Hear No Evil: The Power of Inclusivity

I’d just got my job at Frontier, and my first real paycheck. Gone were the days of maybe scraping £200 in a month by carrying boxes around at Argos, now I was making actual money that could pay bills and shit! So, naturally, I used it to buy myself a nice gaming computer and a whole new set of peripherals, including a sexy new Razer Kraken headset.

I mean, seriously, just look at it:

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It’s a Kraken pair of cans. I’m hilarious.

I fire up my game, and I notice the sound is really weak in my left ear. Like, really weak. I look it up online, and it turns out that sometimes these headsets just have one side a bit louder than the other. I adjust it in Windows’ settings, boosting the left side to meet the right. With balance restored to the universe, I thought nothing of it.

About a week later, I come in from a day’s work and settle down to play some games – specifically Battlefield 4. I got all set up and wandered into a building, rifle raised, before someone made an entrance by blasting out the wall beside me with a tank shell. Shrapnel rained all around, and the ringing from the shell reverberated around my head as the tank rolled into the building and over me. I screamed in pain, and tore the headset off.

I had accidentally put it on the wrong way round, and the boosted side was now being heard by my right ear – at its proper (insane) volume. The issue was me.

So I guess I’ll take this moment to thank Razer for producing a headset so refined in audio quality that it helped me identify my own hearing problems. You make sterling tech! It would probably have been more comfortable to actually be run over by a tank.

Silence Is Golden

To cut a long story short, it transpired after multiple tests that my hearing is actually better than normal, but it’s extra better in my right side, and I don’t have the required super-brain to make sense of the sound, so I get sensory overload really easily in crowded spaces.

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Accurate. (Art by ghostlystatic)

But it was a long road to working that out, and for a very long time I genuinely worried that I was losing my hearing. I love music, I love discourse, and I spent many a restless night – and an inordinate amount of money – trying all manner of medicinal and not-so-medicinal remedies to make sure I could keep it.

And since I think far, far too much, it became very noticeable to me how well – or how poorly – my favourite form of entertainment handles the hard of hearing. Even with my ‘deafness’ revealed to be less so, that crusade is far from over. My mother is half-deaf and every time I see the news struggle to keep up with the spoken text or a line that’s been subtitled incorrectly on her favourite show, it makes my blood boil.

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Sparx are sure to fly. I’m not dragon my feet with these jokes.

It transpired this week that the Spyro Reignited Trilogy – a triple-threat remaster of some of my favourite childhood games – didn’t feature subtitles in its cutscenes. I was not happy about this to begin with, but things turned more sour when I read Activision’s response:

…There were certain decisions that needed to be made throughout the process.

While there’s no industry standard for subtitles, […] [we] will evaluate going forward.

Activison’s Response to Spyro Reignited Trilogy’s subtitles

Excuse me?

Spell It Out

The idea that the decision to not include subtitles was something that was made during the process of making the game – like something that would have impacted a deadline – is unfortunate enough wording on its own, but the implication that they will ‘evaluate’ including them in future is just as troubling. But I take the most issue with the idea that there is no ‘industry standard’ for subtitles.

When Activision refers to the ‘industry standard’, they’re referring to two main ideas, most likely:

  • the ‘industry standard‘ in a broad sense, like some kind of agreed-upon way subtitles should be presented in games and how to implement them;
  • and the certification/compliance requirements that you need to pass to get your game published on a console platform.

With no such thing (right now) as a video game developer’s union, the top one is currently only really going to exist as guidelines in its present form. The bottom one should really be a requirement for accessibility reasons alone, too.

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If a dragon can ride a skateboard, a deaf person should be able to hear the dragon.

With 1 in 6 people in the UK suffering from some form of hearing loss, of which around 50,000 of those are children, the ability for games to cater to those who cannot hear is so important to me, as it allows access to another world, freedom to explore, fight and win on your own terms. Especially for children, for whom these adventures are formative as well as transformative, this is paramount.

Adding subtitles – which transcribe spoken dialogue – but more specifically closed captions – which also illustrate off-screen sound effects for those who cannot hear them – should be an industry standard.

What should the industry standard be?

