Light Novel Club Chapter 36: The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must Be Real, Vol. 1!

As we continue to do the great catch-up on the LNC, we move on to our discussion of the first volume of This Village Sim Game Must Be Real! Jeskai Angel, Gaheret, and stardf29 lead the way with their thoughts on this one (and they’ll be back for our next LNC, too, our final meeting before we revamp the club—read more after the discussion!).

1. What are your overall thoughts on the novel?

Jeskai Angel: My impression the first time I read this volume is that it’s a surprisingly heartwarming story about personal growth, second chances, and familial love. When I re-read this volume for this discussion, the big impression it left was that it’s a fairly creative twist on the “blurred line between games and reality” genre that we’ve discussed before in stories like Infinite Dendrogram and Sword Art Online Progressive. Most of the stories I can think of that play with this ambiguity between “real” vs. “game” use VR and have at least a bit of an isekai-ish vibe. So it’s cool that this story can feel so much more grounded in the world as we know it while managing to raise similar questions about AI, personhood, what is “real,” the meaning we find in playing games, etc. On a different note, while the story isn’t focused on comedy, it did have some really funny moments, like the line “This thing uses more gas than an American car!”

Gaheret: Sloth is one of my biggest fears. The thought that what begins by cutting some corners or spending some time at a less costly activity, something perfectly reasonable when you’re tired or stressed, may end up eating away all your energy for loving and growing terrifies me. There are few things more nightmarish than the perspective of finding out that you have become a lonely social outcast, full of hate, guilt and despair, watching months and years of avoidance and wasted time piling up without a medical or even psychological cause. To feel that you may waste the love and hope you received as a fruitful gift. Argh. That being so, the epic and somewhat miraculous fight against sloth and its wounds kept me hooked from the beginning to the end. Perhaps some parts needed more foreshadowing, and sometimes (I thought) the style could have been better, but the themes are deep and fascinating. This is a remarkable light novel. Real, solid connection and communion are perhaps the deepest wishes of the human heart, and sometimes stories, games and fantasy can help you move. Older cultures which may had lived a harsher life in a cosmos that, nevertheless, may have felt more cohesive and meaningful are helpful too. Though discreet, light novel-ish and very focused on his gamer protagonist’s world, this aspect of the book sometimes made me think of Ender’s Game, Doomsday Book, The age of Diamond or Blade Runner 2049. In short, I’m quite glad that I read this book.

stardf29: I definitely liked how this book used the concept of an overly realistic game while still keeping the “gamer” squarely behind a console/computer. As Jeskai said, normally such stories fall back to VR to simulate reality (if not going straight to the isekai route) and this one explores how a game can feel “real” without some kind of virtual-physical placement in said world. I also liked how the series ties the protagonist’s gaming to how he acts in the real world. Add in some further mystery as to what this “game” actually is, and overall this was definitely a good read. One thing to add here is that the author of this series also wrote Reborn as a Vending Machine, a light novel that is obviously much sillier in tone and definitely quite ridiculous in premise, but one which he actually makes work in a way that I found enjoyable, by actually crafting the story around mechanics and limitations that make sense for a vending machine. Now, this series is not as crazy in concept, but I can still see how the author makes use of the varying elements of his story premise.

2. What are your thoughts on the characters?

Jeskai Angel: Yoshio is relatable…sometimes to a disturbing degree. 😂 A thirty-something guy who lives with his parents, is an oldest sibling, isn’t financially independent, and has issues with self-loathing? Yeah, that hits close to home. That said, Yoshio feels a bit exaggerated (like, how did he manage to never leave the house for years at a time? And how, if he didn’t leave the house in years, was his bike still in rideable condition?), and I’d like to think I’ve done a lot better than Yoshio on a variety of points. But as we all know, light novels / anime / manga disproportionately skew toward having high school age protagonists; I don’t have an issue with that fact, but it was still a nice surprise to find a protagonist to whom I could relate so easily. I also like the (in my opinion) nuanced way the story portrays Yoshio. This isn’t an unrealistic “effort solves all problems” kind of story where just trying hard enough guarantees a positive outcome. Yoshio may place all the blame on himself, but the story doesn’t. Instead, it gives us the the chatlog of his parents’ conversation, in which they essentially say things were NOT as much “all my fault” as Yoshio believed. He’s not wrong about the need to keep trying instead of giving up, but the story indicates that his circumstances are more than just a matter of personal failure (even if he doesn’t see it).

