Imagine for a moment that it’s a dull Sunday afternoon and you’re perusing the fantasy section at your local library. One book in particular catches your eye because it has a badass black dragon on the cover and you think nothing in the known universe is more badass than a badass black dragon. Now, let me ask you this: when you check that book out and crack it open, at what point during the story would you expect the dragon to show up? The more scholarly among you might have an answer something along the lines of, “When it’s appropriate for the story,” but let me go ahead and slap you with a great, thick textbook titled Expectations and tell you that that answer is dead wrong. The correct answer is NOW. The reader wants the dragon to show up NOW. As soon as possible is also an acceptable answer.
The second we see the cover of a book or the commercial for an upcoming video game or watch a video essay on why a film is a sociopolitical commentary on modern American society, we obtain an instant image of what that work will be like, and we maintain that image until some other covert agent changes our mind or we experience it for ourselves. In our aforementioned example with badass black dragons, unless you’re hyping it up throughout the book for a last minute debut because it’s basically god, the reader wants that dragon to appear as soon as is reasonably possible. Otherwise, they’ll be reading through it going, “Where’s my motherfucking dragon?”
Motherfucking dragons, of course, are not the inspiration for this blog post, as I’m sure you guessed from the title, but the OEL light novel My Best Friend Is Dense Harem Main Character-kun, But Why Am I the Heroine?! is. The story’s narrated by two protagonists, the first of which is your average high school boy. He has a name. I don’t remember what it is. So I’ll just call him Bob. The other protagonist is the protagonist of your common anime harem. His name is Hiro, which is play-on of hero, as in he’s the hero of the story. It’s a name choice I would roll my eyes at if it wasn’t something I’d probably be guilty of myself.
The story goes that Bob is best friends with Hero, and by best friends, I mean that they’re a single accidental hand brush away from hot, passionate yaoi action, but there’s no sweaty guy-on-guy, because both leads are straight, allegedly. Their problems of causing the local fujoshi population to become anemic are solved when they one day make some wishes at a shrine and Bob wakes up the next morning to find that his new theme song in life is Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like a Lady, because he now is a lady.
That premise right there for me inspired images of hilarious romcom high-jinks between the two leads, starting with the realization that Bob with a Vagina (whom I suppose I should be referring to as Alice now) will not longer be able to enjoy the luxury that is urinating standing up. But I read and read the book, and halfway through, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying it all that much. It didn’t occur to me at first why. Nothing in the story was terrific, but none of it filled me with the same dread that Square One did.
Then it hit me, like some sentient agent slapping me with a great, thick textbook titled Expectations.
The reason for my anhedonia was because it hadn’t met my expectations.
In my last blog post, I talked about how authors should consider holding off on giving the characters in the story, and by extension the readers, what they want so that the moment they obtain said wanted thing is all the more gratifying. But this time, I’m going to pull an about-face and tell you to do the exact opposite.
Some of you might be likening me to a politician now and are taking to Twitter so you can write me mean tweets and anyone who likes me mean tweets, but hold off on that for a minute, because unlike a politician, I’m going to explain myself, and also unlike a politician, a large corporation didn’t pay me to change my mind.
The difference between a delayed reward and the reason a person picks up a piece of media is “it depends.” “Depends on what?” Depends on the person. One person might pick up Tales of Zestiria for funny interactions between its characters during skits, while another might pick it up because they’re a lifelong fan of JRPG epics. The former might come away from the game satisfied that they got to see fun character conversations, whereas the former might grow bored partway into the story when they see how bland it is and realize that it’s only going to get blander as it chugs along.
Pick-me-ups vary from person to person, but generally, no matter what it is, unless the person knows they won’t get it until a latter part of the story, they want it now, and if they can’t have it now, they had better get it as soon as possible. Even if they pick up a romance to see Male Character and Female Character become an official couple, they at the very least want to see them interact and hold hands and get the blushies from time to time to keep the romance ball rolling.
Delays are the final reward, the big payoff for the hard work put in by the player/the reader/the viewer. It’s the thing that all the pick-me-up moments are leading up to. A gamer may pick up a Pokémon game to catch and build the most OP team since six Mega Rayquaza, but none of those battles mean jack if they don’t build up to you becoming the Pokemon League Champion.
