Welcome to the first Light Novel Club discussion of 2020! Our discussion this month is on Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Vol. 1, in which a gamer dares to take on the “game” of real life. We have quite the discussion for this title coming up, so strap yourself in and join @jeskaiangel and I for a deep dive not just into the story, but also what even is a “game” in the first place!
1. What are your general impressions of the novel?
Jeskai Angel:My impression of the novel = Video games + Proverbs / Ecclesiastes + My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong as I Expected + Self-help booklet + Optimism.
stardf29: I’ve got nothing to add; you did the math on that perfectly.
2. What are your thoughts on the characters in the novel?
Jeskai Angel: As I observed Tomozaki, I strongly had the sense that I was watching an alternative version of Hachiman Hikigaya from a parallel universe. His opening monologue sounds every bit as cynical, jaded, and bitter as something Hiki would say. But, crucially, Hiki is actively resistant to changing and finds a sense of moral superiority in not “conforming.” Hiki’s story kicks off because his teacher tries to help him change for better, but (at least as of vol. 1) he begrudges this meddling in his life and resists every step of the way. The two parallel universes diverge because when NO NAME / Aoi also offers Tomozaki the chance to change, he willingly (albeit skeptically) embraces the opportunity. That difference lends the whole story a far more hopeful, optimistic tone than My Youth Romantic Comedy.
I could spend more time contrasting the other characters of this LN and My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong as I Expected, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that I think the girls of both stories bear further comparison.
Aoi is an interesting twist on the “perfect girl” trope. First, one doesn’t commonly see that sort of character AND have them be an unapologetic hardcore gamer (you sometimes see the “perfect girl who’s secretly an otaku” figure, but not one like Aoi who displays no sense of shame about her nerdy hobby). The other thing that subverts the “perfect girl” trope is that we learn quickly that Aoi wasn’t always “perfect” and in fact works incredibly hard to maintain her sterling image. She’s not just magically perfect thanks to inherent natural awesomeness. I feel like the rest of the cast is well written, but they don’t necessarily stand out in any exceptional way. Hopefully they’ll get more chances to shine in the future.
stardf29: That’s a good compare and contrast between Tomozaki and Hachiman. Hachiman’s constant cynicism and the commentary that comes from that is entertaining in its own way, but as a character, I really like how Tomozaki actually tries to make more of real life, and he gets some cool moments out of it, such as when he stands up for Nakamura when other girls start trash-talking him. Oh, and he’s a gamer, too, which I guess earns him some extra cool points for me.
I definitely appreciate Aoi having had to work hard to become the “perfect girl”, for the reason you mentioned. What I also like about that aspect is that it has shades of the “secret of the popular girl” trope where the guy finds out the popular girl’s secret and they grow closer because of it, which I often enjoy.
The other side characters definitely interested me a lot. While they might not have a lot of development yet at just one volume in, they do have very strong base characterizations with their own motivations and don’t feel like one-dimensional tropes; I’m definitely looking forward to what role they play in future volumes.
3. What do you think about the various gaming references and the use of video games in the story?
Jeskai Angel: Am I right in thinking that Atafami is a coded reference to the Super Smash Bros. series? Between the name and some of the characters mentioned, I had a distinct suspicion that the story was making a nod toward a very specific real-life game/series. The rest of the gaming references that I recall were all more general nods to various tropes and common features of video games, things common enough that they didn’t require knowledge of any particular game to understand. I enjoyed the references and use of gaming concepts as metaphors for real life.
stardf29: Yes, Atafami is pretty clearly a mock-up of Smash Bros. (“Smash Brothers -> Attack Families”), with their own versions of Fox (“Foxy”) and Sheik (“Found”; this one took a while to figure out, but it’s pretty clever; “Sheik” sounds like “Seek”, especially with Japanese pronunciation, so you have “Seek” -> “Found”).
The whole thing is pretty amusing since I have some vague familiarity with the competitive Smash scene (though I’m not a competitive Smash player myself), so a lot of the portrayals of the whole gaming aspect of the story are just that much more interesting to me.
