Anime hasn’t quite gotten how to portray video games. Traditionally geeky hobbies can (and should!) make for compelling stories. Case in point: Record of Lodoss War. The 1986 manga series had originated from friends playing though their Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Eventually, their game stories were serialized into a formal narrative as a full-fledged fantasy epic.
Record of Lodoss War sticks to its geeky roots: its combat, magic, and monsters draw directly from D&D mechanics and lore. The series retained its unique relationship with gaming while managing to tell an interesting story, something that the anime industry seems to have trouble doing.
The Isekai Problem
Let’s start with the biggest and bafflingly most popular offender: Sword Art Online. Sword Art Online is many things; a good representation of video games isn’t one of them. It uses video games as a backdrop, rather than a proper setting.
That SAO is set in a video game world is inconsequential to the plot, since the mechanics of the game change as the plot sees fit. Kirito, the protagonist, never actually earns his progression. When he powers up, it gets stupidly handwaved as “leveling up” or “learning a new skill”. No internal consistent logic drives the in-universe game mechanics. Rule-of-cool is the only requirement.
Sword Art Online’s popularity is symptomatic of the isekai problem in anime, which has enabled the annoying trend of video game window dressing. Isekai, for the uninitiated, covers a broad genre of Japanese pop-fiction wherein characters are transported to another world. This typically takes the form of a video game fantasy realm not unlike Dragon Quest. An isekai’s appeal lies in providing an escapist power fantasy for the viewer, usually adolescent males. Much of the time, this comes at the expense of the narrative and video game elements.
Some game-based isekai shows, like Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, aren’t necessarily bad. However, the use of video game mechanics and tropes adds nothing of consequence to the narrative. Grimgar’s characters learn skills and have classes, but the show could just as well have been set in a generic fantasy world and nothing would change. It’s nominally about video games for the sheer sake of being about video games.
It’s hard to properly capture gameplay mechanics and progression in a show, but not impossible. The mistake that many series make is relying purely on overarching ideas to appeal to gamers. Throwing around terms like “skills”, “XP”, and “dungeons” does not make for a compelling game-based story. What isekai shows like Konosuba!, Log Horizon, and Rising of the Shield Hero do is develop a set of logically consistent rules that are both expanded upon and called back to. Gameplay mechanics in a narrative feel more meaningful when they exist outside of convenient plot developments.
Gameplay isn’t the only thing about video games that gets mishandled. Gaming culture has developed and matured alongside the technology, yet it gets a similar treatment. Shallow, surface-level perceptions of gamers have proliferated into the mainstream and strike for the low-hanging fruit.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in two specific shows: And You Thought There Is Never a Girl Online? and Himouto! Umaru-chan. These two series represent the worst possible perceptions of gamers: horny perverts and whiny brats.
The title of And You Thought There Is Never a Girl Online? should tell you enough. It fulfills the teenage boy fantasy of meeting sexy gamer girls who are unabashedly attracted to you simply because you’re a nice gamer boy. Every hot-blooded teenage gamer boy’s dreams.
Umaru-chan is absolute garbage in a different way. What happens when a show tries to get more in touch with gamers by being relatable? Certainly, a show like Himouto! Umaru-chan will appeal because it requires some knowledge of gaming trends and habits in order to understand the humor. However, it pokes fun at the worst of gaming behavior. The titular character Umaru is a little brat whose entire appeal is her cutesy factor. As a result, the series never delves deeper than “haha gamer girl” in its content.
These two shows are symptoms of a larger problem. Much like The Big Bang Theory is written for viewers who don’t play many games, so much of anime consists of series that feel like they’re trying to target everyone but gamers. It drops buzzwords like “combos”, “guilds”, and “levels” because they’re easy to signal to the viewer that “Hey! This is about video games!”
The explosion of the video game market not only brought new technology, but a complex and ever-evolving subculture. Video game subculture is as large and broad as games themselves. From shooters to competitive fighters to MMOs, many fans have adopted gaming as an intimate hobby. Good game-based animes delve into the nuances of both these subcultures and the games they’re fans of. For competitive games in particular, there’s a certain craft that goes into gaining skill, an artistry that goes beyond simple muscle memory. Hi Score Girl respects this about video games in ways that many other series don’t.
Back in the 90s
The 90s were a unique period for video games. Countless companies and their games fought for quarters, while home consoles began the invasion of living rooms everywhere. The Netflix show Hi Score Girl transports viewers back to this golden age of gaming. With the massive amount of game-based series out here, Hi Score Girl stands out as one that admires and respects gaming in the way it tells its story.
Set in early 1990s Japan, Hi Score Girl takes place during the arcade boom. Fighting games took the world by storm, and above them all Street Fighter II reigned supreme. Its roster of memorable characters and skill-driven gameplay created a surge of devoted fans, eager to dump their quarters into cabinets to prove their worth.
The relationship between Oono and Yaguchi, the main characters of Hi Score GIrl, is built upon a mutual love, respect, and admiration for video games. Their bond is a unique one that forms through a common interest and strengthens as they hone their skills. Because Yaguchi spends all of his time playing games, he shares his love and knowledge with both Oono (and by extent the audience).
Hi Score Girl manages to capture the rush of endorphins and adrenaline that comes from memorizing inputs and crushing your opponent with superior skill. It gets technical in a way that’s both informative and entertaining. The show never throws video game jargon at you for the sake of exposition; it cleverly acts as a vehicle for character interactions. By starting you at the beginning of the arcade renaissance, the explanations of new releases captures the same feeling that a kid in the 90s would’ve had.
As a hobby that people typically get into in their childhood, video games mean more than just entertainment for many gamers. They are synonymous with adventure, escapism, and a sense of expression like no other. Hi Score Girl explores this idea in a way that’s nostalgic, insightful and entertaining all at once.
At the end of the day, video games, just like any other hobby or craft, have a depth to them that writers can and should respect. The mark of good storytelling is making content like this accessible while still maintaining the key ideas behind it. It should remind you that at the core of playing games is something incredibly real and undoubtedly human.