There’s no legally binding law stating that the two are mutually exclusive. I doubt there’s a single person alive today who has picked up a Lovecraft story specifically to not read about his cosmic horrors, but if you pick up any one story at random, the cosmic horror featured in it never shows up till the end. The rest is purple prose buildup leading up to the final pages, so they’re in effect a delay. But Lovecraft’s eldritch abominations work as delays due to the weight of their in-universe scale and the shortness of most of the stories they appear in. It’d be off-putting if one showed up on the second page and was all, “Hey, what’s up? I’m just gonna chill for the next twelve pages now while the narrator describes in great detail the cracks in the ancient Egyptian porter pots.”
So when an artist sits down to make a thing, how exactly do they control the expectations their target audience will have before cracking open their work for the first time? Based on what they’re making, the answer is “it depends,” but that’s the answer only after release. Beforehand, it’s all about marketing.
My Best Friend Is A Generic Protagonist, But Why Am I Also A Generic Protagonist?! nails marketing. Line it up with a selection of other light novels straight from AnimeLand itself and it’s difficult to tell that it’s a western-made product. Its cover is reminiscent of series like Oreimo or Oreigaru, it’s got the long-ass title to boot, and its very setup is born from the molten sludge that all works drink from when they’re baptized as an anime, manga, or light novel. From all this alone, it sticks a seed of specific expectation in the reader’s mind before they smash that buy button.
But because we live in the age of the internet, where the common man, woman, and twelve-year-old is prone to making YouTube videos on anything and everything from intelligent, thoughtful video essays on an aspect of an industry to some guy who lets huge-ass insects go for Sunday evening strolls on his hands, and sometimes his face, anyone who wants to talk about a book/movie/video game can. Consequently, the power for setting up the expectations for a new, potential buyer falls out of your hands and into those doing the talking. For example, someone who has never played Bioshock Infinite before might see this video and go into the game afterwards with a wide-eyed giddiness, but if that same someone saw this video, they’d be more skeptical of the product they’re purchasing.
The funhouse that is Doki Doki Literature Club leans heavily on the player’s expectations of your common visual novel in its setup so that it can pull the rug out from their feet and kick them with some fucked up shit. This video goes into the nitty-gritty, but the game goes out of its way to dress itself up as a dating sim that promises one of several waifus for the taking, only to destroy those sweet delusions with some fucked up shit. Puella Magi Madoka Magica pulls a similar trick, luring the viewer into what appears to be another magical girl show among the rabble, before at the end of episode three going, “Nah, just kidding. There’s some fucked up shit in this, too.”
Neither Doki Doki Heart Failure Club nor Magical Madoka meet the expectations they set, yet that didn’t stop them from becoming hugely popular. Had Ioki Ioki remained a cute slice-of-life dating sim and Whimsical Madoka a magical girls series, even if they were both well-written, neither probably would be the big hit they are.
An aversion of expectations, however, doesn’t automatically equal critical acclaim. The example I was originally going to use to illustrate this claim was School Days, which I hadn’t seen but knew the gist of. My assumption was that it was up to a certain point an unimaginative slice-of-life romance that took a hard look at itself in the mirror during its final couple episodes and said, “Well, nobody’s gonna remember me for who I am, so I might as well murder everyone, ’cause, ya know, love hurts, and so do kitchen knives in the lungs.”
But I decided to do five minutes of research by reading the episode synopses and discovered that the show’s fucked up in its first thirty seconds (I don’t know about you, but guys taking pictures of their crushes and setting them as their phone wallpapers are clear red flags that some fucked up shit is about to go down). There’s a lot more wrong with School Days than a boogeyman streaking out of left field during the final inning, but my initial assumption flips over another facet of audience expectations: genre shifts.
Genre shifts are tricky deals that require a certain finesse to handle properly. You can start off with any genre you want and theoretically mold it into any other genre, but doing so requires tact and a careful hand. Screw up and it’ll slash at you and your audience. A proper real-world comparison is to think of your genre as a cat and the genre shift as dunking the feline into a water-filled bathtub. Kitty’s not gonna be happy.
They’re best done early on, when the audience is still getting acclimated to the setting and the characters or soon after they’ve settled in. Otherwise, when you’re in the third act of a gritty hardcore battle series and the protagonist decides he’s going to give up fighting to start his own YouTube gardening channel, the audience is going to look at him and go, “Excuse me, but what the hell are you doing?” Having the narrative pull these crazy angle switches from out of nowhere is like your spouse confessing on your deathbed that they’re Nyarlathotep. It’s enough of a dramatic revision to your experience to give you pause and make your wonder if you’ve had a strange fetish all along.
