Saturday, January 28, 2012

.hack//Sign, Before the first words are spoken

After watching the series to refresh my memory there's so much I want to say about so many things. I worry that if I don't write it all down I'll forget it all, there are things I want to say about the very last scene in the the final episode. Even if I go at a rate of an episode a week it'll be half a year before I get there.

Anyway, mixed in with all of this thinking was the realization that I probably have enough to say about what takes place before the first word is spoken to make a post in itself. As Kit Whitfield has demonstrated, there's a lot to be said about the very beginning of something.

So, though I should be working on Latin, I think I'm going to talk about how .hack starts. Before I do that though, if you'd like to actually see and hear what I'm talking about I have links for you. The series came out on DVD in six installments, the first installment was called “Login”. I got the Special collector's edition of Login that cost lots of money and came with a stuffed animal. For most people it would probably make more sense to get the not so special not so collector's edition of Login that costs a lot less money and does not come with a stuffed animal.

I highly recommend you get it and watch it, but, then again, I would. Hopefully this series of posts will give you some insight into why I think it's worth the time and money, though I probably won't demonstrate that in the first post.

I will spoil things pretty consistently, so if you want to watch unspoiled you're probably not going to want to read these posts yet.


Episode 1: Roleplay

After the opening credits we find ourselves in a place of sand dunes, which turns out to be a beach, or possibly a desert that reaches to the beach, a giant monolithic black thing that I occasionally feel looks like a giant bizarrely misshapen cell phone has a screen on it light up, a low note is played, and we switch to the next scene.

I cannot justify any of what I just said. Having watched the series multiple times I still have no idea what we're to make of it and it seems to have no connection to anything else. It's over very quickly, doesn't seem to be important in any way, I generally ignore it.

The next scene we meet Tsukasa, who will be our main character. He's unconscious on the ground at first in a chamber that appears to be defined by a rib cage. It's a dungeon (place to go on adventures and fight monsters, not a place to keep prisoners) in the game The World.

When he wakes up he starts to make noise, and that's what I'm going to be talking about today.

.hack is a very talky series, and Deus Ex is (or at least can be) a very talky video game, so perhaps it is the case that I'm a very talky person. Though that would be somewhat odd since given a choice between a movie with a bunch of explosions and one with a bunch of taking, I'll almost certainly pick the explosion one.

For all of it's talking though there's also a lot of non-verbal vocalization. Sounds of surprise, confusion, joy, or disappointment. The sound of beginning to speak but never actually forming a word that Eddie Izzard demonstrates so well when talking about British movies*. The grunt of acknowledgment, oddly not the groan of understanding**, screams of frustration, indications of tiredness. The half breaths that one has when they've cried so much they can't take a full breath anymore and are left doing something that's neither gasping nor ordinary breathing but somewhere in between.

A lot of times I notice myself focusing on pauses when I write dialog, it's just how I think about things, .hack seems to look a lot at about those things that are spoken but are not words.

That includes sounds of pain.

And sounds of pain are where we start. Tsukasa starts to pick himself up, shaking, and making pained noises. But the noises aren't right for the setting. Videogames frequently have sounds to indicate pain, but I've never encountered ones that have this kind of sound. It's simply not the right sound for a game.

In a game when I hear my character in pain it's because something just happened. I was hit or shot or what have you. I found out that the hazmat suit didn't fully protect me from the contaminated water. The sound is there to let me the player know that something is wrong, my character is being damaged. And thus the sound goes away when the damage stops. The pain doesn't linger, my character doesn't keep feeling the pain.

Tsukasa's pain is one that didn't go away when the stimulus stopped. He was hurt, and even though he is no longer being hurt he is still hurting. Everything about him indicates that he is still affected by what has come before. He shakes as he pushes himself off the ground. The sounds he makes are of one aching. He puts his hand to his head because that appears to hurt as well. And that shouldn't be happening.

When I described The World as an audio visual experience in the last post that's because it's all it is. It is not tactile or olfactory. Ir is not anything but visuals and sounds. It's what you see and hear, not what you touch, or smell and certainly not pain.

Yet that's what Tsukasa is feeling right now. If you've ever crashed face first into the ground then how he's acting is probably somewhat familiar. Yes, the impact hurts, but it's not like you're all better once the immediate pain of impact goes away.  Other pain lingers.

Tsukasa should not be feeling this. Tsukasa should not be making these noises or moving this way. The game shouldn't cause pain. It can't. It's just a headset hooked up to a computer. Your body is safe in the real world operating the controls either on a controller or a keyboard. There's no way for pain to be caused except perhaps finger strain. This cannot happen, and yet it is.

The only suffering that should be able to be inflicted is psychological. For the game to cause physical pain is impossible. And yet here it is happening. It's the first of many impossibilities.

When Tsukasa puts his hand to his head he feels that there's slime on it. Again, impossible. His hand should be on a controller. Reaching his hand to his head might cause him to bonk himself in the head with the controller, it would not actually have his character's hand touch his character's head (to make his character touch his head he'd need to actually use the controller) and if he did punch the keys necessary for a hand on his head emote from his character, he still shouldn't feel the slime.

He picks up his other hand, also slimy, and looks that the way the slime acts when he presses his fingers together and pulls them apart, doubtless feeling the sensation as well.

He gets all the way to his feet, with some more pained sounds on the way up, and stands unsteadily while he tries to figure out what's going on. He looks a at treasure chest in front of him as he tries to remember how he got here.

The impossibilities surround Tsukasa will drive the entire series, his memories will play a pretty big role as well. They're fragmented and unclear and in some cases wholly false. He doesn't know it yet, but he doesn't remember who he is.


