August 3, 2019

On Isekai

Some time ago, I ran into a person who is/was writing her own Isekai in light novel format. Though there wasn't much yet, there was so much potential to where it could be. In those few pages, the story delved into individual frailty and powerlessness amidst a society that acted like a cage. I liked it a good deal, and I think it sucks that I probably won't read a completed version of it. Anyway, this person and her story reignited my own desire to write an Isekai.

I've been a huge fan of the Isekai genre for many years now, but modern offerings leave so much to be desired, and only a few are really worth mentioning. For those who aren't too familiar with it, it's basically the Japanese version of Portal Fantasy. Common examples of Western portal fantasy would be The Chronicles of Narnia, Labyrinth, The Matrix, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and so on. As a storytelling technique, it's pretty baked in and there are few surprises. Most portal fantasy stories often delve into societal issues, such as religion, war, and law among others. Isekai shares many traits with portal fantasy in general, but a few traits makes it stand out from the others. Some I like, some I don't. Let's go through some of the more troubling ones first.

Male Power Fantasy. Most of the popular ones are based around the main character being overwhelmingly powerful without having really achieved much to get it. Overlord is the prime example of this. The main character is unbeatable, and not only that his subordinates are also peerless combatants in the world they're stuck in. They literally stomp over every obstacle they come across. While that is definitely cathartic, it's also empty, like eating a crapton of junkfood in your jammies at 2am. Ultimately a waste of time and energy. I get why this is popular, though. Fundamentally speaking, Isekai is meta-escapism. It's supposed to be a mirror as to why the audience is escaping into a work of fiction. It's where we, the viewers or readers, would want to go to when our real lives crumble all around us. This kind of Isekai though is in the extreme, and is only about sending shots of dopamine into your brain. Not really very enlightening or thought-provoking, is it?

Harem. Related to the MPF, but it's more about desirability towards the opposite sex. Isekai targeted at men and women feature the harem trait, so it can't be said it's necessarily a sexist thing, though I'm sure more shounen feature harem then shoujo. Regardless, demographically speaking, it's pretty universal, so I believe it's more of a loneliness thing. In most manga and anime, the harem exists solely to admire the protagonist. Well, they're characters in their own right with themes, arcs, conflicts, and so on. But what matters is that they're all (or mostly) of the opposite sex from the protagonist, and have varying degrees of admiration for him or her. Sometimes the admiration borders on the obsessive, which I can kind of relate to. It's kind of like if the protagonist was to form an adventuring party, it would be this. Except it's filled with a little naughtiness and innuendo. Though I like the harem trait, I'd rather a story didn't have it. Gate is a prime example of a pretty decent harem Isekai, though it's kind of a special case, because it's really a (somewhat nationalistic) portrait of Japanese culture. 

High Fantasy. Most Isekai have settings based in fantasy worlds. And they're typically high fantasy, which have elves, dwarves, dragons, magic, undead, orcs, and so on. Which is interesting, considering all the different settings that could be used. This seems like a missed opportunity to branch out and explore. This trend also makes sense, considering that Isekai is really an expression of its audience's love for RPG's, which are themselves mostly fantasy. Not that there's anything wrong with the fantasy as a genre. It's just that I'm tired of it.

Alright. There's three that are the most troubling (to me, at least). The following are ones that I find the most endearing to the whole genre.

Game World. Most but not all Isekai features a game world. By that, I mean the protagonist has a character that exists in a virtual game world, and a good majority of their conflicts take place there. This is beneficial in multiple ways. For example, the game world provides an easy way to see a character's growth in an easily understood way. Everyone who has ever played an RPG knows what gaining a level feels like. And when Isekai characters level up in whatever way shape or form, the reader is injected with that feeling as well. There's also a slight sense of control over things, that there are inviolable rules in place. This also provides a great amount of exploration into certain subjects, such as death, revival, second chances, and even existential meaning. Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion is one such Isekai: it explores death and meaning quite deeply.

Societal Mirroring. As mentioned earlier, isekai is a mirror that reflects the desires of the reader. Sometimes, a well-written isekai will use the world on the other side to mirror the real world, and criticize it. While not all isekai feature this, some of the more clever ones do. The Saga of Tanya the Evil, for example, reflects on religion, war, and human nature. Gate also criticizes war, particularly wars that the Western powers meddle in. My fave isekai, The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor, is in essence somewhat of a retelling of Machiavelli's The Prince, except in a far more entertaining way. Another of my favorites, The Twelve Kingdoms, goes even deeper into political theory and even defines what true leaders should be like. It is a beautiful series of novels.

As mentioned earlier, I've been wanting to write an isekai myself for some time, so I suppose this is my way of putting my thoughts together (for yet another writing project that I need to make time for). Problem is, I haven't been sure what it is I want to write about until recently. I'm also unsure what format I should write it in. This could certainly be in light novel format, which will be much easier to write. Symbolism can be simpler, as with style and structure. It'll also be faster to write as well, if I keep the word count at around 50k. But it could also be in interactive format, which will be much harder to write. But it brings some serious benefits with it. Most important is the tangible aspect of being in a game - having a character sheet, opening the status screen, reading abilities, branching storylines, having a Game Over screen, saving, loading. You get what I mean. The format just fits. But holy shit that's going to be a ton of work.

I've already somewhat decided on what the character mirror should be. I suppose this really is the theme that determines internal conflict. I think it should be insanity. I've been rolling around this idea of psionic powers, about how there could be classes or tiers of abilities. And how powerful a person is, is directly related to how insane they are. I want the main characters to come to this realization and understand the need to balance their own insanity against their own humanity. The tiers would range from moving small objects around to altering the very fabric of reality, so imagine that the truly insane - such as the main antagonist - has the capability to wipe civilizations off the map without having to bat a third eyelid.

In terms of story, I don't want any MPF scenarios, period. But I do want the main and supporting characters to be the two most dangerous characters in the story, after the antagonist. Well, it's not so important that they're powerful - it's important that they're insane. And I definitely don't want a harem, either. Though there will be party members who are joined by an ideal, this will really be an exploration between the main character and the supporting character, their psionic prowess, their insanities, and their ultimate, fateful end at the hands of the main antagonist.

I've determined that it would be best for the societal mirror, (or external theme) to be about socio-economic inequality. Since this will be part of the Fractal Universe, there will also be an underlying theme of Corruption. This sort of matches what I've been wanting to explore with a couple other planned Fractal stories - Umbra and ONI, so I may as well sift through the better ideas and merge them into this one. I most definitely want to criticize our modern oligarchy. Money rules the world right now, not people. Regardless, there are still a ton of things I need to determine. Notably: why are these people in this world? are they trapped? How about this one: two realities are colliding, and the main characters are trying to stop it from destroying everything they know? Hmm. Needs work.

Anyway, I'm sure that this will end up being quite a long story, so I'm a little bit afraid as to how much branching I'll be able to do. Certainly inter-personal conflicts will cause branching, as will main character power choices. But beyond that, should there be more than one ending? I suppose there should be a good ending as well as a bad ending, as typical with most RPGs. And that should revolve around how insane the reader allowed their character to become. Hmm. Also the varying societal consequences borne from character choices should be shown in the denouement. As in, did this character/town/friendship survive at the end? Did anyone change their ideals? Was the world saved? Were both worlds saved? That sort of thing.

Anyway, I've rambled on enough. Lots to think about.