Tuesday, January 31, 2012

.hack//Sign: Welcome to the World

[Welcome to my trip through .hack//SIGN]
[The first post in this series is here.]

Having devoted an entire post to the first minute or so of the episode, it's hopefully clear that things aren't as the should be. Tsukasa starts the episode unconscious on the ground then gets up shaking and in pain. He should not be in pain, and it should have been impossible for anything in the game to knock him unconscious.

After he gets up he tries to remember what's going on but this is quickly interrupted by another player showing up. Tsukasa will be approached five times in this episode before he has any idea what's going on. In every instance, with one possible exception where it's difficult to be sure, his immediate reaction is fear. In two cases (including the one where he might not be afraid) he acts as if he's expecting to be attacked.

Somehow I never noticed it before, but here, at the beginning, Tsukasa is afraid every time someone shows up. I find myself reminded of Parker's assessment of Luka from the Leverage episode The Stork Job. Specifically where she notes Luka's flinch. Tsukasa is not an orphan, but I think it's fair to say he's expecting the same thing. He's afraid of people, he expects them to hurt him.

This particular meeting is not one where he prepares for an attack because Mimiru, the player who has arrived behind him, is immediately disarming in the cheerful way she greets him. But it's not enough to get a response from him. So she asks if he's alright and, when she notices that he's a wavemaster (magic user) working alone speculates he must be powerful. (He isn't, he's just very, very solitary. So he works alone even though, given the class he's chosen, it would be wiser to be part of a group.)

Tsukasa uses is sprite ocarina (his “Beam Me up Scotty” device) to leave without saying a word. It's not the best introduction. But it is an important introduction and I want to take a moment to talk about destiny because of it.

I'm not completely sure how to think about free will in .hack because on the one hand there is a very powerful external force that tries to force the characters into a specific narrative, and you'd think that opposing that would be exercising free will, but on the other hand I do see the hand of destiny helping the characters in their opposition. If you refuse to do what you're told, and destiny helps you succeed in that refusal, is that exercising free will or allowing yourself to be determined? I honestly have no idea.

What I do know is that I see destiny doing very little, leaving the rest to the individuals, but the little bit that it does do is critical. I was originally going to say that it gets you where you need to go and the rest is up to you, but even that overstates things. Where I do see it operating is in introductions. This scene, right here, where Tsukasa and Mimiru meet, is one of the places that I see destiny in action.

Tsukasa doesn't interact with people, presumably in part because he's afraid of them at first, yet the handful of interactions he does have are, almost universally, the right people. Worthy of particular note are the people he meets by chance in this episode, Mimiru and Bear, because they are ideal people for him to meet. Quite possibly the absolute best people he could have met. Of the more than 20 million people playing the game, the small handful he meets are the right ones. 

Sometimes in stories who the characters are doesn't matter that much, someone else in their place would have risen to the occasion as well. I don't think that's the case in .hack. I think that if Tsukasa had met random other people instead of the people he did meet the most likely outcome would be abject failure.

Later in the series someone will say that meeting is the result of the divine, while parting is the result human action. Another will claim that a random meeting must have meaning because the participants wouldn't have been brought together otherwise. I think they're right. In this story the only explicit higher power (higher than humans I mean) acts through heavy handed means and is evil. But if one looks at the meetings, the way people are brought together by what on the surface seems to be random chance, there seems to be a subtler power at work. One that doesn't do much, but what it does is very helpful.


We next see Tsukasa sitting against a well under a vibrant blue and purple sky near a colorful windmill. I haven't mentioned it before, but it has to be said that this series is beautiful. Anyway, Tsukasa is trying to figure out what's going on. He doesn't remember what he was doing or where he is. That second question is one that I'd like to know more about because as is I'm not sure whether I should interpret it as him not knowing he's in a game, or something else.

A beetle crawls over his foot while he's thinking.

Then he hears people approaching, again his first response is fear, this time he gets ready for an attack. It turns out to be three knights in armor. Out front is Silver Knight (apparently that's his name) who has armor that's different from the others.  It has more red, horns on his helmet, and the eyes of his helmet are red. Further back and to either side are knights in what will turn out to be more standard armor, no red above the waist, gray above the waist, blue eyes in the helmet.

I note that the knight on the right (when you're looking at them) is wider than the one on the left. This is an online game, there's no need for the avatar to match the person. This character is wider than standard because the player wanted him to be wider. The same goes for every character in the game. They look the way they look because their player wanted them to look that way. I bring this up because the fact that the game doesn't force everyone to be skinny isn't something we could have taken for granted.

On the other hand, all of the main characters have chosen avatars that fit into the usual standard of beauty, so it's not exactly an overwhelming victory for acceptance of a broad range of body types.

