Saturday, March 3, 2012

.hack//Sign: Why You Play

.hack recap: Bear and Mimiru just finished talking about a variety of things, including how seriously the Crimson Knights are taking the situation.  Tsukasa doesn't know what's going on, having not read the board, and hasn't asked.

(I recommend actually buying .hack//Sign since my words don't really do it justice.  One can get either the DVD this episode is on, or the full series as a set.)

.hack//Sign, Episode 2, 4:32-10:23

So I'm going to take things somewhat out of order here. .hack involves a bunch of characters doing a bunch of things, often times that still allows for a pretty tight focus on a given idea or theme because to a certain extent the show runs on synchonicity, but here we've got three things going on, we meet Sora, the Crimson Knights are being all crimson and knight-like, and we get some insight into why Tsukasa plays the game. By my count this post is going to cover seven scenes of this episode (three through nine inclusive) and to simplify things I'll be talking about them in the order of 4, 5,7*, 3, 7, 5, 6, 8, 9.

*Barely any 7 there, mostly I list it for completeness.

So, first the Crimson Knights.

A knight is reporting to Subaru on the boat we saw her on earlier, they're searching for Tsukasa and are guarding the Chaos Gate round the clock, since that's the only way to log out or switch servers they're confident that Tsukasa will have to show up there eventually. Thus they're confident that what they're doing is sufficient.

Subaru asks if they've heard from Silver Knight. They haven't as he isn't logged in. Which means that they actually have no idea what's happened. They just know that something has happened and, presumably, that it wasn't good. Subaru asks the rhetorical question, “Why did this happen?” and the knight speaking responds with subjunctive counterfactual, “If only I were with him.”**

Subaru responds to that with, “It's meaningless to regret what's already happened.”

What else can one regret, I wonder. On the one hand it's certainly not a good thing to be wracked by guilt and uncertainty. On the other hand we'll see similar, though not identical, statements used to let people off of hooks they really shouldn't be let off of. The past is indeed the past, but a failure to address it can have repercussions in the present and I'd like a certain level of recognition of that fact on the part of the characters. And, actually, I get it right here:

Subaru: For now we only need to learn the truth.
Knight: Yes.
Subaru: And please, refrain from going off on your own. I don't like grandstanding.

She might not be in favor of regret, but she is at least trying to make sure what happened before doesn't happen again. I wish certain other characters would learn from her.

This also tells us that what we saw at the end of the previous episode was unusual. The knights don't usually work alone, to the point that doing so is seen as grandstanding. I don't believe that this piece of information will ever be important, but it seems worth noting. The basic unit of the Crimson Knights is not a lone knight, but a pair. There are all kinds of possible reasons why this could be. It could be so that no knight is ever without backup. It could be so that no knight is ever unsupervised. It could be because the knights were originally founded by a pair of people.

Speaking of which, the knight Subaru is talking to offers that perhaps the reason that the Silver Knight went off on his own is because he was very fond of Subaru and felt rivalry towards the knights' other founder, Crim.

The nameless knight asks Subaru not to blame Silver Knight for that, Subaru dismisses him, and then thinks about her cofounder Crim. We'll meet Crim in episode 5.

If you're looking for patterns you might see the name Crim and the name Crimson Knights and think that there was some kind of connection between the two names. There doesn't appear to be. In early fan translations (before an official translation existed) the Crimson Knights were translated as the Scarlet Knights. Meanwhile Crim's name is always Crim.

This is not to say that Crim didn't have an influence on the name, he certainly did. He picked it. But he didn't pick it because the first four letters are his name.

After that scene we find ourselves at the Chaos Gate. The knights guarding it check in with other knights (I'm not sure if this a shift change or just other people checking in with guards) just as Tsukasa shows up. He doesn't have time to change servers (or logout, but he's unable to do that anyway) but he does warp away. The knights now know he's on that server, they expect to be able to catch up with Tsukasa when he tries to log out, and that's about all that happens there.

The next time we see the knights it is when the guards at another Chaos Gate are let off guard duty, presumably in response to the knights learning which server Tsukasa was on and thus learning that he wasn't on the one those other knights were guarding.


Now it's time to meet Sora. We're in a place with stone, sand, sand colored stone, and sandstone colored stone walls.  There only seem to be two people around.  Sora's jumping around, at first we only see his shadow, BT seems somewhat spooked, he lands behind her, she takes a swipe at him, he disarms her and ends up behind her again, this time with his arms around her neck.

Sora is a twin blade, which means what it sounds like. He fights with two blades. His are retractable things in cases on his forearms. The practical result of which is that when his arms are around your neck, it means that his blades are likewise right next you your neck.

Also, his eyes are red, which means that he's a human eating vampire.  (If a vampire has some Soylent Green, do its eyes turn red?)  More seriously, at some point I'm probably going to look through the eyecolors of all of the characters because there's one case where it might very well be symbolic of something more, and if there's one case, why not two or three? If one is going to look for symbolic meaning in eyecolor, Sora is probably not a bad place to look.

