Learning the Ropes of Character Tropes

So sometimes I like to watch YouTube videos that make me angry. This usually happens at ungodly hours of the morning/night in a sleepy haze, and I usually regret them the next morning. The variety of these videos changes as time goes on, but recently the genre of video I find myself drifting toward is the “criticize Original Characters/Other People’s Art”-variety.

I should say that this isn’t the first time I’ve referenced these types of videos. I actually referred to them a while back on this post, but in that one I was more standing in defense of young creators in general. This time, I want to address one particular point in one particular video. I’d feel strange linking you this video, since I feel like my anger toward them may be a bit blown out of proportion, and thus, I don’t want to draw any undo hatred onto this person, so instead, below is a transcript of the specific point of theirs I want to debunk.

“Number Five: Be Creative.

Now I know that sounds really cliche and unhelpful, but this is actually really important. Make your character different. Just different. Just put a bunch of character traits on a list and pick a few at random and work with that, I don’t care. 

How many people make a character that is completely bland and uninspired? It is really amazing how such great and talented artists can draw exceptionally well but their ideas are just so, so boring.

I think the most important thing someone can ever do when making an OC (original character) is thinking. Just think. Play around with different ideas; anything can be used. There are no boundaries. Make something new and unique.”

(Actually, fine, here’s the video. Do with it as you will.)

I see a lot of advice of this ilk thrown around in guides to making characters, and it always strikes me how completely useless it is in particular. He even says it himself at the beginning – it’s cliche and unhelpful. But you know, he’s gotta say it anyway? I guess? For brownie points? Who knows.

You ask, “How do I make an interesting character?” and this advice answers, “Make an interesting character.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who can see the issue.

So allow me to help. The answer lies in the most dreaded, most feared concept in character creation, perhaps even in all of fiction. A trope.

…I’m kidding, obviously, but it is somewhat taboo to suggest using tropes to your advantage. For many young writers, artists, and creators it may seem contrary to the goal of creating an interesting character to look to commonly used character and story conventions. That’s fair, but here’s another way to look at it.

In the world, over the course of all time, hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of characters have been created for the enjoyment of audiences and creators. Do you think it’s easy, or even possible to create a character that is completely original?

And even putting that fact aside, there’s a reason why tropes persist. The art of storytelling is essentially the art of using the space you’re given in the most efficient way possible. The best storytellers want to minimize the amount of time spent explaining things about their characters (and world as a whole, but for now we’re focusing on characters) so they can get on with the story. After all, exposition is often the most boring parts of any story.

That’s where tropes come in. Tropes are commonly used and understood storytelling conventions. The princess in a tower is a trope, as is the heroic quest. Even the concept of a hero is a trope – a brave, youthful person with unusual abilities or strengths.

Tropes are often confused for cliches, and tropes can be cliche, but not inherently. Tropes become cliche when they’re repeated over and over for no reason other than to fit a perceived trend and not to contribute anything to the story itself. The love triangle is an example of this. In the past, love triangles were put into a story for a reason beyond just to create needless drama, and the outcome of who would end up with whom was normally unclear, adding intrigue. Nowadays, though, most love triangles are unnecessary, boring, and predictable.

However most tropes aren’t cliche, and can actually make for really efficient storytelling. Think of a trope as a shorthand for a lot of other information about a story element. Since we’re specifically talking about characters here, let’s pick a character trope for example. A jock, let’s say.

Now, what is a jock? Well, a jock is a person who plays sports, and defines themselves primarily by the sport they play. A jock is athletic, and usually places physical prowess above mental and emotional skills. Most jocks also are popular with other people, and can be seen as a hero by fans of the sport they play.

That’s a pretty sizable amount of information about a character. So consider the efficiency! If you establish that your character is a jock, you don’t have to explain why any of these things are true. They simply are. So when a character who is established as a jock (explicitly or implicitly) is approached by a group of, let’s say, students of their high school, a writer doesn’t have to explain why they treat them like a hero-figure. The jock trope contains that fact, and thus, explains it.

But this is not to say making every character an exact copy of a trope is a good thing. No, of course not, but tropes are incredibly valuable jumping-off points for creating an interesting character.

So let’s take our jock again. Let’s call them… Theresa. Theresa is a jock, and she plays… let’s say, hockey. Theresa is a hockey jock. We establish that Theresa is a jock by depicting her playing hockey and wearing hockey-related memorabilia a lot. In this way, our audience will make assumptions about Theresa based on this trope – she’s athletic, she’s popular, she doesn’t care about intelligence or emotion. But we can make Theresa an interesting character by throwing in traits that aren’t necessarily a part of the jock trope.

For one, making Theresa a girl immediately makes her more interesting than your normal jock. Girls don’t usually fill the “jock” trope in fiction. And picking hockey as her sport of choice is another unconventional choice, you might more commonly see football or basketball as the jock sport. But we can add even more. Perhaps Theresa was once very close with a group of friends who more align themselves with the “nerd” trope? This establishes that she might care more about intelligence than your typical jock, and gives her history and conflict with other characters. Perhaps, while she is very skilled at hockey, she isn’t entirely sure she wants to play hockey in college, but the financial benefit of accepting a hockey scholarship is difficult to ignore?

Now Theresa is a more well-rounded character. Sure, she very much fits the mold as a jock, but it’s the ways that she differs from this trope that make her interesting. Now, you get the benefit of the trope – that readers will automatically understand a selection of facts about your character pertaining to that trope, reducing the amount you need to explain – but you also get an interesting, original character.

This effect increases when you add in the fact that these tropes can just as easily be applied to genres where they might not be traditionally expected to appear. Consider the possibility of a fantasy jock! A sci-fi jock! A historical fiction jock! The possibilities are, to quote an actual cliche, endless.