Anyway, the knights speak:

Silver Knight: We're not here to fight. We're the 13th squadron of the Crimson Knights. I'm sure you've heard of us.

Right Knight: We Crimson Knights value courage, civility, and tolerance. We were formed to look after The World and ensure it's smooth operation.

Left Knight: We are constantly keeping watch on any illegal activities within The World.

The Crimson Knights are a player group, not a sanctioned police force. They work with the system administration where possible, but it's not as if the system administration and they have exactly the same goals

For example, the Crimson Knights are very much against what's called player killing, which is when one player kills another's character.  (I don't think they'd object if the combat happened by mutual consent, we're talking about killing people who didn't agree to fight to the death.)  The CC Corporation that runs the game can't be against it all that much otherwise they wouldn't have created a set of rules that allowed for that kind of player vs. player violence.

The CC stance on it isn't quite anything goes, it seems to be more of, “You can do it if you want, but don't get caught,” because there is an implication that reporting a player killer to them, doubtless accompanied by an appeal like, “This person keeps on killing our characters and it's really making it so a lot of players can't enjoy the game,” would have the potential to make a difference.  They're simply not interested doing anything to make it impossible to kill off another player's character.  The Crimson Knights probably would if they could.

Anyway, the distinction between the knights and the administration is important because it means that the Crimson Knights have neither the authority nor the access to information that the administration has, and it's also indicative of the hands off approach the CC Corporation takes. The reason that the Crimson Knights are authority figures in the game in spite of being just players themselves is that the CC Corporation doesn't have a presence in the game and thus there is no official authority inside the game.

Back to the conversation, I can't say definitively how Tsukasa responds because the subtitles and the English dialog don't agree (and I don't understand Japanese.) He either says that he's of no interest to them, in which case they respond that they're interested in everyone, or he says that "that" (their mission) has nothing to do with him, in which case they say it has to do with everyone.

There's a pretty big difference between, “You're of interest to me,” and, “What I'm doing concerns you,” but it pales in comparison to some of the other divergences between the spoken English and the English subtitles. At one point a character will say, “But I'll betray you,” in one which will be, “But you'll have to trust me,” in the other. “What music are you listening to?” in one will be, “What are you thinking?” in the other.

This does not inspire confidence in the translation.

I love the show, but there are some definite translation issues here. I think that I generally prefer the subtitles, which is unfortunate because I'd rather not have them superimposed on the screen. I want my picture clear of obstructions.

Back to the conversation again, it turns out that this isn't a random meeting. The knights have sought out Tsukasa because he was seen with someone who shouldn't exist. An anthropomorphic cat. They assume, incorrectly, that the cat is a player who illegally modified his or her avatar. They want more information and assure Tsukasa that if he tells them what he knows that'll be the end of it and they'll not inconvenience him further.

That does actually jog a memory in Tsukasa, but not enough to answer any of their questions even if he wanted to. He beams away. They decide that it might be worth monitoring Tsukasa.


Tsukasa lands at a big spinning hoop with a sort of blue light filling it. This is called the chaos gate.  I'll confess that I don't fully understand how this is supposed to work. I know that you use to to change servers, and that you use it log out, but where I'm less clear is whether it's the case that all beaming has to be via the chaos gate on the local server. I'm pretty sure that's the case, but I'm not completely sure.*

Anyway, Mimiru beams in. Tsukasa is afraid when he hears someone beaming (technically it's called warping), and when she isn't happy to see him (she sort of grunts and turns up her nose) he backs away.

The scene cuts to them a short distance away having a conversation. They're operating from completely different premises and thinking in completely different ways. The conversation never stood a chance of ending well.

First, Tsukasa ignores Mimiru in favor of a beetle that's taken to crawling on his staff. By blocking it's path he makes it go back and forth. While he's doing this Mimiru is asking if he always warps away from people (she saw him do it to the knights) and telling him she doesn't think it's a good idea.

Then Tsukasa dismisses her concerns because he thinks it doesn't matter once he logs out. That idea goes against everything Mimiru believes about human interaction and I think she actually handles having it thrown at her pretty well.

Mimiru believes that the internet is just like the real world. Being a jerk on the internet is the same as being a jerk in real life. The fact that you can log off doesn't change the fact that you shouldn't be rude and should consider others. This is something she's willing to argue for quite forcefully. But she doesn't do it here, she just says that's not what she means.

Then Tsukasa visibly realizes that something is wrong, Mimiru asks what it is, Tsukasa stands up quickly, says he can't explain, and starts to walk away.

Mimiru tries a different tack, she points out that if he keeps acting this way he won't be welcome and asks what he plans on doing when the knights catch up with him. First he says that that might be fun, then he says that if he doesn't want to deal with it he'll just stay offline for a while.

