Monday, February 27, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 1

I enjoyed the dystopian world of the Psycho-Pass anime, and was surprised when I heard that a game, specifically a visual novel, based on it was being localized for the US. VNs are still a niche audience in the English speaking world and while Psycho-Pass is one of those series that comes with a high recommendation rate by fans, it doesn't have the same pop culture level awareness of say Naruto or Attack on Titan.

The first season of Psycho-Pass ran back in 2012-2013, wearing its Philip K. Dick inspiration on its sleeve. In the 22nd century Japan is an isolationist country governed by the omnipresent Sibyl System which predicts everything from the occupations a person is most suited for to their psychological well-being. The system is so efficient that it's developed a Crime Coefficient reading that labels the likelihood of a person committing a crime, with the number rising or falling based on the immediacy and severity of the person's psychological state.

People who have not actually committed a crime, but are predisposed to doing so, are called latent criminals, and sequestered in facilities for treatment, by force if necessary. Because of this, Japan is so incredibly safe that nobody has locks on their doors anymore.

But crimes still happen, and that's where the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) steps in. Psycho-Pass the anime follows the story of Division 1, a six person team consisting of two inspectors (who have clear Psycho-Passes from Sibyl) and four enforcers (who are latent criminals given special permission to operate as detectives and help apprehend other criminals by thinking like one).

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness takes place early in the first season of the series, most likely before episode 7, so it's not necessary to be deep into the anime to get a feel for things, though the most informative routes (i.e. the ones where you find out what's really going on) contain mid-to-late season 1 spoilers.

Mandatory Happiness offers two playable characters. Rather than build a story around an established operative, the game offers new characters Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi and Enforcer Takuma Tsurugi, who are assigned to the perpetually understaffed Division 1 at the start of the story.

This sounds like it could have been a poor move for a media-based game, but Nadeshiko and Takuma integrate surprisingly well with the existing cast without feeling redundant and play off other characters as if they're one of the team. And by using original characters, the game is able to build a high stakes, personal story without impacting TV show canon for everyone else.

It's not possible to jerk around the existing cast because we know they have to survive in a particular psychological state to maintain continuity, but Nadeshiko and Takuma are fair game, and Mandatory Happiness runs a pretty solid gamut of eventual fates for them as determined by the various choices of the player.

There are also things that we get out of Mandatory Happiness that the anime can't or is unable to do. For instance, Psycho-Pass the anime is largely romance free, and that makes sense considering the main cast interacts almost exclusively in a work environment. And yet Mandatory Happiness, in addition to being a sci-fi crime drama, has the potential to pull off one of the most touching romantic subplots I've seen in a visual novel (assuming the player manages to trigger it).

Seriously, one particular route in Mandatory Happiness got more tears out of me than the last otome game I played, and Code:Realize was amazing.

I was originally going to write this as a single entry, but because I had so much to say after playing Nadeshiko's half of the story, without having even gotten to Takuma's, I realized that it would be best to split this into three parts; the main story, Nadeshiko's, and then Takuma's.

The main story is the same for both with the same key events. It's how the player reacts to those events that changes the story and the ending. For instance, the first perpetrator Haruto will always be enforced at the end of the first case, but the player's choices will determine how long it takes the team to get there and in addition to how to handle the situation once they arrive. Some results are happier than others, both for Haruto and his victim.

These variables affect the player's Psycho-Pass, specifically the color Hue that serves as the shorthand reading of a person's psychological state. In turn, the player's Hue changes what choices are available and which paths through the game will be taken. In certain mental states the player might have options that the player character would not otherwise consider. Or, in other cases, options might even be taken away.

Frequently the player will hit Turning Points, notifying them that a previous decision is taking them down a particular path, but because of the nature of the Hue, it's not always possible to narrow down one particular choice as the cause.

And those choices add up. Even if the four major crises of the story are always there, the circumstances change. The villain might die or be redeemed at the end. Nadeshiko may or may not get her memories back. Takuma may or may not discover the fate of his missing girlfriend. And in different combination, resulting in vastly different endings that manage to work without introducing any complications to the anime timeline (with one exception, which I'll talk about in Takuma's post).

Considering that the series is a science fiction crime thriller, it's important to have a good villain and I wasn't sure what to expect that hadn't already been done in the anime, but Alpha is unique enough to sustain the plot, which probably would have been 7-8 episodes if done as a TV show.

Mandatory Happiness has no shortage of moral quandaries, just like its parent series. Division 1 exists as peacekeepers and law enforcers, but frequently puts the player in tense situations where there is no clear-cut best option to take and victims become latent criminals with just enough of a traumatic push.

