Tag Archives: narrative

Akame Ga Kill – Kill the Video Game Narrative

Akame Ga Kill Header

I’ve watched every episode of Akame Ga Kill so far for a single purpose: I figured there had to be something in it worth writing about. A show this clumsy, this lunkheaded, and this downright offensive had to have something about it worth exploring and discussing, right? It took me awhile to find the topic, but once I keyed in on it, it became obvious and made the cause of many of the show’s storytelling problems easier to see.

There are a lot other things about Akame Ga Kill that I could have written about. It’s rampant sexism, for instance. It’s constant homophobia. The nihlistic undercurrent of self-righteous sadism that the worldview it espouses is built on. The black-and-white childishness of that worldview. The show’s equally immature belief that hyperviolence and gore alone make it more serious and adult. It’s stupid use of the “Kill the ____” gimmick for every episode title (at least that provided me with a handy title for this essay)…

I decided not to write about any of these things at this time because most of the discussion of Akame Ga Kill has been about all those issues. They’re all worth talking about, but I also felt that all the discussion of the ways the show is offensive and obnoxious was possibly distracting from another of its series issues: it’s storytelling is downright abysmal.

It’s been obvious from Akame Ga Kill‘s first episode that video games are one of its main inspirations. This is hardly the first instance of a TV show having a strong video game influence; video games have been a part of the culture for a very long time, and video game-inspired stories or references in nerd-targeted shows and movies have been common for years. But even taking this into consideration Akame Ga Kill‘s indebtedness to the video game medium (particularly RPGs) stands out. From episode one it has been relied on the storytelling cliches and terminology of video games, always to its detriment.

Not every part of Akame Ga Kill is directly inspired by video games, and not every one of its many faults can be blamed on it’s over-reliance on video game storytelling tropes, or its misunderstanding of how different mediums rely on different narrative tools. Despite that, video games are still a clear inspiration on the show, and examining how that influence has shaped the show’s narrative both explains some of the show’s compromising structural problems and helps reveal others.

The most obvious sign of Akame Ga Kill‘s video game influence has been in the dialogue. Despite taking place in a vaguely European fantasy setting, the script has tossed around video game slang and terminology from episode one. Characters describe growing stronger as “leveling up,” and the strength of the random monsters they encounter are described by what “level” and “class” they are (“high level,” “multi-level,” “dragon class,” and other terms obviously pulled from RPG video games have all been thrown around liberally by the show’s script). But the influence goes deeper than just vocabulary. It’s had a large impact on the shape of the narrative as well, and the first half of episode 12 has one of the clearest examples.

After their base was discovered in a previous episode by an enemy agent, the members of Night Raid (they’re called that because they perform raids. At night.) are forced to relocate. From the moment they arrive in their new location, it’s is described as if it were a level in a video game:

High Level Danger Beasts

This is the only information about the new location that the characters discuss or that is shared with the audience: 1) It’s title (and through it’s name the type of terrain, though this is completely incidental)  2) The “level” of the monsters, aka “Danger Beasts,” that inhabit it (Danger Beasts would be the easy winner for dumbest-named thing in an anime for 2014 if Akame Ga Kill didn’t also have a class of monster called “Evil Birds”). In other words, this new location is introduced only by the information that would be relevant to describing the next stage in a video game: what it’s called, and the difficulty of the enemies located there.

In case the connection wasn’t clear, Night Raid’s leader Najenda then describes her purpose for bringing them to this location:

Level Up 1

As mentioned previously, this isn’t the first time that the phrase “leveling up” has been said before in the show, but it’s usage here is particularly relevant because of the scene that follows. Immediately after the scene where the discussion about how Night Raid has moved to a new stage for the purposes of increasing the characters’ skill levels, it cuts to a scene of Night Raid members Tatsumi and Leone fighting Danger Beasts. After the discussion about how it’s time for characters to level up, the narrative immediately jumps to characters grinding to gain experience points. Aside from the random monster fighting, nothing else happens in this scene: two characters fight monsters (for the explicitly stated purpose of gaining experience), and one (Leone) talks about how the other (Tatsumi, the show’s protagonist) has grown stronger since the beginning of the show.

