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Miscellaneous Whimsey – Do, don’t tell

Still not hardcore enough.

Every season, we’ll get at least one anime that’s an adaptation of some videogame. That’s to be expected as videogames have been around for a while now, are a large sector of the Japanese entertainment industry in their own right, and have proven themselves as the innovative new storytelling medium of our time. At the same time though, even as these adaptations keep getting made many end up being—in the words of Winston Churchill—terrible. Now, I know some of you will immediately cite Sturgeon’s Law here—most of everything is terrible—but there’s a special something about videogame adaptations that seems to make them especially easy to mess up, and capable of missing the mark in ways that few adaptations of other material manage to sink to. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today: why some videogame adaptations go bad, and what exactly it is about videogames that make them tricky adaptation material.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with anime based on a manga or a novel and what they involve. The general goal and appeal of such adaptations are, at the risk of being overly reductionist, an increase in visual fidelity. A novel, with just words, or a manga, with just monochrome pictures and words, rely a great deal on the imagination of the reader to emulate the story. That’s fine and good, as human imagination is powerful, but if we want the picture projected on the minds of the audience to be closer we what the author intended (and make the entire experience easier for couch-potato consumption), then we want some extra tools. Anime has colour. Music. And, of course, animation. You’d often hear that old adage from Creative Writing 101 about the importance of ‘show, don’t tell‘. It’s about creating a more engaging experience. Anime, compared to a manga or novel, has more options for the showing, and so even though I love my words (would you believe I’m writing some right now?) I prefer anime, and other audiovisual mediums, use as little of them as possible because their strength lies in other tools.

So, for a long time, an anime adaptation was about letting a story have access to more tools than the source. Even if an adaptation has less time to tell its story than the volumes of manga or novel that it is based on and the hundreds of thousands of words than can represent, it can rely on sound and visuals to compress the words into what would still be a very engaging experience. The extra tools was still a significant advantage. Along comes videogames, though, and suddenly anime finds that it has less tools to work with than its source. Videogames have, obviously, gameplay, and that’s a powerful and versatile storytelling tool even if we may not always think of them as such. While traditionally storytelling lives by ‘show, don’t tell’ videogames are instead about letting players do, don’t tell. Again, it’s about engagement, and letting a player be actively involved is gripping indeed.

To demonstrate just some of the things gameplay can do I’m going to use two examples: Little Busters! and Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen. Hopefully you’ll recognise at least one of them. Even if you don’t, I’ll take some time to explain the mechanics of the two games and include some pictures (and also, spoilers), so you should be fine following along. I’m choosing to talk about Utawarerumono because I recently finished playing the game and was struck by how different it felt compared to the anime. And I’m choosing Little Busters mostly because I wanted two examples. More importantly, though, they’re both largely visual novels with just a side of actual gameplay. Utawarerumono is also largely linear, and one would have thought it an easy adaptation. They make for simple demonstrations of what even slim gameplay adds.

 

Gameplay as Distraction

The Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen anime wasn’t ‘bad’ per se. In fact, I would argue that it did some things better than the game e.g. the retrospection episode and The Princess Plays with Fire. But it did build up many small errors and in the end did seem to sag. For example, many of the slice-of-life segments felt slow and did not contribute enough to the main narrative arc. Not that slice-of-life segments important, as they establish both characters and the status quo, but they can also bog down the story with idle pacing. It’s not exactly the anime’s fault; many visual novels have drawn out first acts. Little Busters! similarly has a very long common route before. But the visual novels get away with it partly because they break things up with gameplay.

Little Busters! has baseball.


The goal is to hit the cats.

 

There’s also the occasional non-sequitur battles for no good reason.


Wrong show? Right show.

 

Utawarerumono, on the other hand, also moonlights as a tactical RPG.


I had to steal this screenshot from Youtube because this game doesn’t allow the PS4 to take screenshots.

 

You may have heard that most plots are supposed to have an undulating tension curve, with occasional peaks of action to break things up and keep the audience interested. For the visual novels, they can substitute action with gameplay. So, when the pace starts feeling slow? Or if we had to slog through a lot of exposition? Or when the comedy seems to be going flat? Time to break things up! Play some baseball! Fight a battle! An anime can’t exactly do that. without talking to you through the screen and plugging in your Playstation.

