playlist: There are 20 Harvest Moon games not counting remakes, “girl versions”, spinoffs or the new Natsume alternative line. So where does a newcomer start? If you’re intrigued and want to get into the series, below are 5 good places to start, as well as a few interesting experiments and alternatives.

  1. Harvest Moon (1997, Super Nintendo/Wii Virtual Console): As noted above, this is a simple game to pick up and learn. It sets the standard all future games in this series would follow, and its an easy game to like.
  2. Harvest Moon 64 (1999, Nintendo 64): Never saw a rerelease, but worth tracking down or emulating. Improves the first in every way and has the best atmosphere and mysteries of the earliest HM games.
  3. A Wonderful Life (2004, Gamecube): Tells the story of a farmer from youth to death, and focuses on social, romantic and familial aspects of the franchise. Probably the most successful “story focused” Harvest Moon.
  4. Harvest Moon: Magical Melody (2005, Gamecube/Wii): Sort of a “greatest hits” version of Harvest Moon, featuring returning characters and ideas from across the series up to that point.
  5. Rune Factory 3 (2009, Nintendo DS): Honestly, all the Rune Factories are good, but if I’m sticking to 5 games then I would say Rune Factory 3 is the best of the original trilogy. Rune Factory 3  is the most polished, has a likable cast, lets you define your play style in interesting ways, and importantly is the only game ever that lets you be a were-sheep.

B-Sides and Experiments

  1. Harvest Moon 3 (2001, Gameboy Color): The transition to the gameboy meant that some choices are limited (there is only one marriage option and playing as a girl farmer arbitrarily means your game ends when you get married) but comes up with some clever new things to do for such a tiny game.
  2. Harvest Moon: Back to Nature (1999, Playstation/Playstation 3/PSP/PS Vita): A more polished but somehow less exciting take on the Nintendo 64 version. Introduces a lot of activities other games would copy including mining and cooking. It is unquestionably the better game technically, but despite that superiority lacks the rough charm and mysterious world of the N64 version.
  3. Harvest Moon DS/Cute (2005/2008, Nintendo DS): A surprisingly WEIRD game from early enough in the DS’ life that developers were just throwing random ideas at games. Can be frustrating but strangely charming. Side note, the Japanese version of DS Cute featured lesbian marriage and adoption options that were cut from the American release.
  4. Legend of the River King (1999, Gameboy Color/3DS Virtual Console): A sort of sister-series from the same company, this one uses Dragon Quest controls to create a fishing game.
  5. Rune Factory 2 (2008, Nintendo DS): Ties the series’ romance options and its relationship with the steady passage of time into jrpg mechanics by having who you woo decide what kind of child takes up your quest and ultimately saves your character during the next generation’s battle.
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Pokemon 20 Years Later

Ash Ketchum peeled himself out of his sleeping bag. He vaguely remembered when the sight of the sunrise over Kanto was still inspiring to him. Now he just thinks of each new stiffness in his joints. Each morning the routine is the same, and each morning he is able to force down any potential self reflection. Force it deep down and seal it in the master ball of his guts. Today, for the first time in awhile, he is unable to keep it suppressed.

“When did I become so jaded?” He asks. He watches a flock of Spearow mob and drive off a Poochyena that had wandered to close to their nesting site. Almost instinctively, he recalls their Pokedex numbers and starts making guesstimates as to their IVs based on the mock battle he’s witnessing. He stops, both as he realizes he has caught more PU tier Pokemon like Spearow and Poochynea than anyone could ever need, and as the familiar loathing begins bubbling up.

There was a time when he saw Pokemon as wondrous creatures, each unique and capable of imparting important lessons to those willing to listen. Maybe it was because back then there were less of them, or more accurately less that people knew about. Maybe its just too much to expect that each new day will feel the same as it did 20 years ago. But Ash’s real fear is that its because of him. Something inside him is broken, and that is why he can’t see the world as anything other than numbers and battle statistics and a binary “caught/not caught.”

Out of habit, he pulled out his Pokedex. Not to pull up data on the common Pokemon playing out their lives in front of him, but to dig through its social media functions. How long had it taken for someone to expand Oak’s old Pokedex into a smart phone? Was it three tournaments ago? Four? Aside from the new captures, it was hard to remember exactly what was different about each past championship. Somewhere along the road the Pokedex just started doing more. Ash was there for the original Pokedex’s unveiling, was the first to completely fill it with data on many regions’ worth of Pokemon, and yet he now can’t recall a time he didn’t primarily use it to stalk people on FacePoke or Twitter.

 

Professor Gary sets the three empty pokeballs on the table. Today another Pallet Town youth turns 11, and gets to pick their starter. As he logs onto Bill’s server, he wonders why he bothers with the whole ceremony. It will obviously be Charmander of Bulbasaur. No one ever seems to pick Squirtle anymore.

Gary remembers when it was known as “SOMEONE’S PC”. Back then, the whole procedure of Pokemon storage had this air of mystery to it. Bill had wanted it that way, both out of a natural humbleness and a fear of celebrity. He was willing to reveal himself and the extent of his work to any kids interested enough to find him, but was otherwise content to just continue his research on his own. Of course, Bill was gone now. Oak too. You say a lot of goodbyes in 20 years. Without someone to take wandering kids into their confidence anymore, there was no point in keeping it a secret. Bill’s name was revealed  and he went from mysterious legend to forgettable immortal.

The server is as it always is. Boxes upon boxes of Pokemon, converted to electronic data and held in simulated environments. Despite all the changes that have taken place, still no one knows exactly what, if anything, the Pokemon think while stored in this electronic stasis. No one bothered to check.