So that’s why I always find fault in people who advise others to strive 100% for originality always. It certainly sounds like good advice, but in practice, it doesn’t really help, I think. There’s too much out there that’s already been done, so if you were to try to make a character who isn’t like any of those characters, your character would probably end up a blank slate of strange, inexplicable traits.

I suppose you could make a character drawing random traits from a list, like the video maker suggests, but I have a hard time believing that that character wouldn’t end up falling into some tropes anyway. Might as well embrace it, especially if it will help make the process of character creation easier.

 

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GUEST WRITER – Throwing Rocks at the Moon

The following is a zine created by my best friend Marie Hamilton for a project! I got to contribute a short story as well as a few illustrations, and it was a great project overall! Take a look at it below the cut!

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Fear and Reality – “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” Analysis

It’s time once again for another niche post! It’s been too long, really. The following is a very in-depth analysis of my favorite Vocaloid song ever, Kikuo-P’s “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”.

For those completely uninitiated, check out my last post about Vocaloid if you want a basic crash course on it. Vocaloid is an incredibly fascinating genre of music overall, but today I was feeling the itch to talk about how much I love this one particular song without getting too bogged down with the more general ideas of its genre.

“Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” is a prime example of my favorite part of producer Kikuo-P’s work, in that it presents a rather basic story with such creepy and otherworldly imagery that it comes off incredibly fresh and unique. If you’re looking for something super spooky in the world of Vocaloid, you really don’t have to travel too far. Probably due to the unreality of its “singers”, a lot of Vocaloid songs are free to explore very dark themes without being hindered by real-life morals and norms (an idea that I definitely want to expand upon at a later date).

However, personally, a lot of these songs leave me feeling uninspired, mostly because they are so incredibly unrealistic that I’m not even frightened by them. A lot of them seem to be trying too hard to be gory and scary and miss out on any actual personal connection the audience. Kikuo-P, on the other hand, opts for a far more personal and emotional take on the idea of creepy songs, one that is more grounded in reality, and in doing so actually evokes an emotional response from his audience. Fear, yes, but also far more complex emotions.

As is the case with most of Kikuo’s work (and most Vocaloid songs in general), “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”’s meaning is very tied to its visuals, so I’ll be analyzing those as well. If you wish to follow along, here’s the video I’ll be using.

In addition, I also want to shout out this English dub of the song. While I won’t be directly using these translated lyrics, they did assist me in my understanding of this song (and it’s also a really well-done dub.)

The first twenty seconds of the PV to this song sets up the motif it will be following for its entirety, that of a red and black scribbly sort of chaos. It’s immediately unsettling because nothing in the video feels solid. In fact, not even the text of the title of the song, producer, and Vocaloid used is stationary, dropping in quickly and floating aimlessly away. This fits in with the jittery xylophone sounds present throughout the song. All in all, it’s pretty trippy, and also very thematically relevant.

Once the lyrics begin, the movement slows down, presenting only a black screen with a red border, although a ghostly image of a girl’s face flashes in several different colors while tilting unsteadily. Finally, the image settles on a white sketchy image of this girl, the only colors present being her magenta eyes and nails. This image is very important, and will be repeated with some variation throughout the video. Lyrically, we are also introduced to the idea of the “cursed necklace”, a very important, albeit a bit ambiguous, symbol to the meaning of this song.

The image eventually fills with color, revealing a more solid image of this girl. Her hands grip at her neck, but it’s important to note that she wears no actual necklace. The “cursed collar” is instead represented by scribbly white lines which dance around her neck. It’s this imagery that suggests to be that this “collar” is not real at all, but rather a metaphor. (The collar does later appear in the image, but it’s delayed, which makes me think that’s merely a stylistic choice.)

Meanwhile, the lyrics describe the motivation of this “collar”.

“I want people, I want people,
It cried, this cursed necklace,
Don’t get angry, don’t abandon me, don’t go anywhere”

The “necklace” tied around the girl’s neck desires human attention, and positive, loyal attention at that. Personally, I think the desires of the necklace, considering the fact that it isn’t truly real, reflects the desires of the girl herself. It is she who desires this attention. However, clearly this motivation is harmful to the girl.

“Fasten it tightly,
Until you throw up,
So there aren’t any people here.
Nice results, huh?
Hey, hey, aren’t I a nice child?
Aren’t I a cute child?
Hey, hey, I’m a nice child, right?
It hurts, hey”

These lyrics suggest a certain amount of obsessiveness in the girl. Her desire for human attention is so incredibly important to her that it chokes her, stifling her ability to connect with others. The questions in these lyrics reflect her obsessive need to be loved by others around her, constantly asking whether she is “cute” or “nice” while declaring that these feelings hurt.

I also want to draw attention to the visuals presented here.  In this part, a pair of hands clapping along with the beat appears. Between the hands, small red doodles show up, only to be smashed by the clapping hands, creating red scribbles on the hands and the surrounding video. The images shown are of a one-eyed creature, a crudely-drawn woman, and slightly more realistically-drawn man. In addition, the same image of the girl we’ve seen a few times appears between the hands for a bit, but this image isn’t smashed like the others.

I think the lyrics along with the visuals sheds light on what that collar represents. If we consider the beginning of the video to be a reflection of this girl when she was young, we might see the “collar” being representative of a childlike desire for validation from peers. The collar is constantly present, a reminder that this girl must constantly strive to be the very best in order to acquire love and validation from the people around her.