Indie dev and all around top guy Tony Gowland posted this tweet about the subtitles in the otherwise excellent Forza Horizon 4. His choice of language is better than anything I could ever come up with:

On his 42” TV, these subtitles are not readable by him when he’s 1m away. This is not acceptable – the subs on the screen take up an absolutely tiny amount of screen space. I can’t even read the subs in that embedded tweet, and I’m right in front of my monitor.

The BBC has an exhaustive document detailing their own standard for subtitles, which should be something for games to not only aspire to but also do better than.

Of particular note to me is the section on authoring font size, which specifies numerous aspects of how the subtitles should be presented.


Subs


Applying some facet of the BBC’s subtitle guidelines to Forza, I can produce a simple mockup that – while maybe not carrying the artistic flair of Playground’s in-game subs – is certainly more readable at a distance:

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This is much more in line with the size and readability of subtitles I’d expect from a modern game catering to all audiences.

Speak up, TEXT!

In the case of something like Forza, you might find yourself wondering ‘what’s the point?’ Why indeed would a racing game bother with subtitles when it’s surely about the brum-brum cars? That question in itself poses an interesting one about the nature of an industry standard – what games deserve to be playable by the deaf?

My answer would be ‘all of them’, but let’s dive deeper with a game with a dedicated narrative that must be read if not heard.

BOY! Fetch me my READING GLASSES!

There was a bit of a furore earlier this year about the fantastic God of War. It’s one of the best games of this year – it might even be the defining game of this generation. And, at launch, its text size was tiny – in the image above, you can see how difficult it is to process things.

Fortunately, a patch allowed the player to adjust the size of the subtitles and on-screen text. That’s what’s amazing – thanks to the interactive nature of games – we have the luxury of letting players adjust the size of the text or – as in the case of Spider-Man, even place them on against a background.

All games should aspire to this level of accessibility.

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Put this up as an accessibility guideline on the web. Ah ha ha ha!

The Competitive Advantage

 

Overwatch is one of the most entertaining competitive shooters ever released, and it’s the beating heart of much of what gaming should be, with an incredibly diverse cast and is full of representation and inclusivity. It’s one of the most high-profile games with an openly gay character on its box. It’s forward thinking in almost every respect.

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I’ve still got shivers from this moment.

Unfortunately, its handling of subtitles is one of its only aspects stuck firmly in the past.

The game features an absolutely stellar audio engine that allows you to reliably play and understand what’s going on within the game. Enemy footsteps and weapons are louder than ally ones, for example. Every character has a distinctive callout when they use their earthshattering ultimate ability, which is a completely different line if they’re your ally.

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Clearing the area. – Friendly Reaper / “DIE! DIE! DIE!” – Unfriendly Reaper

A lot of these lines are the only way to know if you’re under attack. If you hear a distant “Fiiire in the hole!”, you know there is a Junkrat on the enemy team and an explosive tire headed your way. If you hear the low rumble of “It’s hiiigh nooon…” then it’s time to rush for cover because rootin’, tootin’, cowboy shootin’ McCree is about to blow everyone’s heads off. Recognising these sounds is a vital part of effective Overwatch play.

And to a deaf person, these fundamental aspects of the game simply do not exist.

It has been argued time and time again that including closed captions for these elements would provide an unfair advantage – that everyone would play with them switched on to know exactly what’s going on in a match. To me, that seems like the preferable alternative to locking out a subgroup of players.

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To settle that argument regardless, Fortnite – an equally competitive game with zero dialogue – features an on-screen audio visualiser that shows you the location of nearby events. A similar display in Overwatch would work wonders, even if it’s just the symbol of the ability in question.

I mocked up a simple example of how that might look if, say, for example, a McCree was to stand behind you and get ready. It’s enough of a warning, without providing an unnecessary advantage.

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Look, Frontier hired me as a QA tester, not as a UI artist. What do you mean, it shows?!

Closing Thoughts

It’s a damn shame Spyro Reignited Trilogy doesn’t carry subtitles. We have come quite a long way for accessibility in games, almost to the point where we may have thought it was a no-brainer to include subtitles. But they’re not actually required – and that should change as soon as possible.