If the correlation between this scene and fighting random monsters for XP in an RPG wasn’t clear enough, the fight ends when Leone stops the Danger Beasts from respawning by killing the level boss:

Boss Fight 1 Boss Fight 2 Boss Fight 3

And after Leone and Tatsume return to base, this is Najenda’s response:

Leveled Up 2

Anyone who has played an RPG will recognize this sequence of events: move to a new stage, then grind for XP to raise your characters’ stats. In a video game this progression of events makes sense: in order to progress in the story, the player’s character(s) have to reach a high enough level that they can survive increasingly difficult stages.  Where it doesn’t make sense is in a serialized television story (or even in Akame Ga Kill‘s original medium of manga). Characters training in order to grow stronger and overcome challenges is a common plot element in non-video game stories, but unlike with video games, where the purpose of these beats is for the player to play as the character and gain the experience points necessary to then allow them to reach later beats in the story, in non-video game narratives these sequences are supposed to also include character or story growth. The character who’s training in a TV show or a movie doesn’t just go through the motions of training or fighting, they also learn something about themselves: they overcome some personal fear, learn to look at something from a new perspective, or at the very least they have to accomplish something else in addition to working out or beating up random enemies. This is as true for Rocky as it is Akame Ga Kill‘s shoenen-action brethren like Hunter X Hunter and Naruto.

In Akame Ga Kill‘s “leveling up” scenes, none of this scene-justifying character growth is present. Instead they all play out the same way. Characters talk about how they should kill monsters to get better at fighting. They then kill monsters, and they also talk about how at some point in between these scenes of them killing monsters they got better at killing monsters. Any Danger Beast scenes that don’t involve characters grinding for XP are instead about characters gathering food to recharge their energy (another element taken from video games). Like the “leveling up” scenes, these events have no consequence to the story other than “characters gather food to regain energy.” All the dialogue in these scenes involves either the characters talking about how they are collecting food to regain energy, or characters discussing things that are happening or have happened elsewhere and that aren’t being dramatized through their current actions.

The result of this is that large portions of Akame Ga Kill‘s running time is taken up by pointless, tensionless scenes that advance neither the narrative nor the characters. These kind of narrative beats make sense in a video game, where they take place between the points in the actual narrative progression. In video games the player is an agent in the narrative, and their playing ability and decisions on how to use the characters they control affect whether or not the story gets to progress. In a television show, however, there is no player; there is only a viewer. Viewers don’t have that same agency, and the characters and plot develop completely independent of their involvement. As a result, what are necessary stages in the progression of a video game become dead air on TV.

This is made all the worse by Akame Ga Kill’s nonexistent character development, another symptom of its slavish adoption of video game formatting. The show’s character’s don’t really learn anything or grow in any meaningful sense; even Tatsumi’s decision to become an outlaw in the first episode isn’t a change in his personality so much as it is him gaining knowledge that he didn’t have before and then acting accordingly. The characters make decisions and learn new facts, but there’s never any sense that there’s anything more to them than what they were at the moment they were introduced: an incredibly broad personality coupled with a set of special abilities.

This is another case of what works in video games failing to translate to a different medium. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters are formulated and introduced according to the information a player would need to know about them if they were playable characters in an RPG: by their abilities, and by them having just enough personality to have a place in the game’s framing story. Because video game characters are played and not just observed, the player experiences the characters’ growth by acting as those characters. The player moves the characters through an interactive environment, and exercises their agency in the game’s narrative through those characters. When this element of control and participation is removed and the characters are required to exist inside the narrative independently, the criteria of what makes strong and functional characters changes. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters have the features they need to be the starting point of a playable RPG party, but not ones that allow them to stand on their own in a non-playable narrative.

