I suppose it was inevitable, really. It really was only a matter of time before the MLP fandom began to encroach on visual novel territory. And to be fair, I don’t necessarily hate the show or the fandom around it. I am not necessarily a feminist (I prefer to call myself an Equalist), but I can recognize the outright aversion mass media has to treating young girls as anything but fodder for the next lifeless teen romance they can pump out. I’ll touch more on the subject whenever I discuss DC Entertainment and Cartoon Network’s continued drive to be crowned King of Douches, but for now just know that while I will never care for the show enough to invest an afternoon’s worth of time to watch, I am glad that young girls are getting the quality of writing and animation I used to get when I was a young boy.
This brings me to ‘Bronies’.
Let’s just start small here; can someone NOT a part of a franchise’s target audience still enjoy that franchise? Yes. Talent shouldn’t be confined to one specific gender, sexuality, race, ideology or culture: if I thought any other way, this very site would not exist. But for my money, that isn’t the question surrounding the Brony subculture. The question is should THESE particular people be fans of the THIS particular show? The increasing accepted answer to that question is No and it is No because ‘Bronies’ tend to take things too goddamn far.
“JP! What are you talking about?!” I’m talking about the topic for the epic return of YOU ASKED FOR IT: Starswirl Academy. Simply put if you want to know everything that can go wrong with a fandom, ANY fandom, all you have to do is play the demo of this game. From the deification of the cast, to the more…uncomfortable moments that we will discuss, I can tell you all this is one of the tougher projects I’ve had to sit through. And, really, it was only thirty minutes...I may still have to sit through the rest of this game if it is completed.
SO, let's get the legal mumbo jumbo out of the way. For those of you who are unaware, this is You Asked For It: a feature on the site where I try to be as frank and honest as possible about an EVN demo in the hopes that the finished project doesn't crash and burn. So if you thought I had a big mouth before now...well you haven't seen anything just yet. And while I was open about my own understandings of the fandom and My Little Pony franchise, I want to be clear that my opinions of the game are just that: an opinion on the game. But while YAFI: Jacob's Island was a little blunt, but ultimately with good intentions, this probably will be Blunt with a side order of 'This Doesn't Need To Exist'.
Don't worry fanboys. I'll make my case.
That's right. You heard me.
We start off rather blandly with our protagonist 'Tom' and...do I really have to say this? Ugh, Tom and ~*Twilight Sparkle*~ on a train heading to Starswirl Academy. Then: nothing happens. Oh you meet the other humanized horses over the course of thirty minutes, but nothing happens. There is no moment that codifies the purpose of this game. It's just a serious of events that lead absolutely nowhere and has no significance, I guess it's cute?
The opening of any piece of fiction is absolutely paramount. The major push of the title has to be delivered in such a way that it hooks the viewing audience regardless of previously held prejudices. For example, the opening of Katawa Shoujo has it's protagonists, Hideo, nearly die. On an artistic level, not only does it add dramatic weight to his otherwise undramatic life, but it gives Hideo's narrative focus: what do I have to live for now? This focus is developed in each girl's route and gives him a complete story; you know, Fiction 101?
Now that we're all out of that class, let's go to Fiction 201 and Dysfunctional Systems! In Episode 1 of DS their protagonist, Winter Harrison, raises a point that defines her character, the themes of the game and the conflict the audience will see play out. That point is her inability to come to terms with conflict as a part of human nature. Her naivety gives the audience an anchor as the world's issues begin to spiral and we feel a part of her journey: with all of the peaks and valleys Episode 1 has a part of it.
So! Let's take the lessons we've gained from Fiction 101 and 201 and apply them to this game. I ask for your patience as I try to lay this out as simply as I can. Tom and TS managed to transfer to the prestigious Starswirl Academy because that's where she's always wanted to go school and Tom is there with her because fanservice. We meet the other horses who all introduce themselves for fanservice until we get to the Principal, pictured above, who gets him to reveal that he came to the school hoping to figure out what he was good at in the world.
I'm sorry but that is not a story. Rebuilding your life after spending most of your youth watching the final moments before someone dies is a story. Uprooting your entire life because you don't feel special is three minutes of an after-school special. 'But JP!' Someone is undoubtedly typing in response as I speak. 'Finding self-esteem can be a very important story that makes Tom a much stronger person by the end of the game!'