 

Gameplay as Development

Various gameplay mechanics can communicate things about characters and setting in a way that no anime can replicate. This is especially obvious in Role-Playing Games or games with RPG elements. All those statistics and move sets and equipment selections are all part of character design. And since RPG gameplay elements are about character growth mechanically (levelling up and all), it’s very easy to make it a metaphor about character growth narratively. To demonstrate, first take Little Busters!:

Much of Little Busters is a coming of age story. Leads Riki & Rin need to find inner strength, while everybody’s best bud and mentor Kyousuke tries to secretly guide them. And curiously, while Riki is the first-person protagonist in the visual novel and we see the story from his point of view, the game mechanics puts us more in Kyousuke’s shoes. The RPG elements invite players to care about the growth of the characters simply because it’s rewarding to see numbers go up. In Little Busters!, this is done by hitting baseballs.


It doesn’t matter what the numbers mean, only that they get bigger.

 

Stats increase after every practice session, based loosely on how involve each character was in the ball and stick thing (I don’t know how the sport actually works, we don’t play baseball in Australia). Riki and Rin’s stats actually start woefully low—they are weak. But because Kyousuke assigns them as batter and pitcher in every practice session, their stats naturally increase the fastest if one’s playing the game right. And so, even before Kyousuke explains his master plan much later down the plotline, we already appreciate what he’s been doing.

Of course, the stats themselves can tell us something about the characters too. If you look back at the Little Busters! level up screen, the distribution of stats for each character is a literal breakdown of their personalities. For more complex RPG systems, we can learn even more. In Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen, characters actually engage in combat in the tactical RPG segements, and they have both stats and skills.


Okay, I stole everything from Youtube.

 

In the anime, we know that the protagonist Haku is a weak layabout. At the same time, though, other characters trust him implicitly, citing a level of competency we never really see demonstrated onscreen. He doesn’t actually offer much in the way of protagonist material, even though he’s expected to. It’s a definite weakness in the anime, and I attribute it to poor translation of the character from the game. Sure, he’s a weak layabout in the visual novel too, by intention, but getting to use him as a game piece makes all the difference.

Game-wise, Haku’s stats are significantly lower than any other playable character. He’s not very good at the fighting. But he’s still a great asset to your team because he comes with a very useful set of skills. In combat, he demonstrates usefulness outsight of just raw strength, and you will actually want to use him because of the support and utility he brings. The visual novel never has to tell its reader any of this, but rather its gameplay mechanics naturally build an image of the character. Players don’t need to be convinced of the worth of Haku in a tight spot, because they’ve made use of his talents talents first hand. That’s something that no anime can do.

 

Gameplay as drama

You may recall that in the Little Busters! anime, they play baseball. And they lose. This was a more climactic event in the visual novel and was another bit of gameplay segment that required player input. But you’ll almost certainly lose as well. On your first playthrough, you simply don’t have enough players or enough stats to win. That’s just the first playthrough, though; the visual novel structure expects players to go through it multiple times, and with each ‘loop’ your team gets stronger. And then you win! There’s a sense of achievement you don’t get in the anime, being able to look on your team, appreciate how far they’ve come, and point spot the real growth they’ve gone through.

For most games, gameplay progression follows narrative progression. As the plot gets more intense, so does the gameplay, and indeed in Little Busters! all your baseball practice eventually leads to one big game that serves as the main trial of the common route. Utawarerumono does this too, but to a larger extent since the gameplay is more thoroughly interwoven into the visual novel. Again, what Utawarerumono does is break up the visual novel with occasional segments of tactical RPG, with each segment representing one battle. As you progress, and the plot ramps up, so too do the battles. You’ll fight harder enemies. You’ll fight more enemies. And while these gameplay segments are very sparse at the beginning of the game, as the narrative reaches its peak they becomes more and more frequent, with less lull between each, reflecting the amount of violence and chaos in the plot. Of course, per JRPG tradition, we end with some hopeless battle against a giant, ugly god-thing.


