Sunday, June 17, 2012

Let's talk about VNs.

So normally I don't mention VNs because 1)I've only played a couple of them and 2)I don't really find them comment-worthy.

But seeing as I have nothing else to talk about, I wanted to sit down and contemplate the MuvLuv trilogy.  The reason why is because I find it rather fascinating.

The series' core cast of heroines
The MuvLuv Trilogy consists of MuvLuv Extra, MuvLuv Unlimited (collectively known as simply MuvLuv) and MuvLuv Alternative.  The series starts with Extra, which introduces us to our protagonist Takeru Shirogane, and much of the core cast of characters.

Childhood friend Sumika is the main heroine
There is nothing particularly outstanding about MuvLuv Extra.  It's a straightforward, dime-a-dozen romantic harem story with some bits of comedy and drama sprinkled in for good measure.  Modern Japanese storytelling for a young adult audience is absolutely flooded by stories of this sort.  To be sure, it has its moments of genuine hilarity and sincere emotion.  But don't be mistaken; you've seen or read this story before.  And MuvLuv Extra is probably not the best version of it either.

You might grow tired of the typical character archetypes (yes, there's even a childhood friend), average writing, and conventional attempts at humor.  The plot--strung together by a cook-off between the heroines to win your attention, followed by a lacrosse arc especially permeated with unnecessary melodrama (particularly depending on who's affections you're pursuing), and of course, topped off with a hot springs arc--will feel unexceptional to most and downright monotonous to some.

It's hard to see where developer age (yes, it's all lowercase) could be going with this tale, especially since MuvLuv Unlimited--unlocked only after completing Extra--has Takeru waking up one morning to find that he has stumbled into another reality.  One where terrifying aliens known as the BETA have invaded Earth, and humanity is fighting a losing war against them with giant mechs known as TSFs, or Tactical Surface Fighters.

There are so many questions on Takeru's mind, and by extension, the reader's own.  How did this happen?  Why Takeru?  What are the BETA?  Where are all his friends?  Cruelly, MuvLuv Unlimited does not deign to answer most of these questions.  Instead of focusing on elaborating on the nature of Takeru's new setting, Unlimited instead focuses on Takeru himself.  How he's adapting to this new, harsh world.  A world where humanity's population has already been reduced to 1 billion, soldiers consider themselves lucky to survive longer than eight minutes in combat, and humans are forced to lay waste to their own land using weapons of mass destruction to have any hope of driving back the BETA.  Unlimited focuses so much on Takeru that it even manages to get away with not actually showing us what the BETA look like for the entire game.  The result however is that in spite of everything, Unlimited manages to stay relatively lighthearted.

Humanity's invasion strategy against the BETA usually consists of several phases
of long-range shelling and bombardment from sea and space, before moving in the ground force

And then comes Alternative.  Where to begin?  As the final entry in the saga, MuvLuv Alternative has a lot of answering to do.  It has to make up for all the questions Unlimited failed to answer, and all the worldbuilding Unlimited failed to do.  It does that, and so much more, and by then it's not even halfway done with you.

What people don't realize until they are sucked into MuvLuv Alternative is that MuvLuv Extra was clever.  For one thing, as you play through Alternative, you realize that Extra was positively riddled with foreshadowing and easter eggs.  Despite the fact that Alternative came out three years after the original MuvLuv, it's clear that age knew what kind of story they wanted tell right from the very beginning.

But more importantly, Extra provides contrast.  So much contrast it's painful.  At the beginning of MuvLuv Alternative, Takeru wakes up once more to find himself in Unlimited's wartorn reality, but he's been transported back 3 years in the beginning of Unlimited.  But this time, he's a man with a plan.  He's going to use everything he learned and accomplished in Unlimited to save the world.

But he has another thing coming.  Age has a lot planned for Takeru, the reader, and everyone the reader and Takeru hold dear.  MuvLuv Alternative is a dark, gruesome story.  Nobody is safe, nothing is sacred.  It's been a long time since I've seen a protagonist get dragged through the mud quite like the gauntlet of tragedy and despair ML Alternative has prepared for Takeru.  Somehow age manages to make each death hurt more than the last, which is truly saying something, considering the first major death involves someone getting their head bitten off.

MuvLuv Alternative uses this constant air of doom to its advantage.  Every moment of triumph feels downright glorious.  But these moments are rare and fleeting, and almost always come at a horrible price.

We all thought Extra was boring and average and typical, but several hours into Alternative, after we've seen Takeru practically tear his hair out in depression and madness, or watched yet another friend die, or witnessed humanity's complete desperation against the BETA on full display....we find ourselves missing those idle days, which suddenly feel like some faraway memory.  It was all fun and games back then, when all Takeru and the reader had to worry about was which girl he was going to have sex with.  They were often dull and uninteresting, but at least they were peaceful.

And so we arrive again at this concept of contrast.  How age uses it to incredible effect to strengthen the impact of Alternative, and force us to re-evaluate our appreciation of what Extra brings to the table.  You never know what you have until it's gone, and by the time you've gotten a little bit into Alternative, I think we can all agree that there's nobody who knows this better than Takeru Shirogane.

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