Kay’s Korner: School-Live! Review

Hello, my name is Kayvious Campbell and I love video games and anime! After consulting with my good friend Dennis, I decided to write material to add to his awesome blog’s arsenal! I am a recent college graduate and currently just passing the time as I attempt to apply to graduate school. I hope to shed some light on some mainstream anime as well as some underappreciated anime. Feel free to leave comments and feedback to assist me in this new process or if you just want to generate conversation! Let’s get the show on the road!

School-Live girls

School-Live! is a relatively new anime that has a special place in my heart. I decided to make this my first review because it was a show that I just randomly scrolled onto it while on my CrunchyRoll account this past summer. From the first episode, I was hooked and it has made its way onto my list of all-time favorite anime.

The show revolves the main character, Yuki Takeya, who is a third year high school girl who is in love with going to school. So much that Yuki and a couple of her friends have created a club titled “The School Living Club” in which the members virtually live at school and enjoy each other’s passions and school.

The president of the club is Yuuri Wakasa. She is the leader of the group and the brains of the club who assists the club supervisor.

That club supervisor is Megumi Sakura, who is the one of the girls’ teachers. She is a lighthearted, caring person who is adjusting to her new profession.

The other three members are Kurumi Ebisuzawa, the athlete of the group, Miki Naoki, the club’s newest member who respects Yuki as her mentor or senpai, and the lovable club mascot and dog Taroumaru.

The School Living Club

Clockwise: Kurumi (Purple Hair), Yuuri, Yuki, Miki, Taroumaru

The manga series began serialization with the July 2012 issue of Houbunsha’ Manga Time Kirara Forward Magazine. The manga was written by Nitroplus Co. Ltd., a Japanese visual novel computer software company. The company’s other claim to fame or major associations is with the Fate/Zero series and Assassination Classroom series. They tend to focus on material with darker themes such as reanimation of the dead and murder (Spoiler).

The anime adaptation aired between July and September 2015. It was created by Lerche Studio, and thank goodness they decided to fund it. After the first episode was broadcasted, it sparked a dramatic increase in the manga sales; a ten-fold increase. The first episode has been viewed on Nico Nico Douga over 2.5 million times as of October 2015.

The manga steadily continue to thrive, however the sales for DVD are rather low, so the likelihood for a second season is slim. If you find yourself loving the series after you complete the anime adaptation, I definitely recommend that you continue with the manga series since it seems like it will be around for a while.

The School Living Club

The show is comprised of 12 episodes, 22 minutes in length. It began streaming stateside this past summer via CrunchyRoll and was constantly praised as one of the top anime of Summer 2015. At first glance, the show’s presentation conveys itself as a happy-cute-girls-doing-cute-things anime.

Yuki Takeya, as previously stated, is the central protagonist. The show constantly focuses on her relationships with the characters and her perspective of her life. She is airheaded and simpleminded, but her personality and actions help complement the group’s seriousness. All was going well until one unfortunate day and Yuki’s life and relationship with her friends would be changed forever.

As the show progresses and develops, it does a complete 180 and constructs serious reoccurring themes such as betrayal, despair, and even death evident by the end of episode one.  The phrase “Everything is not as is seems” rings true with this anime. The show contains several major plot twists that keep the audience captivated. The show leaves the audience in awe and scrambling to understand what has transpired or what may happen next. This thriller is filled with multiple elements and components that elevates its quality in my eyes, and I believe it deserves more attention throughout the anime community.

The art style is modern looking, and the show was done well overall. The one thing I noticed is that the main characters are very detailed while all the other characters throughout the show aren’t as detailed or look incomplete. I feel the artists and directors did this to put the focus on the girls rather than the background people.

The opening is very enjoyable as well! It is constantly changing and adapting to the follow alongside any major events. And the lighthearted J-Pop song will be forever etched into my brain. I will admit it was a tad bit annoying at first, but then it started to grow on me. Now, whenever I hear the opening, I can’t help but bounce along to the catchy tune.

Need more reason to watch this show? The show deserves attention because it is still an underappreciated and relatively unknown anime. The anime is subtitled and not available dubbed with English voices. I mention this because I have noticed a lot of people new to anime dislike having to read subtitles. But I firmly think this show is relatively easy to follow and the plot will keep you on your toes and wanting more.

~Kayvious

Video: Visual storytelling in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

After writing three in-depth posts about the visual storytelling in World 1, World 2, and World 3 of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I realized something: the blog format isn’t well suited for what I’m trying to explain. So I rectified that oversight by creating a more complete analysis, this time of the entire game, in video form!

This video was a lot of work, but I think it turned out well! Thanks to everybody who’s been following my posts thus far. I had a ton of fun making this video, so I’ve started a new YouTube channel for this blog: Dpad on YouTube. Please check out my video and let me know what you think!