It followed me home. Can we keep it?

 

So the gameplay actually offered a lot of scaffolding for the pacing, scaffolding that the anime doesn’t have. Which is why I think the pacing of the aniem ended up being a bit unstable and the drama didn’t feel like it had as much impact in the end. Yes, a lot of the fighting, in the game, wasn’t integral to the plot. But they were still there for a reason, and the entire experience does not feel the same without them. It’s the same deal when an anime uses big action sequences; sure, they’re not actually very consequential and the results are the only thing people will care about when the plot rolls on, but letting the audience experience the conflict is an important part of reinforcing the drama.

 

Conclusions

Obviously, this isn’t all that gameplay does for narrative in videogames. Heck, it’s probably not even all it does in these videogames. I just wanted some examples for the purposes of demonstration, so that the next time a videogame adaptation goes south we can, perhaps, be more receptive as to why. No adaptation is easy work, but videogames are relatively new territory, and I suspect for many directors it may be the first time they have experienced a lack of storytelling tools compared to the source. This is not to say that videogames are a ‘superior’ medium and all adaptations of them must inherently suck. I’m not even saying the two adaptations I use as examples particularly suck. I’m just concerned that not all directors may appreciate what’s lacking, and fail to suitably compensate. An adaptation is about giving a different take using the unique tools of a different medium, and there are still things that anime does better than games. Any adaptation needs to recognise where their advantage lies. I just think that videogames are more vulnerable to lazy adaptations than most. But of course, the good adaptations are just as rewarding.

August 11, 2017 at 9:07 am
29 comments »
  • August 11, 2017 at 10:20 amMistic

    Ironically, when you mentioned Utawarerumono, I thought of the first Utawarerumono, not the sequel. I actually consider the first anime to be a competent adaptation of a game.

    Nevertheless, you’re right that this is a problem when adapting video games into anime, or into films. Or basically any other adaptation between different media. The pacing and tools that work in one medium may not work in another one, or can’t be translated.

    We do see similar problems with many LN adaptations, don’t we? Very often you can almost smell the “exposition chapters” in the adaptation that seem to slow down the pace or break it completely. And that’s because while lengthy exposition can be tolerated or even be very useful in writing (whole paragraphs of description may take just as many pages as a simple dialogue), the same doesn’t happen in a more visual medium.

    By the way, now that I mention LN adaptations: is anyone going to review Owarimonogatari’s 2nd part? I’ve heard the whole 7 episodes are going to be released on the 12th and 13th of August.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:28 pmPasserby

      I hear that some fans get touchy when an anime strays from the line-by-line of a light novel, which does nobody any favours. Especially when a light novel may not necessarily be… Shakespearean writing.

      I do hope to make some time for Owarimonogatari, but Shaft never wants to make it easy for me. I’ll try to at least write something about it.

  • August 11, 2017 at 11:15 amChoya

    Video games have a lot more to lose in translation compared to other anime adaptations. Because the interaction between a viewer and a TV show is way different than a player and a game, the level of immersion is also different.

    A TV show has to work to get the viewer to be immersed in a character’s motivations, personality, and goals based on the audience’s interpretation of visual signifiers. Light novels can be tricky because a character’s thought pattern and mindset is explained to it’s fullest through text, but the narrative is still straight-forward narrative enough to create an anime/movie out of. You still lose alot of the main character’s motivations, but you wouldn’t have to sacrifice so much of the original story’s elements because both books and audiovisual media rely on the audience experiencing events as they happen in the timeline.

    Video games are a different beast. The audience’s interaction with a video game is, for the most part, a personalized experience. For visual novels, it still has a story to it, but your choice creates dozens of scenarios with different endings, end goals, and character interactions. It can be sidestepped with animating all of the scenarios like with Amagami SS tackling everything or with Fate/Stay Night divving up the arcs into different anime, but you still lose the component of interacting with the environment as you would. Visual novels with gaming components to them, like Little Busters, would have much more to lose when it comes to how those components affect how characters progress or how they are seen in the narrative.