The visuals, on the other hand, seem to reflect an anger towards others around her. I’m not sure what the one-eyed creature represents, but the man and woman look like they could be parental figures. It’s notable that the amount of red scribbles/blood spatter increases drastically when the man is smashed as opposed to the woman. I don’t know what conclusion can be drawn from this, but I think overall this might reflect that it is the adult figures in her life putting pressure on her. I think it may be saying that during this part of her life, she feels the need to please her parental figures most of all. The chorus reflects this need to please others.

“Love me, love me, love me,
More and more,
Love me, love me,
So much that it’s maddening,
It’s painful, it hurts, this curse of mine,
Undo it, undo it, hey!
It can’t be stopped…”

The repetition of the “love me” in the chorus reflects an obsessive need for validation, and explains why she considers it a painful curse that cannot be stopped. The visuals during the chorus show various screaming faces, including that of the girl, represented with a white tie around her neck. Despite being a metaphorical reminder of the “cursed collar” causing all this agony, this image lends emphasis to the fact that the girl feels trapped by her need to please others.

In addition, butterflies begin appearing. Butterflies are symbolic of change and growth, and that brings us to another important motif that we’ll be looking at in the next verse – the growth of our main character. In the last visual of the chorus, she is shown covered in butterflies, then scribbles, and then her image changes. Her hair is longer and she appears to be wearing a school uniform. Clearly, taking the butterflies into account, we can assume she’s aged, perhaps to a high school age taking into account the uniform.

No matter how big your body grows,
This necklace remains small,
It hurts now, it’s not enough now
People aren’t, people aren’t enough now

First of all, we can see that even as our main character grows, her pressure to please others remains. Metaphorically, as she grows, the collar remains the same size, slowly strangling her. The pressure has led to what appears to be a lack of satisfaction towards just the affection of other people.

What does she desire now? Well…

I won’t lose to anyone of my class,
Aren’t I a lovely child?
Hey, more than that child and more than that child,
Everyone, everyone, come look at me!

She desires to be better than everyone else, of course. It’s still seemingly embedded in a desire to be loved, but now it seems the continuing pressure has made it competitive. She wants not only to be loved, she wants to be loved the most of everyone.

Overlaid with visuals of spiders suggesting a predatory instinct, we see the further degradation of our main character from a helpless child just wanting to be loved to someone far more malicious.

Behind the gymnasium, my confession to you,
Was it kind of a lie?
I love you,
You who are so filthy.

This line furthers the connection to the main character aging to high school age, since the behind-the-(insert school building here) love confession is a pretty standard trope. But this one is twisted. Though the narrator claims to love the person she’s confessing to, she also claims that they’re “filthy”.

So I think this scene serves as a more specific example of the depths our main character has sunk to regarding her need for affection. As we established before, she’s gotten to a point where she has to prove herself the most loved, so for her to love someone else is counter-productive.

The next chorus’s lyrics change slightly, with the “Love me, Love me”s followed with a few new lines:

I’ll give you everything
And I will have you, I will have you
Bear everything for me
It’s not enough, you’re not enough
I won’t let you go, ah,
Please forgive me

This is probably in reference to the person she confessed to behind the gymnasium in the last verse. There’s a lot of conflicting ideals here – while the subject wants to “give them everything” and wants to “have” them, they claim that they’re “not enough”. So here’s what I think. I think we’re seeing a conflict within the main character of the song.

She’s been taught, or led to believe, that she’s supposed to be constantly the most loved. It’s her curse, her “collar”, constantly strangling her. So when she falls in love with someone else, she’s unsure of how to fit it into her worldview. When she’s constantly trying to make others love her, how can she love someone else? Thus the “Please forgive me.” The subject of the song does actually love this person, but they don’t know how to.

The song then leaps into a repeat of the earlier chorus, minus the last line, “This is happiness, right?”

I think this connects back to what I was talking about earlier – that our character’s worldview is so skewed that she can no longer determine what love or happiness is. I also want to point out the visuals here – we see our character age again. Now, the collar is represented by two snakes twisting around her neck – one white, one black. Despite the obvious implications of the further decay of our main character’s state of mind, I think the dual snakes and their opposing colors also bring back that idea that she’s at war with herself, her love against her need to be loved.

And that’s the meaning of “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”, but I wanna talk about one other thing, and that’s the genius of the horror presented in this song.

I always think the best horror comes out of fear for real life situations. Ghosts and demons and serial murderers and other oogie boogie creatures are scary on the surface, but true horror comes from forging a connection between the real and the fantastical.

Even though the horror of the song appears to come from the “curse” put on the main character, in reality, the “curse” is a far more real problem of her feeling that she must please everyone.  It’s true that the pressures to please everyone around you grow more suffocating as you get older, but that’s a hard thing to explain. So Kikuo-P uses the fantastical image of the cursed collar to represent this idea and the horror and pain it can cause through horrific, chaotic imagery. This situation is horrific, even if it’s realistic, so the emotions are effectively communicated through the lens of horrific imagery.

Anyway, Kikuo-P does horror so right. And I had to take approximately 2,000 words to prove it. Less niche post coming next week…. maybe.

The Choice was Never Yours – A “Doki Doki Literature Club” Analysis

(The following post will contain major spoilers for a really, really good game. It’s free on Steam, so if you haven’t yet played it, close this post and do it! It’s about a 4ish hour experience. Do heed the content warnings, however. This game is not for the faint of heart… and I mean it.)

When I heard about “Doki Doki Literature Club” (henceforth referred to as DDLC), I wasn’t expecting too much of it. Sure, a psychological horror game disguised as an anime-styled dating sim sounds like a fun little novelty, but I was expecting the scares to be cheap. You know, your usual jumpscares and incoherent plot leading to more jumpscares. I was expecting a game for youtubers to record their reactions to so we can all have a little chuckle about how 2spooky these anime girls are. What I was not expecting was a genuinely horrifying and yet somehow heartfelt story about the nature of choice.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still a lot of jumpscares and disturbing (very, very disturbing) imagery in this game. But instead of these elements just being in there for shock value, they seemed more in service of a greater thematic purpose than your normal novelty horror game. And also fascinating was the way these elements broke down and criticized the genre it tries to mimic.

