Understanding Storytelling: Computer Generated Contrived Crap – Goblin Slayer Ep 1

goblin slayer

I hated this first episode.  So far as it nails exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to be is shit – popular shit.  I have the sinking suspicion that this will be the big seasonal hit which I will find insufferable, at least as so long as SAO 3 doesn’t overshadow it too badly.  Speaking of I have to ask is anyone still hype for SAO 3?  I don’t even want to watch it to bash it, I tried that with SAO 2 and it was not worth it.  I’m genuinely curious as to how much pull SAO 3 will have, 6 years after the first season made it’s explosively popular debut and after years of SAO bashing being popular all over the anime community.  Setting that aside though I think Goblin Slayer is ultimately aiming to be a fire and forget sort of hit, something that makes a ton of noise during the season it airs and which everyone stops talking about within a year – Erased comes to mind.

As to how Goblin Slayer will manage this it’s fairly simple.  Obviously the titular Goblin Slayer is going for a Doom vibe, while the setting is a generic game-based fantasy world and just to spice things up there will be Akame ga Kill levels of edge there to grab the people who want their shows to be dark and bloody.  And it sucks.

To begin with we follow a 15 year old girl signing on as an adventurer and- stop right there criminal scum, why is this fantasy setting MMO-based?  This is not a tale of characters from the real world being drawn into an MMO it’s a straight fantasy setting.  So why does it have all the hallmarks of generic MMO?  I would hazard a guess that the series as written (because duh it’s that way because of the writer) was intended to catch onto the fantasy MMO craze which SAO ignited in the first place, which is why it has basic bitch game material all over the place.  Besides the fact that this market is now thoroughly saturated it more or less points to the writer being a total uncreative hack, which the rest of the episode then confirms.

Aside from the cynical and general half-assed feel of a fantasy setting which just has game mechanics for no reason I find the fact this setting incorporates game mechanics at all to be genuinely frustrating.  What happened to the magic in fantasy?  You don’t need any of this gamey shit like levels, adventurer’s guilds and quest hubs, in fact putting those things in actively ruins the setting.  When it came to writing fantasy Tolkien, a mildly successful fantasy author, explained a concept he called the second world.  This was a make-believe world that the author constructed and the intent was to create a world you draw readers into, a world which ignored SOME of the limitations of our own, where you could tell a story where characters do unrealistic things without breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  In order to keep the suspension of disbelief intact the author would have to construct a world which was internally consistent and where the events of the story did not break the rules of world as laid out by the author.   If the author was unable to do this, Tolkien described that as the art (in crafting the story and setting) failing, and by extension the author in question failing.  The gamey bullshit is, to me, a giant fucking red flag that the art is failing.

Nothing in Goblin Slayer feels organic.  Beyond being generic the setting has nothing of intrigue, it doesn’t even make much sense and the way the characters interact with it makes no sense either.  Main girl can read and write, which would realistically mean she’s a tiny and elite minority of people in her medieval-ish society.  Not exactly the kind of person who can go adventuring willy-nilly as she would therefore either be rich or belong to a religious order or both.  Given how she doesn’t buy gear before going on her first quest for I now I’ll assume she’s not rich and she has no business going adventuring as she would be a valuable resource to her order, hence why they invested the time to teach her.  You’d think she’d be appointed to someone’s retinue or something where she can heal people free from danger.  But no, she’s out adventuring with a party of noobs who happen to need a healer before they go crush a nest of goblins which raided a town.

And stop again.  That was awfully convenient.  Before our new adventurer even has time to look at the quest board she’s dragged into a quest, a goblin hunt.  Which as the episode will detail is a great deal more dangerous than it would seem – if everyone involved sucks and it just so happens all of these people do because they fight and behave as though they were noobs in a game not novices in a real world, more on that later.  Adventurer guild lady looks concerned and tepidly suggests they should wait for a more experienced group to handle this but she doesn’t press the issue when the overconfident noobs ignore her sudden shift in attitude.  And this brings to one of the worst problems in the show.  Goblin Slayer has to manage a careful balance of goblins being weak, tiny monsters while also being genuinely dangerous packs of monsters and it falls apart instantly if you drop the conceit of the gamey world.