    Another classic mistake can be to chop out so much of the narrative and character interactions that it rips the soul out of what made the games great. The adaptation of Danganronpa was a colossal mistake because a huge aspect of the game is interacting with your fellow students, and learning about them during your off-time before you have to face them in the courtroom or deal with fights breaking out. Because they just assumed they could tell the story without giving Naegi any personal interaction with any of the other students, it made him feel like a vessel for the audience to place themselves into, and ultimately, ended up being one of those anime that just expect you to know about the game beforehand in order to enjoy it.

    Standard video games (RPGs, fighting games, action, adventure, puzzle, etc) have the most to lose from the shift to anime. Many have story modes and narrative components to them like Blazblue, Persona 4 Golden or Valkyria Chronicles, but the immersion you get from these games is predominantly from how you can control the main character, their decisions, their movement, and sometimes their mindset. Your immersion in these games rides on how you are seeing from a specific character’s point-of-view to the point that you control all of their actions, and a standard video game would lose its purpose without any actions.

    Watch one of those “______ The Movie” cutscene compilation videos on Youtube for any given game that isn’t a visual novel or a Telltale game. You get the experience of the story mode, but it cuts out a bulk of what makes the games actually immersive. If you cut out the actions between each cutscene, how would you translate those blank spaces? Many anime adaptations fail when they can only attempt to recreate that blank space with empty action or undeserved accolades for supposed things that happened off-screen.

    Some of the better video game adaptations are for visual novels because controlling the character doesn’t leave any spaces unfilled with empty movement/action. You still lose alot of what makes the character’s themselves and fall into the standard trap of not being inside of the character enough to convey their emotions properly, but everything you experience happens within it’s gameplay. Shiro Emiya’s actions during a fight scene are still a part of how the player experiences the narrative; the Investigation Team having to grind for experience in a dungeon, however, don’t offer much to the narrative.

    Having to rely on the anime staff to interpret the game how they see fit leaves little potential for anything positive, and only sows the seeds for disappointment or outrage in how mishandled their version of the game is. If Yu Narukami is a dickhead to his friends, it becomes obvious. If Faldio’s personality is shifted, people will notice. If the fights that depict what happens during the gameplay are crappy, it’ll come off as time filler. It’s a huge risk to adapt an anime into TV, and getting it wrong is easy when video games ride on how the viewer played their character, or hopes that the viewer’s knowledge of the video game can make up for the fact that they left out 85% of the game’s story content.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:25 pmPasserby

      Quite so. Another difficulty, I think, in adapting videogames is that the director really should play that videogame first. It should go without saying, of course, that before trying to adapt the source one should experience the source, but for a light novel or something you can sit down and plough through it in an afternoon, whereas for a videogame it can take a hundred hours of exploration and digging up content. There’s often a lot of material, and that material is not always easily accessible.

      • August 13, 2017 at 11:11 amChoya

        That’s true. The first questions that producers/companies should consider before they dive into an anime adaptation of a video game is “Why should we make this?” and “How can this game benefit from an adaptation?”

        Many adaptations like the Valkyria Chronicles just see a show as part of a marketing campaign to promote the game and don’t put any thought into why people like the games, how they could capture the spirit of the gameplay through a TV series, and what exactly the plot of the games are.

        It just pisses people off instead of promotes the games when it feels like a half-hearted cash grab made and written by people who just read the synopsis on Wikipedia and said “screw it, they’ll buy it for the name recognition anyways”

  • August 11, 2017 at 11:30 amKiritsugu

    I agree with your analysis. Although I must say that 90% the adaptation fails because people mess with the story in one way or the other. Every game adaptation feels the need to stray away from the original story. I guess this may be due to the fact that the ones adapting the game into an anime – or even a movie – think that the players would get bored with watching the same story. The tragedy is that this is exactly what people want. If you play a game, if you like it, when you hear about an adaptation you get excited about seeing that story portrayed in an anime or movie, but, alas, when you watch it, someone has changed things for no reason whatsoever.
    Think about every adaptation that worked and you’ll notice that those were the ones faithful to the story, maybe not 100%, but still largely faithful.
    When you watch something based in a game that you like, you expect to see what you like displayed, not a perversion of the thing you love.
    This is obviously just my opinion, but if you start reading the critics that those adaptations get. A big part is centered in “Why the hell did they chnage this?” or “Ridiculous. This never happens in the game.”