I’ve been watching Let’s Play videos for several years now, and after being an admirer from afar, I decided to finally tackle this new method of analysis. In this post, I want to talk about what went into the creation of this video. I’m sure there are plenty of resources out there for Let’s Players. Here’s my perspective on what I went through in the creation of this first video.

Research

First, I needed to play the game again so that I knew what I was talking about! I’ve already played DKCTF extensively for the write-up of the previous posts, but I went through the game for the umpteenth like, making notes on each level I played. I did this without capturing any footage; the focus at this stage was just to get information, and to figure out what footage I needed to capture.

I also played bits and pieces of the previous Donkey Kong Country games, as I knew I wanted to make comparisons to Tropical Freeze.

Gathering the assets

Next, I needed the assets: that is, the audio and visuals needed to make the video happen. I captured footage with the Hauppauge HD PVR Rocket. There are probably more sophisticated game recorders out there, but this one seemed intuitive to use and was fairly inexpensive at $140. That said, before I started gathering my assets, I played around with this recorder for a couple hours, learning how it connected to the system, troubleshooting errors that came up, and experimenting with short videos to see how big the file sizes were.

Once all that was out of the way, I played through each level, starting and stopping the recorder for each level so that I could better organize the data. Some levels I played all the way through, especially those levels where I knew I would be taking about them extensively. Other levels I knew I wouldn’t devote much time to analyzing them, so I played until I died, sometimes only 30 seconds.

One great feature of many games is the ability to adjust the volume of the music and sound effects independently. In 25 years of playing video games, I’ve never found a use for these options. But for this project, they came in handy! I turned the music all the way down, recording only sound effects. I knew that when I put the video together, I would have music playing on a separate track from the gameplay footage.

Then I needed to capture music. I readjusted the settings—turning the music all the way up and the sound all the way down. Luckily, DKCTF has many unlockables in the game, like soundtracks. I recorded 2-3 soundtracks from each world, usually for 3-4 minutes so that I had plenty of music to work with. The game doesn’t let you unlock all the soundtracks, so in a few cases I went to specific levels to record the music I needed.

Finally, I gathered some footage from the previous games in the series: DKC, DKC2, DKC3, and DKC Returns. I had the SNES games on the Virtual console, so I played them right from my Wii U. I also had DKC Returns on disc. No emulators were used in the creation of this video!

Recording the scripts

With all assets gathered, next it was time to write the scripts. This was a challenge for me: any follower of my blog knows that I write lengthy posts! The difference between reading and speaking, though, is that somebody can read something much faster than speaking the same words out loud.

The final script was over 6,000 words long! I tried to limit my discussion of each world to around 600-700 words, plus there was a little extra to introduce and conclude the video.

The scripts written, the next step was to record the voiceover. I purchased the Snowball iCE USB microphone by Blue from Best Buy. The mic is pretty good quality for $50. I figured, before I buy a ton of expensive equipment that I might not even use, it’s best to start with fairly inexpensive equipment and improve it over time should I really get into making this videos.

I recorded the scripts in chunks, only 2-3 sentences at a time. If I tried speaking longer than that, I usually stumbled over my words! I recorded the audio in Audacity, a free, open-source audio editor. After recording each segment, I combined the segments into one track, spacing my sentences apart as naturally as I could.

I’m not entirely satisfied with the voice-over work in this video. If I made the video again, I would spend more time editing my scripts for word choices (I tend to repeat certain words and phrases a few times, which makes the voice-over sound redundant in parts) and I would’ve rerecorded some of the sections so that the cadence was more natural.

Preparing the video

With all this prep work complete, it was time to put the video together! I edited the video with Adobe Premiere. I don’t own the program myself, but I’m a professor in a Mass Communication department, so I have access to this program on the school’s computers. I’ve used video editing software before, mostly Sony Vegas, but Adobe Premiere was considerably more sophisticated than Vegas. Fortunately, Google is a good friend! Typing in “How do I do XXX in Adobe Premiere” taught me a lot!

With the project open, I started by laying down my voice-over tracks. Then, I created text overlays for all the level names in the game. I relistened to my voice-overs, had whenever I started discussing a new level or world, I dropped a text overlay at the appropriate place.

Then I laid down the music. Each song would play long enough to cover the analysis of 4-5 levels of a given world. I think there are 15 tracks total in this video. I couldn’t have the music competing with my voice-overs, so I adjusted the audio so that the voice-overs were the loudest, and the music was quieter.

Finally, I was ready to sequence the game footage. I started at the beginning of the video and worked through to the end. I imported the videos, adjusted the volume so that the sound effects were quieter than the music, then cut the video into pieces, depending on what I discussed in the voice-overs.

I didn’t use all the footage from each level, so if I had unused footage, I put it toward the back of the timeline, as I knew I would need some general filler footage for the intro and conclusion to the video. By the time I got to editing the conclusion, I had a couple dozen clips to choose from. Almost no video repeats itself on this project!

