You know, for a demographic as big as we are, American gamers seldom get served properly outside of the game industry. There are 155 million of us and four out of five households own a gaming device. And yet, when we turn on the television, very seldom do we see entertainment that reflects that. Maybe we’ll get a kiddie cartoon or a terribly half-assed film adaptation of a video game property every now and then, but very few if any of these reflect the tastes or experiences of actual gamers.
Not so much in Japan. Unlike the Western world, mainstream culture has embraced gaming in the land of the rising sun, and more and more gamer characters and shows built around gaming are popping up over there. It must be nice to live in a society where gaming and reading comics in public as an adult is considered normal behavior, but hey, we’ve always got Crunchyroll. And that brings us to the topic at hand: the popular (and laboriously titled) anime/manga series Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
If one were to set out to create a video game adaptation of a fantasy RPG that doesn’t exist, the result would probably be something like Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (which I will refer to by its more managable secondary title, Familia Myth from now on to save my sanity). What sets this series apart from a show like Sword Art Online where most of the plot takes place in a virtual reality video game is that it is essentially a world built around video game logic. Rather than integrating gaming into the world, the world itself is pretty much designed like a classic RPG.
For example, the town where the story is located apparently has an economy based on a nearby dungeon, -which is reminiscent of Tartarus in Persona 3- where adventurers gather to make a living slaying monsters and collecting loot. The adventurers are gathered into guilds, called Familias, led by various mythological deities that have taken human form. The series’ protagonist, an upstart named Bell, is the only follower of Hestia at the beginning because why would anybody pass on serving Hephaestus, Loki, or Takemikazuchi to fight for the Greek goddess of hearth and home?
It’s a great set-up for either a video game or a TV show, and at first glimpe there’s no real reason not to stick with one or the other but the series really goes above and beyond serving up gaming delights in ways I’ve never seen before. As if the dungeon and loot aspects weren’t enough, the
adventurers have actual character sheets. Like, literally with stats, skills, level ranks, and everything. This seems like a gimmick -and maybe it is- but as the story unfolds, Familia Myth justifies its blatant gamerbaiting with charm and creativity that transcends gimmickry.
Along the way, several gaming tropes are honored, and a few are turned upside down on us just for the hell of it. For example, the reason Bell can’t bring himself to “pick up” the girl in the dungeon is because every time he sees her, she is saving his ass from a high level monster in a reversal of the dreaded damsel in distress situation. In another funny defiance of tradition, the typical “anime/video game protagonist gets tricked into peeping on bathing females” scene ends up the exact opposite of its usual violent termination. Hey, women can be pleasant and understanding! It’s nice to see a show set up a cliché and then refuse to knock it down every now and then.
But gags aside, Familia Myth takes its gaming nearly as seriously as SAO does (although without as much jerking of tears) and really seeks to drive the thrill of adventure that we vicariously experience when we play a truly great fantasy RPG home at times with some philosphical nuggets that only true gamers will fully appreciate. The kind of observations that make us nostalgic for our favorite epic fantasy games and really capture the appeal of role playing as an entertainment genre.
For instance, one of the show’s most memorable quotes comes when Bell and his friends venture for the first time onto a new level of floors and find themselves lost and overwhelmed. It brought back memories of playing games like Final Fantasy IV or Persona 3 where stocking up on supplies before an excursion was mandatory, every quest was a gamble, and every encounter was a gamble within a gamble requiring you to decide if the fight was worth what it would cost you or if you should risk a full retreat with no exit or save point in sight and supplies dwindling.
This is the kind of hardcore RPG experience you don’t see so much anymore. As Bell’s party flees exhausted and wounded through an endless gauntlet of monsters, we hear the voice of a seasoned adventurer tell us “When its prey is gasping for breath, moaning in pain, and thoroughly weakened, that is when the dungeon bares its fangs.” Any veteran RPGer is likely to have a bout with nostalgia remembering being wiped out by sudden surges of extra tough enemies at the worst possible moment when they hear that.
In another moment of gaming wisdom we’re told “Within the defeated, a victor waits to emerge.” This may be a universal truth, but in the context of gaming it is more literally true than anywhere. It’s practically the driving force behind old school gaming, where the approach was to create an insurmountable challenge and then dare you to learn enough through countless deaths (and quarters) to triumph. And of course, modern gamers have our Dark Souls and the like to remind us that in gaming and in life if we don’t keep improving while trying again and again, we’ll never get to where we want to go.
In addition to adapting thematic elements of classic games and a world that was built to mirror fantasy role-playing, Familia Myth also utilizes some obscure aspects of the genre in a practical manner and offers some fresh ideas that game developers might consider adding into future titles. Interesting uses of RPG-specific items like monster lures and repellants are mixed with fresh ideas like a weapon capable of evolving and leveling up with its user (a concept Fable 3 flirted with and then ruined by filling its world with more powerful alternatives).
And I really loved the idea of support characters sworn to carry their burdens (to quote Skyrim )whose focus is on collecting loot and organizing items to increase the party’s take while allowing the adventurers to focus on combat. It solves some practical inventory size questions while adding an interesting wrinkle that sets the show apart in its thinking.
Another development I particularly enjoyed involved a “monster parade”, which happens when a player flees through a dungeon rather than fight the monsters. In a lot of games these days, enemies stop pursuing you pretty quickly. This wasn’t always (and shouldn’t be) so. In this case, the number of monsters chasing you keeps increasing as you encounter more and more, like a herd in The Walking Dead until you’ve got, well, a parade of monsters behind you. This Pac-Man approach to dungeon navigation was usually a crap strategy born out of desperation, but back in the day we didn’t have other players in the dungeon to distract our personal horde and let us make our escape. I’m betting this has happened in a MMO or two, though.
In a few other instances, the show adds elements of practical realism to its normally game-ish presentation by showing that the unwritten rules of gaming can be bent or broken. Adventurers luring monsters from higher level floors to eliminate up and coming rivals and a massive boss breaking out of its designated room into a supposed safe areas do a great job of making the world of Familia Myth feel treacherous and more realistic and unpredictable than the unplayable video game it appears to be at first glimpse.
Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? may suffer from one of the dumbest names ever given to an anime property, but it represents a new wave of franchises made specifically with gamers in mind. Despite all of the goofy fanservice and harem anime tropes it falls into, it captures the mentality and experience of being a gamer immersed in an epic RPG better than arguably any other show I’ve watched, and it does it by bypassing gaming as a medium entirely and directly creating its own mythology inspired by the mechanics we know and love, making it feel both new and yet extremely familiar at the same time.
And that, friends, is the new frontier of gamerbaiting. Taking the things we love and know about the virtual entertainment mediumand seamlessly integrating them into other forms of entertainment. A show like this that can give veteran RPGers the warm fuzzies while simultaneously inducting people who may be unfamiliar with or dismissive of role playing games and show them the appeal of the most adventurous of gaming genres. As far as Japanese culture goes, this is an expected progression, but will we in America ever get this sort of mainstream success in a video game-inspired property? Time will tell.