Alright hambone; I'll bite. It could very well be the beginning of a long story where this twit finds his place in the world and they can all come together and revel in the magic of friendship at the end. However, that's the end. So, logically speaking, there has to be a starting point. So what's the starting point here? Where does Tom's character start so that we can get that oh-so-important self-esteem building lesson you think this is going to lead to?
The crickets you hear are the full impact of this argument. Calling Tom's full interactions within the game proper 'vanilla' would be kind...a little too kind. The old boy takes a back seat to the girls and outside of some pitiful internal snarking he is barely relevant. So, to say that you could build any sort of story around Tom is like saying you could build a movie around Bonsera from The Godfather. Just...no.
So with the main character out of commission, there isn't really a focal point of the story; which means in turn that this isn't a story. I get that the author wants to revels in a fandom he enjoys, but I have played fan games (Touhou Mecha comes to mind) that are more than just cheap fanservice. It is possible to build a narrative using someone else's creative work, but clearly that choice was avoided and instead we get this rambling nonsense so we could see the pony girls as humans with this blank slate for the target audience to pretend to be.
Well, did the writer at least keep that in mind and create something that fully respected the source material he claims to love? Spoiler Alert: NO.
Again, I want to emphasize that not only am not a fan of this series, I have yet to see one episode fully through. So I have no frame of reference for the flock of dumbasses that inhabit this game. Yet, at the same time, I called them a flock of dumbasses so there goes my sense of fair play.
Anyway, there are six girls that are all inspired from the MLP cartoon...I really have to say these names don't I? Jesus H. Christ...fine. Along with Tom's childhood friend Twilight Sparkle there's the Southern Belle Applejack, genki girl Pinkie Pie, the demure (and also the one with the largest tits...I'm going to get to that) Fluttershy, the tomboy Rainbow Dash and the sophisticated and flirty (yeah I'm not exactly sure what my skin is doing either) Rarity. The six make up the main cast and, of course, the bulk of the demo is focused on their interactions with one another.
Which means I can now go into a long diatribe about what specifically made them bad characters for this particular game right? Well, my friends, I would be able to do that if they were competently written. The screen capture above is put there for a reason, but just know that it isn't an isolated incident. With TS in particular, the writer goes out of his way to make everything she does so gosh darn adorable; EVERYTHING. How she looks when she talks about her desire to get into the school? Adorable. How she looks when she's thinking about her crush/Principal? Adorable. When she chastises Pinkie? Adorable. When she sleeps? Adorable. She's just so perfect and adorable and lovable HOW CAN YOU PEOPLE NOT SEE HOW PERFECT AND ADORABLE SHE IS?!
And she isn't alone. Even when they get completely annoying (Pinkie), there is a veneer of perfection surrounding them all that refuses to see their behavior in unflattering terms. From a thirteen year old writing a fan-fic about about -insert current popular anime heroine here- it is forgivable because they run off hormones. Here the fanboying is so strong there is no other way to look at the cast than how the writer does. Considering the audience for this game (Bronies) it sort of makes sense of a twisted way, because the only way to ensure your audience in united in liking the final product is if everyone's 'favorite' is portrayed in the same god-like light. So the low bar of this being a 'fan game' has been hit in that regard.
HOWEVER, I don't give a crap how the writer sees these characters these girls are based off of. And because I don't care how he sees them, I REALLY don't give a crap about what he thinks makes them so appealing. Period.
If these are the way the girls are on the show, fine. But at the same time, unlike the show this is interactive entertainment. You don't get three to four months of a season to flesh characters out, which means there has to be red meat on the bone to give the player something to latch onto other than fandom fanaticism. Without said meat, you're digging for scraps around the ten minute mark trying to figure exactly what you're doing in this game. The plot goes nowhere, the main character is a joke and most of the girls would be blessed to be a one note shadow of their hooved counterparts.
Unless you just like looking at bland anime girls giddy about nothing important or interesting in any way, shape or fashion, there is nothing here. This game just doesn't have a solid reason to exist and, apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks that.
