Paprika (パプリカ)

Paprika - 1Paprika (2006, directed and co-written by Kon Satoshi) is possibly one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It’s a fascinating exploration of the nature of dreams (and in a related vein, the nature of film) wrapped up in simple thriller story of world-changing technology and its world-threatening misuse. At first these two sides of the film run parallel but separate, but soon they mix and the entire film is consumed (sometimes quite literally) by the crazed quality of dreams.

The film revolves around a new corporate invention, the ‘DC Mini’ – a device that lets people view, record, and even enter other people’s dreams. This is framed as a revolutionary new tool for use in psychiatry and psychotherapy, and the film’s opening (one of the most startling, delightful openings of any film I’ve seen) sees the titular Paprika using the DC Mini to enter the dreams of detective Konakawa Toshimi to assess his psychological problems.

Paprika - 2What follows is a cold-water plunge into the film’s flawless recreation of dreams. Impossible acts and impossible architecture. Speeches that descend, at first almost imperceptibly, into insane, incoherent diatribes. Shifting forms and morphing faces. Parades of inanimate objects made animate. All that and more. But what defines dreams is so often not just the strangeness, or the impossibility of them, but the fact that this strange, disjointed madness makes so much instinctual sense when while they’re happening.

And it’s here, more so even than in its beautiful portrayal of the impossible, that Paprika really shines. Not only do we experience the mad, impossible architecture of dreams, but we also experience the way dreams feel when we’re inside them. Around the halfway mark its plot descends into absolute madness, and even before then it’s already tearing itself apart. The sudden theft of the DC Mini allows an unknown thief to manipulate the dreams of others. After this it quickly becomes clear that this can even happen while the subject is awake, leading to dream-like delusions, or perhaps something else entirely. From this point on every moment of the film – whether waking or dreaming – becomes entirely malleable, and it’s this that allows Paprika to really capture the feeling of dreaming.

Paprika - 4Countless things in Paprika, up to and including the entirety of the film’s climax, don’t really make sense if you stop and think about them., and in a lesser film, it’d be tempting to call these gaps and impossibilities plot holes, or narrative oversights. But it’s clear that that’s not what’s going on here. Paprika is a film whose narrative is about dreams, sure, but it’s also a film whose structure is about dreams; whose structure is dreamlike. It, as a whole, feels like a dream. It picks you up and carries you along and everything makes sense, or at least seems to.

So, after the film descends into dreamlike madness nothing really makes sense, but everything makes sense. It smash cuts to some impossible sight and we go with it. The characters suddenly exclaim that they have to do something, or find someone, and we think ‘yeah’, even though, if we stop and think, we’ll realise we can’t explain why. Things don’t make sense when you try to rationalise them after the fact, but while they’re happening – while the film is going on – we understand everything on a strange, instinctual level. Oh, of course the dreams collided. Oh, of course she can fly now. Oh, of course going into Shima’s dream and inflating him until he literally bursts will wake him from his coma. Of course.

Paprika - 3

Faces shift their form and torii gates walk. People burst out of the shells of others, like insects emerging from a chrysalid. These things strike you as mad and fascinating and brilliant. But while the individual sights seem strange, every turn and shift and incoherent direction the film goes in makes a kind of sense to the viewer while they’re watching, just as the senseless twists of a dream don’t arouse suspicion until you’ve already woken up. When Paprika finishes you find yourself unable to explain it, and when you try to think it falls just out of reach, but it was there, and you understood it in a way that even now, even minutes after, you don’t fully understand.

There are things that don’t make sense in Paprika not because the writers didn’t think them through well enough, but because the film isn’t interested in making perfect sense. Because dreams don’t make sense, and Paprika is more interested in feeling like a dream than anything else.

Paprika - 6

No other film I know does this; marries the plot of the film with the way it’s constructed to create a film that feels like a dream. Take Inception for example. It’s arguably Paprika’s closest relative in the medium, and Christopher Nolan has stated that Inception was inspired in part by Paprika. Inception captures some of the strangeness and the impossibility of dreams, and its plot revolves around dreams, but only rarely does it feel explicitly dreamlike. It focuses on the architecture of dreams, but not the feeling of dreams. And the strange, impossible twistings of the plot leave us with gaps that feel like plot holes, like oversights, as a result. But Paprika is so immersed in the nature of dreams, the feeling and the qualia of dreams, that its impossibilities and incoherences don’t feel like mistakes. They feel like deliberate and vital decisions that allow the film to feel the way it does.

Crucially, Paprika never feels like it’s just throwing crazy concepts at a wall to see what sticks. It nails down the feeling of dreams not by just being weird and crazy, but by being weird and crazy in exactly the right way. By looking at dreams and capturing, perfectly, the specific mix of feverish, indescribable madness that characterises so many of them. And by capturing the structural madness, rather than just the obvious madness of strange, impossible imagery.