So let’s talk about romantic visual novels/dating sims/otome games/ whatever the correct term is.

In a dating sim, the biggest and most important game mechanic is the element of choice. Most games of these type start out with the often incredibly bland player character getting into a situation where they meet a number of attractive characters, all usually corresponding to a certain character archetype. From there, the player can choose which character they wish to pursue romantically. They do this by making certain dialogue and story choices that lead them down the path toward the end goal of romancing their chosen character.

So basically, the only thing separating a dating sim from a weirdly involved novel where instead of turning pages you click the “next” button a lot is the fact that the player gets to choose some aspects of how the story goes.

On the surface, DDLC seems to do the same thing as other games of its ilk. You play as a delightfully bland player character who is roped into joining a Literature Club by his childhood best friend, the positive and energetic Sayori. Although the player is at first reluctant, he becomes far more into the idea once he meets the other three members of the Literature Club: the tough-yet-tiny tsundere with a love for manga and baking, Natsuki; the quiet and shy bookworm with a talent for writing, Yuri; and the confident, helpful president of the club, Monika. Motivated by his interest in these four beautiful girls, the player character becomes entangled in the business of the Literature Club.

From here, the game’s choice mechanic becomes clear. The members of the club enjoy writing and exchanging poetry, so in order to win over the heart of the player’s chosen girl, they will have to choose certain words to put into their poetry to appeal to the girl they like. If the player successfully chooses words that appeal to their chosen girl, they will be rewarded the next day by spending more time with that girl than with the rest of the girls, leading them down the path (seemingly) towards starting a romantic relationship with her.

Or at least, that’s how it seems. But there’s a few important things to note. One, the only three choices the player actually gets are to pursue Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki. Monika is not an option. And two, no matter which girl the player chooses to pursue, the story of the first act of the game always ends exactly the same way. No matter if the player chooses to pursue her, Sayori will always tell the player that she has had depression for her entire life and never told him due to her fear of inconveniencing him. Then, no matter what the player chooses the player character to say or do, she will always confess her love for him, and then no matter whether the player accepts or rejects her confession, she will always be found the next morning having died by suicide.

After the tone of the game being so cheerful and happy up until this point, most players will understandably be disturbed by this turn of events. They will probably wonder what choice it was that they made incorrectly to cause this to happen. They may try to replay the game, making their choices differently, hoping to be able to “save” Sayori. But the reality is, no matter what choices are made, act one of the game always ends this way.

So, players, probably quite spooked, will go onto act two of the game. This time, the game restarts and is pretty much the same as the first time, but Sayori is nowhere to be found. Any mention of her or clue that she ever existed is completely erased from the game, and the player character doesn’t seem to remember her at all. Instead, it’s Monika who encourages the player to join the Literature Club. From there, things progress similarly sans Sayori, but the atmosphere starts to change. Although it might seem like the player continues to have the choice over whether to pursue Natsuki or Yuri, the game soon railroads the player onto Yuri’s path.

In addition, strange game glitches are seen, corrupting the music, the character sprites, and the background. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that something very bad is going down in this club. However, in the meantime, the player begins to learn surprisingly dark information about Yuri and Natsuki, mainly through strange dialogue edits. The player learns that Natsuki is so short because her abusive father allowed her to be malnourished as a child, and that she spends so much time at the club in order to stay away from him. The player also learns that Yuri has a collection of knives, and uses them to self-harm.

Finally, most unsettlingly, the personality traits of Yuri and Natsuki seem exaggerated. Natsuki’s blunt honesty becomes downright brutality, and Yuri’s passion for her books and writing starts to look like obsession. And between it all, Monika seems willing to step back and allow Yuri and Natsuki to bicker and suffer.

Yet, just as before, the player’s choices are an illusion. No matter what happens, the player ends up alone in a classroom with Yuri, whose obsession for books and poetry have extended to an obsession with the player character. She confesses her love for him, and no matter whether they accept or reject her confession, she stabs herself several times and dies. From there, the player is unable to advance the game away from the image of her body, and must sit through 1440 lines of glitched, illegible dialogue before Monika and Natsuki return. Natsuki, horrified by the scene, flees, but Monika stays behind. She apologizes to the player character for what has happened, and then a small window opens up and the player watches Monika delete Natsuki and Yuri’s character files.

From here, the game resets once more, but this time, the club room is disconnected from the rest of the setting, seemingly floating in space. The player is confronted by Monika, all alone, her posture casual, facing the screen. She informs the player, not the player character, but the person actually playing the game, that she has fallen in love with them. She confesses that, as club president, she was given an omniscient knowledge of the fact that she was in a game, as well as the fact that she was not a romanceable character. Motivated by jealousy toward the rest of the girls’ pre-programmed chance to date the person she loves, she began interfering with their character files. It’s strongly implied that she played up Sayori’s depression in order to drive her to suicide, and heightened Natsuki’s rudeness and Yuri’s obsessiveness in order to make them less appealing. However, due to the fact that the player continued to have the choice to pursue these other girls, Monika was forced to remove them as choices by deleting their files.

From then on, the player is unable to advance from this screen with Monika. Programmed into the game are over 11 hours worth of topics that Monika chats with the player about, and she restricts the player from being able to skip dialogue. The only way to get out of the situation is to go into the files of the game and manually delete Monika’s character file, the same way she did for all the other characters. From there, depending on the actions the player has taken, two different endings are possible.