    • August 11, 2017 at 1:35 pmLyfe

      @Every game adaptation feels the need to stray away from the original story.

      That’s true for some TV shows and movies too. Especially ones that source from a well known book.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:18 pmPasserby

      I don’t think an adaptation should ever be a transliteration. I agree that changing the story without understanding the story is definitely a mistake, but often details need to be altered for the anime experience compared to the game experience. For example, in the Planetarian visual novel, the acid rain was deadly, and everyone stayed indoors most of the time. That’s okay for a VN because it’s mostly dialogue, but for an anime you don’t want to be cooped up in one set all the time. So they glossed over that detail, and I think that’s okay. The spirit of the story is much more important. It’s when you suspect that the production staff didn’t understand the spirit that things go awry.

  • August 11, 2017 at 1:33 pmLyfe

    I think expectations come into it too. The more hardcore fans of something would expect the best possible adaptation of something they like, and any less would sour the experience to a point they could overlook any worthwhile qualities the show does right.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:06 pmPasserby

      No doubt. Often, though, fans will watch a scene and say that they liked it better in the game without, perhaps, really knowing why. I’m hoping an article like the one I wrote will go a short way of demonstrating how an anime and a game are two very different experiences.

  • August 11, 2017 at 4:07 pmkay

    One thing to consider for Utawarerumono Itsuwari no Kamen is that the anime staff did not have access to the finished game itself given the development timeline for the game and the anime made at the same time. The anime director mentioned his staff were given the game story and mainly worked from that. The first Utawarerumono anime had the leeway of having the finished game to work from which definitely made things easier for the first series’ staff.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:04 pmPasserby

      I can see that really hurting the product. As I hope I have stressed, it’s not just about the story, it’s about the experience. If the staff did not have access to the complete experience, how could they hope to do a faithful adaptation?

  • August 11, 2017 at 6:11 pmOne Pinch Man

    I love Persona 5 l and I was happy when it announced an anime adaptation. But knowing that video game adaptation will almost always fail mainly because of the reasons you’ve stated above, I’m also get worried.

    But what if Japan has cinematic video game like The Last of Us that heavily emphasizing the plot? Will it work as an anime or movie adaptation?

    Thank you Passerby for such a great analysis article. I just hope that Randomc will have analysis article once a month or every 2 months.

    • August 11, 2017 at 9:02 pmPasserby

      I would love to push out more of these editorial-esque things, but they take much longer to do than a weekly episode post. That, and I’m not very good at thinking up topics.

      As for something like The Last of Us, even then I think the role of a player and the role of a passive viewer are different enough to make for a significantly changed experience when adapting it to TV. This is especially so for a genre like survival horror. As a player, you would be confronted with questions like ‘should I open that door?’, whereas as a viewer that choice will be out of our hands.

  • August 11, 2017 at 11:36 pmJohnPeacekeeper

    Galaxy Angel.

    The Visual Novel trilogy had the most badass space fights ever (Hyper Cannon OP af) on top of the sweetest scenes, and very, very well-rounded characters (even the protag wasn’t a typical faceless self-insert) and a very well-done overall plot.

    And then there’s the anime, where characters were reduced to mere caricatures of their original selves. No male characters apart from the old fucker for them to interact with. And zero plot since they turned it into a gag series.

    On the other hand, you also get stuff like Clannad and each Fate/Stay Night adaptation by ufotable (Not Deen) that follows the original main plots so faithfully and they really do them justice.

    • August 12, 2017 at 7:29 amPasserby

      I don’t think the Galaxy Angel anime was every intended to be a straight adaptation, and definitely just a gag spin-off show. Otherwise they’d have had more than one serious episode a season. Gag spin-offs are actually still quite common, though perhaps it’s more noticeable for GA because it never got a straight series in the first place.