4. What do you think about the various “life tips” in the story?
Jeskai Angel: Ooh, yes! I have mixed feelings about the life tips. On the one hand, I think there’s some real truth to Aoi’s advice. I sort of wish someone had given me some of this advice back when I was in high school (of course, I was such a trainwreck at that point in my life that Aoi’s coaching wouldn’t have been nearly enough to help me).
On the other hand, sometimes Aoi’s view feels a little too much like self-made man-pull yourself up by your own bootstraps-rugged individualism. It paints this overly positive picture of how if you just work hard, your life will be great and everything will work out well. That’s how I used to think life worked (thanks, American culture), but then life proved me wrong. I think Tomozaki has a legitimate point when he says that life doesn’t always have a right answer, that trying hard doesn’t guarantee the desired outcome, and that some people have massive, unearned advantages over others. No matter how long and how hard you try, there’s no promise that you’ll get what you want out of life. Maybe Aoi’s perspective doesn’t go quite that far, but it treads close at times.
This tension, where each of the two leads has some valid points, is where my reference to Proverbs and Ecclesiastes above fits in. The book of Proverbs paints an extremely optimistic view of life: if you live according to wisdom, things will be great. And to be clear, it’s not entirely wrong. But then Ecclesiastes comes along and says not so fast: no matter how wise / rich / strong / whatever you are, bad things may still befall you. If nothing else, we’re all gonna die no matter what we do. I suspect that Ecclesiastes sometimes presents an unduly cynical outlook on life, and that things aren’t necessarily quite as bad as you might think if you only read Ecclesiastes. But Ecclesiastes also has a valid point that life isn’t as easy as you might think if you only read Proverbs.
stardf29: You bring up something that one could make an entire dissertation on: the conflict between “do everything you can to improve things” and “there are some things in life we cannot control”. Ideally, these two ideas would work together: we take action where we can, while giving the things we cannot control up to God. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lean too much into one direction or the other. Tomozaki’s initial stance is too much into “there’s too much I cannot control”, and he includes stuff he does actually have control over to improve his life. Aoi, on the flip side, is perhaps trying to take control over too much. I think it’s pretty telling how, in the final confrontation, she’s ultimately not able to do anything when things take an unexpected turn until well after the fact.
Overall, while I liked a lot of Aoi’s tips, I do have one notable gripe. The whole thing about getting Tomozaki a girlfriend is a bit weird but ultimately, not too bad. However, when she tried to get him to ask Fuka out over their supposed shared interest in a particular author, despite Tomozaki lying about said interest, that definitely rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like Aoi was telling him to do whatever it takes to “win” the game, even if it means lying and deceiving others. I’m glad he ultimately chose not to listen to her and tell the truth to Fuka, and it seems like they still have the chance for some development later.
Jeskai Angel: I had forgotten about the whole “lie about liking this book to get a girlfriend” incident until you brought it up. Yeah, I really appreciated that Tomozaki averted tons of rom-com tropes by taking the first opportunity to correct the misunderstanding, instead of creating an extended series of painfully awkward situations where he struggles to maintain the lie. I wonder…Aoi generally comes across in a fairly favorable light, but does this case hint at a darker side to her character?
You also make a really interesting point in framing the climactic defense-of-Nakamura scene in terms of Aoi being unable to do anything when the situation gets out of hand. It does seem to speak to her limitations.
stardf29: “Darker side” perhaps, but to the extent that every realistic person has some sinful tendencies to her; in her case, it’s a willingness to fudge the truth in order to do what she wants to get done. (If I may say, she seems to be very much a Type 3 on the Enneagram.)
5. How much do you agree with the idea that “life is a game”?
Jeskai Angel: So, Tomozaki and Aoi both accept from the outset that life is a game. They don’t debate whether life is a game, but rather whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Consequently, the book skips over a crucial question: what exactly is a “game?” It’s hard to say for sure whether life is a game, or how good of a game it is, if we don’t know what we mean when we say “game.” Certainly I can see validity to a lot of the book’s metaphors. There really are times when there are substantive parallels between real life and video games. But does the fact that life and games are sometimes similar justify going all the way to the point of saying life actually is a game in any meaningful sense? I’m not so sure. My gut says no. However, I would offer the caveat that I can imagine it’s possible to come up with a coherent definition of “game” for which real life would qualify.
stardf29: Oh boy, the “what is a game” question is another one that you could make a whole research paper on.