I thought Yoshio’s family was similarly well-written. They are a bit quirky and don’t always deal with things well, but they also truly care about Yoshio and want to support him. And the story balances their care for him with the strain their relationships have faced. Yoshio’s parents and sister have been hurt by the way he gave up; his actions had realistic consequences that went beyond himself. On a slightly different note, I’m kind of suspicious that there’s more going on with Sayuki’s job than we know; her insistence that she loves her work sounded awfully forced.

First, how do you say Chem’s name? I started off thinking of it as a K sound, like the “chem” of “chemistry.” But it could also be a “ch” sound (like “cheese”). Or maybe even something else! LOL. Anyway, I was initially annoyed to see yet another absurdly clingy sibling with incest subtext (like, seriously, can you stop, Japan?!), but Yoshio gets that dream cutscene that hints that she has an abusive background that is responsible for her arguably unhealthy dependence on her brother. I reminded me of a comment stardf29 made on my review of Chivalry of a Failed Knight vol. 1, which has a similar situation. I have a harder time hating these characters when viewing the younger sisters in these stories as abuse victims whose weird obsession with their respective elder brothers is a manifestation of trauma and is supposed to be seen as messed up. I’m still not thrilled by this kind of relationship dynamic, but if we absolutely must have it, I guess this setup makes it a bit more palatable for me. An aspect of Chem that truly appreciated was her role as a, well, religious person (?). It’s always interesting to see how light novels and anime portray devout, non-evil characters, especially given that Japan tends to be…let’s say casual, about religion. Most of the villagers seem to lean that direction, too, but Chem is exceptionally dedicated to praying.

Carol is the best villager. She’s absolutely hilarious! The author again writes skillfully, portraying her as precocious without wandering over the line into unreasonably mature (as child characters are wont to do). And, with fittingly childish carelessness, she instigates this volume’s most intriguing plot twist: the egg. The other three villagers, plus guest-star Murus, are good characters, but not as interesting as Chem or Carol. I did enjoy the scene where Yoshio’s prophecy with a coded warning for Murus causes him to momentarily freak out.

Oh, I need to mention Yamamoto. The story sets us up to suspect he might also be playing the game, then seems to imply it was a red herring when we find out his game-with-an-end-of-month-event is a different genre of game…but I’m not so sure. The way the narrative conspicuously interrupted when Yamamoto tried to say the game’s name seems to foreshadow…something?

Gaheret: Yoshio. There are some pretty interesting mysteries involving our quite convincing and well-depicted gamer protagonist. Not as quirky or comical as, say, Welcome to the NHK‘s Tatsuhiro, he is very relatable and self-aware, and has the psychological scars of his NEET life, as well as some others. We suddenly find out, for example, that he was stabbed by his younger sister’s stalker when she was in high school and, even so, is embarrassed by how he dealt with that situation, as he apparently begged or was prepared to run, or that there was a girl in his life whom he lost in circumstances that are too painful to think of them. As he is healed, he sees others in a way that is less clouded by hate or guilt. The effect of this on his strained relationships with his mother, father and sister, as well as how he relates internally to his villagers is probably the best aspect of the book. That, and the kindness and diligence that he learns as he embraces the role of their “Fate God”.

Mother. Supportive, diligent, discreet, patient and kind, Yoshio’s mother was his lifeline. While she tends to be out of the spotlight (our anxious protagonist tends to focus on his father and Sayuki), the fact remains that her hope in him, even when unrewarded for ten years, is the silent strength that aids this new initiative. I find her grace and kindness are deeply moving, and her continuous efforts to unite the family and make them happy, in those difficult circumstances, are nothing less than heroic. I would go so far as to say that it reminds me of the heroism of mothers like St. Monica or St. Rita. And I’m glad to see that the author knows this.

Father. Serious, silent and less approachable that his mother, Yoshio’s father feels also very realistic and compelling. His son does not work, and he does. In the mind of the former, that makes him terrifying. Many different father-son relationships in anime play out more or less like this, and the slow unveiling of his true motives is deep and satisfying. From his kindness when he was a child, that Yoshio had forgotten, to his wise and helpful words concerning the aid a father must give to his son, to his sudden help in carving wood, to (possibly, as it seems it’s a dream after all) guilt for his hard words in their big fight, he is a magnificent character.

