Similes and metaphors make short of long sentences and extremely abstract concepts. When Romeo tells Juliet that his “bounty is as boundless as the sea, / my love as deep; the more I give to thee, / the more I have, for both are infinite”, it’s easy to understand how deep in love he is without saying more.
But “these violent delights” of figurative language “have violent ends / and in their triumph die like fire and powder”. Instead of becoming shortcuts, the little tool has become another weapon to beat the dead horse.
The most egregious example is the comparisons to Dark Souls, an action RPG series by From Software. Its mechanics and atmosphere have impressed players so much that people have started looking and developing games similar to it. Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D Dark Souls-inspired work, so people comparing that to the series makes sense. Others — not really:
- “Has Crash Bandicoot become Dark Souls?”-type videos has inspired a general outlash from video game fans. How can an old video game be compared to something new?
- “Re:ZERO Is NOT What You Think It Is (It’s the Anime Version of Dark Souls)” and other similar blog posts try to hammer down random pieces of media to fit the conventions set by Dark Souls. They don’t always work.
- “List of films similar to Dark Souls” is a Reddit thread with good examples like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a film teemed with “Soulsian imagery”.
This lazy, universal adoption of the Dark Souls-like comparison by fans and video game critics has become quite a huge problem. A video critiquing video game journalists argues it is better to support normal YouTube critics who do native advertising than actual critics because of this. It’s a stupid as hell idea, but people have no faith in the journalism business.
It’s worse when it seeps into the art of the interview. “How much inspiration was taken from Attack on Titan?” asked SegmentNext to the developers of Extinction in this infamous screencap by @xmeetsdarksouls, “Dark Souls is a popular franchise and one of its key features was that it allowed other players to invade the world and take on monsters. Is there a similar system in Extinction? Or are we on our own?” Imagine your own original work being compared to two big established works. It’s disheartening and discourages creativity when all you need to make a good game is to follow market trends.
Some like Patrick Klepek in Waypoint suggest this trend may indicate that Dark Souls may have created a “new genre”. Using Nioh as a reference point, he argues that the game “doesn’t pretend Souls doesn’t exist.” It uses it as a base to move forward, much like how he notes the first first-person shooters are not “Doom clones” but works inspired by the gameplay style. Doom and Dark Souls are genre-defining.
That is an extremely positive outlook on the whole situation. We’re at the beginning of that new era, so we’re throwing words left and right to see what actually works. If that is the case, that’s cool.
Unfortunately, this usage of lazy comparisons is not new. Praising a work by comparing it to something else may be one of the most ancient things to put down a work brimming with creativity. Done well, it’s great. Done awfully, it is a way to wrap our heads to think about something in a more simplified perspective at the expense of the work and creator.
If we dip our toes into the world of books, you’ll see we still talk about Dark Souls but with fancier names instead. José Maria de Eça de Queiros, a Portuguese writer, has written masterpieces like Os Maias. His idol, Émile Zola, considers the writer “far better than [his] own dear master, [Gustave] Flaubert.” You can find articles who call Quieros “the Portuguese Zola”. James Guida in The New York Review of Books calls him “the [Marcel] Proust of Portugal”. None of these articles about the great writer are inherently bad; however, there comes a time when you start wondering why do creators need to be compared to other creators, especially those in America, France, and England.
We don’t have to go too far from our time to find this problem either. When The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was reviewed by The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani who described it as a “glorious, Dickensian novel,” everyone started describing the novel as Dickensian. For example, the writer Stephen King writes on Goodreads, “Tartt proves that the Dickensian novel—expansive and bursting with incident—is alive and well.”
But it is only until later do we have people asking what does Dickensian even mean. Some have noted that it follows the structure of David Copperfield, others talk about the descriptions, maybe it’s the wordiness that is drawing the attention, actually it’s about the huge cast characters, or the episodic style because after all the Dickens novels are serialized, but what about…
I don’t think we’ll ever find an answer to this mystery and it may be better to judge the book by its own standards. Matthew Sherill in The Paris Review best puts it: “The best way to liberate the Dickensian—and the truest way to see it in other works—is to disavow the word entirely.”
On the other side of the globe, Japanese literature is gaining attention from Western readers thanks to the popularity of Murakami Haruki. People want more Murakami. But he can’t write all the time, so what about the other writers?
In his essay about the business of Japanese translations, “The Murakami Effect”, Stephen Snyder calls this phenomenon “the ‘Are there any more like you at home?’ factor, in reference to the almost constant questioning by agents and editors about the next Murakami and my own experience in translating half a dozen writers, such as Natsuo Kirino and Yōko Ogawa, who have been identified, often explicitly on jacket copy, as Murakami-like in one way or another—and often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” No one but Murakami can write Norwegian Wood or Kafka in the Shore; however, the search goes on and it affects translation prospects for other kinds of works.
