READ.ME: Meaning in the Madness

READ.ME

With a lot of the games I’ve played recently — including many of the visual novels that I’ve read — I’ve found myself thinking “gosh, I really wish I had this when I was a teenager.” Not just from a technical standpoint — though naturally the games of today look and sound considerably better than those of 15 years ago — but from the perspective of subject matter and the willingness to tackle issues that simply would have been unthinkable to see in a video game of the ’90s.

A lot of people complain that much of modern anime (and, by extension, visual novels, which are a closely-related medium) is “slice of life” stuff that stars middle- or high-school kids getting up to relatively normal things, and that this isn’t anywhere near as interesting as, say, giant robots kicking each other in the mechanical testicles. And they may have a point there — who doesn’t love themselves some high-tech bollock-busting? —  but I do feel that there’s a very good reason for such a strong focus on this particular era of characters’ lives in works like this — it’s that a broad spectrum of people can relate to it in some form or another.

Kira Kira

For people who are a similar age to the characters in the story, they can relate directly to the experiences that they’re seeing. Perhaps something happens throughout the course of a “slice of life” anime or VN that is almost exactly the same as something which  has happened to them, and from seeing how the characters deal with it, they might get some ideas on how to resolve their own situation. This, of course, relies on the characters in the VN or anime reacting in a realistic manner to the situations that they are confronted with, which isn’t always the case, but at the very least seeing these issues tackled in a creative work might give a teen who is struggling some hope that there are other people out there who have been through trying times, and that they’re not alone. The choice-based gameplay of visual novels offers an even greater benefit for these people over the passively-observed anime medium, too — it affords the player/reader a safe environment in which they can “try out” different reactions to various situations and see what might happen as a result. Again, how truly valuable this experience is depends on how realistically the characters have been written, of course!

All this doesn’t mean that those who are a little older — like me — can’t get anything from these works, though. On the contrary, the reader seeing a group of fictional high school kids go through a familiar experience from their own past can be a powerful, emotionally-resonant experience. Never underestimate the power of making someone think “I remember that” or sigh wistfully “I wish I’d handled that differently.”

The strength of the high school “slice of life” setting, then, is that it can remain relevant to a broad spectrum of people, even those who are no longer actually in that same situation themselves. The thing with high school is that it is a time of great flux for many people. Not only are people going through physical changes at that time in their life, but they are also undergoing mental and emotional upheavals, too — struggling to “find themselves” and understand their place in the world with regard to everything from their potential career path to their sexuality. This process doesn’t begin or end at high school, of course — at nearly 32 years of age, I’m yet to feel like I’ve truly “defined” myself in many ways — but high school is an important time, a period of one’s life where you get your first taste of independence and adulthood, and a time where you have to learn to stand on your own two feet.

Kira Kira

The reason I’m writing about all this today is due to the fact I’m still reading Kira Kira, which I last mentioned a few weeks ago. Kira Kira, lest you’re unfamiliar, tells the tale of a soon-to-disband after-school club who decide to form a punk rock group as a means of giving their club a fond farewell. I will refrain from too many spoilers here — that’ll come in a future column and will be clearly marked as such! — but I will note that their performance at school is far from the end of their story. Instead, the story continues to develop down one of a number of different paths — each tied to one of the game’s love interests, naturally — in which the main cast of four all learn a bit more about themselves and the way they see the world.

Kira Kira, despite starring a bunch of wide-eyed 18-year olds, is still a powerful, relevant experience to me as a 32 year old man who left education behind a long time ago. The story deals with everything from how you present yourself to the world — explored through an amusing subplot in which the protagonist finds himself in drag for most of the game’s duration — to how you deal with difficulties in your life that are beyond your own control, like family problems or poverty. It’s thought-provoking, emotionally-engaging and a compelling read, yet at no point does it feel like it’s becoming heavy-handed with the points it’s making. Instead, it simply provides a (relatively) realistic exploration of what a disparate group of four teens from very different backgrounds feel about the world — and about each other.

The thing I’ve particularly appreciated about it so far is that it doesn’t hold back on difficult subjects, yet doesn’t become preachy about them. At one point during the path I’m currently reading, for example, the protagonist and one of the other characters come across a pretty young girl who is clearly having some difficulties in her own life, and is expressing her frustration through things like self-harm and running away to join an unspecified religious group. While the game depicts the characters’ reactions to this girl and the way she is dealing with her problems, it never feels like the game is talking down to the player and saying that “this is wrong” or “this isn’t how you should deal with things.” Instead, it presents things in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner and implicitly encourages the player to come to their own conclusions about how they feel, rather than urging them to feel a specific way.

In this sense, it has a certain amount in common with a couple of good anime series from the last few years, including Welcome to the NHK, which looks at the phenomenon of hikikomori (shut-ins) and the way they react to society at large, and the more recent Oreimo, which explores how various groups and individuals respond to otaku culture. Neither of these shows are overtly judgemental about their subject matter — the characters in the shows might be, of course, but the shows themselves are encouraging their viewers to make up their own mind about how they feel, and such is the case with Kira Kira. In all of these cases, too, they’re not afraid to infuse the things they have to say with some lighthearted humor.

Kira Kira

In short, then, look past the colorful graphics, attractive characters and excellent soundtrack, and Kira Kira is a game that has something to say — and one which a wide variety of people will be able to enjoy and get something from.

You can grab Kira Kira in its “all ages” incarnation from Western publisher Mangagamer here, in an “adults only” bundle with its follow-up Curtain Call here (it’s worth noting that this is not a sex-heavy VN by any means, even in its “adults only” incarnation), and in “all ages” format for iOS devices via the App Store.

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READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West.

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