I might be wrong, but I suspect the reason Hoki Hoki and Mystical Madoka have garnered such praise, aside from being really good, is that they take the expectations of their viewers and throw them underneath a runaway eighteen-wheeler. If either was your usual visual novel or another magical girls show, their fifteen minutes of fame would have come and gone with the tide that is the 21+ new games per day on Steam or the 40+ new anime per season. I’m not attempting to undercut either works’ success, but they’re renowned for the twists they deliver to their respective mediums. Twists get people talking, which is great for directing attention to the twisty work but creates a unique situation for those that relied on common genre presuppositions to blow minds with their subsequent turn of events.
The thing about Eoki Eoki and Supernatural Madoka is that because they’ve drawn so much attention to themselves, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody blissfully ignorant to how either story screws with your mind, and that reverses the expectations a new viewer has, because they’re no longer anticipating casual, lighthearted visual novel relaxation or a playful, charming magical girls heroine’s journey. They know that Aoki Aoki is a psychological horror that enjoys nothing more than messing around with the player, and they know Occult Madoka takes apart the magical girls formula, adds a dash of grimdark and gritty realism to its equations, and glues the numbers back together with a lava-hot adhesive. And because of that, their onset expectations change.
Having an awareness of the horrorfest to come makes sitting through the opening acts like attending a ball where everybody’s serenading to a waltz but catching whispers that there’ll be a thrash metal band crashing through the doorway by the second hour. It adds delay—which I talked about in more detail in my last blog post, just to remind you—and sits you in a mindset of “How is everything going to go wrong?” It’s a far different experience from starting up Roki Roki blind and pondering which lovely waifu you’ll be stripping bear for some hot 2D sexytime. When you know cute, moe girls are about to be psychologically tortured, suddenly which half-naked still image of them looks the best isn’t so much of a concern.
But here’s the Proboscidea in the auditorium—anybody who’s anybody who has talked about Toki Toki or Witchy Madoka has spoiled in the same breath the twists that made corkscrews of their initial expectations, and as a consequence, it’s impossible to hear a recommendation on either without also finding out how fucked up their shit gets (proven by the fact that this blog post itself accomplishes just this). They lose the element of surprise they originally had, and the average content creator on YouTube or random Google blog grapples control over audience envisaging. This isn’t a bad thing, as it means free advertising for the original publisher, but for the artist who’s crazy about maintaining absolute authority on how people experience their works, it can be a nightmare. In a society with liberal freedoms, attempting to prevent people from posting reviews or video essays on your new game or book or puppet show through copyright claims can be like trying to make the world’s ants extinct by stomping on your backyard colony members one at a time. Sure, you might have success cleaning your backyard of the six-legged vermin, but there’s still your neighbors’ backyards, the backyards of all the neighborhoods in your town, the backyards of all the neighborhoods in your homecountry, and all the backyards of all the neighborhoods in the world’s ~200 countries. And that’s not even counting ant colonies that are in people’s frontyards.
At that point, the best a creator can do is anticipate what will be the main talking points of their product after its release and tweak it so that buyers hearing about it through some YouTube bloke can get to those ASAP. Ooki Ooki and Cryptic Madako don’t dawdle in their facades for too long. Poki Poki transitions halfway through its four hour playtime, while Paranormal Madoka rips the wool from the viewer’s eyes at the end of the third episode. When you guess at what your audience will swallow up and regurgitate for others to ooo and aah at, you can start diving deeper beneath the surface discussion and give newcomers something to discover if they decide to go scuba-diving. Soki Soki eventually rips off its sheepskin to reveal a wolf, but if you dissect the wolf, you’ll find that there’s more to it than just kidneys and small intestines. In a similar vein, The Promised Neverland has foreshadowing and later plot revelation hints going on in the background of the art, if the writer is to be believed in his cheeky blurbs in the tankōbons.
Hiding secret codes in a game’s files or the background is just one method of going deeper with your work’s meaning so that you can play with people’s expectations. Perhaps the oldest trick in the book of flipping perspectives on their heads is the plot twist—that infamous trope that all writers love but audience members have mixed reception to depending on how it slots into the narrative. If it was pulled off incredibly with an adeptness, minds will be blown. On the other hand, if the writer handled it with the attitude of “Every great tale has a plot twist!” angry words will be had.