The three Pokemon are downloaded to the standard pokeballs Gary had prepared. A brand new Pokedex is taken from its case and turned on for the first time. Passing by all the superfluous apps, he opens the main encyclopedia function and stares at the cascading collection of empty spaces. He sighs as the well-rehearsed speech automatically replays in his ears. First in his grandfather’s voice, then slowly turning into his own.

“You are about to begin a wondrous journey into the world of Pokemon. I hope you will fill this Pokedex with information of many new Pokemon!”

The professor pinches his nose as if the bitterness is threatening to escape through his sinuses. The Pokedex has been filled for years, he helped fill it! Yet we keep giving these kids empty ones. Why?

He knows the answer, or at least a answer that usually satisfies him. The blank slate allows each new trainer the chance to define their own adventure. The chance to choose for themselves what knowledge to pursue. But in practice, didn’t that only ever lead to what he was seeing now on his computer screen? To boxes upon boxes filled with nothing but level 5 Weedles? Poor, pathetic worms, trapped in perpetual arrested development. Most unnamed and unremembered. A handful labeled with titles like “420WEEDLE” and “GAYWORM”. Did any of these living archives matter to anyone? People had more ways of connecting with Pokemon than ever before, why did it still feel like everyone was so alienated from the natural world?

“We are failing these kids in a way we can only manage by having been failed ourselves.” Gary thinks.

 

“Brock, you’re not being realistic.” Over the last few years, the other Kanto gym leaders and members of the elite four had heard Lance say this often. “We have a duty to mandate how Pokemon battling and ranking takes place and insure that trainers are granted the appropriate level of badges. We can’t let politics interfere with that.”

“We already do, we’ve just been ignoring it! How can we separate our Pokemon from the rest of the world? In our pockets we carry beings capable of leveling mountains, powering a city, and tearing a mind to pieces before putting it back together again, and you’re telling me we can’t build a school?”

“We already have a school…” began Erika.

“A REAL school. A place where my brothers and sisters could have gone to learn long division or world history or the scientific method. Not a place where rich-enough kids memorize the type chart to avoid visiting our gyms.”

“Brock, where are we going to get the money-”

“I can go down the street to the tall grass and catch a CAT that VOMITS GOLD COINS! Or I could skip the middle man and take any of the living rock monsters that live at my gym and have them build the foundation, get one of the animals that secrets substances stronger than cement, then grab a handful of balls from my computer full of muscle-bound workers who work for free. Why are we still pretending that money is anything other than an old joke we let our kids use to bet on battles? When was the last time any of us used money to pay for something? When we were teenagers, right? Back before we became adults and realized pokeballs and berries literally grow on trees.”

Sabrina absent-mindedly toyed with her Pokedex for awhile.Brock was right, of course, but she had spent years trying to push forward any number of ideas past the more conservative members of the Kanto leadership before his recent stint as politically aware began. Using Pokemon for anything outside fighting was “controversial” or had to wait for “the right time.” The worst was trying to get research grants. Anything not earmarked for Pokemon storage or battle simulation was guaranteed to get no support. How long had they sat on the “discovery” of fairy-type Pokemon until someone convinced the elite fours of the world that it could help balance the type meta-game? They could discover a “new” type, but they couldn’t explain how foxes hatch from eggs or how new Cubones were born wearing the skulls of their still-living mothers.

Her Pokedex vibrated with the news of a text from Cole. Undoubtedly it would be another photo of her Chimecho doing something cute. Sabrina smiled. No matter how much it felt like things never changed, or how much it felt like they were all endlessly repeating the same beats, she always had Cole to remind her that life did move on, sometimes in wonderfully unexpected ways.

“The traditional method of kids learning through experience still has value today. The Spartan education our children receive on the road prepares them for the workforce in ways a classroom never could.”

“Those that survive, that is.”

Sabrina looked up in surprise. Lance was seething behind his aristocratic smile. You weren’t supposed to acknowledge how giving every preteen a living weapon of mass destruction and saying “hey go wander the woods and fight each other for money” didn’t lead to rapid population growth. Brock was clearly not in possession of any more fucks today.

 

“Hey I know its been awhile.” Delete

“I kept trying to replace you after you went back home. I never could, and back then I was too young to realize-” Delete

“I still owe you that bike-” Delete

Ash completes his weekly tradition of writing the same collection of messages he will never finish and never send. After staring at the now empty message box for a few minutes, he simply “lkes” Misty’s selfie of her and her new Horsea. As an added measure, he retweets a meme she posted about Meowth-calling without being quite sure what the big deal was.

 

Back when she was a teenager, another failure on the “grand Pokemon adventure” to Victory Road, Jessie was willing to go along with any number of corny uniforms and dumb plots if it felt like she was giving the finger to everyone she felt let down by. Team Rocket runs on disenfranchised teens. The smart ones learn to eventually get out. The REALLY smart ones learn to move up to management. It was there that Jessie learned the truth about the world, shortly before she would come to secretly run it.

The uniforms, the slogans, the plots that sometimes made no sense whatsoever, the license for bitter, neglected kids to bully other kids just starting down that same road, none of that was Rocket’s real purpose. The only real governing body in the world was concerned only with Pokemon battles, so throwing them an obvious villain kept them appeased and certain they were doing everything right. Meanwhile the CEOs of Team Rocket could run wild over the rest of the world. Giovanni had been a genius. However, he had been a genius with remarkably pedestrian appetites and desires.

Jessie was not pedestrian in any capacity. When Giovanni stepped down and she stepped up, she quickly turned all of that manipulation and pretense towards more elaborate purposes. She sat at her lacquer Exeggutor-wood desk and read over the most recent reports. The smuggled Eevee had been successfully evolved into Glaceon and were already progressing in rebuilding the Arctic ice shelf. A shipment of Corsola were hijacked en route to Celadon Gym and were now rebuilding reefs off of Cinnabar Island. Progress on the Trans Johto-Hoenn Partnership were in chaos following a serious of riots instigated by Silph Co leaks revealing their plans to exploit the agreement to cut benefits for thousands. Leaks uncovered by her agents’ use of Hypno’s ability to psychically explore Silph CEO dreams.