Nor is Paprika an arty film that creates oblique images and references for the sake of some opaque mystery. It’s carries you along as much by being fast, clever, and punchy (with incredible animation, and skilful use of editing) as it does by feeling dreamlike. It’s not just a film of grand ideas and high concepts, it’s a film of slick, masterful execution, from the art design to the animation, the sound, the voice acting, the editing, the screenwriting, the everything. It’s perfect, my god it’s perfect.

Paprika - 5

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Relic Tycoon Development Diary: Game Engines

I’ve been pretty busy lately, so there hasn’t been too much actual progress on the game. As such, this update is going to focus on something pretty simple – the game engine I’ve chosen to build Relic Tycoon in.

When you start working on a new game one of the first things you need to decide on is the game engine you’ll use. Do this too early and you might chose an engine that’s doesn’t fit the game, making development more difficult than it needs to be. Do it too late and the ideas you have during planning can easily become unfocused and overreaching. The idea of the game you have in your head won’t take into account the different limitations that different game engines impose, so when you finally come to choose an engine none of them will seem like a good fit, and you’ll probably end up with a heap of cut ideas and wasted time.

Choose an engine at the right time – after the core of the game is nailed down, but before you flesh out your central ideas, and you’re in business. You can choose an engine that’s going to work with your core vision, and you can incorporate the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen engine into every future idea you have.

Obviously, you can trust me on this, based on my extensive experience as a producer at leading AAA game developers the fact that I’ve made two small games in Twine. But this thinking has already helped me out a lot in the past. I chose Twine for my first two games because they were ideas that worked well as simple hyperlink stories, and they didn’t need particularly robust engines propping them up.

There were a couple of things I wanted to do that Twine made annoying or impractical. But while I could have chosen different engines that might have made those features possible, no other engine would have allowed me to make those games as quickly and as easily.

So, surely I’ll be using Twine again for Relic Tycoon? Quick and easy development sounds perfect. Well, no. Twine is great for a certain kind of game (fairly traditional Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching narratives), but unlike End Boss and Character Creator, Relic Tycoon isn’t that kind of game at all. I actually started making a prototype in Twine, to test out some ideas before I chose a final engine, but even then it was fighting against me every step of the way.

I couldn’t think of a good engine to use, so I thought about making the game from scratch. But Relic Tycoon isn’t that complex – surely there must be something that would allow me to make the game without having to invest weeks or months into building the foundations first.

And then I realised that the ideal engine did exist. It’s StoryNexus – the online platform made by my old employer Failbetter. StoryNexus was essentially built to allow people to make Fallen London-style text-based games, and while Relic Tycoon is different from Fallen London in a lot of ways (for example, it’s a bit more mechanics-driven, with the removal or near-removal of grind and repetition), the basic structure is similar. Partly because I’ve been influenced by Fallen London a great deal, and partly because I thinking the structural decisions behind Fallen London are intelligent, with huge applicability for other types of experiences.

I’ve already had to make a couple of compromises, but ultimately it’s been a great choice. Development is already much easier, much faster, and I’m incorporating my knowledge of the strengths and drawbacks of the engine into every idea I have.

The only real problems are ancillary to the game itself. For one, making Relic Tycoon is StoryNexus is not going to help me improve my programming skills, which is something I definitely need to focus on. But right now I want to write and make games, and the only way I can guarantee I’m going to be able to do that is if I sit down and write and make games. I don’t want to spend months struggling to force myself to do something difficult and tedious in my limited free time, when I can spend that free time actually making something interesting.

So I’m going to keep building Relic Tycoon in StoryNexus. It genuinely seems like by far the best choice, and it’s already allowing me to stop spending my time worrying about technical frustrations and start spending more and more of my time writing and designing.

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Let’s Nagoya – Part 3: Racism!

This is kind of a tough topic. As anyone who’s brushed up on their internet will know, any time you write something about a controversial subject the entire internet will immediately descend to call you a bastard. Approximately half your audience will do so because you’re obviously a raving fascist, while the other half will do so because you’re quite clearly a thought-policing, smoking-ban-endorsing, why-are-all-my-bananas-bendy, can’t-even-say-niggardly, also-why-do-I-have-to-measure-the-weight-of-my-bananas-in-kilograms, the-EU-has-banned-Christmas, I-bet-they-wouldn’t-ban-islamic-christmas, loony liberal.

But here goes nothing. The topic is Japan and racism. I’ll try my best to walk the impossibly thin line between Hitler and the Guardian:

I don’t think I ever experienced racism before I came to Japan, but now I encounter it every day. Now, after a brief moment of silence for my white tears, let’s continue:

If you are white and you come to Japan you too can encounter racism everywhere you go. And while I can only speak from my own experiences, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true for members of any other non-Japanese ethnic group. I’ve not encountered any explicit ‘get out of my country’ shouty racism, nor have I ever felt violated or unsafe. And while I’ve heard some pretty worrying stories about friends’ encounters, that brand of Ronseal racism doesn’t seem very common here.