Sayuki. The relationship between Chem and his brother Gams makes Yoshio reconsider his own relationship with his brilliant, beautiful sister, which was once a close one, marked by admiration and mutual confidence, and now it’s not. While still living at home, Sayuki is now an adult with a prestigious career, helping with the finances of the household. She represents, perhaps more than anyone, Yoshio’s real or perceived failures, including his failure at getting a job, his failure as a son, his failure with women and what he sees as his failure to stand up for her. Hers are also the most dismissive comments towards her brother’s NEET state, his hygiene and his habits, and he is very worried that she would see him as creepy. It’s hard to tell apart projection from reality here (as if often happens, some of it may be just the insecurity that leads the other to assume that you despise him or her), and there are hints that her life is not as brilliant as his brother imagines. Perhaps, even, she is under the impression that he resents her for the wound he suffered defending her. Be as it may, when they begin talking, she slowly returns to a point where she would look for his support when facing stalkers, a problem that terrifies her and that caused the wound in the first place, and refers to him as a Japanese sister refers to his brother. She’s also intrigued by the graphics of the game, helps with the dragon (I may be wrong, but…) and Yoshio can even rely on her for watching the game when needed.

On the side of the villagers, things are less brilliant. With the possible exception of Rodice, I find everyone sort of one-note, at least for now. Gams sounds like Guts, and he’s brave and stoic, a man of few words who fights monsters under grim circumstances and takes care of his sister, whom he rescued from a situation of abuse by parents who didn’t work (ouch) and planned to sell her as a slave. Chem is a healer that doesn’t mind getting bloodstained, hardworking, brave and very grateful and devout of the god of fate, very dependent on her brother (which seems to imply trauma) and is always quarrelling with seven-year-old Carol out of… jealousy. To be fair, Carol acts more as if she was eleven or so, and apart from her crush, she’s pretty normal, lending a hand when needed, playing and giving strange offerings to the god. Her mother Lyra is hard-working, and said to be of strong character, having a great influence over his husband Rodice (but they look and sound pretty normal). Murus is courteous, a great asset, an able physician, and maybe a woman in disguise, with a skeptic attitude towards the Fate God and an unclear allegiance to a tribe of mysterious people of the forest. And Rodice, a young father who is reliable and sometimes even a leader, but not a man of action, is perhaps the most compelling and interesting from them all, for now and from my perspective.

Lastly, Yoshio’s boss and his coworkers are nice, normal people performing manual jobs, and sometimes having to endure the demands of dishonest clients. They are a great help in overcoming Yoshio’s work traumas and his social anxiety, and provide him with a path of maturation that, hopefully, will make him able to break his chains. I think that the guy who is devoted to a battle royale may actually be playing our village sim, but on the side of the monsters. If that’s so, it will be an interesting conflict between what Dendrogram would call a “player” and a “worldler”.

3. What are your thoughts on the “village sim game”? Do you think there’s more to it than just a game?

Jeskai Angel: Other light novels have raised very similar questions (i.e., Infinite Dendrogram). This volume really goes out of its way to keep things ambiguous. Maybe a super eccentric game developer is so trusting that they don’t require NDAs. And maybe they make unsolicited offers to people to test their game. And maybe they elect to compensate the testers by fast-shipping them various goods based on what the villagers offer their god (rather than paying testers). And maybe those goods include exotic (relative to Japan) fruit and meat that the testers are unfamiliar with. And maybe this company developed cutting-edge AI and graphics. And maybe that same company is too cheap to buy letterhead with the company’s name on it. And maybe…etc. The story makes a point of showing us it’s possible to explain away any of the strange goings-on. But there are SO MANY! The more oddities appear, the harder it is for me to believe that a bunch of weird but ultimately mundane things are coincidentally happening all at once. I think this is definitely more than just the surface-level “playtest a video game” scenario that it appears to be. And then of course there’s the matter of the egg, and Yoshio’s comments about it…