Of course, not all of Team Rocket’s resources were devoted to such altruistic ends. Even these were performed largely in the name of self-preservation. A devastated world is an unprofitable one. The best way Team Rocket could rob the world was by saving it, and without question Jessie had gotten very good at doing both. Jessie took a bite of her Farfetch’d pannini and caught her reflection in the polished Steelix-scale mirror. She looked as amazing now as she ever had, and the sharp Furfou/Cottonelle blend Armani suit and Spoink pearl earrings suited her so much better than the ‘R’ belly-shirt and hot pants she used to have to wear. Giovanni had a hunger for illusionary wealth that Jessie did not, but she could not deny that there was still not a great deal of material perks to being head of Team Rocket, the true heroes of the world. If some kids had to be roped into playing pretend-terrorist for a few years, wasn’t it worth it? Team Rocket was only giving these kids a niche that no one else would. Besides, under Jessie’s control Team Rocket had expanded grunt benefits by 15%, the largest percentage ever.

Even in the midst of self-congratulation, Jessie frowned as remembering her past uniform brought to mind another figure from her past. Despite not having spoken for so long, they were still fresh in her mind. How was it that someone so close could end up so far away? There hadn’t even been a falling out or fight. The real killer of the best friendships wasn’t animosity, it was simply time. Too much time, too much space, and not enough luck. Jessie wished it HAD been over something tangible. Whenever she remembered her old friend and how they hadn’t spoke in so long she wished she could get angry at them about it. She wished that she could just fire off a pithy email, let all her frustration at missing her friend become viable anger, that they could do or say something that would justify her being mad at them rather than at a feeling. But Jessie didn’t become the secret ruler of the world by not being smart enough to see a road that went nowhere. Pushing those thoughts deep down, she went back to the reports her super nerds had put together on the viability of using Rotom to create a new internet.

 

In between the far-longer-than-text-messaging-warrants texts from Brock about the meeting, Misty scrolled through her news feed. Dawn had a new article bemoaning millennials’ lack of interest in Pokemon Contests. There was an article by Professor Bianca on the possible ecological impact of manifesting physical organisms from the ‘Dream World’ that Misty bookmarked for later. Finally, the Guardian had an article by Professor Cheren covering the growing “New Plasma” movement in the Unova region. Misty only read far enough to see Cheren mention “no-platforming by leftist trainers” before closing the browser.

“Your Golduck can perform its Hydro Pump move five times without resting. That alone produces hundreds of gallons of water. The fact that we allow anyone anywhere on the planet to go without drinking water is ludicrous!”

Misty was starting to regret texting Brock to ask what she missed at the meeting.

“To be fair, Brock, you are then asking people to drink duck spit.”

It was great that Brock had discovered activism and was becoming passionate about it, but it would have been nice if he would have asked her or Sabrina for advice or information first. Or at least not always assume that they required a speech rather than a conversation. Or that someone who ran multiple therapy pokemon programs for lower-income citizens out of the Celadon Gym would have no idea what she was ever talking about.

“Actually, the Psyduck line are platypuses-”

Misty closed her Pokedex.

 

As a young child, Ash had resented the “hikers” most of all. The Pokemon journey was supposed to be this grand adventure for kids like him, for them to finally stretch their legs and become adults. Then here were these bristley men, already adults, trying to shoehorn their way into a young person’s journey. Preying on the kids with more pocket money than battle sense. As he got older, he started seeing them in a different light. They were heroic figures, refusing to give up their journey for social convenience. They were almost the ideal trainer in that they lived out under the stars with only their wits and their Pokemon to aid them.

Now Ash was 31, scratching his uneven beard, leaning against a roadside cliff in wait for a traveler to pass by so that he could battle for enough money to get some antidotes, and wondering which of those two perspectives he now embodied. When did he stop being a kid and start being an adult anyways? Wasn’t a change like that supposed to be sudden, rather than agonizingly gradual?

Was it when he first put Pikachu into a ball?

Was it WHY he first put Pikachu into a ball?

 

Mewtwo wondered just how many of the humans were are aware of how many Pokemon, most of whom are sentient and many of whom are either humanoid or can directly connect to wifi using some biological means, are on social media. How many of them realized that their dankest memes most likely came from typed from the fingers of a Kadabra or Mr Mime.

He also wondered how weird would it be to accept Mew’s friend request now after it had been sitting in his inbox for a decade or so.

 

Cole twirled the glass of red wine in her hand as she distracted herself from work with yet another instagram search for cute pictures of Growlithes in cardboard boxes. She knew these wouldn’t cure her writer’s block, but at this point in the day she was less looking for a cure and more looking to a way to make time move by just a little faster until she could convince her brain it was late enough where she didn’t need to try and force anything out. There would be time to finish the next great Kanto novel later, and even more time to feel guilty about not having written another eight of them already.

“Chim chim chimecho!” The familiar cry was soon followed by the tinkling of bells and the feeling of the creature’s long flat tail wrapped around her face in affection. You could always count on Pokemon to provide a distraction from both work and feelings of inadequacy. If such creatures didn’t exist, people would have had to invent them.

