Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Simply Magical: The Internet and the Stunning Rise of "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic"

I wrote this essay to commemorate the 100 millionth page view (and still counting!) on Equestria Daily, but before I go any further I should make clear what this is not. It is not simply another history of how the show’s huge popularity on the internet came to be, tracing from its takeover of 4chan to the present. It is also not a description of the many and varied ways fans of FiM have expressed their love for the show (PMVs, artwork, music, and the like), as truly impressive as the sheer magnitude of these fanworks is. What I wish to discuss incorporates these elements, but they are not the main focus. All I want to impress upon you here is how utterly stupefying and, in my opinion, revolutionary FiM’s huge and sudden ascent has been. To put it simply, this phenomenon we have had the pleasure of witnessing and being a part of would literally have been impossible as recently as 12-15 years ago. That events transpired precisely the way they did, with all parties acting and responding accordingly, is nothing short of miraculous to me, and it is an awesome testament to the power of the internet. As we celebrate having reached such a momentous milestone, it is this fact I hope to convince you (or remind you) of in the next several paragraphs.

By all accounts, October 10, 2010 should have been just another day. A big toy company, out to capitalize on one of its premier toy lines, unveiled a reimagining of a television show based on that line in order to raise consumer awareness and guide little girls to their local Walmart, where they could coerce their parents into buying cute, colorful ponies. Business as usual. It should also be noted that the show premiered alongside the very channel it was airing on, the Hub. This was Hasbro’s own creation (in partnership with Discovery Communications, Inc.), not an established heavyweight like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. In short, the latest iteration of a toy-based television series never noted for its brilliance got to debut with the likes of such universally appealing fare as “Pound Puppies” and “Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventures,” on a brand new, little known channel with comparatively few subscribers. All told, the circumstances of the show’s beginning seem like they ought to have doomed FiM to permanent obscurity from the start.

The point I want to emphasize is that, had this story taken place several years ago, it would have almost certainly turned out that way. In all likelihood, some young girls (perhaps a very small smattering of young boys) would have discovered the show, maybe enjoyed it, and everyone else would have gone on with their lives without taking notice. I am no expert on the internet or how its influence has changed over time, but I feel confident that even more recently, in the past 8-10 years, users’ affinity and capacity for latching onto the most innocuous things and catapulting them to dizzying prominence was not nearly as pronounced then as it is now. 12-15 years ago, this phenomenon didn’t even exist. That is to say,
the internet as we know it did not exist.

Recall when Pokémon (both the TV show and the original two games) first came out in North America. It is no exaggeration to say it set the world on fire, and as any fan (and quite a few non-fans) can tell you, the franchise is still very strong today. Now imagine what it would have been like if the internet as we know it had existed when the North American release of Pokémon occurred. The world wouldn’t have caught fire, it would have been
completely vaporized by the sheer force of internet amplification and fanworks (think YouTube videos, artwork, dedicated forums, and so on). Granted, all of these things and so much more have manifested in the last decade or so. Nevertheless, it is still the case that Pokémania would have been that much more frenetic and insane if all the right tools had been available at the height of the craze, when the franchise originally debuted.

Consider also that Pokémon’s potential for success, as dubious as it was at the time of its North American release, was never in doubt because of age- or gender-related issues. Ask the average person off the street who the intended audience for “My Little Pony” is, however, and you’re guaranteed to get the same answer every time: young and female. It may be the case that isolated individuals, through chance and happenstance (perhaps by virtue of being an older sibling of someone who watched the show), could have had the opportunity to see for themselves that FiM was much better than initial impressions and preconceptions allowed. Supposing for a moment that the show came out in the late ‘90s, though, where would that knowledge have gone, and how? I admit it would have been theoretically possible for “Friendship is Magic” to spread at a respectable rate via word of mouth and similar means, but I maintain that it would not have come anywhere close to the degree and caliber of propagation it has enjoyed in the past year or so. The internet made an enormous difference to the show’s prospects, as we shall see.

For those who are familiar with 4chan, it is no small irony that a website with such an unsavory reputation is inadvertently responsible for exposing millions to one of the most positive, wholesome shows currently on television. Quite apart from 4chan being the primary source, though, it still boggles the mind how events unfolded. Amid Amidi, an editor for the animation website Cartoon Brew, claimed in an editorial that the mere existence of the Hub (and by implication the new “My Little Pony” show) was nothing less than the “death knell for creator-driven animation” and a depressing victory for both “established properties over original ideas” and a “paint-by-numbers approach” to television programming. (In retrospect, Amidi’s withering assessment is particularly amusing in that, much like many present critics who denigrate the show and refuse to watch it, there is a conspicuous absence of actual discussion of the show’s writing, art style, music, or anything substantive about it at all.) Not too many years ago, the article would have made no waves due to the absence of the kind of exposure the internet offers. Extrapolating an alternate version of events in the oh-so-recent past, Amidi gives his opinion, some people take notice, most do not, and nothing extraordinary happens. In reality, this hypothetical scenario of general apathy is pretty much exactly what occurred, with one major difference: the internet intervened, thanks to the article being posted on 4chan’s /co/ board, a place devoted to comics and cartoons.

