Thursday, 14 August 2014

Things I want to like - RWBY, Pt. 1

(Thar be spoilers ahead)

You remember way back when, those halcyon days of 2013? During that sun-shy Scottish summer the twin shadows of Doctor Who series 7 and Bioshock Infinite loomed over all. These were the two things I talked most excitedly to friends about, these were the two things I sought out information about first and foremost. They would be, I was convinced, the two big highlights of the rest of the year.


And then a friend linked me this:

The animation! The music! Those fluid fight scenes! That atmosphere, and the subtle sense of character!

I caught the final of four trailers, all advertising the (at the time) soon-to-be-released anime style web series RWBY helmed by Monty Oum of Dead Fantasy fame. The fantastically animated trailers showed four female protagonists, battling all sort of enemies – from werewolves, to robots, to a haunted suit of armour and (most horrifying of all) twins. Each was like a music video, heavily stylised and communicating character and plot with barely a word spoken.

It was that last point that really hooked me in, as cool and exciting as the fight scenes were: this was storytelling through style and action. This was both epic and subtle at the same time. It’s on these grounds the series was sold to me.

There was one note of caution, amongst the awesome. Trailer four, “Yellow”, has a fair chunk of dialogue in it. Not only was the voice acting questionable, but much of the dialogue was less than encouraging. The silliness of the dialogue seemed ill-judged and comedic notes were missed with aplomb. They embraced a cheesiness that seemed out of place, and all the subtlety was trampled to the ground. Still, it was just the trailers, they had time to refine and improve both dialogue and voice acting, right?

(For the record, since I’m not going to talk about it later, I actually overall like the voice acting in RWBY. There are a few performances that I haven’t really been sold on, but that’s likely to happen with any series.)

Ruby and Torchwick and Hunters

Because the trailers got by through nods and winks, we had little in the way of real clues as to what the series would be about. That meant that episode one would be our first cohesive look at the main plot and world.

Episode one sees us interrupting a burglary – our villain, Torchwick, and his henchmen raiding a shop containing magical powder. The robbery is interrupted, however by Ruby, who proceeds to single-handedly defeat the villain and all of his henchmen. He flees into an airship, and turns it’s weapons upon Ruby – Ruby, however, is saved by a Huntress named Glynda. After Torchwick flees in his airship, aided by a mysterious woman himself, Ruby is persuaded to join the school Beacon Academy and become a Huntress herself.

In my eyes there are three big crimes that episode one commits:

1.       Ruby starts out awesome. She’s already got her massive scythe/rifle, is already good enough to beat the first primary antagonist and his henchmen. Compelling character arcs start out with characters who are flawed and have the characters grow as they overcome said flaw. Ruby’s goal is to become a Huntress, but because she immediately wins against the villain and the gap between her and Glynda isn’t meaningfully established it feels like she’s already ready to accomplish that goal. Compare it to the observations Campbell makes about the monomyth, about how it mostly revolves around people facing powers way greater than their own – in comparison, it seems like Ruby is facing powers slightly greater than her own at best. The barrier to success is way too low.

o   Later on, in episode 3, Ruby reveals she has made her own weapon. So why is the series starting after this has happened? Ruby would be far more compelling a character, and her growth would be far better, if it was twinned with the making of the scythe rifle thingie. Showing us the making of the weapon would also be a good way of addressing point 3 too.

o   During her conflict with Weiss, the writers set-up Weiss’s legitimate problem with Ruby as having an impetuous streak – a trait which never holds proper weight because it isn’t really established outside of that particular mini-arc. As such it just seems like an idiosyncrasy in their dynamic, rather than a fully realised character trait.

o   In episode 13, the turning point of Jaune’s own particularly character arc is when Ruby gives him a bit of a pep talk. In this talk she shows a great amount of maturity, charisma and understanding. None of it feels particularly earned either – if anything, it lends her a bit of a broken feel as a character.

So she’s great at fighting, has made her own weapon, is wise and a great leader. Part of why we like characters is watching them overcome barriers, struggle past the things that stand in the way between them and their goal. What barriers does she have to overcome? What are her weaknesses? If she has any, the show isn’t interested in establishing them.

2.       Torchwick isn’t a threatening presence. His design might be all Clockwork Orange-y, but it’s still goofy – this wouldn’t be a problem if he was shown to be a real genuine threat. That’s true as well of his sort of convivial nature; sure, he’s arrogant, but not particularly villainous. These two things, however, become real problems when combined with the fact that he is never established as a genuine threat. First time we see him, Ruby beats his henchmen then he runs away. This is the first real lesson we learn about our villain: he’s already not a match for our protagonist. As such his status as a primary antagonist removes any overarching sense of threat from proceedings. He’s a placeholder for better villains later on.

3.       The world is too ill-defined for us to get a real sense of what any of it means. We’re told that Hunters and Huntresses are a big deal by Ruby, but we never see it. How common are they? Can any old mook become a Hunter? If not, why is there a specialised Dust shops just sitting in a town high street? Is the ability to fight the Grimm still such a big deal in society? The world feels thin and insubstantial, and we never get a good feel for the society of RWBY. As such it immediately loses most of its mystique, and when Ruby geeks out at the Huntress showing up we don’t geek out with her because of this. Lots and lots of tell, little in the way of show.

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