As Cole unraveled the creature and playfully scratched its ears, she thought about how much had changed in the past 20 years. Specifically, how much she had changed, and how much unquestionably it had been for the better. Despite that fact, the only ones who hadn’t questioned it had been Pokemon. When Cole didn’t recognize herself, or when things had been at the worst and she felt alienated even from the people she loved most, the Pokemon had always been there. They didn’t require any explanation when she left Team Rocket, or when she changed her name. When it came to beloved Pokemon, she didn’t have to fear the long silences that spring up between beloved people separated by time and space. A Pokemon she hadn’t used since she first became a trainer would be just as excited to see her if she chose it today. There was no neurotic fear or second-guessing with them. They knew who she was, unequivocally. Friendship with Pokemon could never, would never, replace that between people, but it helped.

No matter how easy it was for Cole to get jaded, it was that indistinct quality that Pokemon had deep inside that kept her solid in this world. It didn’t matter how many there were. It didn’t matter if their shared world kept repeating the same stupid stories and mistakes. It didn’t matter if none of them made any sense once you started thinking about them too hard. What mattered was, there was something inside them, something that called out and touched something inside of people. As alienated as people were, that quality was always going to be there, if only as a possibility.

Cole’s Pokedex rang. Sabrina was on her way home, and she was bringing pizza. Arceus bless that woman.

 

The kid had made eye contact. By law, Ash could now challenge him. The kid was obviously new to the game, and it didn’t require much in the way of battle strategy, but there was still plenty to plan in terms of which of his Pokemon could use the best use the tiny boost of experience. How to best, and most quickly, optimize his team.

Ash instinctively licked his lips as the kid’s last Pokemon, a recently caught Sandshrew, fell easily before his Snorlax. There would be nothing unexpected here. Collecting the kid’s spare change, he opened his Pokedex to check the EV levels of his own newer Pokemon when he say the text message.

“Ash. There’s a new region opening up. Probably at least going to be another hundred new Pokemon. I’m sending you the link. Hope this finally lets you finally hit rock bottom. Smell you later.”

A new region. A new chance to define himself. A chance to do things differently. Or maybe, instead, a chance to walk away. A chance to define himself now, as Ash, here in the present. A chance to avoid the same mistakes and create a new future for himself. Ash looked up at the sky, scanning it for any signs of how he felt when his first journey began. Some clue that either choice would give him what he so desperately wanted to find.

“Oh well,” he thought as he opened the link, “Gotta catch ’em all, I suppose.”

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Moominvalley in November

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Moominvalley in November is a book I’ve been wanting to write about some November for a few years now. Yet invariably whenever a November rolls around, I end up being too busy (or one time drunk) to do so. This time, instead of waiting until November, I’m just going to write about it now that the mood is in me. Sometimes November just comes to you, even in the end of February.

The Moomins and their world were created by Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Jansson’s trolls are a family of loving, soft, round hippo-like creatures who get into various misadventures. The first several books in the series revolve around the Moomin family and their friends going on wild journeys with mysterious creatures, locations and magic abounding. As Jansson continued writing Moomin books, their tone slowly changed. The adventures became less fantastic and more “real” (or at least as real as a story of hippo-like trolls can get). While the earlier books used the various Moomin character quirks to facilitate humorous, light-hearted adventure, the later books use these same quirks to create in-depth character studies. The book that first heralded this change was Moominvalley in Winter where Moomintroll struggles against feelings of fear, frustration and alienation while trying to survive in a version of his once-familiar valley that now feels like it has no place for him. Moominvalley in Winter also features the introduction of the character Too-ticky, a practical woman who helps Moomin survive his alienation. Too-ticky is directly modeled on Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietilä, and it’s hard not to read parts of the novel as a queer analogue.

Tove Jansson was queer in a Finland that hadn’t yet legalized homosexuality. Her affairs remained secret by necessity. Yet even today this part of her life that helped define her work is not exactly celebrated by children’s book publishers eager to capitalize on her beloved characters. One can read every reprint of her work, every lovingly crafted comic compendium, every tear-eyed retrospective, and walk away having no idea just how many women Jansson loved or how these relationships shaped, and in cases like Too-ticky directly inspired, her work. Publishers wanted, and still want, to package and sell Jansson’s work as divorced from the creator as possible. It may not always be intentional or with malice, but the result is the same. Long time readers of this blog know that I’m certainly not someone to argue that the author is not dead, but there is a world of difference between a reader choosing to engage with a text separate from the creator and having a separate, invariably corporate entity putting obstacles directly between them and the creator. Moominvalley in Winter is not merely a shift towards a darker, more psychological look at beloved children’s characters, it is a story of a woman coming out and feeling terrified at the new world she had been sleeping through before. It is an ode to the woman that helped her through this and showed her love that existed in this fearful new world. No matter how one tries to divorce Jansson’s sexuality from her work, these themes shine through in her prose.

Moominvalley in November is also based on events in Jansson’s life. In 1970, Jansson’s mother died. This event, and her absence from Jansson’s life, defines the entire book. Moominvalley in November features none of the Moomin family. Moominmama, Moominpapa, Moomintroll and Little My are all gone, off on a different adventure seen in Moominpapa at Sea. Instead, the family is replaced by a collection of familiar characters and newcomers. Each of these characters has their normal quirks cranked up more than usual, and the tension between them as they are forced together is palpable off the page, sometimes painfully so.

Toft is a young orphan boy, obsessed with finding the Moomin family and discovering the familial love he has never truly known, but fantasizes about. His obsession with Moominmama in particular is all consuming. Though he has never met her, he envisions her as the ultimate calming, nurturing force. A being of pure love who never gets mad or upset or frustrated and who can make everything better for Toft. He leaves his cold home behind to journey to the Moomin house, where he meets the other characters.

Hemulens are characters who appear in many of the previous Moomin books. They wear loose dresses and are defined by the scholarly obsessions and collections. The Hemulen of Moominvalley in November is a bit different than those that preceded him. A pompous bore who pretends to be an expert in everything, yet clearly knows nothing, this Hemulen wakes one day to the terrifying realization that all his collecting and organization may not mean anything. This Hemulen wears more practical, masculine clothes than the Hemulens we’ve seen before, and is less defined by any specific obsessions. He makes the journey to Moominvalley to find Moominpapa and, more importantly, a comradery he hasn’t known before.