Talent For Killing

Once you realize just how beholden to video game tropes Akame Ga Kill‘s storytelling is, many of its questionable plotting and character decisions become clearer. They certainly don’t retroactively become better, but they do become explainable. A good portion of the story beats in an episode of Akame Ga Kill don’t happen because they make good televisual storytelling, but because the writer has obviously played a lot of video games and often doesn’t know how to translate that inspiration into another medium beyond simply copying the narrative beats as they would play out if the story actually was happening in one of those video games.

To give another example of how this manifests, let’s look at the subplot involving Night Raid member Bulat deciding to train the then-newcomer Tatsumi. Bulat announces that he is going to teach Tatsumi to become stronger. There are then one or two scenes in the next few episodes showing the end of training sessions, and even more instances of characters talking about how Bulat’s training is helping Tatsumi level up (once again this is the terminology that is used). In episode 8, Tatsumi and Bulat are involved in a fight in which Bulat is mortally wounded, but Tatsumi is able to put on and use his mentor’s high-level magic armor, Incursio, something that it was earlier stated that Tatsumi would not be able to do with the experience and strength he had at the beginning of the story. Bulat then dies, but not before commenting that Tatsumi has grown stronger.

The way this subplot plays out feels less like a television character’s dramatic arc than it does a series of cutscenes or between-fight dialogue exchanges from a video game with all the actual gameplay (and thus character development) cut out. Without that connective tissue, Tatsumi’s progression from newbie to badass feels completely unearned. The audience is told what’s going to happen, and is then later told that it has already happened at the point the story required it to have occurred. In the same way, Tatsumi being able to use Incursio doesn’t feel like an accomplishment for the character that the progression of the show’s narrative has been building to. Instead, it feels like what happens when an RPG party member dies: another party member picks up the fallen character’s items and uses the ones that his class and experience levels allow him to.

There are even more examples of this kind of badly translated cross-media storytelling, going back all the way to the first episode. Not only is the first scene of the show a random monster encounter, but the way the plot of episode one plays out is incredibly similar to what a player would expect to find when their characters enter the first city in an RPG. Many of the interactions Tatsumi has when he reaches the Capital (that’s the city’s actual name, by the way; just the Capital) involve him running into incidental characters who simply decide to start describing the country’s history, who the important people are, and what the show’s themes are going to be. Using incidental characters to give establishing information is another storytelling device that isn’t unique to video games, but the sheer number of these characters (travelers, guards, barkeeps, etc.) and the graceless way these characters dump unsolicited information through dialogue feels distinctly like the kind of thing you usually get through NPC encounters. Once again, it’s the kind of thing that makes sense in a video game, where the player has to move their character to these encounters and often perform their own exploration/investigation through an interactive environment in order to get information, but makes no sense outside of that specific context.

The most egregious example of this NPC-ification of the background characters and explanatory dialogue comes in what is still Akame Ga Kill‘s most awkward bit of storytelling. It comes at the end of episode one, during Tatsumi’s first encounter with Night Raid, when said group of outlaws stages an attack on a corrupt aristocratic family. During the attack, a guard (who is never given a name and is only introduced in this scene) is killed. As he dies, the guard gives the following monologue:

Rotten Soul 1 Rotten Soul 2

This kind of dialogue, where a character offers up random facts about themselves without solicitation, isn’t uncommon during encounters with video game NPCs. But once again, this kind of information delivery doesn’t work the same across different mediums. When they happen during gameplay, the playable characters often choose whether or not to run into the NPCs and thus hear the information they have to share because the player has to actively guided them into the encounters. It’s debatable that this particular bit of scripting wouldn’t be awkward even in the context of a video game, but it would certainly make more sense coming from a dying NPC that the player can choose to have their character speak with. What in one medium could be a passable bit of background flavor and discoverable content becomes an example of laughably incompetent storytelling in another.

