Monday, May 1, 2017

Psycho-Pass 2 vs. Mandatory Happiness

I watched the second season of the Psycho-Pass anime last week and while it had its moments, it didn't hit the height of the first series, and I was trying to figure out why. Though Gen Urobuchi was no longer the writer in the second season, I had enjoyed the Mandatory Happiness visual novel, which was not written by him either, so I knew it was possible for someone else to write an engaging, fulfilling story in the Psycho-Pass setting who is not Urobuchi.

The funny thing is that Mandatory Happiness and Psycho-Pass 2 actually do a lot of the same things, and I don't think it's because I'm aware of the same tricks that I enjoyed Psycho-Pass 2 less. I think they were just better done, and I'm not sure if that's because the visual novel came later or that the writers (of which there were several) were just more conscious of the implications.

Spoilers for both the anime series and the visual novel follow!

The key ground that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness want to avoid is having the same type of villain as the original Psycho-Pass. Makishima was unusual because his Crime Coefficient reading was always incredibly low, even in the middle of committing a criminal act. This created complications because the Dominator weapon used by the police only unlocks when a target is psychologically deemed criminal enough (even if latently so) to be enforced. How do you take down a criminal when the system you rely doesn't recognize him as such?

After the original series, the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is no longer a surprise, so both the spin-off and the sequel can't entertain the audience by introducing yet another character with the same ability to foil the Sybil System. But the series is always about the flaws in Sybil, so each new villain needs to have a way to challenge it.

Mandatory Happiness chooses to handle this with an AI. When a genuinely sentient AI goes rogue and behaves according to its own definition of happiness it is unsurprising that Sybil is unable to get a psychological read on it. This allows for the same drama where an inspector or enforcer character is pointing their Dominator weapon at Alpha's android body and is unable to fire. Somehow, the protagonists need to take out Alpha before any additional people are hurt or killed, but Sybil is not set up to protect people from this kind of situation. It's fascinating stuff.

Psycho-Pass 2 similarly offers a villain that cannot be read at all by Sybil. I suppose that's the natural next step up from Makishima, going from a villain who is incorrectly read to one who isn't read at all, but the reason for that doesn't make much sense. Kamui is essentially Frankenstein's monster. For some reason that is never explained, he is the subject of an experiment where the broken body of a young plane crash survivor was repaired using parts of 184 of his deceased classmates. Kamui is now regarded as a "collective" of all 185 people and that is the reason he cannot be read by Sibyl.

This breaks so much science that my brain hurts. Even allowing for the fact that somehow all 185 children were biologically compatible for transplant purposes, why would someone even do this? We know who did it, but not why, and without a why, there's no reason for Kamui's existence except for the express purpose of being a collective that cannot be identified by Sybil.

And even then, Kamui makes it clear that after his operation Sybil recognized him for a while before he faded off the grid. He originally had only one mind and what he currently experiences could possible be a case of dissociative identity disorder and not truly a collective hive mind. After all, it's unlikely that he got 184 bits of brain matter from his classmates.

The original Psycho-Pass and Mandatory Happiness test the Sybil System in unexpected, but realistic ways. It is unsurprising that there are people who cannot be correctly read, because in the real world there are always outliers. Similarly, the rise of AI is something likely to happen in our future, and dealing with a criminally negligent AI is a fascinating topic.

But a Frankenstein collective human being challenging the judgment of the Sybil System isn't that compelling or very likely. It feels like the only reason Kamui exists the way he does, is to hold up a mirror to Sybil, since we know that Sybil is a hive mind composed of criminally asymptomatic people. In order to be able to judge Kamui, Sybil would need to be able to judge itself.

Psycho-Pass 2 wants to pose the question of the omnipotence paradox to Sybil, which I disagree with on account of the fact that Sybil is known to be a flawed system, at least by those who know it best. That is the reason Sybil keeps taking in any criminally asymptomatic people it finds, because it seeks to improve itself. It is understandable that Kamui, being an outsider to the system, would ask this question, but it doesn't do anything for the audience, who is already informed of Sibyl's true state. (And oddly enough, Kamui doesn't seem to bat an eye when he learns that Sibyl isn't just a computer system, but a computer system augmented by human brains.)

That Kamui and Sybil eventually identify a few criminally asymptomatic brains in the collective is not surprising, because over time Sybil's processing has been refined. It is unexpected that some of the early brains that could not be properly read at the time of their integration would become readable later on. Kamui doesn't feel that Sybil passes the test, but Sybil was never in a position where it could, because the system is built on constantly improving itself, which it does when it throws out the criminally read brains.

The other thing that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness do is disguise a person's Criminal Coefficient through drug use. And I suspect that Mandatory Happiness, having come later, took some lessons from the execution in Psycho-Pass 2.

Psycho-Pass 2 has followers of Kamui who cannot be read by the Dominators, but it does not appear to be their natural state as they cannot maintain their low Criminal Coefficients without drug use. This is not too much different from the helmets used to disguise Criminal Coefficients in the first series, but has the added advantage in that the user does not need to be disguised. However, Psycho-Pass 2 doesn't dwell much on the existence of these drugs, which is a little odd since one would think the police would take a high amount of interest in figuring out what is enabling these people.

Mandatory Happiness similarly has a drug workaround, but we see the work that goes into creating this drug cocktail and how it's synthesized through commercially available products so anyone can get a hold of it if they know what they're doing. There are also side effects with heavy users eventually succumbing to Eustress Syndrome (which was introduced in a passing reference in Psycho-Pass 2). The Division 1 team puts a priority on figuring out how the drugs work, and it makes their existence more believable than being a handy plot device.

I think that's why Psycho-Pass 2 didn't work as well for me as the original and the spin-off visual novel. It's not that there isn't room to tell new stories in the Psycho-Pass universe so much as it doesn't feel like it was well thought out. There other parts of Psycho-Pass 2 that didn't make sense to me, but comparing the similarities in execution between that and Mandatory Happiness make it clearer where Psycho-Pass 2 came up short.