Like this Hemulon, the Fillyjonk is both a familiar character and a surprise. While Fillyjonks as a “species” have appeared in previous Moomin books as status-obsessed worry worts, the Fillyjonk of this book is a neurotic mess, terrified of germs and people. Her near-death experience while trying to clean her roof leads her to panic at the thought that this life has left her devoid of any family, and makes haste for Moominvalley to try and learn from Moominmama.

Snufkin is the most familiar of these returning characters. Snufkin is Jansson’s bohemian traveler, and one of the most beloved characters of the entire series. Snufkin is usually a wise, aloof wanderer who has no time for the foolishness of civilization and maintains a zen-like calmness at all times. Snufkin is normally the model of self-sufficiency, but at the start of this novel is alarmed to learn he cannot come up with the missing notes for a new song on his own. Despite his desire to travel on, he makes his trip back to Moominvalley in hopes that his friends can provide the inspiration he needs to be alone.

Rounding out the cast is Mymble and Grandpa-Grumble. The Mymble is a beautiful, if a bit conceited, creature who is making her trip to Moominvalley to visit Little My, her sister who was adopted by the Moomins. Mymbles are flightly, but clever creatures who have no problem following their own bliss, but are not exactly able to put others first (hence why her sister had to be raised by Moomins in the first place). Mymble is both a character you want to be like, but also feel a bit put-off by. Her ease of being in her own body and desires tempered by her bluntness alternating between undiplomatic and uncaring. Finally there is Grandpa-Grumble, a senile old man who cannot remember his own name, much less exactly what he wants to get from the “happy valley” he knew so long ago.


The six characters arrive at the Moomin’s abandoned house at around the same time, and immediately are at odds. The Moomins are nowhere in sight, and no one can agree on what to do in the meantime. So they move in, each only caring about fulfilling the need they believe only the Moomins can fill, and proceed to just be SHITTY to each other. In the past books, when Moominpapa and Moominmama ran the valley, everyone who came in was family. There were conflicts and selfish desires, but there was also the understanding that these were just part of all families, and did not need to disrupt their lives or make anyone undeserving of love. Without the Moomins, there is no family. Instead there is just a collection of angry misfits. “Wacky” children’s book characters with required “wacky” quirks who are no longer having wacky adventures but are now tearing each other apart. Even the normally unflappable Snufkin is left an angry, twitchy mess. The situations and conflicts from these quirks brushing against each other do not result in the same humor and jokes we enjoyed in past Moomin books. It feels off somehow, rawer and less forgiving. We don’t laugh this time, either with or at the characters.

As time goes on, and it becomes clear that the Moomins aren’t going to just magically appear, the characters find their ways of coping and connecting. Each tries to embody a role left vacant by one of the missing Moomins. None of them succeed, but slowly they find their own ways of doing things together. It’s still not perfect by any means. In one particularly tragic scene after Fillyjonk has just spent a great deal of time fighting against her normal urges and trying to serve as “mother” for everyone, she is rejected by Toft and told cruelly, but truthfully, by Mymble how no matter what she does to try to make people love her, she will never be Moominmama. Filljonk, who manages to change the most of anyone, still has to accept both what she can and can’t be. But regardless of this strange, temporary “family’s” imperfections, it does allow the characters to step out of their “wacky” quirky roles and find ways to becoming more like the people they want to be. They are even able to come together and have a successful dinner party, and acknowledge each others’ gifts or perspectives.

Toft is the longest holdout, resenting Fillyjonk for not being Moominmama and the Hemulen for not being Moominpapa. He resents Snufkin for trying to be above everyone else and he resents Mymble for implying that the Moomins might possibly ever be upset with each other and fight like they do (especially for implying that Moominmama might be as imperfect as to get upset!). While holding himself apart from the others, he discovers a textbook on microbiology and, mistaking it for a storybook, begins reading it and visualizing strange, unworldly creatures based on the scientific jargon he can’t understand. As Toft’s alienation grows, so does the creature he imagines from the book, until it threatens to consume him. When Toft feels small and powerless, he imagines this formerly microscopic creature growing and stretching out against its limits. As Toft begins questioning his anger and resentment, the creature, grown fat on rage and lightning, no longer feels empowering or benign. It is only by letting go of his anger and accepting that this scary, undefinable creature of confused rage is within him, and maybe even within Moominmama, that he is able to sate it and save himself.


The climax of the book ends with the characters sitting on the Moomin’s porch, watching the autumn sky together. None of them speak, they simply watch autumn begin to end, as a new winter begins over the valley. They have all accepted the fact that they can’t entirely change who they are, but can still change how they live and act. But, this is as far as they can go together. In the end, this is not the story of the birth of a new family. The disparate characters have learned to work together, for a time, but they will never be the idyllic queer Moomin family. The time comes and one by one they part, each having found at least part of that thing that was missing from their lives. The Hemulen, failing to actually build or accomplish anything tangible on this trip but content that his life doesn’t have to be meaningless if he gives it meaning. Fillyjonk, not the perfect Moominmama but a new person regardless, content that she is capable of bringing people into her life. Snufkin, content that he can once again create music, and that maybe even unnecessary people can make it sweeter. Mymble, content that even a Mymble can live for others for awhile. Grandpa-Grumple, still senile but content with both his age and the fact that he’s not ready to get even older. Even Toft has accepted that reality can’t be as perfect as the stories that once gave him comfort as a poor orphan. It’s important to note that they don’t all walk away with happy endings, or with all their needs entirely fulfilled. They understand each other better, and have found value in their time together, but that doesn’t make them family. It doesn’t even really make them friends, but that’s alright. The novel ends with the last to leave the valley, little Toft, heading down to the docks where he makes his home in time to see the lantern of Moominpapa’s boat approaching.