Clear, readable subtitles and inclusivity-focused design for the deaf and hard of hearing should be an industry standard, regardless of the game in question. For Activision, evaluating their inclusion “going forward” should really more be a simple statement:

We will include them in the future.

And we always should have.

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I Predict a Riot: Sexism, Art and the Artist

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Riot Games lately – the makers of the insanely popular League of Legends – who are coming under continued fire for poor work conditions. Well, not just poor. Employees subjected to sexual harassment. Lawsuits filed, including against a worker who drugged and raped another. Nine months of crunch rewarded with being fired. By almost all accounts, the company is bad news, but the culture surrounding the game itself – the massive Worlds final, the K-Pop video – still burns brightly. The game’s still enormous.

They said I was doing a great job but to keep it up. Don’t worry, it’s going to turn out great, and it’ll all be worth it in the end – recognition, a raise, probably a promotion in short order. They promised me the world. When [Akali] was finally finished, I didn’t even get to go to the release party, they just walked me out. 

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If I hadn’t uninstalled League and left it behind, I personally feel I would be as much a part of the events surrounding the company as anyone who contributed to its sexist culture, its environment of toxicity.

I cannot go back. Not until real change is enacted.

Promises, promises

There’s a phrase that absolutely consumes me with emotion. Not always anger, not always sadness. Perhaps even a little bit of jealousy. Definitely annoyance:

That phrase is “Separate the art from the artist“.

Bonus marks for “Can’t you just relax and enjoy the film/book/game/whatever?”

It’s something that I don’t deny is possible for someone to do. You can take the work of a creator and completely discount them from the equation, allowing the text to exist on its own terms. I envy the people who can do it, really; it’s the true extreme of Death of the Author. What this person has made is its own beast, free into the wild to be interpreted as people see fit, viewed through any number of lenses.

With regards to Riot, I’ve heard a lot of people online saying that they are still fine playing the game for any number of reasons. That Riot are promising sweeping change. That what happens at the company doesn’t – or shouldn’t – affect the product. Separate the art from the artists.

But not me. That separation is something I will never be able to do.

Political Spectrum

All art is political, or so I’d like to think. That’s an inflammatory term, political, but it’s real – it’s not to say that every single piece of text has to be a biting commentary on the human condition or anything, just that the creator and the created are inexorably linked. Every crafted aspect of a work reflects the author’s stance on something, be it a matter of serious political stance, ideas of identity in the world…or even something as minor as a personal preference.

And I really mean minor.

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Mace Windu’s lightsaber is purple. Why?

We had this big arena, this fight scene with all these Jedi and they’re fightin’ or whatever. And I was like, well shit, I wanna be able to find myself in this big ol’ scene. So I said to George, “You think maybe I can get a purple lightsaber?”

-An extract from an interview with Samuel L Jackson via ScreenCrush

Even this really small, infinitesimally inconsequential part of the story is political – Star Wars canon had to bend over backwards to find an in-universe reason why Samuel L Jackson’s lightsaber glows his favourite colour. And so on, and so on, up the chain until we have a complete text, filled with thousands and thousands of details and aspects that were all borne of the ideas, hours, beliefs and goals of thousands of individual people.

Skimping Out

And so it is with Riot. The Kotaku article, Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games -written by Cecilia D’Anastasio – exposed a great deal of the corruption and attitudes dwelling at the heart of the company:

One woman saw an e-mail thread about what it would be like to “penetrate her,” in which a colleague added that she’d be a good target to sleep with and not call again.

Throughout the hour-long interview, she said, her interviewer had been fact-checking her, looking for holes in the story of her gamer upbringing.

“I’ve heard women described as ‘aggressive’ and ‘too ambitious’ during hiring panels rather than focus on their career skills or aptitude.”

At least personally, I started to see the cracks in League itself, particularly when it came to its representation of female characters. There have been some serious strides towards improving how things are on that front – Quinn, Zoe, Taliyah and Illaoi come to mind – but it’s a noticeable legacy that persists to the very latest released female champion:

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Claimed by the Void when she was only a child, Kai’Sa managed to survive through sheer tenacity and strength of will. Her experiences have made her a deadly hunter and, to some, the harbinger of a future they would rather not live to see.