Because of its faulty and misguided adherence to storytelling methods that don’t translate to its medium, Akame Ga Kill has a fundamentally compromised narrative structure. It may not be the show’s only major flaw, but in terms of storytelling at least it’s the most important. This one problem has been present throughout the show, will likely be present throughout the rest of it, and will be one of the biggest roadblocks in the way to it ever becoming a properly functioning story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Narrative Friction, and The Power of the Pitch

Sell MeThis Pen

The first thought I had when I walked out of The Wolf Of Wall Street was, “I want a smoke.” I had quit smoking months before and hadn’t felt the desire to light up again in some time, but Wolf tickled my hedonistic addiction center something fierce. The smarter part of my brain was louder than the part that wanted to indulge, but several hours later I still felt the urge. No matter how much I knew better, it wouldn’t go away.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie has attracted a lot of controversy, with many people decrying it as an ode to selfishness, hedonism, and immorality. To be fair, they’re almost right: protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends almost all of the movie’s 3 hour runtime bragging about how clever a scammer he is, to both other characters and the audience. The movie opens with Belfort smugly monologuing and puffing out his chest as he walks the the viewer past his mansion, his sports car, and his supermodel wife. Belfort’s ill-gotten wealth is so substantial, his chutzpa so galling, that it’s easy to focus entirely on his siren song and overlook how during this same monologue, he also mentions being under investigation by multiple federal agencies, recklessly bets stacks of money on dwarf tossing, admits to serious issues with drinking, gambling, drug use, and whoring, and is so high on cocaine that he has a near-drug induced panic attack while engaging the services of a prostitute.

That near breakdown stops the momentum of his posturing and blowhard pontificating entirely. His voiceover stops, the soundtrack cuts out and his cool, alpha male exterior vanishes in an instant. He quickly regains composure, but we’ve seen the truth: Belfort, Wall Street crook and spokesperson of the fortune-making power of jackassery, isn’t just a liar. He himself is a lie.

Wolf of Wall Street 01

While Wolf‘s detractors rightly pick up on the fact that the movie is not a simple morality play, where the narrative takes a righteous stance against the misbehavior of its characters and uses their story to create a cautionary tale of justice done, they are failing to notice that the movie shows a wide disparity between what narrator and central character Belfort wants his audience to believe about him and who he actually is. From that opening montage all the way to the movie’s conclusion, there’s a distinct gap between the image that Belfort tries to present and what is shown by the movie’s pictures and sound.

Wolf effectively tells two overlapping stories at the same time: the one in Jordan Belfort’s head, and the one that the audience actually sees. By itself, that second story, the one told by the moving pictures and the dialogue and the soundtrack, mostly takes a neutral stance on Belfort and neither interrogates nor speaks out against him. It simply tells his story, and lets him talk over it. But when those two versions of the story are played at the same time, the friction between them becomes obvious. The narrative doesn’t need to condemn Belfort, because Belfort’s lies do the condemning for it.

Belfort characterizes his wealth as righteous returns from a life of hard work and applied brains, while his actions paint him as a thief and a cheat whose only intelligence comes in the form of a cruel cunning for sniffing out ways to manipulate people. He describes his debauchery as if it makes him glamorous and enviable, yet it’s constantly driving him to new heights of idiocy. He clearly believes himself to be a true talent and an inspiration, when his only real talent is weaponizing his own greed and using it to whip other people into the same unsatisfiable frenzy for more, more, more that he lives his life inside of. And after he finally self-destructs, gets caught, and loses most of what he’s earned, he tries to pass off his story as something to be learned from, a teachable moment of reaching too far and getting burned by the sun. But that’s the biggest lie of all: that the story of his rise and fall has any value to anyone.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street tells a person’s meaningless story makes it sound like a movie without a purpose, and that the the movie’s critics are right about it lacking morals. But just because Belfort’s story itself, especially the way he recounts it, doesn’t have any value on its own doesn’t mean the same is true of the movie itself. That lack of anything useful about Belfort or his tale is, in fact, the movie’s point. This is driven home by the movie’s final scene, where an older, post-disgrace and imprisonment Belfort is seen employed as a motivational speaker with a paying audience waiting to hear words of wisdom from him, a confirmed spin artist and fraudster. The movie shows Belfort to be a meaningless person with no worthwhile talents, but there he is, still being praised and, even worse, paid. By any metric that accurately measures logic, morality, or sanity, Belfort never deserved any respect in the first place, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to keep it. What The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately about, what it’s real meaning is, is to remind us all that the world we live in, the one driven by money and sales and who can move the most product out the door, doesn’t care about any of those things.