Of course, there were several snafus I had to overcome in the creation of this project. Sometimes I forgot to record a tiny section of gameplay, or my voice-over just wasn’t good enough so I rerecorded it. Sometimes the video wasn’t displaying properly in the editor, so I had to fix it. And exporting the video took a few tries until I was satisfied with the final result.

Overall, I estimate that it took about 40 hours to produce this 37 minute video! Hopefully in the future, now that I’ve been through the process once, I can produce videos faster!

Since I am so pleased with how this first video turned out, for my next project I’m going to analyze the visual storytelling in the first Donkey Kong Country game: how did the inaugural entry to the series tell its story?

Stay turned for more videos, and more blog posts!

Game on,
~Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 3 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

In this post we’ll continue our examination of the visual storytelling behind Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. In previous posts we examined the storytelling in World 1 and World 2 and discovered that, if you look at each level’s backgrounds, enemy placements, and themes, you can learn much about DK’s quest to return to his frozen homeland.

Let’s get started!

An African homecoming

World 3, Bright Savannah, is a welcome addition to the Country series’ themes. While we’ve seen plenty of jungles in the DKC series, a natural habitat for gorillas and monkeys, we haven’t seen the savannah before. The first level, Grassland Groove, has such a happy vibe to it that it really contrasts with the previous worlds, especially the Lost Mangroves.

We see a few Snowmads in this level, but they are relatively peaceful. Considering the dancing trees, the chanting voices, and the frequent fireworks, Grassland Groove doesn’t seem to care about the conflict between DK and the Snowmads!

In the background we see several houses, though it’s not certain who lives in them. In the previous world, Autumn Heights, it was clearly established that the homes were the refuge of the owls.

Grassland Groove

Grassland Groove

The inhabitants of Grassland Groove, whoever they are (the flying chickens?) have a rich culture, as seen with the animal totems and fireworks.

Grassland Groove

Grassland Groove

By the last third of the level, the backgrounds open up to reveal miles and miles of unspoiled grasslands. While some culture outside of DK and the Snowmads live in the Bright Savannah, their impact on the land is minimal. As I gazed upon these soaring vistas, I felt like the Snowmads could make a life here without disrupting the current ecosystem.

Grassland Groove

The level ends with DK on top of giant totems. The sun shines, the music swells, and the chorus sings “Donnnnkeyyyy Kongggg!”

Grassland Groove

As we’ll see later in this post, the Snowmads don’t have such a respectful approach to the Savannah as this level might suggest. In fact, this level might have worked better as World 1-1. This optimistic level, the best one in the game with a complete through line, would’ve been the perfect way to begin the game.

A harsh landscape

In level 3-2, Baobab Bonanza, we learn firsthand what a difficult terrain the Bright Savannah is. The baobabs are trees that release giant, crushing seeds. Not only do DK and the Snowmads have to contend with the plant life, but also the high rocks, waterfalls, and charging water buffalo. It’s survival of the fittest in the Savannah!

Baobab Bonanza

Baobab Bonanza

There’s little evidence that any particular culture lives here—monkey, Snowmad, or otherwise. The threat of three-story tall seeds probably has something to do with that.

Baobab Bonanza

In 3-3, Frantic Fields, we see that the Snowmads have indeed established a firm presence on the Savannah. Grassscapes extend from horizon to horizon. While both the Snowmads and DK caused me a bit of consternation in World 2 for their mutual destruction of the owl’s culture, I’m fine with the Snowmads taking up residence here.

However, they learn right away that this land isn’t for the feint of heart and weak of will. A mighty windstorm rises up, threatening to undo their progress.

Frantic Fields

Frantic FieldsThe numerous Snowmad flags show that they’ve been here for a while, and they intend to keep this land as their own, like imperial conquerors.

Frantic Fields

Their ambitions, though, are checked when pieces of their bridges and structures are torn away by tornadoes.

Frantic Fields

The native fauna don’t seem to be putting up too much of a fight against the Snowmads. Additionally, they aren’t rushing to join their cause either, like the owls did in Autumn Heights. The animals have enough problems of their own. Just look at this water buffalo tumbling end over end through the windstorm!

Frantic Fields

That scene just cracks me up. 🙂

The environmental challenges increase in 3-4, Scorch ‘n’ Torch. As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence of any cultures that live in this level. We don’t see homes like in Grassland Groove, and we don’t seen wooden forts like in Frantic Fields. It appears that in the burning land, anybody who can survive can claim it as home.

Scorch 'n' Torch

The Snowmad penguins seem oddly complacent in the land of fire. Considering fire isn’t the natural habitat of the penguin, I’m not sure if these penguins are resigned to their fate on the Savannah or if they are that confident they can survive in the face of overwhelming odds against them.