Once again, this goes against everything Mimiru believes about how one ought to behave online. For her, “I started something and don't want to deal with the consequences so I'll act like it doesn't matter and ignore it,” is not an acceptable stance.

She makes a prescriptive statement, “That is not the way the game is played!” Tsukasa responds by pointing out that The World has no objective and its up to the players how to play, a descriptive statement.

Mimiru is talking about consequences within the game; Tsukasa is talking about consequences once you're no longer playing. Mimiru is talking about how the game should be played; Tsukasa is talking about how the game can be played. Mimiru is talking about needing to deal with consequences; Tsukasa is talking about the ability to avoid them.

They might as well be in different worlds at the moment.

Tsukasa tries to log out, we see the process start from his perspective, wind blows his hair around, colors change, he starts to lift of the ground. Then something goes wrong. Red light, a tone of wrongness, the colors change, he drops back to earth (only a few inches), and finds himself exactly where he started. He's confused, he looks around and sees that Mimiru is watching**, she's confused by his confusion. He turns to her, says he doesn't like her, and warps away.

Which is a horrible way to end a conversation, and leaves her thinking he's a jerk.

I'm going to stop here for now. The fact that Tsukasa couldn't log out is a good note to end on.


*If it is, then I'm also not sure why the knights didn't follow him, and the only explanation I can offer in that case is that they might have assumed he'd just beam away from there and they'd have no idea where to.

**Pretty sure that the most it would look like from her perspective is him rising and falling a few inches, maybe not even that much.


  1. I'm afraid I take a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to free will arguments: what difference would it make if I had proof one way or the other? I still act as though I had free will; I don't get a sense of being pushed in a particular direction.

  2. I tend to take the same approach, the only reason I was really thinking about is that TRiG recently linked to this song which is about changing one's story. I think an argument can be made that that's what happens in .hack.

    From a purely external point of view, of course, no one ever changes their story. As they are written so they are and will always be, (with exceptions for revisions and retcons), but from a more internal view, if one looks at the driving force behind the story, the one pulling the strings and setting everything in motion, it's clear that the story was supposed to be a tragedy and only failed to become one because the characters flat out refused to accept that.

    Which is exactly what the song is about.

    But at the same time even from an internal perspective it's still the case that the story has indications that there's something, however subtle, outside of the characters themselves pushing things towards the possibility of success.

    And basically what it boils down to is a free will argument. Which I'm not going to try to address but I am willing to mention.

  3. Re: translation issues. In my experience, the subtitles are always the more accurate translation - the people who write the dub scripts often take vast liberties with the translation or even the storyline as a whole. (Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura are probably the most notorious examples of this.)

    In regard to all the main characters choosing conventionally attractive body types - while most MMOs these days have a fair bit of variability, most of them still limit you to fairly conventional proportions - you can be a bit taller or shorter, or a bit broader, but not too much. Being a BBW is impossible in the vast majority of games.

    Even in Second Life, where there is far more potential variability than any other MMO I've seen, people rarely choose the non-conventional proportions, unless they're creating an entirely non-human avatar. (I'm guilty myself - my avatar concept is basically "redheaded Princess Leia".)

    Finally, Tsukasa's attitude towards the consequences of ingame behavior. Sadly, this is the attitude of many of the griefers in MMOs, and of trolls on comment boards. They can be as rude or cruel as they want, and the disapproval of the community, shunning, even the possibility of banning, doesn't bother them in the slightest, because they can always log out, create a new account, etc. Hopefully he'll grow out of that (I presume he does - while I've only seen the first couple episodes myself, I do know he's the primary protagonist of the series.

  4. @ Redwood,

    On Tsukasa,

    First it's worth noting that while Tsukasa is reasoning in a very troll like way, he isn't using that reasoning to act like a troll. His standard operating procedure is basically run like hell.

    Second he does grow out of it. He doesn't really have a choice.


    On translation, sometimes I wish the subtitlers would take a little more liberties. I may have no idea what the Japanese says, but I know enough English to know, for example, when "Options" would be a better word choice than "Choices". I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that the reason that they went with the worse option is that "Choices" was the more literal translation. (I don't know which choice the dubbers made because I rewatched in Japanese with subtitles.)

    Anyway, thanks for the information on subtitles tending to be more accurate.

  5. As far as I can tell, the subtitlers tend to be Japanese native speakers, and they don't use English native speakers to make the text suitably idiomatic once it's been translated. Best of all would be both working together, I guess...

    1. Yeah, ideally you want both. It isn't enough to know what you're translating from, you also need to know what you're translating into. And that goes beyond just language into things like style.

      It's been noted that people who translate poetry, if they aren't poets, should work with poets. Just because you know the Latin and you're an English speaker doesn't mean you should be translating Catullus into English all by yourself if you're not familiar with English poetry.