In the normal ending, the game restarts and Sayori has taken over as president, since Monika is nowhere to be seen. However, thanks to her new position, Sayori can now see everything that has happened. She takes the player to the same room Monika did and thanks him for getting rid of Monika, saying she’s glad they can be together “forever” now. Suddenly, Sayori’s sprite is glitched out, and several text boxes implied to be the remnants of Monika advance the game toward the credits, saying that she won’t let Sayori hurt the player.

However, if the player has gotten all of the CGs for all three of the romanceable characters, Sayori does not take the player to that same room, and instead simply thanks the player for spending all the time saving and reloading the game just to make everyone happy. She apologizes for not being able to do anything more for the player since the game is coming to an end, but promises that they’ll all still be there for the player should they choose to return. She then thanks the player for playing and the game advances to the credits.

What I want to focus on about this game is the choices, and lack thereof. If we want to draw a conclusion about what exactly is scary about DDLC, it’s not the disturbing imagery, the glitches, or the jumpscares, it’s the lack of control. At every point of the game where something terrible happens, though it may seem like the player has the choice to avoid them, there really isn’t any choice at all. Sayori and Yuri’s deaths, Monika’s takeover, everything is entirely unavoidable. In a way, from the moment the player boots up the game, they are unknowingly giving up their power of choice to Monika (and at the end of the game, Sayori).

If we’re going to draw a conclusion from DDLC, we’d probably say that this game wishes to point out that the scariest and most damaging thing to lose is the power of choice.

But that’s a little too simple, right? I think we can take it a step further. Remember when I talked about how the most important mechanic in an otome game is choice? In a traditional otome game, the player’s power of choice is the most important power they get. Their choice is king – if they pick a character to romance, that character will fall in love with them.

But think about it from the opposing perspective. If the player gets all the choice, then technically speaking, the “relationship” they build in the game is 100% one-sided. The opinion of the romanceable characters in the game on the relationship ultimately means nothing if the player makes the right choices.

And yes, I know that’s a silly thing to point out. We’re talking about pixels, ones and zeroes, lines of code, not living, breathing humans. They don’t deserve the same amount of choice that the human playing the game does, since, obviously, they’re not real.

But DDLC asks the question “What if these romanceable characters did know that they had no choice in the matter?” and “What if they desired that same amount of choice?”

That character, of course, is Monika. Due to her president position giving her the knowledge that she is a character in an otome game, and a non-romanceable one at that, she is aware of just how little choice she has. There is no conceivable way for her to make her own choices. So, the only way she can gain back her ability to choose is to take away the player’s ability to choose. Essentially, the game ends up a sort of reverse otome game, where the player is the one without choice pursued by someone romantically interested in them.

DDLC critiques the world put forth by the dating sim structure, pointing out the dangers of restricting choice, showing how a lack of choice can cause only pain and tragedy.

I also think there’s some level of critique on the way most dating sims handwave the problematic implications of the lack of choice given the romanceable characters. Namely, that being the way most player characters in otome games manage to get every single character to fall in love with them. This happens in DDLC, of course, but almost too well. While yes, the three romanceable characters that are meant to fall in love with the player character do, the non-romanceable character also falls in love with him. The fact that the player character makes too many people fall in love with him is perhaps another critique of the world presented by otome games.

DDLC asks players to step into the world of an otome game, a world where choice can be quickly taken away, and romance is less a mutual agreement between two willing participants and more a choice made by one party and endured by another. And this world is horrifying.

DDLC is a fascinating and well-made game, and such an incredible experience. The way it folds the critique of its own genre into the plot, structure, and scares of the game is really so interesting, and I’m glad I got a chance to play it. I highly recommend it.

(…as long as you’re cool with watching some super horrifying things happen to cute anime girls.)

Over the Moon – “What If Nothing” Review

Well, my dudes, it’s finally here. The album I’ve been waiting for since Spring Break of 2014. It’s been a long, long time coming, so how does Walk the Moon’s new album “What If Nothing” stack up to my very high expectations?

Pretty well, actually. I mean, I’m incredibly biased, because I’ve loved everything this band has ever done and I suspect that will always be the case. But my personal biases aside, I believe objectively in a lot of the musical quality this band stands for. This album is definitely pretty experimental, and while I don’t know if every one of their experiments is a smashing success per se, it’s rejuvenating to hear some of my favorite musicians in the world testing the boundaries of their talents. It bodes well for the future of this band.

(Also, we got some pretty sweet jams and a new tour out of the deal, so I can’t possibly complain.)

So, let’s go track by track and take a look at this wonderful album.

Press Restart

So it’s pretty clear that this track is meant to mostly play the role of an opener to the album. I appreciate it a lot for the thematic overtones it lends to the album. I can definitely see it as a signifier that this era of Walk the Moon’s career is meant to be an era of self-reflection and change. I’ve seen almost all of the members of the band mention how much they valued their time away from touring and writing music as a chance to clarify how they approach their music.

It bears some resemblance, I think, to their self-titled album-era music, but with a much more poppish, polished sound. I like that, compared to the meaning of the lyrics, it pays homage to where they’ve come from while also looking forward into the future. It’s a slow, contemplative song, with that characteristic Walk the Moon optimism that brings it all together well.

As a song taken out of context, it’s perhaps not their strongest or most memorable, but I imagine, with time, it, like “I Can Lift a Car”, will become an emotional staple of Walk the Moon’s repertoire, with its notability deeply entwined in the culture surrounding this band.

Headphones

I’ve seen a lot of hate for this song from diehard fans, and I understand that. However, I’m in love with this song. It was the second single from this album the band dropped, and while I love “One Foot”, I was psyched to hear just how different this song is from the Walk the Moon I know.