The best plot twists recontextualize how the viewer experiences the narrative and have them view it with a new-colored lens on their second sitting, while middling plot twists don’t do more than add to what’s already been established. An example of a great plot twist is Bioshock (spoilers, FYI). Throughout the game, you’re a badass one-man army who can’t be stopped and won’t be stopped, and you’ve got a buddy over the radio who’s more than happy to provide you guidance on where you need to go and whose favorite thing to say is, “Would you kindly?” Well, turns out that “Would you kindly?” is actually a code phrase designed to manipulate the player into completing whatever command it’s affixed to.
“Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?”
“Would you kindly lower that weapon for a moment?”
“Would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?”
“Would you kindly pass me the table salt?”
I’m sure you’ve noticed, but in any video game ever, there are rules set in place by the designers, and those rules typically read as “you cannot progress to B until you complete A.” In Zelda, you can’t get to the boss room without getting the boss key. In Mario, you can’t advance to the next level until you reach the end of the one you’re on. In Call of Duty, you can’t complete a mission until you put the controller down and realize there are more fulfilling hobbies in life. Bioshock easily could have kept to this mindset, not bothering with the “Would you kindly?” twist, but by adding it and holding fast to video game conventions, it has the player rethink their actions during the course of play and second-guess the sense of agency they’ve tricked themselves into believing they have.
An example of a middling plot twist comes from Tales of Graces, when you find out that the planet you’re on is actually the moon of a much larger planet (spoilers, FYI). It comes as a surprise, sure, but it doesn’t add anything to the overall narrative. It’s no different than if the party hiked over a mountain range and had a new prairie to explore. The only thing I could think as we trekked across the surface of the Jupiter-sized world was, “How are we not being crushed by this planet’s gravity?”
Wow, I’ve gone way off track. I suppose now is as good a time as any to actually talk about the book that inspired this post.
So, what was it about My Best Friend Is The Muffin Man, But Why Am I The Muffin?! that my expectations weren’t met? Well, right away, when Bob with a Vagina wakes up to find that he’s obtained a second X chromosome, he reacts to his overnight transformation with the same apathy as Sophie does in Howl’s Moving Castle when she’s cursed into becoming a 109-year-old fossil. I’m not expecting him to have a radioactive meltdown, but even Your Name made a running gag of Taki fondling Mitsuha’s breasts every time he woke up in her body.
But after Bob with a Vagina accepts the fact that he/she/they/it is/are now a moe girl, the story meanders at a three-toed sloth’s pace. As I stated earlier, my expectation was hilarious horseplay between Bob with a Vagina and Hero, but halfway through the novel, it still had yet to get to those bits. It does all this prepwork for Bob with a Vagina acclimating to a lifetime of pocketless pants, which is fine, as it helps build anticipation and also provides him/her/they/it essentially with an inadvertent disguise to get to know a friend who had been wearing a mask around Bob with a Penis. But after this bit of creative thinking, the pacing train that was chugging along runs out of fuel and needs to dig some out of mountain before continuing on. What I mean by this out-of-nowhere metaphor is that the story switches over to Hero’s perspective, and we get a day in his life, which is a frightening prospect considering how frequently Bob with a Penis occupies his thoughts, but it adds practically nothing to the narrative. It likes to think it is because we’re in another character’s head, but anybody who picks up this book has likely seen enough harem anime to know that there’s nothing to go on in a harem protagonist’s head. You could argue it shows how desperately infatuated Hero is with Bob with a Penis, but it does so at the expense of getting to the parts of the story that are actually enjoyable to read. It was during this segment of the book when I fell out of it, and by the time it did get around to what I was looking forward to, it was too late for me to hawrhawr at them with the right attitude.
When a reader picks up a book or a gamer picks up a video game, they’re doing so for a specific reason: their expectations. That specific piece of entertainment is providing them something they want to experience, and if it doesn’t deliver on that experience or takes too long to do so, they’ll wonder why they bothered picking it up in the first place. A person takes aspirin to cure their headache NOW, not three days later, but they might forgive you if you give them something better than a cured headache, like an erection that lasts four or more hours.
I suppose My Best Friend Is The Sexiest Man In The World, But Why Am I Even Sexier?! could have redeemed itself if I split my sides at its jokes, and while I found some lines worthy of a small chuckle, there wasn’t enough funny material to justify the com part of this book’s rom-com designation. Some might have found this book a riot, and I’m sure those people have a wildly different sense of humor from me, but in my humorless eyes, My Best Friend Is Surreal Humor, But Why Am I The Most Dashing Duck Who Ever Microwaved?! doesn’t understand what makes something funny. It doesn’t go for punchlines, it just expects the scenarios themselves to be funny. The most prominent example of this is the recurring gag of how, after being transformed into a gorgeous gal, everybody who comes within three kilometers of Bob with a Vagina treats him/her/they/it like a goddess. They waive fees and confess feelings of love they’ve had for exactly four seconds. A root of humor, according to incongruity theory, is a twist in the keyword of this entire blog post. So even if a classful of students willing to drop to their knees and swear eternal fealty to Bob with a Vagina is amusing, that’s just setup, and if you play that setup straight, having things pan out as you’d expect occultist high schoolers to behave, you don’t have anything that’s ha-ha funny, and that’s why many of the book’s jokes fell flat for me.