Maybe a game like Smash Bros isn’t the best metaphor for life… but what about a game like Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon? Those are games that break somewhat from the usual definition of a game, while still being classified as a game, and it’s a bit easier to see parallels with real life with those games.
But the key question here really does seem to be: What exactly is a “game”? Again, I could dive really deep into this topic, but for a basic definition, I like to think of games in four parts: player input, the “programming” which take those inputs and create results, the goals that players try to achieve, and the rules which are known to the players and help them make choices on their inputs. A game, therefore, is a situation where, given certain known rules, you decide on a goal or goals to achieve, and then make inputs and see what results the programming gives back; based on those results, you may either continue on with making inputs, or change one or more of your goals; you can even create a “game within a game” by setting a smaller goal and trying to achieve that goal first before returning back to your original goal.
For example, in, say, Super Mario Bros., your overarching goal is to reach the end and rescue the princess, which requires you to complete several sub-goals of completing the individual levels. Within the game, you are aware of the various rules of the game (move right, don’t touch enemies or fall into pits, collect power-ups for help) and then you start making your inputs to get Mario to the end.
Given this fairly wide-encompassing definition of a “game”, I think it’s possible to classify real life as a game. You have rules that are known and more or less govern what you can and cannot do (things like laws), and from there you decide on goals you want to accomplish, and then you make your “inputs” (a.k.a. personal choices) and then see what results come from the “programming” and adjust further goals/inputs accordingly. The only real difference here is that the “programming” is far more complex than what computers are (currently) limited to. That said, it’s not like there’s no “programming” whatsoever, since things like scientific laws exist. (The inputs of fellow humans may complicate things but lots of multiplayer games have that, so…)
In that sense, I can see how Aoi approaches the “game” of life. She tries to understand the rules as much as she cans, she has certain goals she wants to achieve, and she starts making “inputs” towards those goals. And as she starts accomplishing those goals, she gets the enjoyment of “winning” at the game (or at least that goal). If my approach to life differs from hers, it largely lies in having different goals from her to start with.
Now that I think about it, there is an important “fifth” part of a game: the positive feelings that come from “winning” the game, or rather, accomplishing goals within that game. It’s why we play games, after all. The exact nature of those “positive feelings” can vary depending on your goals, from the feeling of empowerment and domination after defeating a human opponent, to the sense of pride and accomplishment from getting 100% completion, to the satisfaction of the ending of a good story. And in real life, there’s definitely a good feeling from putting in effort, getting results, and fulfilling goals.
Jeskai Angel: I remembered this interesting column by game designer Mark Rosewater (https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/what-game-2018-06-04). He defines a game as “a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance.” Your definition and his agree about the importance of input / agency, rules / restrictions, and goals (whether invented by the player or established by the designer). But you differ regarding the lack of real-world relevance. MaRo holds that having the purpose of entertainment or education, as opposed to practical necessity, is a fundamental part of what distinguishes games from real life.
stardf29: That’s a great article overall, and if I combine “rules” and “mechanics” into “limitations” I would mostly agree with it… but I definitely disagree about games needing to be “separate” from real life. It feels like a meaningless distinction; if I want to make a game out of cleaning my apartment or something, I don’t see how the real-life application somehow makes it not a game.
Instead, I would replace that “lack of real-life relevancy” with that last element I mentioned: the explicit pursuit of the positive feelings that come from achieving the goals. The reason most people don’t, to use the example in the article, consider packing for a trip as a “game” is that they simply have no desire to experience the pleasure of figuring out how to optimize packing; they just want to get the job done. However, someone might decide that, yes, they’re going to figure out the optimal arrangement for their packing, and then, after getting everything into the optimal arrangement, relish in the rush of having solved the puzzle.