The default design for Caitlyn, the Chief of Police for the nation of Piltover, is still this:

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It’s a difficult topic to approach, really, as there’s arguably nothing inherently wrong with a character looking sexy. I periodically have been known to put effort into my appearance. The mere presence of characters like this is not in and of itself bad.

But it’s a culture. The idea that a workplace that thought so little of women – that denied them advancement, that belittled them – produced a game that seems to view women in the same light was pretty eye-opening for me.

Change for the Better

I’ll be the first to admit that I still love League of Legends from the bottom of my heart. It is a pretty indelible part of my gaming experience. I’ve put time into it. I’ve put money into it. I’ve forged friendships through it. I can still kick your ass as Nautilus any day of the week.

And Riot is filled with insanely talented people. The characters, storywriting, gameplay and the culture surrounding League is absolutely incredible. It’s a company I once dreamed of working for.

I would like nothing more, honestly, for this to all go away. For the company to purge the bad attitudes from its halls – or, more accurately, that none of it had ever happened to begin with.

Riot’s promise to change – Our First Steps Forward, they called it – details a massive amount of improvements that the company wishes to undertake to improve itself for its employees, its fans, its prospective future employees – and its future partners and investors.

We’re committed to doing things the right way, and we know the change we need isn’t going to happen overnight. We are taking everything we’ve learned from Rioters and leading culture-change experts, and we are starting to develop a plan with substance.

Rioters have told us that the steps we have taken thus far aren’t enough, and we agree. The issues we face are serious, and to drive this change, we need to fully understand the root of the issues. This transformation is going to be the source of our future strength as a company. To get there, we need to evolve our culture, while preserving the good things that we think make Riot special.

– Riot Games

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I genuinely want to believe that this change can be made. That Riot – one of the largest and most looked-up-to games companies on the world stage – can become the company I thought it was once again.

But for now, despite all my temptation to pick it up and play it again, I can’t.

To me, a piece of literary text is like an incomplete circuit. It’s been assembled and ready to go; the missing piece is you. In reading, in watching, in playing it, be it a book, a film or a game, you are – in a sense – a creator too. An artist, forming your own ideas about what’s in front of you.

Good luck separating that, I guess.

 

DELTARUNE: Hello Darkness, My Old Friends

Alright, you got me. I’ll freely admit I was late to the party with Toby Fox’s Undertale; I bought it at launch, was thoroughly ready to get into it, and then…didn’t. For three years. When I finally fired it up, I had already had some of the game’s most pivotal elements spoiled for me. Its deeply hidden and lovingly crafted secrets at least partially spilled out onto the carpet. But, like all sweets on carpets, underneath the hair and grit of spoilers there was still something powerfully delicious to be found within. Undertale is an excellent game, and I promised myself that the next time something like this came around I wouldn’t leave it and would dive in straight away. No dilly-dallying.

And it just so happens that Toby Fox himself called my bluff.

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Yare yare daze. Artwork by v0idless

This article will include spoilers for UNDERTALE and DELTARUNE alike.

UNDERTALE is available for PC, PS4, PS Vita and Nintendo Switch.

DELTARUNE’s first chapter is free, and you can download it for PC and Mac here.


Continue reading “DELTARUNE: Hello Darkness, My Old Friends”

#Inktober 2018

I used to doodle all the time when I was a kid. Coming up with crazy Thunderbirds-style vehicles and characters that formed the basis of stories I’m still writing and poking at to this day. I was never that good at it, but I didn’t really realise then just how much practice might make perfect.

Well, I picked up an iPad and an Apple Pencil, and felt I’d take part in #Inktober 2018. Even if all I do is paste in an image and give tracing and shading a go, I figured it’d provide me with a goal and maybe I’d have a bit of fun as well.

In the end, I did in fact do a drawing every single day, and I can visibly see how my skill went up across the month. I’m so glad I did it.

If you’d like to buy my artwork, don’t be ridiculous. I did these in like 30 minutes, go the Tate Gallery or something.

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Continue reading “#Inktober 2018”

Transformers Animated: Titans not Teens

I love Transformers. This much should be basically as apparent as the fact that you’re currently breathing air, or that Tuesday follows Monday. Giant robots who come to Earth, disguise themselves as vehicles, and take part in an interstellar guerrilla war between two titanic factions, the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons. There had been multiple reinterpretations – one of my other favourite things – over the years. Beast Wars. Armada. The live-action films. And then came Animated.