Alpha cannot be judged by the Dominators either, because he's an AI, so even though he's a huge danger to society and behaves in many ways like a human, he can't be brought to justice in the traditional manner. This forces the team to be creative in new ways they never had to worry about in the TV series.

I found the first two cases to be particularly grippy, as Alpha was created to make people happy, but he lacks the emotional intelligence to realize that what makes one person happy can make another miserable, and he's confused by how no one stays happy once he gives them what they want.

Eventually Alpha comes to the conclusion that humanity has too many wants for him to ever make people perpetually happy, and he decides that part of the problem is that there are too many paths to happiness. People want so many things and different things, so his conclusion is to remove choice. He reasons that if there's only one way to be happy, then people will take it.

When they don't, he's even more distraught and upset that people would "choose" to be unhappy.

While I like the idea of a benevolent AI that interprets everything wrong, Alpha does make some odd logic jumps from the idea of drugging everyone into happiness (hence the Mandatory Happiness title) to deciding it was acceptable to kill everyone else who wasn't interested in being drugged into happiness.

His definition of happiness is also twisted. Instead of feeling joy, Alpha defines happiness as freedom of stress and hardship, so he drugs people into a coma from which there is no known recovery. His victims won't be feeling anything, including happiness as we would normally consider it.

I wouldn't say Alpha is a great villain, since he comes across as a overly emotional (even bratty) kid, but in all fairness, he was designed as a child and the reason for it is understandable. And a large part of why he works is because he's written to tie into Nadeshiko and Takuma's personal storylines. The game is really about two people and their wayward AI son, except neither of them know it at first, and in Nadeshiko's case she might never figure it out.

This is why this story could only have been told through this duo of original characters, as manufacturing Alpha's story into a pre-existing character's past would have risked breaking canon, and it's highly unlikely the character would come out of the experience unchanged.

NIS America did a fairly good localization job, since it's always a risk when two different translation teams work on different aspects of a multimedia franchise. But the NISA team did their homework and the terminology is almost identical to that used in the earlier anime translation by Funimation, with only one botch I noticed involving Toma Kuzaburo's name, which gets turned into something unrecognizable, likely due to an alternate kanji reading. (You can hear his name in the Japanese dialogue though, which is how I picked this out.)

Since Psycho-Pass runs heavy on the jargon, hearing consistent terms for things like Crime Coefficient, Criminal Investigation Department, etc. is much appreciated.

That said though, there were smaller issues with the storytelling, some of which is likely due to the game and others probably could have been cleaned up with another editing pass.

I suspect ending branches are generally locked in during the downtime in Tokyo between the middle school crisis and the final confrontation, because a lot of critical changes can happen at this point in the story. This is when the player may have a unique conversation with the character they've bonded with the most, when the Public Safety Bureau decides what to do with Alpha, when promotions/demotions happen, and (usually) when Nadeshiko gets her memories back, if they come back at all.

Everything up until that point though, can be a jumble of individual player decisions, meaning there are multiple ways to eventually arrive at a given piece of dialogue or narration. Usually the whole story comes together and the game has its chronology ducks in a row, but at least two times I had the game refer to events that didn't actually happen in that particular playthrough.

On the first playthrough where I got Nadeshiko's memories back, she mentions being demoted to Enforcer while she's looking at Alpha's abandoned cyborg body. Not only did this not happen, but I don't think it actually can happen because the scene replaces the one where Ginoza demotes her. It's not possible to get both. This might have been in the original Japanese as well, but if that was the case I think the localization team should have cleaned up the error.

On a later playthrough I got Nadeshiko's memories back late in the game and she recalls a memory that resurfaced during her second hypnotherapy session. Problem was, I decided to refuse my second session so this memory was never recovered, and this I'm sure was a flaw in the game design.

Then there are smaller issues, some of which are due to idiosyncrasies of the Japanese language, and another the persistent use of the incorrect past tense of "lie" (as in "lie down") which was driving me crazy. (It's "laid down" not "lied down.") The word comes up multiple times in the story on every playthrough, which shows that it wasn't a typo, but a systematic error where the translator or final proofreader did not know the correct past tense.

But that aside, Mandatory Happiness is a strong entry in the Psycho-Pass series and a welcome return to an earlier time with the original cast, especially poor Kagari who got wiped out partway through the first season. His levity really adds something to the team and it's good to have him back, at least for a while.

It makes me a little sad that new characters Nadeshiko and Takuma don't continue to exist in the anime (at least visibly), as they were fun to have with everyone else, but depending on the ending they might not even be in Japan anymore. I assume the endings where they remain with Division 1 eventually results in them leaving for one reason or another, voluntarily or not, but their fates on those paths aren't covered.

Next week, we look at Nadeshiko!