Understanding Storytelling: Nuance in the Setting

So I’m doing this a little different from the normal way these posts are written.  I’m going to compare the settings of four different series each in a set of two.  The first two will be To Aru Majutsu no Index and Strike the Blood.  The second set will be No Game No Life and Mondaiji.  There will be some spoilers for all of the series involved, you have been warned.

Ok so To Aru Majutsu no Index, or A Certain Magical Index in English, is a world where both magic and advanced technology exist.  This is actually pretty cool and it’s something I enjoyed about the show.  But I had one minor problem, the world was just too black and white.  Magic only existed outside the scientific one, which was confined to Academy City.  There was essentially no overlap between magic and esper powers because the two worked against each other and having both destroyed one’s body.  Now I’m not saying that Index’s setting is bad, quite the opposite, at the conceptual level its rather interesting but I found it to be overly simplified.  It’s too neat, all the bad mages come from the Catholic Church, all the good Mages from branches of Protestant churches.  Most of the scientists in Academy city are evil and corrupt while most of the teenage espers are good guys.  I am over-simplifying a bit, but the situation is mostly as I’ve described.  All the bad guys and good guys are separate, all the mages and espers are separate.  This has implications which go beyond the mere simplicity of the setting.  Because the world is divided up into such neat and well defined groups, the conflicts are simplified.  Mages deal with mage problems and espers deal with esper problems, there is almost no overlap between the two save for the main character who is neither an esper nor a mage but whose power affects both.  In fact one of my favorite arcs of Index was the Golem one, not because Shelley was a good villain, but because the Academy city forces went head to head with her.  It was the only time I can recall where magic and science entered direct conflict with each other and that alone was enough to make the arc more exciting.  But the series never does the same thing again and it’s plainer for it.

By contrast, Strike the Blood is a pretty mediocre series with a fan-fucking-tastic setting.  In Strike the Blood, the line between magic and technology is blurred to the point where it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.  In the first arc for example, the huge man made islands our characters live on, one of the greatest feats of human engineering ever is dependent on a powerful magic artifact to function.  And in the third one country is able to use technology to power up their magic and summon the False Holy Sword which only the strongest of mages could have done alone.  Unlike Index where the two are separate, in Strike the Blood magic and science are closely intertwined.  And all the extra nuance and complexity that comes with Strike the Blood’s setting is a powerful thing, if they decided to make a random story unrelated to Strike the Blood in the same setting I would be all over that shit because they did such a good job with the setting.  I’m not saying simple is bad, it’s much easier to work with, and looking at both Index and Strike the Blood I would say that Index handled its simple setting much better than Strike the Blood handled its strong one.  However, despite all the flaws of the Strike the Blood story, the setting is amazing and I would very much like to see another show down the road rocking something similar.  Simple isn’t bad, but a complex and nuanced setting that is used well will almost invariably beat a simple setting that’s used well.

Now I mentioned in my No Game No Life review, that I thought Mondaiji was the better series but I never touched on the differences in the setting.  Both worlds involve a variety of races, magic and conflicts that are settled by games.  But of the two, No Game No Life’s is much simpler and neater.  In No Game No Life every race is unified into one nation, all races except the humans and maybe the war beasts can use magic and everything is solved by games.  In Mondaiji things work a little differently.  The races are not unified wholes and there are no countries, instead there are communities which function more like MMO guilds.  In this world, the Little Garden, all players involved have some kind of gift, be a special physical ability, magic or anywhere in between.  And while everything is solved by games the rules are not as hard and fast as the ones in No Game No Life.  For example in every game in No Game No Life one of the big “twists”, I’m using air quotes since it literally always happens, is to see how Sora and Shrio’s opponents are cheating and how the two overcome the cheating.  By comparison Mondaiji has no cheating during its games but there’s still plenty of room for foul play.  For example in the early episodes we find out the most powerful local community rose to prominence by taking hostages and then challenging other communities to games which would see them get absorbed into the hostage taker’s community.  I found this to be a lot more believable and satisfying than No Game No Life’s games because it built up the downtime in between games with potential for action and intrigue, as opposed to more Sora and Shrio shenanigans.  Also it made the games more enjoyable because none of them got twisted by cheating.  Another side effect of Little Garden’s looser rules means more variety in its games.  In No Game No Life, all the games are ones we would know except with magic involved, chess, shiritori, FPS, etc.  By comparison Mondaiji’s games are more varied, ranging from simple battle tournaments and tests of physical ability, to obscure puzzles based on mythology.  In Mondaiji mythology plays a pretty big role, for example if you wanted to challenge the Perseus community to a game you first have to beat the Kraken and the Gorgon in their own mini-games just like Perseus did in Greek mythology.  All of this culminates into a world that is more lively, interesting and believable despite its clearly  fantastic nature.  Nuance is a powerful tool when used properly and nuance lends far more believability to a setting than simplicity, which is important if you story strains at our suspension of disbelief at every turn.  Anyway that about wraps this one up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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