The Moomins found their way back to the valley, but Jansson never found her way back. Moominvalley in November was the last Moomin novel. Jansson wrote about how after this book she was never able to fully find her way back to that happy valley again. Jansson knew this would be the last Moomin book, and so she let the Moomins return to their valley, but in a mysterious way we’ll never know for sure unless we somehow make that journey ourselves. Even without being able to say goodbye to the Moomins in person, we are able to say goodbye in a very Moominesque way. Through a story of acceptance, of failed but not bad relationships, of being alone among others and being able to welcome even the worst seasons.

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Final Fantasy X’s Generational Conflict or “I Hate You (Really) Big Daddy”

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The JRPG genre has always had strong thematic connections to adolescence and growing up. The standard opening of such games, where a young kid from a nowhere, backwater burg stretches their legs, finds they’ve grown too big for the life they knew, and goes off to confront the world goes beyond cliche to become almost a requirement. The average JRPG protagonist ends up defining a new family based on the friends they meet on their journey and, through the actions of a few (again, almost always young) individuals who refuse to fit into the NPC template, end up taking down tyrannical establishments and redefining the world. There’s a reason the genre was a very hard sell in the West until the mid-90s, when what, at the time, was the largest generation of console game players were reaching their teens. But even in a genre so awash in symbolism for youthful rebellion, Final Fantasy X stands out as perhaps the most “up yours old man, the kids are alright!” game of its era.

Final Fantasy X is not a subtle game. The story takes place on a world called Spira, and makes constant note about how this world is caught in a “spiral of death.” The world is threatened by a leviathan named Sin, and it turns out this monster has a direct connection to the largest governing and religious body in the world, the Church of Yu Yevon. Almost every main character is defined by an absent parent, either through death, abuse or neglect. So to recap: the world of Spira(l) is constantly under threat of a monster named Sin representing the literal sins of the both the previous generations and the most powerful cultural institution, and can only be defeated for good when the next generation ignores everything they’ve been instructed to do, find a way to overcome their neglect and redefine everything they were taught about the world. Believe it or not, it gets even less subtle as it goes on.

But that’s ok. Final Fantasy X is not trying to be subtle, and considering the whole point of the story is to provide a JRPG anthem for trusting the future generation to do what is right, it doesn’t need to be. Youthful rebellion has never been subtle, no matter what we tell ourselves after we are no longer the youth. Youthful rebellion is loud, bold, sometimes stupid, sometimes unfair, and no matter how effective or evocative it is, the previous generation seems to find some way of taking it as a threat to its very reality that must be opposed. How else can you explain a generation of radicals and hippies becoming so incensed at the very idea that “millennials” are now trying to take up the torch? How else can you reconcile older activists with weekly columns and constant media appearances claiming that students criticizing them is “no platforming” while they simultaneously try to bar said students from participation? How else can you reconcile a generation that utterly destroyed any hope the current generation will have of economic potential or even environmental stability getting so consistently irritated that the generation they robbed is “lazy” and “weak”? Sometimes there is a time for subtlety and sometimes there’s just a time to say “hey, fuck you baby boomer, maybe let someone who DIDN’T murder the world take a turn!” No, it’s not always fair, it’s not always polite, but fuck if sometimes the previous generation doesn’t need to hear it. That’s why all those previous generations said it to their own predecessors (as much as they may want to pretend otherwise now).

Spira, like Earth, is not in a sustainable situation. The best that Church of Yu Yevon could do was develope a fail safe to keep Sin’s actions in check for a short time. It’s not enough to save the world, but it’s enough to give the world some time to breath and rebuild a little. Then Sin returns, murders millions, and the Yevonnites call upon the strongest and most powerful of the next generation to sacrifice themselves to restore the calm. Not only does the Church actively oppose any other method of combating Sin, but they label it as heresy and are willing to commit genocide, both in overt and subtle forms, to prevent anyone from suggesting it.

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Enter Tidus, one of the two main characters. Tidus is a young man from Spira’s far distant past, before Sin even existed. When we first meet him, Tidus’ life seems pretty great. He’s a celebrity with adoring fans and he gets to do what he loves (play a really stupid sport called Blitzball) for a living. Tidus has no reason to complain about anything, so he appears a cheerful, brash, maybe even spoiled kid. As it turns out, he is largely faking said positivity to avoid confronting his feelings regarding his father. His father, Jecht, was a negligent alcoholic who had no way of dealing with his own fears and failures other than lashing out at his son with emotional abuse. But his father is gone, and now his life is perfect, how can he let down the people who expect him to be just as perfect? The cracks in Tidus’ facade only break when Sin first appears, destroying his home and presumably sending him to another world (later revealed to be the distant future… Kind of, I’ll leave SOME spoilers alone for brevity).

At first, Tidus seems able to cope with the same optimism and impudent energy we saw from our short time with him earlier. Then he learns this bombshell: the reason his father disappeared was because he too was sent to this world, and on this future version of Spira, his father is beloved as a hero who overcame his demons and gave his life to help produce Spira’s current “Calm” from Sin. Tidus learns that Jecht did for all these strangers what he never could do for his own son: be present.

Enter Yuna, the second main character. A summoner on the pilgrimage to prepare for fighting Sin, Yuna seems resigned to her fate as a sacrifice. What are her needs and desires in the face of temporary relief from Sin? How could she face the world if they found out she wasn’t willing to give up her life for them? Like Tidus, it is a facade, and it is this realization that each other are pretty much the only people who “get it” that pushes them together. While it is easy to read the story as one where Tidus SHOWS Yuna that the preceding system is corrupt and that she is free, I prefer the reading where Tidus’ relationship gives Yuna the opportunity to play with ideas she’s already had and suppressed.