Wolf of Wall Street 02

In one of Wolf Of Wall Street’s early scenes, a successful stockbroker (Matthew McConaughey) explains to  Belfort that the reason people buy a seller’s product is a simple one: people are addicts. It’s not actually a salesman’s job to find what someone needs and then give it to them, or to explain why what they’re hawking is necessary, or helpful, or good. They don’t even have to know anything about what it is they’re selling beyond talking points. Their job is to make the person they are selling to want what they’ve got and feel good about getting it. “We don’t create shit,” Belfort’s mentor says, in between bragging how his success is possible only because his total self-absorption and disinterest in anyone else. The people in Belfort’s world who are most successful aren’t those who provide the most valuable service, they’re the ones who pick a mark and make him or her feel the best about believing in the bill of goods they’re selling. And because Wolf‘s Belfort is a character based on a real man, one who found incredible success and whose name still carries enough respect that he is still employed as a financial guru, the truth of his universe is the truth of the audience’s, too.

Even if you’ve never worked with the masters of the universe in the financial sector, this is all familiar territory to anyone who has worked in sales. It doesn’t matter what the product you are selling is, your sales manager will hammer home the same lesson until you learn it or lose your place on the team: “make them want what you have” (whether they need it or not). Don’t look for signs that they need you, look for things you can use to make them think that they need you. Even accounting for those salespeople who make a living for themselves being honorable, the ones who are the most successful are almost always those who care the least about whether their clients need their service or not. You don’t talk to customers, you talk to marks. What you’re selling doesn’t matter, all that matters is your pitch. And the only pitch that matters is the one that makes the person you’re pitching feel good about being pitched.

When people complain that Wolf endorses Belfort’s immoral activities and lifestyle, they’re picking up the same vibes I did when watching the movie gave me the urge to smoke again. It’s the same urge that Belfort (and every other savvy salesman) taps into when they call your phone or knock on your door. Everyone knows on some level that that’s how the sales game is played, and yet people still fall for it all the time. The world is still filled with Belforts big and small who make their living making pushing things that no one needs, but that they’re still able to make people buy. There will always be a part of us that wants something. The scammers and disreputable salespeople of the world know how to give that something a name.

The real world Belfort sold stocks. Wolf‘s Belfort spends the movie actively pitching the audience on the allure and primal satisfaction of his success. “I’ve got all this, and it makes me feel so good. Don’t you want it too?” Even as his life of luxury is shown over and over to be filled with self-destruction and deception, even as it eventually collapses on itself, he can’t help but give his spiel. That’s his skill, after all: making you think you need something that you really don’t need at all. Even as we see him for what he is and watch as the life he’s been pitching is revealed to be a sham, we still can’t help but feel the appeal. We know it’s wrong, but we want it to be right. So we want the movie to tell us that it’s wrong for us, to “make it real,” as McConaughey’s character would say, so that we can wise up and “get off the ferris wheel.”

But instead of reassuring us, of giving us a helping hand and pointing a scolding finger at the liar who won’t leave us alone, The Wolf of Wall Street lets Belfort talk. It let’s him make his sales call, and refuses to tell us that it could never work on us, we know better than that. It lets him give his pitch, and refuses to reassure us that it doesn’t have any power.