I understand a want for our favorite artists and bands to never change, to always stay in the glory days of their first few albums, but there’s a danger in that too. As much as I love Walk the Moon’s first two albums, I respect them as artists and I really want to see where they take their music. And if “Headphones” is where they take their music, I won’t be too upset.

It bears some resemblance to “Up 2 U” from “Talking is Hard”, but that’s only in the case that it has the same hard rock feel. It’s really its own animal, noisy and raucous, with cheeky lyrics that I really enjoy. For all its differences, however, I think it still maintains the joy and energy that I’ve always admired in this band. That’s what makes me so excited about this song. It’s different, way different, but doesn’t stray from what made me fall in love with Walk the Moon in the first place.

Plus, it gets me SO HYPE. SOOOO HYPE.

One Foot

Ahh “One Foot”. I already talked at length about this song when it first dropped, and I’m not sure if I have much more to say other than shoutout to past me for TOTALLY predicting a bunch of things about this album waaay back in September.

But I will restate: I love this song! I think it’s fun and was a perfect first single to push Walk the Moon back into the public eye. I’m a fan. Also, Nick Petricca’s dance moves in the music video give me life.

Surrender

I kept falling so in love with each new single they dropped, my boyfriend made fun of me for declaring each new song my favorite. But I wasn’t lying! It really felt like each new song they released was better than the last, but I guess I have established that this band is a special one for me. So, essentially, I fell in love with “Surrender” from the moment I first heard it.

Anyway, I think this song is beautiful. It’s atmospheric but powerful, keeping up a driving beat that never allows the beauty to get boring. There are dips and crests of intensity and emotion that keeps the listener invested. And while I always praise Nick for his vocals, I can’t help but mention how his vocals are so on display here. It’s personal, restrained, and absolutely breathtaking. Also gotta shout out to that beautiful fade-out ending into the piano… just perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better finish to this beautiful song.

I also appreciate the 80s feel to this song. Walk the Moon always clearly draws inspiration from that decade, but it’s absolutely on display here. And honestly? It’s more relevant than ever for me (especially considering the 80s playlist I recently started compiling on Spotify).

All I Want

This is the song tumblr simultaneously freaked out over, due to the “maybe if I was straight” line. And while I appreciate that little hint of information on Nick… or whomever in the band this is referring to… I think the extreme focus on this one aspect of the song ignores a lot of what makes it great.

Firstly, I think this song maintains a lot of the jaunty energy from “Talking is Hard” with a hint of the new, spacey sound of “What if Nothing”. I love the merging of these two styles. It makes the song immediately approachable, but gives it a new breath of life and innovation for the band.

Most importantly, this song returns somewhat to the rock band instrumentals I know well from this band! I didn’t realize until I reached this track how much I missed Kevin, Eli, and Sean’s instrumental contributions. But of course, we get a characteristic Eli guitar solo and the strong backup from Kevin’s bass and Sean’s drums. Good to hear.

All Night

I sort of wish this song leaned a little harder into its sound. The “boom clap” percussion is fun, but I feel like it’s too tame, too quiet for the sound. Especially considering how Nick performs some of the falsetto parts of the vocals, I think it could have been served with slightly more boisterous instrumentation. I loved Eli, Kevin, and Sean’s contributions from the last track, so where are they now?? Bring them back! It would serve this track well!

Overall, this song is probably one of my least favorites on the album. It’s got some good parts to it, but it never goes far enough into those things to really sell the song for me. Perhaps it needs a little time to grow on me. Or perhaps there is a Walk the Moon song I’m ambivalent on, and always will be. Shocking.

Kamikaze

Don’t worry, though, my bias is back, because I adore this song. Honestly, I think “Kamikaze” has the intensity of performance and instrumentation that “All Night” desperately needed. I’d bet a sizable amount of money that this song will be electrifying performed live.

The lyrics have this incredible intensity and snappiness that I’m so obsessed with. I also love the slight atmosphere to some of the softer moments – it really ties it to the album as a whole without softening it overall. The intense instrumentation drives the song forward with unrelenting force, and you can’t help but bob your head along with the beat every step of the way.

I really think this song deserves radio play – it’s that kind of song that I think can resonate with a wide audience and represent the soul of the band. Time will tell if that will be the case, since I’ve certainly been wrong about this particular topic before, but I can have dreams.

Tiger Teeth

I’m pretty sure every hardcore Walk the Moon fan was waiting with baited breath for the studio version of this track. “Tiger Teeth” has been in Walk the Moon’s performance repertoire for years, but it’s never been recorded until now. Before, the song was only known as a soft acoustic ballad occasionally peppered in the band’s sets. Nick Petricca always said that they had wanted to record it earlier, but had felt it wasn’t the right time during the “Talking is Hard” era.

I’d agree, because this song is a little too soft and reflective to be able to stand out among “Talking is Hard’s” frenetic, joyous energy. However, on this album, it’s a welcome addition. It fits so well into this self-reflective, spacey experience.

While I think it’s a bit of an adjustment hearing this song in a polished, clean, non-acoustic form, I think it maintains a lot of the feel of the song as we’ve come to understand it. I think what I’ve always loved about this track is the simplistic beauty of it, and I think that feeling is maintained in the studio version. I’m sure there are probably people disappointed by it anyway, since I’m not sure any studio version could have possibly captured the intimacy of the acoustic version, but I think this version is beautiful on it’s own merit.

Sound of Awakening

This is another song that I’ve seen trashed a lot. And it’s certainly out there, compared to some of the other work we’ve seen from this band. However, I think there’s a bit of a rush to judge it. Sure, I think the beginning drags a bit, but as soon as the percussion kicks in, the song starts to make a lot of cohesive sense.