Originally titled Transformers Heroes but later changed to the admittedly pretty generic current title, the show was headed up by a lot of the same staff who worked on Teen Titans. That show basically needs no introduction, with its mature themes and indelible characters still ranking as some of the best animation we’ve seen, and so the very idea of a show that carried that same raw creative power – but focused on Transformers, a franchise I was already firmly cemented in – was the greatest combination ever.

Predictably, fans hated it from the moment it was announced.

“This isn’t G1,” they’d shout, their words sucking the happiness from the room like a long, wet fart. “This isn’t the Transformers I grew up with.” It was babyish, it was silly, it was insulting to the legacy of the brand. Take your pick, they will have said it. But once it began airing, this show skyrocketed to being one of the finest representations of the franchise we’ve seen.

The show departed from the Transformers style in more ways than just the art, though. This time, Optimus Prime wasn’t even the leader of the Autobots. He was a loser, kicked down the chain of command by his asshole ex-best friend. His team was an equally ragtag group of Transformers nobody liked; two washouts from the academy, a grizzled war veteran and a ninja nobody wants to be around. And the Decepticons were defeated thousands of years before the show even started.

In a time of peace, Optimus dreams of something better, something bigger. And then he runs afoul of Megatron – a war criminal responsible for thousands of deaths – believed dead for centuries.  Hopelessly outgunned and outmatched, they flee – and crash land on Earth.

They wake up fifty years later in modern day Detroit, and find themselves in a…unique situation. They can’t get in touch with Autobot command. The city’s filled with villains. And – and this is a big and – the Decepticons are somewhere in the city too. Manipulating the populace from behind the scenes…it’s almost like the world needs some superheroes.

Fresh off this premise, Animated wastes no time establishing that no, our heroes are absolutely not kick-ass Transformers. Fighting even one Decepticon – never mind actual fucking Megs and all of his top lieutenants – is not happening. They must work together if they stand a chance of winning, even against the more comical human villains. The 1930s-styled Slo-Mo, Victorian buffoon Angry Archer and speedster Nanosec – all require multiple Autobots to take down initially, so we see some real development as things go on.

The show is also quick to establish that, again, no – this is not going to be an immature show. The villains reflect this – Prometheus Black, desperate to prove the might of his genetic engineering over robotic design, mutates himself into a horrifying acid-spewing abomination whose very touch is lethal. Protagonist Sari Sumdac, a nine-year-old girl caught up in the encroaching battle, is – well, that’d be spoilers, wouldn’t it?

And then there’s Megatron himself. With the Autobots having won the war and long since succumbed to internal corruption, this incarnation is more like a charismatic rogue, layering his voice with honeyed words and manipulating everyone he meets to his own ends. His followers range from the deeply flawed to the genuinely certifiably insane, with support on every aspect of the spectrum from beleaguered partnership to fanatical, near-zealotic devotion. Of particular highlight is Blitzwing, whose personality shifts between an ‘Icy’ strategist, short-fused ‘Hothead’ psychopath and ‘Random’…something.

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Characters on both sides are rapidly revealed to have deep, meaningful pasts behind their at-a-glance basic personalities. We’re treated to Optimus Prime’s past this time around, and we find that, again, no, he isn’t a squeaky-clean hero and he has made mistakes. There are people in high places who genuinely hate him, there are people who died through his mistakes. He genuinely feels his life is over. Since when has Optimus fucking Prime ever been this much of an actual character? With depth? And feelings?

Bumblebee and Bulkhead, the comic relief characters, are shown to have been bullied and demeaned for their entire lives, desperate to prove themselves and ultimately failing. Prowl, a delinquent in his youth, was conscripted to fight in the Great War, and became a deeply spiritual warrior. Ratchet, the crotchety old war veteran, is quickly established to have actual post-traumatic stress, a millennium of horrid actions weighing heavily on his mind – a past that comes to haunt him when a bounty hunter comes to Earth seeking further trophies.