When the noob party enters the goblin cave and fall for a basic trap because none of them can see the branching path for some reason, I saw it before the Goblin Slayer explained what happened so I guess I’m more observant than people in the moment but ok.  Because of the ambush the sorceress loses her cool and manages to kill 1 measely goblin before being taken down by a bunch of them.  The most hilarious bit about this is that the goblins are genuinely the size of small children and while the sorceress is no bodybuilder she should be able to physically overpower at least 2 or 3 of the bastards before they stab her with a poison knife, but she can’t for some reason.  Main girls swings her own staff ineffectually and while her total inexperience makes this more reasonable the fact is both her and sorceress should be able to do plenty of damage because of just how small the goblins are. Sword Noob rushes in and kills bunch before he swings his sword overhead like a scrub and it hits the cave roof, knocking his sword out of the way and he dies.  Meanwhile main girl casts heal on her poisoned sorceress and this has no effect.  Not sure why because even if this follows MMO rules you’d think the heal would close the wound even if it doesn’t affect the poison but ok guess that’s a minor detail.  Monk girl steps up to the plate and kills a few more before a hobgoblin appears from nowhere and manhandles her because he’s actually big enough for that and she gets raped by a bunch of goblins as main girl runs away carrying the dying sorceress.  Then the Goblin Slayer shows up and pwns all the goblins, even clubbing little goblin children to death and there’s a post fight exposition scene where the main girl explains that what happened to her party was actually a common experience and- fuck me this is so lazy and hamfisted.

Everything that happens in episode 1 pre-Goblin Slayer is there to establish the idea that the tragic loss of half the noob party and the goblin rape-induced breakdown of the third member is a common affair, and it does this by hitting all the notes of the common story it explains post battle.  Are you shitting me?  How redundant is that?  Hey let’s have the main character experience the common experience firsthand so we can show it’s common and then tell everyone it’s common.  If it’s common knowledge then why the fuck didn’t the adventurer’s guild lady say “No y’all noobs ain’t ready for that shit goblin nests are worse than you think?”  Is there no need to preserve budding adventurers?  I mean obviously the point is so the first episode can be dark, edgy and bloody to attract a target demographic but in universe it makes no sense for this to have transpired as it does.  Episode 1 is handled that way not because it’s an organic story development but to give the intended audience what they want and make the characters do what the writer wanted.  This is called contrivance, an artificial development in a story which does not arise naturally from the setting or characters.

No one in all of episode 1 displays any logic whatsoever until main girl buys some horrible looking chainmail.  Adventurer guild lady, who would be in a position to know, doesn’t warn the noobs adequately about how dangerous goblin nests are.  None of the noobs show any skill with their weapons or abilities.  Which incidentally is why the gamey bullshit is needed I think, because the writer doesn’t know how to write characters that would logically fit into a bonafide fantasy world.  For example the Goblin Slayer himself remarks that Sword Noob’s sword was too long and that’s why he died – and not 2 minutes later he successfully uses a spear which is twice as long as the sword he was describing as too long.  This a sign of the author a, not thinking very well and b, not understanding real fighting at all.  What the Goblin Slayer shows is that weapon length was not the problem, how it was used was the problem.  Sword Noob uses wild slashes throughout the fight and the one that gets him killed is an overhead strike.  No one who actually knew a damn thing about fighting would use an overhead strike, in a cave, against tiny opponents.  You could use nothing but a low guard, controlled cuts and thrusts and you could wipe all of them out without a scratch because you have 5 times their reach and 10 times their muscle mass.  And the only reason Sword Noob fights this way is because he behaves like a video game noob, anyone who could afford a sword in a realistic fantasy world would either have the training to use it, or have fought in a battle at some point to get the money to buy it.