Yuna also mirrors Tidus in that she is defined by an absent father. Her father, Braska, became the high summoner who, along with Jecht, gave his life to calm Sin. Unlike Jecht, Yuna’s father was very loving and not negligent at all, but he still chose to give his life and leave his daughter alone. But even so, how can you resent a father leaving if it meant he gave the world hope? Yuna, like Tidus, is caught with conflicting feelings that this world refuses to give an outlet to.

The other characters are also defined either by absent parents or absent authority figures. Waka and Lulu, the “big brother” and “big sister” of the group, both lost their parents to Sin. Perhaps because their parents death was no a choice, they do not have the same initial resentment towards the system that Tidus and (secretly) Yuna do. Waka, in fact, is the biggest booster of Yevon, rationalizing everything horrible he sees, up until he is confronted by literal genocide of the “heretic” Al Bhed tribe. Rikku has more living family than the others, but is still marked by an absent mother. Even Kihmari, the largely silent, lion-like demihuman, is defined by his ousting from his tribe by bullies tormenting him “for his own good.” Only Auron is different, being an older figure and contemporary of both Jecht and Braska. But Auron is marked by the neglect of the previous system too, and his attempts to atone for his generation’s collective sins while trying to serve as a new father-figure for this neglected generation.

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As the story progresses, it seems clear that there must be some method to defeat Sin other than the standard, temporary relief espoused by the Yevonites. But it also becomes clear that the Church of Yevon is not merely a well-meaning but regressive entity, but rather is intrinsically linked to the suffering of this world. The Calm that proceeds the sacrifice of the High Summoner becomes the catalyst that returns Sin to the world after a few short years. The Church heads are not merely ineffectual or out of touch, but are revealed to be LITERAL undead ghouls, willing to sacrifice the lives of countless young people, to send the best and brightest of each generation to their death and rebirth as the very monster they opposed, all to avoid losing their physical grip on a dying world.

One of the most thematically important moments of the game’s narrative comes after the party defeats Yunalesca, one of the holy figures of the Yevonites and the vehicle for summoner a to temporarily calm Sin (and, in another extremely unsubtle moment, is whom Yuna was named after). After hours of game time trying to justify the need for her sacrifice, and the greater good that will come from putting up the bullshit rules of this broken world, Yuna refuses. Yunalesca cannot even conceive of the possibility that someone would refuse her call, and rather than a sensible “ok, you’re free to choose, there are literally hundreds of other summoners right behind you who are willing” she snaps and demands the death of the heretics so she can “end their suffering.” It is not enough that the next generation sacrifice themselves for her and her fellow living corpses, they must be punished and destroyed for even suggesting otherwise. Their very defiance is a threat to existence as Yevon knows it. So, without any other course of action, the party defeats Yunalesca, sending the undead goddess into oblivion and ending the only known way of placating Sin. When Yuna and company return to the Church, they bring a new plan to defeat Sin forever, but the living corpses who run the Church are so terrified by the idea of trusting the next generation to try that they voluntarily release their physical hold on the world and allow themselves to fade into oblivion. Their fear of the future is so great they cannot conceive of a way to trust the next generation without losing their reality, and so take a coward’s way out.

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I’ve now gone 11 paragraphs talking about Final Fantasy X and I haven’t even talked about the character who could be seen as the main villain. In truth, Final Fantasy X doesn’t really have a single villain beyond abstract ideas like “institutional apathy” or “contempt for the future.” The main villain is not exactly the Yevonites, or Sin, or Jecht, or even Yevon himself, finally revealed to be a bloated, tick-like parasite existing at the heart of Sin. However, most players will probably assume, at least at first, that the true villain is Seymour Guado. Seymour resembles all the other Nomura-designed villains of the previous Final Fantasy games. Seymour is handsome and slightly androgynous. His fashion and hair are even more outlandish than the hero (no small feat for this game!). His weapon of choice is a giant summoned monster that resembles an anglerfish version of the Virgin Mary. More to the point, there is not a single action he takes or thing he says in his syrupy voice that doesn’t immediately make the player thing “ok, this guy is a creep and evil.” Even when the game tries to present him as affable, he sets off every JRPG player’s “final boss” alarms.

Seymour is essentially a sociopathic narcissist. People exist only for his direct pleasure, and if they can’t be manipulated they will be taken by force. He is disconnected from reality, unable to see or care about what the results of his actions may be. He wields the guilt taught to each generation by the Yevonnites like a scalpel, playing on every insecurity Yuna has and every “for the greater good” argument she has heard to try and force her into his possession. He also knows that his people will cover and protect him, no matter what. Seymour is, like the game, completely unsubtle at first glance. For all the player will end up wanting to see his smug face smashed by their characters, Seymour does not seem to have much going on other than being a generic irredeemable bad guy. In the end, he doesn’t even rank as final boss. The party defeats him the final time before they launch their final assault on Sin.

However, a player who takes the time to do every side quest, speak to every NPC, read every note, and dive into the lore of Spira will learn more about Seymour. The basics of this story can be learned by obtaining the optional summon Anima, but more details are sprinkled across the vast optional lore of Spira. It turns out that Seymour is marked by the same tragedy and fear that Tidus and Yuna are. While you would not know this is you just played the game as fast and linearly as possible, Seymour’s father was also absent and quite abusive. The leader of the mysterious Guado people, Seymour’s father was “trapped” by Guado traditions and “forced” to banish his half-breed son and his human mother. Seymour’s father would not even acknowledge their existence. It was then that Seymour’s mother had an idea to give her son a new life. She would help him become the next high summoner, bringing Spira the calm it needed and restoring her honor and that of her child in the eyes of even the Guados. Seymour went on the journey with her, watched her sacrifice and the horrifying pain it inflected on her. She became Anima, the monster he summons, but rather than use this new power to sacrifice himself and calm Sin, he fled. He remained alone and furious at the stupidity of the world until he was 18. It turned out that eventually his mother’s plan would work. As an adult, Seymour was welcomed back to Guadosalam and his father finally acknowledged him again.