I think the lyrics are beautiful and powerful, and the unusual instrumentation gives it a particular punch that I can’t help but appreciate. This track really excites me to the possibilities for Walk the Moon going forward. I maybe don’t agree with all of the choices made here, but there’s a lot of fascinating potential for experimentation and betterment of the band as a whole.

Plus, I think the song gets better and better as it goes along. I wonder if perhaps the negative response is colored by the slow beginning, which lead some to not pay attention to the powerful, rhythmic climax of the song. Plus, I think the song grows on you on more listens. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this track ended up one of my all-time favorite Walk the Moon songs.

Feels Good to Be High

Alright, yes, this song is exactly 4 minutes and 20 seconds long. Yuk it up, everyone. Weeeeed jokes.

Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive of this song at first. I’m generally not a fan of songs that derive all of their sound and meaning from drugs. I think it lends itself too easily to a lack of creativity. But you know what? I was pleasantly surprised. This song is very chill, of course, as one might expect from the title, but it’s got a really subtle groove that I really have to admire. It begs to be played loud and danced to.

I really love the instrumentation. It’s unique, but connected to the rest of the album. I’ve never heard a song like this one, but it’s still obviously Walk the Moon’s.

And thank goodness, right? I don’t really want to see my favorite band resort to making music that only sounds good when you’re stoned out of your mind. Because that’s just too much for me. I’m way too square for that.

Can’t Sleep (Wolves)

I’m a big fan of songs that approach vocals with a mind for rhythm. I think this track is an excellent example. Nick Petricca delivers the lyrics of this track in tandem with the instrumentation. It brings the whole song together, makes it stick in your mind, and is really just one of the things I adore about this band as a whole. It’s something they’ve done often in songs I’ve loved of theirs in the past, so I was ecstatic to hear it again in their newest album.

I think this song has a great atmosphere. (Have I said atmosphere enough?) I think it might be one of my favorites off of this album if I wasn’t so gosh darned indecisive. I love the guitar part in this song – it’s classy and restrained. Actually, I think I could probably describe the entire song in that way. It’s slick, refined, cool. I feel like if this song were a person, they’d be really well-dressed and articulate.

Is that odd? I’m having a hard time describing in words what makes me like this song so much. I just really do.

In My Mind

I’ll be honest and say this song didn’t really do it for me. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the song… I think it’s perhaps a little too repetitive. There are some good moments sprinkled throughout, but it otherwise begins to fade into the background a little bit, especially compared to the rest of the tracks on this album. I think it sounds a little unpolished, and it certainly isn’t very memorable. So I guess we do have a Walk the Moon track I’m not such a big fan of.

I will say that I enjoy the bridge for the way it builds, but I wish the rest of the song reflected it a little better. So bluh. A shame.

Lost in the Wild

I really enjoy the playfulness of this song. I think it may perhaps feel a bit overly poppy, but I can forgive it for that since I think the pop elements are used well. As always, it follows the beautiful, restrained (say it with me now, folks) atmosphere of the entire album. It’s not my favorite on this album, but it’s solid and well-constructed.

I love the falsetto backup vocals. It’s so very Walk the Moon, and it makes me smile to hear. While perhaps the instrumental choices don’t harken back to this band’s past as some of the rest of the album, there are certain, small vocal and instrumental choices that echo where the band has come from, and I really love that. It sums up this album as a whole well, and wraps everything up in a nice little package.

So, overall, what did I think about this album? Well, I loved it. I think it remained cohesive throughout, and did a wonderful job of playing homage to where the band has come from while also making strides forward. It does my heart good. I’m so happy to see my favorite band back in action, and I’m already excited to see what they’ll do next. I’m sure it will only get better from here.

Stranger Song Selections

I just finished watching season two of “Stranger Things”. Spoiler alert: it was super good, for a lot of the same reasons season one was super good. I thought I might do a post after I finished critiquing the series, but honestly, I felt like it was a solid follow-up to the incredible first season. I know there’s probably a lot of people out there who disagree, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive.

Just like season one, season two had an incredible atmostphere. Just like season one, season two had great, realistic, well-developed and likeable characters (well, save for one newcomer, Billy, but I suspect we’re going to see more depth in him in season three). Just like season one, season two had a fun, interesting plot that doesn’t explain itself too much nor too little. Just like season one, season two had a fun score full of 80s goodness… well, except for just one misstep.

Yep, my biggest problem with the new season of “Stranger Things” was one song choice in once scene in one episode. But, believe me, it was a big misstep.

So, before we move on, a quick warning. I will be spoiling some details for season two. Nothing big, but one subplot needs to be traced in order to truly understand what bothered me so much about the music choice. Also, the scene in question is the last scene in the last episode, so while it’s not a huge spoiler for the plot as a whole, it’s still an ending scene and therefore inherently spoiler-y.

So, let’s discuss Eleven and Mike.

In season one, Eleven and Mike’s relationship was a fairly major subplot. After an entire season of dancing around each other, the way kids with crushes do, Mike invited Eleven to his middle school’s “Snow Ball” and we watched them share a chaste little kiss before Eleven made her big sacrifice in the finale. At the beginning of season 2, as expected, we see a relative amount of angst on both Mike and Eleven’s parts on their sudden separation. I joked with my floormate several times about the middle school drama between them, but in all seriousness, it was quite touching. Eleven uses her psychic powers to keep an eye on him, and he continuously reaches out to her via walkie-talkie, fully aware that she probably won’t be able to reply.

So considering all the drama surrounding their separation, they reunite with a lot of fanfare. It’s all so touching, so wholesome, so pure.