Moreover I have to ask, where are the goblins getting their weapons exactly?  Nothing they built was made out of anything but wood and bone save for their weapons.  And their weapons are scaled to them, they’re using tiny goblin daggers and axes, not daggers and axes they scavenged from the dead because those would look significantly larger on them.  Am I seriously to believe that goblins have the capacity to make steel but not the ability to make anything else that stone age savages couldn’t build?  Because that’s retarded.  Setting aside the weapon issue how are goblins so well known for raiding towns and carting off women, who they then rape?  The fuckers are tiny – an adult woman has to weigh like ten of them, how are they taking them – oh I see because you could force them at weapon point.  That’s why goblins have weapons.  But why the rape  I mean we didn’t see any female goblins and I could extrapolate from this (and certain doujins) that maybe they need to rape women to breed.  Despite the fact goblins should have literal baby dicks.  I’m just kidding, it’s obviously done to make the show darker and edgier.

And this is the nail in the coffin of Goblin Slayer.  Everything in it seems to be there to achieve a desired effect or story development no matter how stupid it appears on it’s own.  Like when the Goblin Slayer impales the shaman with his spear.  It would be like a human being nailed by a fucking ballista – instant death – if we’re being realistic, but no it survives the gut busting blow because it’s a higher leveled goblin.  Goblin Slayer has no interest in a well crafted, realistic fantasy world.  That alone would not be a death blow to the series but the fact the story itself is filled with artificial characters who behave as the script demands rather than how people in said position would naturally behave, consigns this one to the fire.  It’s trash and I can only hope the people who put this soulless product out there to sell know that.

I fully understand if any of you I find this show fun to watch.  I did write a defense of Akame ga Kill once upon a time and I too love my trashy popcorn flicks from time to time.  But if you came here for a well crafted story, with a living world, intriguing characters and a gripping narrative – boy have you come to the wrong place.  See you in the next one.

PS the “Computer Generated” in the title is in reference to the fact the world is gamey and I didn’t mention it above because it would have ruined my flow.  So it stuck it here to be extra uncreative and hamfisted – can’t have the audience not understand absolutely everything right?

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Understanding the Medium: Premise Means Nothing

An anime’s premise is practically fucking worthless.  Now a lot of anime fans be they new, casual, old or otaku don’t think that way.  Look at some of the biggest hits of the last few years, SAO, Erased and Shingeki no Kyojin.  I’ve seen all three and I have a lot of problems with all three, and while the community is pretty divided on their opinions of these shows it is undeniable that they are in fact some of the biggest hits of the 2010’s.  And the reason why these shows are so big is that they have cool premises, and people flocked to them because of those premises.  Now I have to explain why those premises don’t fucking matter.  There will spoilers.

This might seem hypocritical and confusing but a show’s premise is simultaneously something valuable and something fucking worthless.  As I explained in a previous post, the ability to craft a good premise is in fact a skill and it seems to do a great job at getting people’s attention.  You know the first time I started watching currently airing anime seasons was the season SAO came out (I am an otaku but compared to most I haven’t been at this very long, I just got way into anime once I finally got into it), and I remember how exciting it sounded.  It was the Matrix set in an MMORPG, I don’t even like MMORPGs and I thought that sounded great.  And there was another show in particular which caught my attention that season, Shin Sekai Yori, which also appeared to have a cool premise. While I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realize quite how shit SAO was when I first watched it (it sank in a bit later once I got more critical and had seen more shows), even when I saw it that first time I still vaguely understood that it hadn’t lived up to the premise.