It's impossible to know how much a viewer will know about what they're seeing coming into something. My first exposure to .hack was seeing the 9th episode with absolutely no information on what the series was about. Others presumably heard about it ahead of time and given that it's currently part of a major series across various forms of media a lot of people probably know quite a bit coming into their first viewing. On the other hand some people probably know as little as I did.

Without knowledge of the setting this is just an unconscious person standing up, being somewhat shaky and achy, and really good music in the background (you can basically add that to the description of just about any scene in the series.) It's over fairly quickly, a minute maybe less, and you probably wouldn't take a lot from it. On second and later viewings it becomes unmissable that everything about this is impossible. There is no way for Tsukasa to feel that pain. There's no way for him to feel that slime.

It can't happen; it is happening. And that's what the series is built around.


There is no question that for me the primary draw to the series is Tsukasa. As some who has had to deal with depression and feelings of isolation and some of the other stuff Tsukasa has to face (though thankfully not all of it) I identify very strongly with the character.

It's recently occurred to me that there's another reason as well.

I lost interest in CSI a long time ago because nothing ever gets better. Nothing can get better. They're dealing with dead people. Everything has already gone wrong. Episodes will either be depressing or more depressing. They catch the killer or the killer gets away but for the victim nothing. Sometimes it turns out that the victim died for no reason whatsoever. Someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time, someone put the wrong name on flowers, chaos theory conspired to kill a girl in a senseless way. Every time it's like a punch to the gut, and ever episode delivers the same message: it never, ever, gets better. On the rare occasion that they have a living victim (I think I've only seen it once) you know that person is going to die.

Oddly I don't have the same reaction to NCIS, I think because NCIS is set in an alternate reality where you can steal the president's plane with no ill effects and smack people in the back of the head without being abusive. That kind of takes the edge of the death.

Anyway, in .hack Tsukasa is the victim, and he's put through hell --I feel tears coming on just thinking about it (but I didn't cry when I watched the whole series yesterday, what's up with that?)-- but he's not dead. He's not a tragedy that exists only so that the CSI team's personal drama can play out or Horatio can deliver a one liner. He's the victim but he's front and center, it's his story and whatever heartache there may be along the way it can get better.

It doesn't have to be a tragedy. There is hope.

It is, perhaps, an unreasonably hopeful story. Things can work out. Just this once, Rose, everybody lives. It presents an idea that we can have a story without piles of human wreckage along the way. We do not need to sacrifice victim of the week on the altar of plot. In the real world there is suffering everywhere, and in .hack as well, but in fiction there can exist the hope that you might move beyond that.

When was the last time there was an epic quest in which no villagers were harmed along the way? Though I do have to admit that it's not all happy in .hack. Sacrifices are made, one in particular, but there's such a big difference between sacrificing oneself and being a victim. The message, if one can be found, of .hack//SIGN is that you can choose to do the former, but you don't need to be the latter.  Even if the world itself is conspiring against you, it's possible to stop being a victim.

Even in very happy stories, you don't usually get that message. You get the message that that's the case if you're the hero.  But if you're an incidental character then you may well be screwed. .hack//SIGN, probably largely due to it's setting, is able avoid that.  For the most part.

The worst incidental characters have to suffer is having their characters reset to their previous save.


* I don't feel comfortable including this in the main text without the warning that if you keep on viewing passed when he switched to talking about Hollywood movies it is not safe for work at all.  Before that it's very tame and entirely safe.  After that you can expect frequent loud uses of the word "fuck" references to previous parts of the show which will make no sense to you if you haven't seen it, and one of those uses the idea of baby killing for humor.  That probably sounds worse than it is, but better to sound worse than to sound better and have it take you off guard.  The clip can be found here.

The show the clip is from is called Dress To Kill and I, personally, find it hilarious.  I have since I first saw it years ago on HBO, and I'm happy I got it on DVD instead of just sticking with the tape I made of it back then because some of the things omitted in the HBO versions were also hilarious.

** The groan of understanding is the sound when something's explained and the person realizes, "Oh, it's that."  Being myself, I tend to see it with ancient languages, mostly Latin.  You've got a bunch of people sitting around a table completely stumped about something and then someone says, "[suchandsuch] takes the dative / it's an accusative of respect / actually that's ablative / an esse was omitted / it's being used in it's storytelling form / whatever" and from everyone at the table you hear the groan of understanding.  It's a "Damn it, I should know this and/or I hate those things" sound.


  1. (Month and four days after I said "about a month". Not bad. For a few days there I was hoping for a more birthday-y timing, but as you can see that didn't work out.)

    there are things I want to say about the very last scene in the the final episode.

    Maybe then I'll be less confused about it. (It doesn't help that, at least with the copy and player I have, only spoken words are translated, which makes pretty much every scene set offline an exercise in frustration. Damn you, monolingual Japanese intertitles! Damn you, ignorance of how to type said Japanese intertitles into Google Translate* and get at least a vague idea of what they're saying!)

    *Once, I tried to look the five characters up on Wikipedia and copy-paste. Fifteen minutes later, when I gave up, I had only found three of them. On the plus side, now I finally know what that one that looks like a sideways "e" means (the syllable "no").

    and came with a stuffed animal

    It's a toy Grunty, isn't it. *clicks link* Yes it is. How do you like your toy Grunty?

    When I described The World as an audio visual experience in the last post

    Wait, what? Oh. I didn't see that link and thought this was the first. I'll read it next.

    1. Wait, what? Oh. I didn't see that link and thought this was the first. I'll read it next.

      Well, I forgot there was anything before this too. I double checked the index to make sure that there was a link because I thought maybe I'd forgotten to put one there.


      How do you like your toy Grunty?

      Honestly, I don't think about it very much and interact with it less.


      Maybe then I'll be less confused about it.

      Well you can ask here, if you'd like, because it'll be a long time before I make it that far if you wait for me to address it in a post.