It’s that wholesomeness that I want to focus on. Eleven and Mike are very young, much younger than a romantic couple would usually be on a TV show. Personally, I think that changes the game a little bit when considering how their romance should be depicted. They’re middle schoolers. True, they’re middle schoolers who have had a lot of crazy shit happen to them, but still. They’re babies! Their love is innocent and good and something to root for.

So, of course, as one might expect, the season ends with the “Snow Ball” teased in the first season. While technically Eleven is not allowed out in public, Hopper pulls a few strings and manages to allow her to go. And so, in the final scene, Eleven, done up in light makeup and a poofy blue dress, arrives and gets her dance with Mike.

And what song is picked to accompany this touching, adorable scene? Why, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, of course.

And oh, in that moment, how I wished I had been able to watch this with my dad.

See, my dad used to DJ a lot of weddings back when “Every Breath You Take” was a popular first-dance song for newlyweds. And that makes sense. It’s a pretty, slow ballad by a popular and talented band.

And oh, did I mention it’s about a stalker?

Yeah, it’s not at all the beautiful romantic ballad it seems on the surface. I mean… look at the lyrics. “Every breath you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I’ll be watching you”? I suppose you could read it romantically, and many people do, but taken as a whole, it’s really a much more possessive than any healthy romance really should be. And even disregarding the debate over whether or not this song is truly romantic, is it really a song that should wrap up Eleven and Mike’s relationship up to this point? A relationship that, as I mentioned above, is entirely youthful and wholesome?

Okay, yes, it was a popular song at the time, and it’s not out of the question for inappropriate songs to be played at middle school dances. But the fact of the matter is that this is a conscious choice by the creators of the show to play this particular song over this particular scene. This isn’t real life. It isn’t coincidence. It’s a narrative choice.

Although, wait. Hold on. Maybe I was too blinded by my particular experience with this song. Maybe I judged too quickly. Because if this song was a conscious choice by the creators to play over Mike and Eleven’s first dance, then it must be stating something…

Oh…

“Every step you take, I’ll be watching you”? Eleven has psychic powers, and thus keeps an eye on Mike throughout the season without his knowledge, making sure he’s safe?

…Alright “Stranger Things.” Clever. I’ll give you that. Perhaps a little on the nose. But I can appreciate being a little on the nose, I guess, especially when it involves such a good song used in such a good season of such a good show. So you get a pass. For now.

(Don’t get used to it.)

 

 

A Killer Podcast

Would you be surprised to know that my surefire method of beating off anxiety is listening to a podcast about murder?

Well, it’s true. A few months ago, my best friend Marie got me into “My Favorite Murder”, a true crime podcast hosted by best friends Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. And despite the scandalous, gory stories Karen and Georgia tell, there’s something incredibly comforting about sitting down and listening to them excitedly discuss every facet of the world of true crime.

Each week, Karen and Georgia share one story of their favorite murder of the week. In addition, they release shorter “minisodes” where they read “hometown murders” submitted by fans. Despite the serious subject matter, it’s a comedy podcast. Maybe that’s a little weird to comprehend, but it’s amazing how well of a balance the podcast strikes between light humor and serious discussions of real-world issues.

I’m not fully caught up with it yet, but I’ve been making solid progress. It’s basically what I listen to all the time – on the way to and from class, while doing homework, before bed, wandering around the dorm… I’d say a solid chunk of my day is spent with Karen and Georgia. But what is it about these gruesome murders that keeps me coming back for hours and hours at a time?

Honestly, it’s gotta be the hosts themselves. Even as they tell the most frightening real stories, they’re relatable. Between discussions of serial rapists and murderers, they discuss their therapy sessions, their enthusiasm for new TV shows, and all manner of daily observations that make it feel less like I’m listening to a radio show and more like I’m having a conversation with two close friends. It’s dramatic enough of a difference that it makes even the most frightening of stories feel comforting and wholesome.

But it’s also worth it to mention that the hosts themselves talk about how discussing true crime helps to ease their own personal anxieties. In a way, it kind of makes sense. By talking through the absolute worst-case scenarios, you feel prepared for them, in a strange way. There’s a good chance I’ll never run into a real serial killer, but if I ever do, I’m prepared… more or less.

Still, putting all that anxiety stuff aside, is the subject matter too serious for the comedic tone of the podcast? It’s an issue that has been brought up by the podcast’s… well, anti-fans several times throughout the history of the podcast. And I suppose on the surface it might seem to be taking advantage of or making light of others’ tragedies. But that’s not at all what happens.

In reality, I think Karen and Georgia have the most sympathy of all for the victims. Unlike the stories you might get in the news, “My Favorite Murder” takes the time to tell every part of the story. You not only get background information on the victims, but also on the perpetrators. Often, tragic tales of serial murderers start with tragic tales of abused and neglected children who grow up to become these horrible criminals. It definitely doesn’t excuse the actions of these people, but rather explains why they would stoop to such a terrible depth as to take innocent lives.

I admire “My Favorite Murder” for how complete every story is. While it does, in some cases, languish in the gory details, there’s a definite respect for the personhood of everyone involved in each story. And sure, they’ve made mistakes. But Karen and Georgia are both incredibly open to constructive criticism, and have, on many occasions, changed their language or way of speaking about certain topics based on critiques they’ve received from fans. Above all, it’s clear that “My Favorite Murder” is a place for learning, not only for the fans, but also for the hosts. It’s a friendly place, a fun place.

I’m incredibly thankful to have this podcast to come into my life at this time. College is, quite frankly, a weird, wonderful, terrifying experience, so it’s nice to have two best friends who are always there for me, anytime, anywhere, with tons of exciting stories to tell.

So this week’s recommendation? Listen to “My Favorite Murder”, stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.