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This bounty hunter, Lockdown, is a factionless Transformer, only interested in the profit from conflict and not the war itself. He takes jobs from both Autobots and Decepticon alike, killing and stealing parts from them to add to himself. He is walking evidence of the show’s more muddied take on the traditionally gleaming-white and blacker-than-black morality, and he’s in the show kicking ass and taking names as early as episode seven.

Transformers Animated paved the way for more mature takes on Transformers than we were otherwise used to seeing, and the media that followed it – Prime, More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light – rank as some of my favourites too. But if you need a totally fresh perspective on the franchise, if all you know is the films – then there’s no better show to watch than Animated.

Panty & Stocking: Best in Crass

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Where the fuck do I begin with this one? It’s got a title that sounds like something you’d say if you were making fun of weird anime titles. It looks like a low-budget Flash cartoon from mid-2005. Its box has an 18 rating on it with no reason given, and the blurb reads like a 14-year old wrote it:

Panty and Stocking – the Anarchy Sisters – are two nasty-ass angels who got booted from the pearly gates for being foul-mouthed bitches! Now they spend their nights blowing up ghosts in the seedy abyss between Heaven and Earth. Panty likes sex, Stocking likes sweets, their afro-sporting main man Garterbelt has a fetish we can’t mention. Together, they’re turning the mean streets of Daten City into a buffet of bodily fluids. Ghosts don’t stand a chance against their lingerie of mass destruction, and if this debaucherous duo can collect enough Heaven Coins, they just might get their halos back. It’s a slim chance in hell, but anything can happen when you’re rolling commando, especially with Panty and Stocking!

And – after watching it – I can categorically say that this show is a complete masterstroke and is my third favourite anime of all time. There’s something very right about all of this! Or something extraordinarily wrong with me.

In what will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, this show strikes a noticeable chord right off the bat by being a Japanese animated series intentionally designed to look like a Western kid’s show, but with ridiculously over-the-top action that befits where it’s truly from. It’s what I can best describe as The PowerPuff Girls by way of a truckload of Columbian cocaine; completely without restraint or rational thought, and screaming all the way to the end. While on fire.

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The description has the full synopsis on lock; much like a Western cartoon of the time, every episode is split into two 11-minute mini-episodes that feature Panty and Stocking fighting ghosts to buy their way back into Heaven. Each mini-sode is its own self-contained story, featuring the sisters up against a villain of the week, before a climactic fight sees them blast the ghost into smithereens with them maybe learning something along the way. Or not.

The artwork may look simple, but this show has absolute bucketloads of energy, with every word of dialogue and moment of action characterised by incredibly visceral presentation that lends a powerful sense of character to the whole thing. Sound effects burst out of things in explosions of onomatopoeia, dozens of moving objects swarm across every frame, and – as a masterstroke – the animation changes styles on a whim to fit the humour, ranging from crazed Western to standard anime to claymation.

And the soundtrack – dear God, the soundtrack – it’s packed to breaking point with dozens of catchy dance tunes that set your heart racing.

The dialogue is laugh-a-minute, too. Taking absolute refuge in being the most crass and offensive sequence of events you’re likely to ever have seen crammed into an 11-minute period, the show carries itself like an episode of South Park, with nearly every line more objectionable than the last. It’s not for the feint of heart, but at least for me and the friend I watched it with, it had us in complete hysterics.

The dub is recommended without question, by the way. Jamie Marchi and Monica Rial bring the noise as Panty and Stocking, respectively, with Christopher Sabat pulling out all the stops as loud, proud, badass black preacher-man Reverend Garterbelt. The dub goes completely off-script, with the voice actors audibly trying to one-up each other to make the show as fantastic as possible.

The one downside the show has, if anything, is that it gains any semblance of a plot at all.

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After five episodes (so technically ten) of Panty & Stocking dealing with a different villain each time, we get the first full 22-minute episode in which we’re introduced to Scanty & Kneesocks, essentially their polar opposite demon rivals. The episode itself is fantastic; there’s a fight scene that lets the entire show come to a climax (ha, ha, ha) and we get the real sense that there is actually some kind of growing story to everything that’s going on.