Scorch 'n' Torch

Jackpot! The Snowmads find fish

In level 3-5, Twilight Terror, the visual storytelling gets a lot more interesting. This is a pseudo-water level. Given that the Snowmads are a seafaring nation, and comprised primarily of water-loving animals, Twilight Terror showcases the first part of the Bright Savannah that’s actually suited to their needs and desires. In fact, of all the levels so far, the shores of Twilight Terror are the most fitting home for the Snowmads.

And boy have they settled in. A series of dams, cranes, and structures cover the landscape. The Snowmads have set up shop in a big way.

Twilight Terror

These waters prove bountiful. The Snowmads lift net after net of beautiful, glistening fish from the sea.

Twilight Terror

The Snowmads have even set up some sort of processing (or canning?) operation, perhaps to send much needed supplies to places like the Lost Mangroves.

Twilight Terror

In 3-6, Cannon Canyons, we find the largest Snowmad base yet. This sprawling city, extending high into the air and through every canyon, shows that the Snowmads mean business. This city is a large contrast to the more modest camps seen in previous levels. Perhaps with the huge supply of fish close by, the Snowmads figure they can make a life here on the Savannah.

Cannon Canyons

While the Snowmads had trouble settling the land in earlier Savannah levels, by 3-6, they’ve proven that they have the engineering expertise needed to survive.

DK, though, does everything in his power to blast through their walls and towers, doing some damage to their city.

Cannon Canyons

Cannon Canyons

Cannon Canyons

Maybe if the Snowmads didn’t construct their DK traps out of dynamite, they could’ve avoided some of this damage. 🙂

Despite the threat posed by DK, and the numerous anti-DK signs everywhere (the red ties on shields with a line through them), some Snowmads apparently find time to rest. Inside the building to the right of DK in the following screencap, a penguin sleeps peacefully. It’s hard to tell in the screencap, but in motion, you can see the penguin’s chest rise and fall as his head rests on his plump belly.

Cannon Canyons

In 3A, Rickety Rafters, the Snowmads continue to build their civilization. They create numerous mechanical contraptions and homes on stilts, and at first, it’s not clear what they are trying to accomplish.

Rickety Rafters

Rickety Rafters

In the middle of the level, we get a glimpse at what these machines might be for. Three Snowmadic ships are hanging suspended in the air. This, however, is only a partial explanation. Why hoist the ships so high? While it’s a neat visual, I’m not sure how it fits with the wider storytelling on display in this world. If you look at the Level Select map before entering the level, there isn’t even any water nearby.

Rickety Rafters

The Snowmads can’t survive everywhere

Level 3-B, Bramble Scramble, shows that the Snowmads are still having some trouble on the Bright Savannah. Thorns cover the level from top to bottom: almost nobody lives here, though a few penguins are seen wandering around. This level, much like Baobab Bonanza, shows that the Snowmads can’t adapt to every environment.

Bramble Scramble

Bramble Scramble

Just like the other worlds, a secret monkey temple was constructed on the Bright Savannah long ago. In 3-K, Precarious Pendulums, we find that the Snowmads have raided another temple.

This temple features many movable contraptions, though I don’t think the Snowmads made them, despite their engineering prowess. Considering the deep scratch marks in the stone walls, these devices have been here for some time.

Precarious Pendulums

What’s interesting about these temples is that, while Snowmad imagery like flags drape the interior, they seem like they were hastily hung up. Given the emptiness of these temples, it’s probable that the Snowmads already raided these temples of their treasures long before DK arrived.

Precarious Pendulums

Precarious Pendulums

Silly monkeys with their bananas

DK and crew arrive at the final boss to find their bananas stolen again. While previous boss battles have featuredcrowds of Snowmads eagerly watching the conflict, the this arena is relatively sparse. Only a few penguins sit in the stands.

Triple Trouble

Do they not see DK as a threat? Are they bored with these staged fights? Or do they have more important things to do? Considering how industrious they’ve been in building cities, cranes, and fish nets, the Snowmads might be too tired on the Bright Savannah to give entertainment much thought.

The enemies this time are three apes, decked out with Snowmad helmets.

Triple Trouble

Given that monkeys aren’t seen elsewhere in the game as enemies, it seems to me that these monkeys are screwing around, having some fun with DK, rather than siding with the Snowmads the way the owls did in Autumn Heights. Monkeys naturally compete over food in the wild, and given the taunting attitude of these monkeys, I’m guessing they put the Snowmad helmets on as a way of taunting the penguins.

Maybe that’s why nobody’s in the stands.

Overall, the Bright Savannah has some interesting contradictions as far as storytelling goes. On the one hand, I think this world’s bright opening would’ve made it much better suited as World 1 than World 3, especially since the theme in World 1 isn’t that memorable. The first few levels show a surprising balance between the Snowmad civilization and the native animals.