Given that the series is a Japanese thing that borrows from Celtic motifs, includes English words and phrases, and (in story at least) claims German roots, I'm not even sure how one would look up what a given color might be symbolic of, but in at least some of the cultures I just mentioned red with violence and death (presumably via its connection to blood) and thus Sora's eyes have the potential to give you an idea about what kind of character he his.

He asks for BT's member address, she doesn't give it and he makes his salespitch:

It's worth being my friend... but I will double cross you.

You could not ask for a better indication of who Sora is than those words, especially when placed in context. Which is why I don't like that the dubbers decided to switch it to, “...but you'll have to trust me.” Sora isn't loyal, but he's up front about that. He's suggesting being an ally while threatening her life. He has all the power and he's using it to try to force someone into a deal that he's telling her, up front, he won't honor.

Sora likes to have power over people. He's put in a lot of work to be the strongest guy around and now he's using that to try to force people to play by his rules even when the rules are clearly not in the people's favor.

That's who Sora is. He's not saying, “You have to trust me,” he's saying, “I'm telling you right now that you can't trust me, but if you don't do what I want anyway, you die.” Of course this is within the context of a game, so dying just means resetting to your last saved state, but even so it's not exactly nice. And that's Sora for you.

BT: Are you a fool?
Sora: Boring and smart or interesting and foolish, which do you prefer?
BT: The worst one is a boring fool. Like you.
Sora: Great! I really like you. Give me your member address.
BT: No way.
Sora: That's too bad.

And then Sora kills her. And comments on her weakness.

We next see BT talking to Bear:

Bear: He sounds like a strange player killer.
BT: An hour of my hard work down the drain. I had to start over from where I saved yesterday. On top of that he left his stupid member address for me.

The member address, by the way, is how you can make player to player contact. There are three ways to talk to someone. You can be at the same place as them at the same time and talk to them, character to character, in person as it were. Which is how just about every conversation we ever see takes place. Or you can send text messages in game, using the other player's member addresses. (Basically like email, except within the game rather than on the wider web. A PM system would also be a worthwhile analogy.) Or you can talk with them on the board, which requires you to log out.

Bear thinks that BT should hold on to the member address, as a reminder that if she goes off on her own rather than as a part of a party she's at risk. Which does come off as victim blaming to me, although in a game where people like Sora do go around killing off characters for the fun of it, there's also something to be said for not splitting up. There is strength in numbers, after all.

Mimiru was shocked to see Tsukasa playing alone because wavemasters (the class both BT and Tsukasa belong to) aren't good characters to play alone unless you're already very powerful (which neither BT nor Tsukasa is.)

I guess what I'm saying is I'm not always clear on where the line between victim blaming and good advice is.

Bear: Since The World doesn't specify a goal, each player is free to choose how they play the game. I suspect he's trying to collect member addresses of all the pretty characters.
BT: How disgusting.

Some people fight monsters. Some people raise livestock. Some people collect items. Some people trade. And Sora says, “Give me your member address or I kill you.” I'm with BT on how to look at that practice, though it needs to be said that BT and Sora are very much alike. Which says some less than complimentary things about her.

If anything I like Sora somewhat more because he's up front about it.  (And he has a marginally better excuse.)  Consider his opening, “I'll betray you.” That's pretty straightforward. If BT betrays you she'll deny it before, during, and after. I kind of feel like if you're going to stab someone in the back the least you can do is admit it when they're pissed off at you afterward. Sora will do that, BT not so much.

This conversation is happening by a Chaos Gate, and this is the scene I mentioned earlier where the pair of knights guarding it are let off of guard duty. The knight who warps in to notify them catches BT's attention, and BT asks Bear if they should go to the knights for help. Bear doesn't think it would solve anything.

That's actually an interesting thought on his part because this sort of thing is exactly what the knights exist to solve. I'll go into more detail when we get there, but basically the Crimson Knights were founded in response to a situation where the strong players preyed upon the weak simply because they could until a couple of players stood up and said (I'm paraphrasing severely here), “Don't be assholes.”

Sora is being an asshole, in theory the knights exist for the purpose of telling him not to be. That they aren't seen as a viable solution implies something has gone wrong somewhere.

The knights warp away, and BT notices that Bear's mind has wandered. Bear says that there's someone else he's concerned about, and we cut to Tsukasa. But since I've skipped some Tsukasa scenes, I'm not going to go right to that scene just yet.


Last time we saw Tsukasa in two different places, and if I understand correctly those two places were on two different servers, which means that between those two scenes the Chaos Gates were not yet guarded. In fact (again, if I understand correctly) the first time we see him in these scenes he has again changed servers. Regardless, it comes as a surprise to him when the gate is now guarded, and he quickly warps away.