This is all well and good, but in the aftermath of the episode we go back to the regular mini-sodes, only this time Scanty & Kneesocks are the villains behind every single one. They get found out, they scarper, the end, and this keeps happening until we hit the actual final episode, by which point I’d just like them to go away. For such an otherwise self-aware and subversive show, it’s disappointing to see it become just another example of its forebears.

Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is a superlative example of anime that’s recommended to anyone looking for a rip-roaring amazing time. Highly recommended.

Planet With: Plot Without

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I’ll level with you. I watched every second of Planet With, every week like clockwork. And even now, I have to have the plot summary up in front of me to remember what happened. This show collided with my brain and bounced clean off, like a wrench coated in Teflon.

And what really bothers me is that I think this just might be me.

I don’t ever want to come off as a contrarian. There’s stuff I like that’s not generally liked, and there’s stuff I don’t gel with that the vast majority really enjoy. And so it is with most people – but the sheer rapturous praise this show has garnered beggars belief to me.

Well anyways, now that I’ve finished the episode… well damn, that was a ride. I already miss it, and I’m kind of struggling with how to put my thoughts on the finale into words.

I’ll put some of my own words to good use! This show is vanilla ice cream! And it’s melted!

Planet With (no, I don’t know what the title means) centres on Soya Kuroi, a hot-tempered young boy who lives with a green-haired maid and a giant purple cat. Suddenly a giant bag of peas appears in the sky and a bunch of magical warriors climb into mechs to fight it. Soya is granted a mech of his own and wades into battle – only he is tasked with defeating the soldiers!

If this is all reminding anyone of Gurren Lagann, it’s basically because this show comes across as a heavily diluted version of the exact same premise, only with no remaining aspects of what made that show so good.  For example, much like Lagann, this show makes no fucking sense on an episode to episode basis, but unlike it there’s no payoff that grants these moments any context.

So you get what I’ll refer to as ‘anime fight politics’. Characters will pontificate on philosophical matters before throwing titanic attacks at each other. The soundtrack goes into loud bass to show the attacks have serious impact. There’s enough time for every character to livetweet their feelings before BOOM, the villain shatters into a million pieces and the day’s won.

The actual overarching plot is revealed piecemeal as things escalate; there’s an interstellar force called Nebula, who wish to ‘seal’ Earth to prevent it from becoming too powerful, and the reason given for this growth in power is their capacity for love.

The plot quickly devolves into alphabetti spaghetti. There’s actually a splinter faction of Nebula, the ‘pacifists’, who want to let Earth be free. This latter faction is where Soya finds himself, deprived of eating meat and maladjusted to the world, and there’s also a dragon who was responsible for destroying worlds, but he might have been reincarnated as the leader of this group of soldiers, but they’re being manipulated by the Sealing Faction and they use magic space dust to fight the invading monsters, not knowing that they’re up against the very same entity that’s helping them. Why is it helping them again?

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It’s time to use my secret special move! It’s the same one from last episode!

The monsters make them experience their own backstories, but they beat them by recognising that it’s a dream, and then they explode into cotton wool. But then Soya fights them and takes the powder they’re using, and then they expound on some philosophical bullshit and everyone goes home.

Look, I feel I’m comparing this show too much to its forebears, but I can’t illustrate enough just how little it lives up to their standards. The characters are less memorable, the mecha designs more amorphous, the music devoid of the pure effortless hype. Even the attacks don’t carry the same weight; the same attack – “Giga Cat Hammer” – and two additional variants thereof don’t hold a candle to the intensity on display in a show that aired over a decade ago.

The ideas on display here are excellent. Reading back this article, I find myself wanting to watch this show, that these concepts seem cool, only to remind myself that no, I watched all of it. The animation is wonderfully crisp and well-done, courtesy of JC STAFF. The characters are all voiced with the appropriate intensity for a show with this much screaming in it, and the opening and ending sequences are stuffed with sumptuous detail.

But there’s nothing there. If DARLING in the FRANXX stays in place as the most disappointing anime of the year, Planet With has to take the spot as the least…well, anything. It’s visual design and premise piqued my interest, it drew me in with the hints here and there of a story yet to come, and it so completely failed to impact me in any conceivable way that I feel I’ve spent five hours of my life eating Styrofoam packing peanuts.

It is not recommended.