As the world progresses, though, the Snowmad civilization really gets established in a much more effective and permanent way than in the previous two worlds, justifying the Bright Savannah’s placement as World 3. The Snowmads cut their teeth in World 1, and ultimately realized, as did past civilizations, that the Mangroves are uninhabitable. In World 2 they recruited the owls, in part because of DK’s violence against the owl culture.

Now in World 3, the Snowmads have established a firm presence. Will the Bright Savannah serve as a launching point for the conquest of more islands? We’ll see next time as we explore the storytelling of World 4: Sea Breeze Cove!

Game on,
~Dennis

The problem with swords in children’s animation

Children’s animated programs, particularly action shows, often feature characters with swords. However, due to the inherently violent nature of swords, creators are hamstrung in portraying the accurate use of weaponry.

Fantasy action shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and ThunderCats feature a lot of fighting, but the violence is often sanitized since these shows are technically for children. In this post, I want to explore the use of swords in children’s animation. Many action heroes carry swords, as they seem—on the surface—less violent than guns. But any kid knows that swords are instruments of death.

Which is why creators of animated programs need to abstract how swords work, creating fantasy worlds were swords do not operate the way they should, or characters don’t use them the way they are intended. While these sanitations might fool some, I never bought them as a kid. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but I always felt that these shows were lying to me in how they depicted the use of swords.

I’ll show you why.

Using swords in combat

Swords are meant for cutting, slicing, and chopping, yet cartoon characters cannot hit each other with swords, as anybody knows that a sword will leave a mark. Ranged weapons are easily sanitized. Children’s shows typically use lasers in place of guns with bullets. A character can shoot a glowing pink or green projectile at another character, and the impact is usually shown. Laser guns don’t exist in real life, so there’s no harm in showing kids this form of violence.

Melee weapons are meant to hit a person, and in some ways, the close-quarter combat of melee weapons is a more primal, visceral experience than shooting guns.

The challenge for animators is: how to depict these weapons in shows targeted to kids?

Some shows, like Dungeons & Dragons (1983), limit the use of swords all together. The Barbarian, or fighter character, carries a club instead of a sword.

Barbarian in Dungeons & Dragons

The Cavalier, a Paladin scrubbed of religious overtones, carries a shield.

Cavalier in Dungeons & Dragons

And Diana, the Acrobat, carries a staff.

Acrobat in Dungeons & Dragons

These weapons are fine, of course (except for the shield. No kid role-plays as the guy with the shield), but swords are so much cooler!

Think of the Sword of Omens in ThunderCats (1985). It’s such a powerful weapon. Lion-O, however, chained by the constraints of 80s moral television, doesn’t use his sword to hit people.

In the following example, the Thunder Tank is stolen by Mumm-Ra’s henchmen. Lion-O attacks, not by cutting his enemies, but by slicing the barrels off the tank’s guns.

Lion-O attacks

Guns on Thunder Tank sliced off

He stands over his enemies, and instead of attacking them, let’s them run away.

Lion-O stands over henchmen

ThunderCats

How many of the ThunderCats’ problems would’ve been solved if Lion-O actually used his sword on his enemies? If he wants to live a life of peace and refrain from killing, then carry a stick, not a sword.

Cartoon characters often find ways of using swords in ways that defy logic, even to children.

The sword as a defensive weapon

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) is my favorite animated show of all time. The show has been praised for its accurate depiction of war, genocide, and child abuse. The show is meant for kids, and the creators are usually successful in not talking down to children, but in adapting these serious issues in ways that make sense to them.

However, even Avatar pulls its punches.

One of the main characters, Sokka, isn’t a bender. He cannot manipulate the elements of fire and earth and water like his friends. Instead, he uses melee weapons, like a sword and boomerang, in combat. However, he frequently uses these weapons for defense, rather than offense.

In one episode, he helps rescue his sister and the earthbenders from a Fire Nation prison. The guards attack the kids with spears, and Sokka uses his sharpened boomerang not to attack the soldiers, but to break their weapons. As he slices the heads off spears, he tosses them up to Aang’s flying lemur Momo.

Sokka slicing spear

Sokka slicing spear

Momo catches spear heads

In Season 3, Sokka is feeling sorry for himself because he can’t do cool things like all his bending friends. His friends suggest that he needs a master to teach him how to fight. He becomes the pupil of a Fire Nation sword master, and later crafts his own sword out of a meteorite. As I watched that episode for the first time, I got really excited. Sokka finally has an awesome sword! And he’s trained in using it!

Sokka's master

Unfortunately, the space sword merely becomes a stylized version of his boomerang. He uses it not for offense, but for defense. On the Day of Black Sun, when the resistance fighters invaded the Fire Nation, Sokka led the charge, once again resorting to disabling weapons.

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

What’s strange about swords in animation is that they are often shown to be more powerful than swords in real life. In many shows, they are simply lightsabers made metal, able to cut through anything. For example, in Samurai Jack (2001) Jack uses his sword to cut through robot after robot as if they were butter.

Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012) Leonardo slices through the Kraang in much the same way. The Kraang are brain-like aliens that control powerful robots by residing in their stomach cavities. Leo has a remarkable ability to slice exactly through the center of the robot without somehow cutting the brain, as seen in the opening.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Holding back

Even though swords can’t really cut through metal, having the good guys cut through robots, cannons, and weapons with their swords is okay from time to time. Just because a hero uses violence to solve problems doesn’t mean they always have to kill.

That said, in some cases, it would make much more sense for the character to use the sword to at least injure or incapacitate their enemy.

Let me give you a couple more examples from TMNT.

The Kraang control these deadly robots, and while disabling the robots is sometimes part of Turtles’ mission, it doesn’t really solve their problem. The Kraang, the brains, are the problem. Destroying the robot only makes the problem go away temporarily.

In one of the early episodes of the 2012 series, the Turtles infiltrate a Kraang base. Leo slices through a Kraang droid, leaving the brain exposed.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

The Kraang tries to run away, presumably to alert the other Kraang in the base that the Turtles are here. Even though Leo would be perfectly justified in killing the little brain (after all, the Kraang are trying to terraform planet Earth into a replacement Dimension X, a move that would likely kill all life on earth), Leo steps aside so Mikey can clobber the Kraang with his nunchuk.

Mikey hits a Kraang

Mikey hits a Kraang

Given the cartoony stars floating around the Kraang’s head, I’m guessing he won’t be out for very long.

In another episode, Donatello invents a robotic turtle, Metalhead, to do his fighting for him. Metalhead is a little slow and clunky, but has incredibly high-powered weapons. While initially devastating a squad of Kraang droids, one brave Kraang plugs himself into Metalhead, takes control, and starts attacking the Turtles!

Kraang on Metalhead

The Turtles expend a lot of effort attacking Metalhead the robot, even though their weapons are useless against him. Leo in particular swings his swords not at the Kraang placed conveniently on top of Metalhead like a cherry, but at Metalhead’s face.

Leo attacks Metalhead

Leo attacks Metalhead

Why, though? The problem is not with Metalhead, but with the Kraang on top of Metalhead!

One of the worst examples of holding back comes from Avatar, season 3. Sokka and Zuko break into a Fire Nation prison, the Boiling Rock, to save Sokka’s dad. As Team Avatar is escaping, Azula, the baddest princess around, confronts Sokka and Zuko atop a cable car.

Azula attacks Zuko and Sokka

Azula shoots fire at Zuko, which he blocks. Sokka, hiding in the wing, rushes ahead, sword pointed at Azula’s face.

Zuko blocks fire

Sokka attacks Azula

Azula

For a split second, Azula is actually terrified. Sokka points the sword inches from her face, and then mysteriously, pulls back so Zuko can attack Azula again!

Sokka attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Sokka had the perfect opening: Azula so rarely lets her guard down. Every time I watch this scene, I cringe. What’s the point of Sokka having this awesome space sword if he can’t even use it?

Predictably, Azula flies away, escaping harm yet again.

Azula escapes

The loopholes

Children’s animators clearly feel pressure to restrict the use of swords, especially when it comes to harming other human characters. However, animators are clever at bending the unspoken rules of television to include more palatable forms of violence.

Samurai Jack, for example, predominantly fights robots. He frequently dismembers robots, and sometimes oil and sparks exit the robot’s wounds as if they were blood.

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Attacking robots is fine, though it should be noted that children’s shows like Samurai Jack and TMNT often feature very lifelike and humanoid robots: it’s a way of having graphic violence without technically hurting anybody.

What bothers me most about swords in children’s animation is that they are frequently used to cut or kill other living, non-human creatures—monsters and fantasy beasts.

In one episode of the 2011 ThunderCats, an ocean’s water is stolen by a giant plant monster, turning the ocean into a desert. Lion-O gets sucked inside this monster, then slices it open from the inside, restoring the water.

Lion-O cuts plant monster

Lion-O comes out of plant monster along with water

Plant monster returns water to ocean

TMNT uses this same cop-out. The Turtles fought a giant plant creature with tentacles and claws called Snakeweed. Leo slices through one of the tentacles, spewing purple guts everywhere.

It’s okay to show this kind of violence, apparently, because Snakeweed is “not real” and it’s not really “blood” coming out of it.

Turtles fight creature

Leo cuts tentacles

I guess in the minds of the creators? the censors? the television execs? parents? violence against monsters is okay because MONSTERS ARE BAD and MONSTERS ARE NOT REAL and MONSTERS ARE NOT PEOPLE.

As a kid, though, I never made those distinctions. To me,monsters and mutants were just as human as the human characters. Mutants and monsters are living creatures with their own goals, intelligence, and spirit. Harming a mutant should be no different, in these fictional universes, than harming a human.