Because of recent developments, I saved this part for last but with so little to talk about other than the complete absence of likable characters and a developed plot, it's time to talk about the design of the girls in particular. Starswirl Academy appears to be a Western private high school. In most of the West, the legal age of consent is eighteen. The game tries a work around by saying all of the characters are in their Fourth, or Senior, year: implying that they're at the age of consent. However, the average Western student doesn't start their high school senior year when they're eighteen. They start it when they're seventeen.
So, in a non-fandom game, this is where the artistic direction picks up the slack and designs the potentially underage characters in a mature light. While anime trends shift from year to year, there is a way you can design characters already on a narrow moral line to keep from disturbing those who don't share the interests of the creative team. And, with that said, take a good look at the above screen capture.
Rainbow Hair looks all of TWELVE for Christ's sake! TS looks like she just got off the bus from FIFTH GRADE! And they join the rest of the cast that all have the innocuous veneer of a goddamn child and that, for me, is a line too far. 'But JP! They clearly have mature bodies and are high school seniors!' Listen to me very, very closely because I am going to say this one time, do the damage I need to do and walk away.
'Mature Body' does not mean Big Tits.
I don't give a fuck what you say their ages are; you have designed your characters to look underage purposefully. When the idiot main character and the Principal look relatively close to their stated ages and the rest of the cast doesn't, it's an look that pleases you. And it doesn't help that the poses most of the girls take pronounce that said area of the body. Tied into how you deified the little twits and given the audience nothing to go on story-wise, that makes them glorified fetish dolls.
And before ANYONE tries to mount a defense to how distasteful these designs are, let me remind you of the fan art and commissions of this game the writer felt he 'COULDN'T NOT SHOW'. WARNING: it's crap. Also I don't consider it safe for a working environment. And you know what the kicker is of all of this? It's all tagged 'My Little Pony' in Tumblr. Which means not only is the art questionable, the creative team are idiots.
After JO's show and during the writing of this very feature, it was announced by Starswirl Academy's writer that he was contacted by Hasbro's legal department and was told, in clear terms, to remove any reference to My Little Pony from the game. And honestly? Hasbro had the right to do it. MLP is a brand that succeeds through a particular image that is risked when other people promote anything that shows that image in a twisted light. If I'm searching the internet for an MLP game to give to my (fictional) daughter and one of the above fan arts pop up, I now look at the entire brand differently instead of it just being some dumb thing some dumbass did with his spare time. If I was in their shoes, I'd have done the same.
So, where does that leave Starswirl Academy? In all honestly, it is the best thing that could've happened for this writer.
Let me be frank: this is a mess of an EVN that only had momentum from the 'brony' fanbase going for it. Regardless of what is said now, since that letter has been sent it means Hasbro is watching. So, there's a good chance the scrubbing required by Hasbro's edict is stiff enough to disinterest the fandom that has enabled it. Which means this one will wither on the vine before it can be finished.
And I think the writer should let it happen.
There is no story here: none. There are no real characters that are worth keeping. This is an opportunity to start fresh and avoid the train wreck this would've been outside of the small circle of bronyism, so if the writer is reading it allow me to advise you to not be an idiot. Take the opportunity while you got it and go back to the drawing board. And while you're there, consider these points:
- Why should the audience care about Tom? You didn't present anything in his character that we can connect to, and wanting to be special doesn't count. You don't have to kill his parents in the first scene, but his back story and motivations need to be hinted at early and often to give readers something they can relate to.
- The transfer student story line is fucking stupid. If this is the school TS wanted to go to from the offset, she would already be there. And Tom following along is equally fucking stupid regardless of their previous relationship. Scrap it and think harder on how they end up together in the same school.
- Drop the halos you have around the girls' heads. I'm not asking for you to have them kicking kittens and robbing blind people in their spare time. I'm asking for realistic interactions between everyone and not the saccharine crap that passes on the TV show amped up to 11. If you want to focus your story on these kind of moments, they have to feel genuine and right now they don't.
- 'Mature Bodies' DOES NOT EQUAL 'Big Tits'.
As for whether or not I'm going to see what becomes of this one in the future, honestly that's the future. This demo ticked me off and if nothing changes, no. However, I do believe in second chances and Starswirl Academy as JesuOtaku and I understood it for the last few weeks is dead. What comes next is not up to me, I'm just one guy giving a small corner of the internet what they asked for.
Until next time, and yes children there will be a next time, JP3: OUT!