Zoleiean, Proustian, Dickensian, Murakami-like — all of these are fancier than Dark Souls, but they serve the same purpose. They are comparisons that mean little, but they generate a hype and sense of prestige in the readers. Unlike the Dark Souls comparisons, they are “legitimized” because no one thinks that’s wrong to compare. There’s no account on Twitter called @xmeetsmurakami. This is considered fair game.
And that’s why video game journalists think it’s confusing when they try to do the same thing with Dark Souls. Writers don’t feel remorse for comparing Mario puzzles to Dark Souls at all.
Every time a Japanese video game creator is praised for doing something interesting or off the wall, they are compared to Kojima Hideo. Anime directors who portray a beauty in everyday life are awarded with recognition that they are mimicking Miyazaki Hayao. Anything remotely dark in Japan will be compared to Ghost in the Shell or AKIRA.
These names are what have pleased the Western sensibilities the most, so any work from Japan, Portugal, or even contemporary works from American diasporas has to reach that arbitrary benchmark. If they don’t fulfill that criteria of being Dark Souls-like or whatever-like, the work gets ignored.
We can notice a pattern like that possibly emerging in the world of anime films. While film critics are forever entranced by Ghibli films and Ghost in the Shell, works like Your Name and the upcoming Yuri on Ice film have caused substantial interest from American fans who have not watched anime in years. It is possible that they become the new standards in the eyes of the anime fandom.
Granted, this may not be a thing because distribution of anime films is extremely flawed in the United States; however, the impact of the diversity of films — A Silent Voice and In This Corner of the World come to mind — has affected fans around the world. As the anime industry begins to set their eyes on the silver screen, the new benchmarks are being made. Maybe in the future, anime films won’t be compared to My Neighbor Totoro but Your Name. Films that can’t live up to Your Name‘s specific brand of romance will get the non-Dark Souls-like treatment. They don’t exist.
I honestly doubt we’ll ever get beyond this aspect of criticism. People want to find works that are similar to what they love. All we can do is move the goalposts.
So it feels like the “comparison game” is a strange game where the only winning move is to not play. But it is impossible to forfeit and play chess when we compare works all the time. We subconsciously think works are “Shakespearean” the minute a character enters a soliloquy about revenge. We compare structures of stories to five acts as if they are plays by the Bard. That’s the name of the game.
No matter what new rules you may put in the game, you’re still playing the comparison game.
The lack of passion — or should I say, the lack of soul — in the comparison can be attributed to so many factors anybody can be right if they just blurt out a word. It’s the critics’ fault for being so detached. It’s the industry’s fault for promoting this behavior. It’s the websites’ fault for hiring bad writers with little to no money and time. It’s the fans’ fault for getting so hyped for Dark Souls or any of the “big names” out there. Maybe whose fault is it doesn’t matter anymore since we’re all contributing to this mess.
Metaphors and similes, the tools of comparisons, work because it creates a quick image in people’s mind without the need to use much words. Dark Souls comparisons do not always work because people often focus on one aspect — usually the atmosphere, the difficulty, or the resurrection — and thus confuse everyone. Dark Souls is not one thing; it is many things packaged into one BluRay disk. Likewise, evoking Proust or Dickens because they feel somewhat similar makes it hard to follow what you exactly mean. Is it Dickensian because Tartt references Dickens’ archetypes? Is it Proustian because Quieros criticizes high society? It is this lack of precision the comparisons have which frustrates everyone. And it is far worse when they have become the sole criterion for aesthetic standards; only works deemed Miyazaki-ish should be talked about, everything else is garbage.
All of this can be avoided if the comparisons have substance. People can learn to be more exacting with adjectives and talk about it in contexts that make sense. Playing the comparison game is like playing Dark Souls itself, a game that challenges you to be better and pick up the skills and strategies needed to fight bosses and overcome obstacles. The people who have fallen to the chasms of bad comparisons don’t seem to understand the obvious as hell game design. You are supposed to hone, not worsen, your skills.
Comparisons can be something more than buzzwords and clickbait. It can find connections you don’t expect at all. That’s why we compare works to others and see what new ideas and themes can form.
Learning when a comparison doesn’t mean anything anymore requires a total mindset change. A long time ago, romance stories are compared to Romeo and Juliet. Today, we have so many new romance films as new benchmarks because there’s more romance than just Shakespeare. In the near future, I hope we will learn there are more games than Dark Souls.
Because those games are everywhere waiting to be played and talked about.
Some acknowledgments need to be given: This post has been inspired by a conversation I had with kViN (@Yuyucow) of Sakugabooru about the state of anime films. @ultimatemegax has supplied some more information for me as well.
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