What’s interesting is that TMNT, in particular, often goes out of its way to show that the mutant enemies were in fact humans at one time. Snakeweed, moments before the fight with the Turtles, was a misguided gangbanger named Snake who teamed up with the Kraang. In the midst of the battle, a ton of mutagen, the substance that creates mutants, spilled on Snake the human. Look at the pure terror on his face as he transforms into a vile mutant.

Snake transforms into Snakeweed

Yes he’s a bad guy, but does that mean his humanity is stripped away simply because he becomes a mutant?

At the end of the episode, Leonardo burns Snakeweed up with a power core, leaving him for dead.

But remember, by the standards of children’s television, this is okay because Snakeweed is NOT A HUMAN.

Overcoming the problems of swords in children’s animation

One children’s show that pushed the graphic use of swords pretty far was ThunderCats 2011. From time to time, they actually showed Lion-O hitting enemies with his sword. True, he never sliced through the more human-like enemies, and there was never any blood, but at least there was an impact.

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

While this is uncommon, it’s apparently okay by the censor’s standards as the lizards aren’t human. The world of the ThunderCats is populated entirely by anthropomorphized animals who are quite human in their emotions, rationality, and goals.

So how should swords be depicted in children’s animation?

One possibility is to get rid of them entirely, the same way realistic guns are largely absent from children’s animation. I’m not sure, though, that this solves anything. No matter what method of violence a character uses—lasers, fists, magic, throwing rocks—some amount of sanitation is usually applied.

If swords are left in, then they should be depicted somewhat realistically. If a character is going to flash a sword against another living creature, then they should use that sword on the creature. The gore can be sanitized a bit—I’m not advocating for Kill Bill levels of blood in children’s shows.

But children’s animation should show the consequences of violence, and show that swords and other weapons really do hurt people. I think kids can accept this even at an early age. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the gold standard when it comes to showing the consequences of war: if only they’d pushed the realism of violence a bit farther when it came to swords.

After the closing credits roll, kids will go into the backyard to reenact the shows they just saw. My brother, cousins, and friends did this all the time. We role-played as Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, soldiers, professional wrestlers, even Freddy and Jason from horror movie fame. We used sticks for swords and bananas for guns.

And we learned early on that if we got too rough, and somebody got hurt, then we needed to pull back.

Using swords to slice through robots and mutants and monsters is a distraction. These sanitations might make the violence acceptable to network execs, parents, and censors, but kids can see right through it.

Give kids more credit: they understand what swords are meant to do.

~Dennis

Review: On My Own, by Beach Interactive

On My Own is an outdoor survival game featuring exceptional production values, pixel art, and calming music. With little fanfare, you’re thrust into the wildness, tasked with surviving on your own. The ultimate goal is to survive long enough to climb the mountain.

On My Own is dubbed a woodland survival adventure game by Beach Interactive and Close Studios. Released on Steam last month, the game is now making its way to iOS, Android, and soon consoles. Before I start this review, I’ll just mention that I personally know the designer and artist Kyle Weik. I hail from Fargo, North Dakota, where Beach Interactive resides. I’d talked to Kyle about the game for months before it released, so naturally I was a bit disposed toward liking this game.

That said, the subject matter itself was a natural draw. Ever since I was a kid I’ve gone camping with my family. As I got older, we did more extreme camping; I’ve been on about a dozen canoe and backpacking adventures over the years.

At an early age I fell in love with books like My Side of the Mountain and The Hatchet. I was also a Boy Scout, and trained in wilderness survival. Part of me has always longed to strike out on my own, to be alone in the wilderness with nothing but my wits and wisdom. While being marooned in the wilderness would obviously be a terrifying experience—especially for loved ones left behind—I’ve always wondered, Could I survive in the wilderness if I had to?

I’ll likely never know the answer to that. While I’ll always have a love of camping, the modern world is such that it’s nigh-impossible, without immense sacrifice that I’m unwilling to endure, to just drop everything and go into the wilderness. I’d leave too many loved ones behind, for one.

On My Own (OMO), though, afforded me a few hours to think through that possibility. You choose the sex of your character, read a brief letter about why you’re going into the wilderness, and then you’re there. You have a cabin, a hatchet, and a backpack. With little guidance, the game forces you to trap and hunt your own food, sew clothing from hides, construct weapons and tools, and start and maintain fires.

There’s a fair amount of variety to the activities, but time moves quickly through the seasons, which adds a welcome challenge. Berries only grow in the summer. Plants, needed for making bows, are only available in the summer and fall. The winters are cold, limiting how far you can venture from camp before your energy is depleted.

The first couple winters were brutal for me. I didn’t construct a bow that first winter, and berries barely provide any energy. My hunger meter gradually decreased as the winter wore on: I wasn’t prepared, and I thought I might starve at one point.

The second summer I worked hard to gather the materials for a bow so that I could shoot a deer. But the bow broke as I hunted a deer. Then my second bow broke. The rabbits closest to my home were already harvested. I entered another winter unprepared.