By the end of SAO’s Aincrad arc I was very “meh” about the show and my opinion went down after the end of Alfheim.  Meanwhile I was pretty fucking excited about Shin Sekai Yori the entire time it was airing and I continue to enjoy it to this day.  Unlike SAO which rapidly became less interesting because the execution of the show did not at all live up to the premise, Shin Sekai Yori had my attention and continues to have my respect.  “How did Shin Sekai Yori, an obscure little anime succeed to entertain while the titanic SAO fell by the wayside?” you might ask.  The answer is simple, SAO presented us with an interesting premise but after episode 3 (at best) it stopped executing the premise well.  SAO stopped being a death game set in an MMO and became just a teenage empowerment fantasy aimed at gamers, i.e. a huge percentage of the young male demographic.  By comparison Shin Sekai Yori executed it’s premise well, it had expressive artwork and insane visuals to match it’s eerie tone and disturbing ideas.  It had characters I cared about, it constantly addressed and expanded on the premise and core themes by adding relevant narratives and setting details, and this made it an engaging, thought provoking watch, compared SAO’s boring, low quality action and harem-comedy fare.  And this is one of the main tenets of this entire post: A good premise can bring your anime attention, but good execution is what brings your anime critical acclaim.

Because here’s the thing, yes it takes a little imagination to come up with a cool premise for a show, but really, anybody can come up with a cool idea.  It takes people with talent and vision to execute any premise, be it cool or mundane, with a lot of skill.  For example Madoka Magica is also one of the biggest hits of the 2010’s and it does have a cool premise, again I’m not even a fan of magical girl shows and I think Madoka Magica is built on a cool premise.  But do you know why Madoka Magica is so much more universally beloved than the other three big hits I mentioned above?  Because it was executed well.  The presentation of Madoka Magica was phenomenal, with all kinds of trippy visuals that played into the darker aspects of the show, and the flash-forward to the fight with the Walpurgisnacht to engage our curious minds.   And then they built up the character drama with the sudden death of Tomoe Mami in episode 3, the reveal of Kyuubei as this amoral monster who tricked girls into giving up their physical bodies and eventually turning them into the monsters they hunted, Sayaka’s total mental breakdown, Homura’s backstory and character transformation, and of course with Madoka literally rewriting the rules of the universe across all of time.  In short the execution of Madoka Magica was good, and lived up to the premise that got everyone excited about it.

More importantly you don’t even need a good premise to make a great show.  One of my favorite shows of the Spring 2016 anime season, which was a great season overall, was Bakuon.  Bakuon was a stupid moe high school comedy about a bunch of cute girls with motorcycles and their shenanigans.  Its premise is incredibly mundane and boring and its genre is not really my thing, I’m not big into moe even if I’m not anti-moe per se.  In fact it looked so mundane and boring that I initially skipped over it and wasn’t going to watch it at all until I heard someone describe the first episode.  Then I gave it that watch and what do you know, I fell in love immediately.  I looked forward to every episode and enjoyed every episode, Bakuon never let me down and I was never bored.  It was so good that it instantly made it into my top five comedies, no small feat when you’ve seen and enjoyed as many comedies as I have.

Now some of you probably think I’m crazy.  I mean how could a “real anime fan” prefer something like Bakuon to SAO, Erased and Shingeki no Kyojin, with their great premises and huge popularity?  Because Bakuon executed it’s stupid premise so well, that it outclasses those other fucking shows by an overwhelming margin.  SAO is a dumpster fire, I can see why certain people enjoy it but it’s bottom of the barrel writing.  Erased is mess because most of the characters feel like cardboard cutouts meant to make certain story beats happen instead of existing organically as people in a real world.  And while I cared about the mystery of the titans in Shingeki no Kyojin for a long time, it’s taken too long to get any answers and now all I really care about are the fights.  See that’s the thing with premise, it has a lot of pull but not a lot of staying power.  My interest in any premise, no matter how good or cool it is, will eventually burn out someday, but good execution lasts forever.  My opinions of the three big hits changed for the worse rapidly because they rely on premise to keep me interested, by contrast Bakuon works its ass off to make sure I have a good time and that’s why I will ALWAYS have a good time with Bakuon.