Like Tidus and Yuna, Seymour could never speak about his fears and resentments towards his parents. Was he not welcomed back and given such lavish honors and titles? Did his mother not perform her duty and give up herself to try and subdue Sin? How could he be so selfish as to be UPSET about that? Not only that, but he presumably had to constantly hear from the Guado, the same people that abandoned him until adulthood, about how her sacrifice proved she was one of “the good humans.” Her death was the only reason they would talk about her. That’s a fucked up thing for a PSTD’d 18 year old who until recently was considered dead to his community to deal with. Then the other shoe drops, and Seymour as an adult learns that his father knew his mother’s plan and encouraged it. He was willing to force her to her death, and while you could charitably suggest he did so only so he could get his son back, you could just as easily suggest he did so only to restore any remaining lost “honor” among his people. Also, remember that Seymour’s mom’s original plan would have led to Seymour’s death too, and he still waited a full decade after she died to “welcome” him back. Seymour snapped, killed his father, used his connections as a member of the Church to cover it up, and to his perverse joy found that the Guado would rather live under the rule of a murderer than risk the outside world learning anything that could be used “against” them.

Again, none of this backstory is immediately clear from the required interactions with Seymour. Rather than being part of the narrative, it is all relegated to “background lore.” The discussion of how to deal with narrative vs lore in interactive fiction is a long one that we don’t need to get into here, but suffice to say the fact that it is lore means that you cannot count on a player learning it. The idea that Seymour has a direct connection to Tidus and Yuna, that he might even have a reason for his obsession with Yuna beyond “pretty girl, I want own,” that he represents a path not taken by either character where resentment turns toxic, is all subtext that players will possibly never learn. Like Tidus, his father was abusive and absent. Like Yuna, when the system tried to use him, he denied it. But instead of then finding the strength and a new family of friends to move on, he descended into a desperate nihilism. Would he have gone the same path if he had made a new family like Yuna? Would Tidus have replaced his fake optimism with toxic nihilism if he had wound up in a different part of Spira that fateful day? Why not focus on this duality between Seymour and Tidus/Yuna? Why is Seymour relegated to stock “almost” main JRPG villain and not given more of a focus beyond being someone to dislike and fight?

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For awhile I considered this to be a misstep by the game’s creators. Seymour was never terribly interesting, and developing this subtext might have made him more memorable. However, focusing on that subtext may have come at the cost of the rest of the story. As noted, Final Fantasy X has no real “main” villain. Rather the villain is the system that allows all this corruption, fear, and sacrifice to take place. As a nuanced character, Seymour might have threatened to take the focus away from that. Putting Seymour’s pathos at the forefront would transform the conflict from an intra-generational one to an inter-generational one. As a sympathetic mirror, Seymour takes away from the “youth culture forever, you can’t take my rock music and cell phones! I mean my hymn of the fayth and machina!” vibe. However, as an unsubtle cackling villain, Seymour strengthens the player’s understanding of how corrupt the ruling forces of Spira have become. The Church of Yevon would rather allow a sociopath free reign than risk losing any of their power. Even when that sociopath turns against them, and threatens the world at large, the Church will fight to protect him and punish anyone who speaks out. When one takes into account what happens after Yunalesca’s defeat, this means that the Yevonite leaders are then notably more terrified of trusting Yuna’s generation (to the point where they will willingly fade into oblivion) than they are of dealing with Seymour actively ruining lives in their name.

In this view, Seymour is merely another example of how the true villain, the toxic system of sacrificing the future to save a selfish elite, is so unsustainable. The real villain isn’t the cackling jerk bag, it’s the system that would create and protect those jerk bags! This is a surprisingly mature direction for a game I just spent so long describing as “unsubtle” to take, and one that very few video games go for. It’s generally much harder to punch a system than an evil wizard or psycho clown. At the same time, relegating Seymour’s full backstory to lore gives players already familiar with the main themes, perhaps on a second play through, an opportunity to dive deeper into more specific parts of those themes. Seymour’s deeper thematic connection to Tidus and Yuna is more evocative when it is learned after seeing and recognizing the larger corrupt system in action.

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To be fair, even Final Fantasy X struggles with knowing exactly how to wrap up its story in traditional JRPG fashion. Seymour is dealt with early-enough on, even in his required JRPG villain “final form.” The Church of Yevon lets itself die rather than risk being exposed to reality, leaving no one there to beat up. Jecht’s final confrontation/reunion with Tidus is emotionally satisfying but not exactly boss-punchingly satisfying. The addition of a basically unloseable boss fight against a gauntlet of “dark” summons and Yevon himself seems almost an acknowledgement of “yeah, we know we need a big Final Fantasy-style finish. Get punching already.” It is a testament to the game designers that the ending manages to stick the landing despite this. In the end, a world is free to choose its own fate, and the two main characters, who seemingly more than anyone should have earned the right to choose their future together, have to accept the only part of this new world they can’t change, the absence of each other from their lives… or deaths… or dreams? Look I’m at the end of this post I’m not going to get in to trying to figure out the specific metaphysical details of Tidus being the living-dream of a mummified version of his past-city who was temporarily allowed to wear the souls of the dead as a method of entering the physical world and… see why I wanted to focus on the unsubtle parts of this game?

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