In my experience, racism in Japan generally isn’t aggressive or confrontational. Instead, it’s the racism of turned heads, patronising greetings, and the occasional staring contest with old men on trains. The racism of ‘Oh look, a gaijin’, and of people not knowing how to control themselves because they’re so amazed by the sight of a foreigner.

And while most people in Japan obviously don’t care that you’re foreign, racism is still a constant presence. Even in a big city like Nagoya, but especially when you venture to smaller, more remote places. I recently went on a business trip to Kagoshima, on the southern edge of Kyushu, and while it’s hardly a country village I noticed far more people staring, convinced they’re being incredibly subtle while they do double take after cartoon double take.

Usually, you filter it out. Sometimes, it’s actively amusing – as when a gabble of drunk salarymen call out to you and literally almost fall over themselves in the hilarity of the moment. Luckily* I’ve led a privileged enough life that these kinds of things generally bounce off without leaving any real impact. But there are definitely moments that stick. Moments like the time some guy hassled me on the way back from an awful day at work, or when I caused a line of passing schoolchildren to recoil from me in an impromptu but perfectly choreographed Mexican wave of revulsion.

It took me a while to realise that gaijin bars don’t just exist because people like experiencing things they’re familiar with, but also because sometimes you just get tired of feeling like you’re a walking novelty.

I like Japan a lot, but stuff like this freaks me out. Even if I stayed here for twenty years, became entirely fluent in the language and developed an in-depth understanding of the culture, I’d still have just as many people staring at me on the street. Unless something big changes in Japanese culture I have no chance of ever really fitting in. And it also scares me because the UK is currently going through a prolonged, fairly intense knee-jerk reaction against immigration, and this is what happens when your country is almost entirely homogeneous. You get people gawping at foreigners in the street. You get people losing their minds that you just said ‘thank you’ in serviceable Japanese rather than English. And you get fully-grown adult students insisting that no you must like McDonald’s because all British people love McDonald’s.

The differences in Japanese and British culture are clearly pretty huge, but when I talk to Japanese friends, co-workers, and students here I don’t feel like there’s any kind of important barrier between us, at least not one that can’t be overcome. But when people stare at me or bother me because I’m a foreigner it feels like such an incredibly weird and alien thing to do that I can’t help but think of them, even if just in that moment, as somehow weird and alien people. Not just stupid, mean, or ignorant, but different.

I dismiss the thought as soon as it crops up, sure. And I don’t think it affects the way I see Japanese people as a whole, certainly not consciously, but it creeps in man, it creeps in. Almost none of us are as objective and as egalitarian as we want to believe.

And stuff like this can go from the individual to the societal very easily. I think it already has: foreigners feel frustrated and patronised and othered, so many become increasingly impatient and blunt with perceived offenders. This reinforces the widespread stereotypes of foreigners, which leads to newly arrived foreigners being met with an increasing weight of societal baggage. It’s phenomenally easy for ‘This person is patronising me’ and ‘Why is this foreigner being rude?’ to turn into ‘Japanese people are always bloody bothering me’ and ‘Foreigners are always so rude’.

I think Japanese society is, to one extent or another, trapped in this vicious cycle, largely through understandably frayed patience and perhaps understandable ignorance (I can’t really get too angry that someone who’s grown up in a culture has turned out to be influenced by that culture). I don’t really have an answer to this, apart from ‘whoops, human interaction is hard’. If you were expecting an answer then sorry, I guess, but I never promised you anything. Well, I guess I did promise I’d try to avoid saying something horribly offensive, so if you think I’ve failed at that feel free to take to the comments and call me a bastard.

Anyway, Japan is lovely, really. There are cat cafes and great music and firefly festivals and Teekyu. There are also nasty people, lovely people, and everyone in between. People like Kokona, an eight year-old girl in one of my classes who is funnier than almost any adult I know. And people like Hayato, an eight year-old boy in another one of my classes who is composed entirely of snot and malevolence.

I don’t want to make it seem like my time here is dominated by racism (which is why I wrote a 1000+ word blog post solely about racism), but it is a surprisingly large part of my life here, and one that’s pretty difficult to explain to friends and family back home. So come to Japan. Come to visit, or to live, whatever takes your fancy; it really is a great place. Just don’t come expecting to fit in any time soon.

*and please understand just how much I realise that I’m incredibly lucky. My experience of racism is safe, airbrushed – a novelty, even. I’m not getting routinely stopped and searched by the police. I’m not being systematically pushed around and punished for being born into a certain racial group. I’m getting quite a lot of people looking at me funny, sometimes. As a result, most of the time I find it pretty easy to laugh about or entirely shrug off the racism I experience. And if there’s a more explicit indication of my privilege as a financially comfortable white guy, well, I’m certainly not aware of it.

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