In a way, then, what makes something a “game” is, in part, mentally thinking of it as a game–that a game is whatever you want to be a game (as long as goals, restrictions, and agency are also in play). And this is likely what helped Aoi be so successful: she chose to view several parts of life as “games” where others just saw it as “just life”. And Tomozaki has now adapted that mindset too. Now, I do think there are times where it’s best not to think of real life as a “game”; the example of a pilot flying a real plane is probably one of those times. (Though if the threat of death makes something not a game, I guess the Aincrad part of Sword Art Online isn’t a game…) That said, there may very well be several times in real life when thinking of something as a game may be just what gives someone that motivational kick to get something done, so… perhaps, at the very least, it’s worth consideration.
Jeskai Angel: Hmm… It occurs to me that babies and children learn through play. It seems that God has hardwired us to learn about the world through play-type behavior. And if play is fundamental to us from the earliest stages of development, perhaps the idea of life as a whole being a game has more validity than I’m giving it credit for.
Jeskai Angel: In the opening monologue, Tomozaki says this:
“Since ancient times, tons of brilliant scientists have been conducting experiments to search for a Law of Everything that explains the rules of our world. They still haven’t found it. Since ancient times, tons of brilliant philosophers have been wrapping ideas up in logic trying to figure out the meaning of life—in other words, life’s concept.”
This is where I’d raise my hand and say that Christianity has an answer to this question. The “Law of Everything,” the basis of all the rules in our world, the source that connects everything else, is Jesus. That’s what John 1.1 is getting at when it describes Jesus as the Logos. All the rules are established and upheld by him. And of course life’s “concept” is to know and love God.
Jeskai Angel: On a couple of occasions, one character criticizes another (first Tomozaki to Nakamura, then Aoi to Tomozaki) for dismissing a pleasure they’d never experienced as boring or meaningless. This is really quite profound. It was super relatable when Aoi calls out Tomozaki on this, because I have done the same thing. I can easily come up with examples from my own life where, because I didn’t have opportunity to enjoy something, I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t really all that great anyway, that I didn’t really want or need it, and so it was fine if I didn’t have it. At least in some of these cases, I’ve realized later that maybe that thing was more valuable than I’d been willing to admit while I was coping by lying to myself. The story was a good reminder about the need to be honest with ourselves.
stardf29: Yep, that’s the good ol’ sour grapes fable (the fox who can’t reach the grapes decides they must be sour). And yes, it’s best to be honest with yourself, or at the very least, don’t put down others who do have things/experiences you don’t have.
Jeskai Angel: Looking back, I realized it’s kind of cool the way the story building up Aoi to be so amazing actually serves to increase my respect for Tomozaki as a gamer. Here’s this girl who, much like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way. Whether in beauty or academics or athleticism or popularity or whatever, she is unsurpassed thanks to her combination of talent and incredible hard work. And then you tell me that in one respect, she gets totally outclassed by someone else, despite putting forth the same hard work at Atafami as she did to reach the pinnacle in every other area of life. And it really starts to sink in just how insanely skilled Tomozaki must be to be able to capable of trouncing her as he does.
stardf29: Honestly, having seen how insane top-tier Smash Bros. play is, I’m more impressed with Aoi being able to even basically become the second-best player in Japan in the first place, especially with everything else she’s doing for real life as well. They do go a bit into how she does it (she purposely gets into disadvantageous situations to learn how to get out of them, sacrificing her immediate win-rate for long-term improvement), but even then, getting to the top ranks is no easy feat and it shows how dedicated she really is. And, of course, Tomozaki himself is impressive for being able to beat her regardless, though I guess since I’m familiar with top-tier Smash players, it’s pretty easy to picture how good he is (or at least as easy as looking up some YouTube videos).
What do you think about Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Vol. 1? What do you think counts as a “game”? Share your opinion in the comments!
As a reminder, on February 21st, we will be covering Vol. 3 of Infinite Dendrogram, so if you plan on joining us for that and haven’t finished it yet, get to reading!