Gaheret: I think, too, that the idea is to keep things somewhat ambiguous as regards to the reality of the video game which helps our protagonist grow. To be honest, at first I thought that was so in tune with Yoshio’s anxieties that it could be connected to his psyche in some way. Come on, it would have fit perfectly. But only at first. From the first strange-looking yet tasty and even magical food (let’s not forget that Yoshio’s parents are cured from their admittedly minor health issues), it’s clear to me that we are dealing with an isekai of some sort, and that boring office in Yokohama (if I remember well) is in fact the portal. But that’s still somewhat ambiguous (less so since there’s a non-existent shining mineral, and I think that the reptile will dispel all doubts). What gives everything away, though (as in Dendrogram), are the flashbacks. Once we have a story told from a character’s perspective (Carol and Gams), they have personhood. It cannot be otherwise. They may be sci-fi IAs or fantasy world characters in a world that has existed for thousands of years, but they think, feel and act on their own (something that real-world IAs, closed systems unable to be the principle of their own movement, will never truly do). To me, that’s a flaw, though not fatal. Come on, we are talking about a game that creates a deep involvement, is instrumental in the healing of the user, deals with religious concepts and makes you invest considerable quantities of money to avoid the death of beings who you perceive as real. In sci-fi terms, it would be more interesting if that reality was into question, putting the journey of our character in risk. That would be very relevant to the modern world (making existential values into commodities), as well as a good parallel for the other problem. That is, Yoshio pretending to be a god.

4. What do you think of the story’s exploration of what it means to be a god?

Jeskai Angel: Yoshio is quite literally “playing god.” In his case, it means (from the villagers’ point of view) that he’s an invisible, benevolent being who occasionally does them favors. We also see the tired old god-gets-power-from-worship trope repurposed as a gameplay mechanic, which I thought was an interesting twist. Since Yoshio is human, not divine, it only makes sense that he doesn’t actually have phenomenal cosmic power, needs to get it from somewhere, and is thus limited to whatever FP the villagers plus his wallet can provide. Likewise, it was great how Yoshio keeps struggling to write appropriately divine-sounding prophecies, to point that he even starts listening to sermons online (I wonder if he ever listened to recordings from my congregation?). This once again humorously highlighted his inadequacy, the reality that he’s only human. Something that left me feeling rather curious is that the villagers (or at least Chem) already seem to know about the God of Fate before the beginning of the “game,” yet Yoshio wasn’t any kind of “god” until the game started. Is that just evidence that it really is just a game? And if it’s not just a game, how did they know about the God of Fate before Yoshio took on that role?

Gaheret: I agree with Jeskai’s characterisation of Yoshio’s “godhood”. I’ll add that this plot presents both very valuable insights and a great moral problem. These people want to find meaning, wisdom and protection in him. They do it with nobility, trust, devotion and love, and that is beautiful, and inspires him to imitate them and work for their sake. Though they were less interesting, that interaction reminded me of Connie Wills’s Doomsday Book. That’s very appropriate, and has some deep implications. Adam was made in the image of God, and put on Eden to work and co-create with Him, channelling His love for Creation and the rest of humanity, and accepting it both directly and through those other channels. And so, he grows, and the world grows. All of us, not only Yoshio, are the signs of the invisible God for one another, the miraculous health sent to help in saving others. It’s telling, in that respect, how Yoshio becomes able to see his parents and Sayuki in their complexities, discarding his previous view, too distorted by his guilt and fears, when the dream gives him the same God-like perspective of them he has of the villagers. On the other hand, what he tells them is kind, but is it meaningful? He may have a lot of practical insights that they don’t, but isn’t he pretending to have existential insights that he actually doesn’t have? If I thought of them as real people, I would be anxious that they would be willing to change deep aspects of their lives for any random appropriate-sounding phrase that I may had googled that morning. Well-meaning but disastrous false prophets who made up their prophecies are one of the worst problems for Israel. But that’s far ahead, if it actually happens. Dreaming big, an interesting aspect that may have made things even more interesting would be some analogy for the salvation plan. Yoshio wants his villages to survive and prosper, and he loves them. To a point, he sees in them things that nobody else can. I suppose that there will be troubles other than monsters and survival, but what if he had to free them from their own shadows? You’d have a very intriguing story.

Thanks for joining us for this discussion! We have one more “catch up” discuss we’ll be posting soon, on Tearmoon Empire, Vol. 5 where we’ll also talk about changes in the Light Novel Club. Be on the lookout for that post, and until then, keep reading, dear readers!

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