As the game progressed through the years (playing a year takes about 40 minutes), I got better at surviving. Soon I had a surplus of food and rabbit skins. The game is a bit unbalanced at times, where you might gather a ton of certain resources and then lack other resources. And time can move a bit fast—both the length of day, and the number of days in a season (ranging from 2-4 days for each season) could be extended.

But for your money, the game is still a great adventure. There isn’t a lot of variety to the music, but the twangy banjo music is uplifting and never gets old.

Conflict is minimal. The need to eat is an ever-present drive, and occasionally you might get mauled by a bear (I learned right away how close I could safely get to the grizzly bear, and where that line was!). The game does not present nature as an enemy, or as something to fear. Nature simply exists, I alongside the myriad animals.

Human contact is minimal, but I never felt alone or lonely. I felt content, satisfied. Often while I played my breath with hitch and I would deeply sigh, relaxed, fulfilled.

The loading screens are peppered with quotes about the natural world. For example,

Seeking means to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.

~Herman Hesse

The game doesn’t hold your hand, and provides very few hints on how to craft new items. I resisted looking up a wiki how to progress. When I finally discovered how to make a longbow, one that wouldn’t break like my bundle bow, I felt so accomplished!

If you are looking for an end-goal, the game provides one in the form of different environments. You can camp in four landscapes, the last being the bleak and lonely mountain. Make it to the mountain and you “beat the game.” This is a game, though, where the destination isn’t as important as the journey. Any woodsman will tell you that being in nature, in and of itself, is enough.

This game released during the Lenten season. As a Methodist participating in Lent, this game had some interesting spiritual parallels for me. Lent is a time of fasting, of journeying, of remembering. The 40 days of Lent mimics Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness, on his own.

The drive I feel to set out on my own is more than my ego speaking, more than me thinking about how awesome I would be at surviving in the wilderness. Anybody who’s spent significant time in the wilderness knows that being in Creation is one of the healthiest boosts you can give your spirituality. And you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize this: even non-believers recognize how clarifying the wilderness is to the soul.

For all the challenges those first two years posed to me, eventually I fell into a rut. Harvesting deer and rabbits became easy. I stocked up on berries, fish, hides, feathers, and wood. I accumulated so much that surviving was no longer difficult. As I played the game, I became complacent. I dared walk closer to the grizzly bears, knowing that even if they attacked me, it wouldn’t seriously set back my efforts.

To me, survival games are always most enjoyable in the beginning, when the danger is real. The first time I played Minecraft, back when it was in beta, I had no idea what to do. The first couple nights were actually frightening to me. I had no shelter, and I died over and over again by the slings of arrows from skeletons that I could not see.

But then I learned to build a shelter, mine iron, and craft weapons and armor. I started over many times in Minecraft, and the first few hours are always the most enjoyable. I eventually reach the point where I know how to craft everything, and the challenge is gone.

By the time I got to the third camp of OMO, I had so much stuff that I had nowhere to store it. I just left it on the ground, scattered around my lean-to. I had become rich.

The same thing happened to Sam Gribley in the My Side of the Mountain series, and Brian in The Hatchet series. The first books of those series are the best, when the boys are just learning how to survive. By the later books, they, too, become rich.

And I suppose that’s the natural way of the wilderness. Even alone, you are truly on your own for only a very short time. Then you have your stuff as company.

The third biome didn’t pose much struggle for me, and I was thinking of progressing to the final biome, the snowcapped mountain. With my goal of survival long since achieved, it was time to see the end game.

I loaded up Steam, and as usual, it went through an obnoxiously long update process (why does Steam need to update almost every day?). The OMO title screen loaded, and I went to “Continue.”

Unfortunately, my save was gone. I restarted my computer and Steam, but my adventure was lost to the ether.

It seems my destination is out of my reach for now. Anybody who’s ever lost a saved game before knows that, mentally, it saps your desire to start over again. I probably had six hours into the game: not a whole lot. But still, it seems like, for now, my time in the wilderness is finished.

Many great explorers get close to their destination but never reach it. Twenty-four Americans have visited the Moon, but only 12 have walked on its surface. Of the three people who’ve been to the Moon twice, Jim Lovell never stepped foot on it, orbiting around the Moon on the Apollo 8 and 13 missions.

And I’m sure there are thousands of people who’ve attempted to climb Mount Everest, only to turn back at the last minute, to be delayed by storm, or to die on the way up. Sometimes that’s how survival goes.

One day I’ll return to OMO after the melancholy subsides. Even though my journey ended in a way I didn’t expect, anticipate, or plan, I’m still satisfied with the game, and I’d recommend the game to anybody looking for an adventure.

After all, the destination was never the goal.

Game on,
~Dennis


Check out the On My Own blog for a cool look, with videos, about how the creators made On My Own!