This is hardly surprising as his standard response to just about everything and everyone has been to run away for pretty much as long as we've seen him. Where he runs to is a desolate place with cloudy skies, red sand, and a giant leafless tree supporting a giant skeleton. (Tsukasa is about the size of the skeleton’s foot.) He's sitting on the ground taking refuge in repetitive motions. Specifically he's running he end of his staff back and forth over the same straight line again and again, often enough to have dug a small trough in the ground and created piles of displaced dirt at either end of the trough.

He ponders, aloud, what he should do, and what to his wondering eyes should appear but a floating cat in a pointy hat.

This is where we would have come in after the scene with BT and Bear if we'd been going chronologically. We just heard speculation on why Sora plays, now we'll hear from Tsukasa himself why Tsukasa plays.

First we see Macha (the cat) talking.  We never hear her. We can hear Tsukasa's response just fine though.

Yeah, this place used to be my hideout, but even in here I'm still running. It's terrible because all I want is to be alone and not be bothered by anyone.

And that is why Tsukasa plays the game. The real world sucks, people are scary, and what he wants more than anything is to be a lone. He'd very much like to be cut off from the rest of humanity. At some point (episode 11 at the absolute latest) I'm going to start quoting I Am a Rock* but for the moment it's probably enough to say that Tsukasa very much wants to be an island.

He doesn't want friendship, he doesn't want love or affection, he doesn't even really want anything resembling happiness. Joy doesn't seem to be on his to do list. All that he wants is to be left alone. He wants a hole to hide in.

This is another reason why I think that starting Tsukasa is like starting Bella Swan. Bella's ideal friend? Angela, who doesn't talk to her and leaves her free to think undisturbed. If Tsukasa were forced to get a friend, that's exactly the kind of friend he'd prefer. One who would leave him alone. This is also one of the reasons why I think .hack//Sign is a much better story than Twilight. Tsukasa starts in the same place, but he doesn't stay there. The story doesn't embrace depression and loneliness as the way things ought to be.

But we aren't there yet. Right now Tsukasa is pondering his situation which is not, on the whole, good.

He's tried to retreat from the real world into an online fantasy world, and found himself hemmed in here. His only means of transportation cut off by people who don't seem to like him very much. He's gotten slapped and then beaten up. And just when things seemed to be calming down, he teleported into a transportation hub only to have four armed guards charge him. So now he's sitting on the ground making a line in the sand, because he doesn't know what else to do.

The last time he asked to be left alone he was slapped in the face, the last time he tried to avoid someone without the use of a teleportation flute he was slammed up against a wall so hard that in the immediate aftermath he couldn't move to save his life. (Though the Guardian made it so he didn't have to.)

He plays the game to get away from it all, and now it all seems to have tracked him down even in the game. Plus, he's stuck in the game, so now that he has something he might want to get away from in the game itself, he can't get out. Things are not going as he might have hoped.

Macha speaks.
Tsukasa: What? Is that true?
Macha speaks.
Tsukasa: Does a place like that really exist?
Macha nods.

And so Tsukasa goes to a dungeon, where Sora finds him. Sora, being Sora, is planning to get both the treasure and Tsukasa because, as a player killer, getting people is sort of what Sora does. Sora hangs back enough that Tsukasa never notices him.

Tsukasa isn't here for treasure and, ignoring the treasure chest in front of a the large statue, walks around to the wall behind the statue. He asks if he's in the right place, given that Macha isn't around, I think it was more about vocalizing uncertainty than expecting a reponse. He puts his hand on the wall and it starts to ripple. Given that the animation involves static backdrops which I assume are hand drawn, the ripple effect, which appears to have been done on computer, stands out as strange and I think it's supposed to be that way. What's going on here isn't supposed to be part of the game, and so the different style could be seen as a graphical aberration within the context of the game.

Regardless, Tsukasa walks through the rippling wall, and Sora charges around the statue just in time to see a total lack of Tsukasa.

He disappeared?

Yes Sora. Yes he did. He disappeared. He's gone to a place where he won't be bothered by anyone. I wonder how long he'll get to stay there before someone bothers him. (Actually I don't, I know exactly how long it will take.)


* I wasn't sure what to link to. One can watch a video on youtube, it was originally released on The Paul Simon Songbook but it doesn't sound right to me without Garfunkel in which case it was first released on The Sounds of Silence.

** This has been bugging me.  The grammar there is wrong, isn't it?  "If only I were with him," is a wish for something in the present tense.  Consider, "If only I were a millionaire I'd be able to go to Greece."  There's no past tense there.  If only I were a millionaire, right now, I would be able to go to Greece, right now.

Unnamed knight isn't talking about being with the Silver Knight in the present, he's talking about being there in the past.  He should have said, "If only I had been with him."  (For another example, "If I had been a millionaire, I would have signed up to go to Greece.")

The use of "were" instead of "was" implies an understanding that wishing for something that didn't happen requires a different mood than the indicative but the use of "were" rather than "had been" seems to indicate a lack of understanding of how the subjunctive works.  (Which is, admittedly, somewhat confusing if you are not used to it.)



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