What I’ve found recently is that a lot of shows I sort of liked or found at least ok because of their premise are shows where I generally start to think “you know that show was actually a piece of shit” and end up hating it later down the line.  Overlord is a good example, by the show’s end I found it very mediocre but held on because the main guys were demons and monsters and that was a cool idea.  But ever since then every time I think of Overlord I can only think of all the shitty parts and how I really hated the damn show and wonder in retrospect how I ever finished it in the first fucking place.  But well-executed shows don’t suffer from this problem, because they fucking earned my respect and love.  Banking a show on premise is essentially betting on whims and fads, you might love it now but it won’t stay that way.  Good execution is like ancient engineering, built to last a thousand years after the creator is dead.

Another great example of execution being more important than premise is D Gray Man Hallow.  Setting aside the unforgivably terrible first episode, which I’ve ranted about at length, the show is surprisingly not terrible.  The main arc has some interesting ideas and story beats, even if I figured out the main thrust of this arc back when I finished the original D Gray Man.  In fact, the fact that D Gray Man Hallow isn’t total shit is a testament to how good the premise and ideas of this arc are, because by all rights it should be shit.  But sadly that will not save D Gray Man Hallow for me, because with every episode I watch my reaction is that I inevitably end up thinking how much better this would be if it had happened in the old D Gray Man.  I hate all new voice actors, most them don’t match their characters and they have no chemistry, but even worse is the new visual design.  What really sold D Gray Man a lot of the time was not just the action or the story, it was the look and feel of the show.  Back in the old D Gray Man, the visual aesthetic was this dark, Gothic look and it matched the overall darker tone of the show, the older European setting (of many but not all episodes) and the excellent dark, Gothic atmospheric soundtracks.

So much of D Gray Man’s appeal was communicated by it’s aesthetic, sound and atmosphere and how those things influenced the overall narrative and characters; and that’s FUCKING GONE.  D Gray Man Hallow is too bright, sleek, clean and modern to ever recapture the feel of the old D Gray Man, even if they hadn’t replaced all the voice actors and fucked up a bunch of the characters, they were never going to get D Gray Man right with this visual redesign.  That’s what happens when you execute something poorly (especially if it’s because it’s a blatant cash grab), I, and a lot of other people, will find your show wanting.  It makes me wish D Gray Man Hallow had never happened, because I would be happier imaging this arc in my head for all time with the old D Gray Man’s feel as reference then see it brought to life by people who have no understanding of what made the show good to begin with.  D Gray Man has a lot of cool ideas, but I love the show because they did a good job with it.  D Gray Man Hallow still has those cool ideas but I’m disappointed because they didn’t bother to do them justice.

Now I’m sure some of you are wondering what good execution looks like, if some of the biggest hits of the 2010’s don’t have it.  There’s really no answer to that question.  You can do anything well, and you can do anything poorly.  For example, as I discussed in one of my first posts, you can attempt any kind of battle in an action anime, you can do a instant win One Punch Man style or you can drag it out for a whole season DBZ style.  And theoretically you could do a great job with a fight on either of those extremes or anywhere in between, of course you could also fuck up any fight at or between those extremes.  Now add that freedom to anything a story can do, and this is why premise isn’t important.  You can make any kind of show from a dumb high school moe comedy to a high concept super-immersive scifi story with deep themes, and you can make that show good.  Or you could fuck it up.  There’s no template or formula for what makes good or bad execution, there’s no genre or trope that automatically sucks or rules.  And there’s no such thing as a premise that guarantees one kind of show to be better than other kind of show.

That’s about all I have to say.  Premise has some value in the short term, i.e. getting people’s attention, but long term value, which is what really matters for art, comes from good execution.  More importantly, any premise from the mundane to the arcane can be executed well or be executed like shit, so it makes no sense to place any value on premise, because the premise does not in any way determine the quality of a show. There are hundreds if not thousands of anime examples that prove that premise alone is not worth anything, that prove that execution of a premise trumps the damn premise itself.  It’s a very simple truth, a basic idea, and somehow a lot of people don’t get it.  Hopefully some of you get it now.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the next one.