      • August 12, 2017 at 8:27 amJohnPeacekeeper

        So… in that sense it should be treated more like Carnival Phantasm but without any of the loving references to the original?

      • August 12, 2017 at 8:19 pmPasserby

        I suppose it wasn’t completely without reference to the original, but it was much more dedicated to the the alternate universe gag-cast series than the few short stories of Carnival Phantasm. Very 90s even though it was actually 00s.

  • August 12, 2017 at 1:05 amzztop

    I’ve noticed videogames of the otome game variety get the most flak when turned into anime. Especially when the anime team has to condense all the disparate story routes (and multiple endings to boot!) into one coherent narrative whilst ensuring all the love interests get ample screentime and characterization, otherwise the fans start screaming bloody murder.

    • August 12, 2017 at 7:26 amPasserby

      Unfortunately, for many reasons (including some that I’ve talked about), most adaptations have to compromise, and some people are not very good with compromise.

      • August 12, 2017 at 8:30 amJohnPeacekeeper

        I’m surprised there haven’t been a lot of adaptations that follow the Photo Kano model. That one managed to incorporate every route separately as different arcs.

      • August 12, 2017 at 8:15 pmPasserby

        The omnibus format is fine if all the routes are separate and equal, but often they’re not. Even then, going down each route in full can take a long time, and compression won’t satisfy the ardent fans anyway.

  • August 12, 2017 at 4:57 amSK

    It’s not just gameplay, but also the format of games themselves that is part of the narrative. Riki’s and Rin’s stats increase within a single playthrough via the practices like everyone else’s, but those two also have higher initial stats each time you finish a route and start a new game. I’d have to go back to check, but I’m pretty sure those two are the only ones who grow between playthroughs, hinting that they’re special. The concept of NG+ is understandable from a gaming perspective, but it’s hard to properly integrate that into an anime adaptation, even when it’s important.

    A couple other games also integrated the looping nature of starting a new game into their stories. Spoilers for Rewrite and Higurashi
    Show Spoiler ▼

    The nonexistent Umineko anime adaptation is one where the people involved would definitely need to play through all of the games first. If they hadn’t read all of the arcs (yay, they’re all released now), they might mess up details or create plot holes in a murder mystery. It would have been unfortunate if they tried to make an adaptation before all the arcs were out, but since there is no anime, that should no longer be an issue.

    • August 12, 2017 at 7:25 amPasserby

      Right. The structure and the flow of play is very much part of the game. Many visual novels have multiple routes and ask players to do more than one play-through, but it’s only some of them (like the Key ones) that incorporate that gameflow into the arching narrative. Replicating that in anime is, of course, beyond difficult.

    • August 14, 2017 at 11:53 amtheirs

      @SK
      May I ask which Umineko you are referring to? If its Umineko no Naku Koro ni, I’m sure there was one. Or was that about the implied continuation of the series? When the anime ended, it still felt like there will be a sequel sometime.

  • August 12, 2017 at 7:01 pmMike

    You poor, sorry third world bastard. No baseball? I am so sorry. I think for one dollar a day we could send Passerby a baseball, a glove and a goat and he could have a good life.
    Yes that was a joke for those who don’t know.

    I loved the Little Busters game, and the baseball and even more, the battles made it a great game. The anime I was unable to finish due to the insipid dialogue and pacing issues.

    Same with Utawaremono 2, loved the game, was not impressed with the anime although I did finish it.

    I think in many ways the greatest achievement of the Clannad anime was getting most of the plotlines feeling like they were all part of one cohesive whole.

    • August 12, 2017 at 8:11 pmPasserby

      We have cricket.

      …I’ll pay for postage.

      • August 14, 2017 at 7:57 pmJerry

        No baseball in Australia.

        Savages.

  • August 12, 2017 at 9:25 pmTheVoid

    An interesting thing is that despite being restricted even more by its nature as a manga, Tales of Zestiria manages to put the story together in a much more cohesive manner and even connect some plot points that weren’t mentioned in the game but the usual Tales guidebooks.

    Unlike the anime which was even stated to be made just to please Alisha fans and ened up an incoherent wreck.

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