There was something else I was hoping for from My Best Friend Is My Patient Childhood Love Interest, But Why Am I Going To Fall For Some Girl I’ve Known For Exactly Seventeen Seconds?! but its failure to meet these precise expectations is due to my penchant for deconstructive glances at tropes and setups which stories borrow from rather than anything it promised from the onset. To get into specifics, I was expecting this story to shine a spotlight on what it’s like for Bob with a Penis to become Bob with a Vagina—essentially become a transsexual—through no will of his own.
I’m not sure if My Best Friend Is My Best Friend’s Wife, But Why Am I My Best Friend’s Wife?! is aware of this, but women have different bodies from men. Bodies that are smaller, have less muscle mass, and are wont to bleed from their lovely lady bits once per month because, someone’s god forbid, she didn’t go out of her way to get pregnant that month. Being shorter may not seem like a huge life change, but it will be when you can no longer reach the top shelf of a cabinet without a stepstool or a stack of dictionaries.
Beyond physiological changes is Bob’s sexuality. It’s never explicitly stated, but it can be assumed that Bob with a Penis likes girls with vaginas. When he transforms into Bob with a Vagina, since he’s still psychologically the same individual, we can also assume that his sexuality hasn’t swapped. Yet the story hints strongly at Bob with a Vagina someday becoming the bride of Hero, whom we can assume has a penis. This would mean that Bob with a Penis, who is straight, becomes Bob with a Vagina, who then technically becomes gay, but is to wed a man. I don’t know about you, but this is something that would require serious introspective thought and reflection, yet My Best Friend Is A Man Named Long Johnson, But Why Am I Friends With A Man Named Long Johnson?! doesn’t address this the same way we tend to not acknowledge people with differing opinions from out own. Even supposing Bob with a Penis has a hankering for penis, you’d think it’d at least mention that factoid so that I don’t have these paragraph-long ramblings on how confused this makes me.
When you get down to it, I suppose the real reason My Best Friend Is A Background Character, But Why Am I The Background?! didn’t meet my expectations is because I set high expectations with each new story I come into. I’m an individual who gets sick of the mundane and requires new and interesting twists on old tropes and genres so that I don’t feel like browsing for a new book or anime is like shopping at a stale bread store. Due to it being an OEL, my hope was that My Best Friend Is A Moe Girl, But Why Am I Real Boy?! would inject a western influence to eastern-bred character tropes, but rather than do that, it just wholeheartedly embraces them like they were deformed puppies in need of love and care rather than a visit to a proper vet.
An artist can think and ponder his/her work and the flow of it, the plot progression, the plot events, the marketing surrounding it to the point where it theoretically can set their target audience’s expectations to a perfect pitch to get them salivating for the feast to come, but each person brings with them unique tastes and histories which can’t be accounted for. A newcomer to anime might find charm in the accidental grope or gratuitous panty shot, but to someone who’s seen more drawings of panties than there are available selections in the lingerie section of a local department store, unless you spice things up by setting them on fire, it’s a strike in the uninspired column.
My Best Friend Is A Bottle of Wine, But Why Am I Unable To Get Drunk Off My Ass Because Of My Alcohol Intolerance?! isn’t a bad light novel, but it’s not one that’s breaking new molds. It did its best to set reader expectations, and while it met or exceeded some bypassing readers’, it couldn’t live up to those whose were higher and arguably unrealistic, such as mine. It’s not its fault that a monstress like myself came along, but there’s a saying in survival, and it reads that you should expect the best but prepare for the worst. I think that’s an adequate phrase for storytellers to adapt. They should expect the best and most rave reviews but prepare for the those with the most refined tastes by making the best work they can possibly make, and even if it’s still not up to their impossibly high standards, at least they have a damn fine work of art. It’s either that or drop to your knees and beg for mercy when hunters like myself stroll along and then write ruminative 4,900-word blog posts disguised as angry rants on the internet.