Given the hyperbolic tone of the editorial, some people on the board decided to check out the show and see if it was really that bad. Nothing unusual about that, but again, subtract the internet from the equation and the story ends there. They enjoy the show, then what do they do? Tell their friends about it? If they’re brave enough, maybe. Draw their own pictures and write their own stories? Perhaps, but who’s going to see them? In essence, the show as a known quantity remains fundamentally unchanged. The viewership is not significantly altered, and the world goes on, unaware of FiM’s quiet existence.

That didn’t happen, though. Those scattered individuals on 4chan were enthralled with the show, so they took it and did what 4chan members do best: spread it like a virus. Continuing the unflattering analogy, pony-related threads inspired by FiM popped up on /co/ (and /b/, a board for literally anything and everything) like the plague. To reiterate, just a few short years ago it would have been impossible to disseminate anything like that so broadly, quickly, and easily. 4chan, of course, has become infamous for churning out memes, including such memorable gems as lolcats, the Rickroll, and Pedobear. However, this time was different. Apparently the cuteness and innocence on display was too wholesome for the rest of the image board to handle. Whatever the case, pony saturation attracted so much trolling from other members that even the word “pony” and pony-related posts became bannable offenses. But to the surprise and consternation of the trolls, bronies responded not with rage, but with “love and tolerance.” Before long, things calmed down and the pony embargo was lifted, but not before the brony faithful went on a mass exodus and founded their own safe haven for pony discussions, art, and everything else in between: Ponychan. These days, 4chan is the same as it’s always been, but pause for a moment and marvel at how a cute, colorful show for little girls, based on a toy line, came out of nowhere and exploded
instantaneously, driven solely by the power of the internet. This spontaneous growth would have been impressive on its own, but the truly big bang was still to come.

The events on 4chan singlehandedly created a legitimate FiM fandom out of nothing, but it was still fairly small compared to other, better-established ones. The bronies were out there, but they had few fan resources to turn to. Enter Shaun Scotellaro, a young man from Arizona who became a fan of the show while it was dominating 4chan. At the time, new episodes were still coming out, but he grew concerned that the show might get cancelled after Season 1 due to a lack of unified support. To prevent this from happening, on January 24, 2011, Scotellaro founded Equestria Daily, a blog devoted to anything and everything FiM. Combine this with a crop of new fans itching to express their love and appreciation for the show after Season 1’s conclusion and you have the ingredients for a perpetual motion machine of colossal proportions. To attempt anything like an exhaustive list would be an exercise in masochistic futility, but it suffices to say that the variety and quantity of fan output and brony meet-up advertisements posted on the site almost defies comprehension. Even more mind-blowing is how
fast all of this content accrued. (Consider the volume of PMVs, music, comics, etc. and our achievement of 100 million page views in light of the fact that it hasn’t even been a year since Equestria Daily was created.) This is the crux of the matter I’ve been trying to get at. No show, no film, no game, no anything has ever attained such a staggering degree of popularity and fan response in so short a span of time. “Friendship is Magic” unexpectedly vaulted into the hearts and minds of millions the world over, and it did so based entirely on the internet’s capability and influence. This alone has been a wondrous spectacle, but the only thing more amazing than the fan response to the show has been the creators’ response in turn.

As most fans of FiM know, the show’s creators are in tune with the fandom to an uncommon degree. Indeed, the relationship between the two is arguably one of the most organic of its kind ever to exist. The evidence for this is abundant, but I will focus on two standout examples. The first is none other than a certain walleyed, gray background pony.

The story is pretty well known by now. During the “Mare in the Moon” episode, a random background pony with crossed (or “derped”) eyes was spotted. In almost any other fandom, this error or gag, whichever it was, would have attracted
zero attention. Bronies are a strange breed, though, for they jumped on this innocuous blip and dubbed the character Derpy Hooves, then went on to construct a back-story and personality out of whole cloth. These things can happen in a “passionate” fan base, you may say. True, but how often do a show’s creators respond by adopting the fan name around the office and going out of their way to incorporate this unimportant background character purely for the sake of pleasing the fans? You know it’s serious when the character is popping up in places she has no business being (like Fluttershy’s chicken coop), and the fact that the creators have gone to such lengths to acknowledge the fans in this way is just incredible. The takeaway point is that the entire process, from Derpy’s fan characterization to the creators’ response to it, was made possible by the internet’s tremendous powers of magnification and connection. Derpy never would have evolved the way she did without the instant, mutual accessibility the internet offers to fans, and likewise the creators never would have known such a thing was happening if it hadn’t transpired right before their eyes in such a visible, public sphere. There have been many other comparable nods to the fans from the creators, but Derpy is easily the biggest and the most symbolic of the fandom’s power and influence.

My next anecdote is also probably familiar to you hardcore bronies who have actually read this far, but it bears repeating as a crowning example of the creators’ deep relationship with the fan community. Shortly before Season 2 began, enthusiasm and speculation were bubbling over among the community and spirits were high. Jayson Thiessen, supervising director for the show, decided one day to tease the fans with a picture of himself and a screenshot from Season 2. Equestria Daily immediately posted this image, and it didn’t take long for people in the comments to notice that Jayson seemed to be looking at Equestria Daily on his computer. It would have been a big enough deal that the head of the show was visiting such an important fan site, but he didn’t stop there. No, he then proceeded to tweet a second picture of himself and a
different screenshot from Season 2. In this new image, he was again visiting Equestria Daily—only this time he was reading the very post that Equestria Daily had just put up about the original picture. The phrase “they are among us” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and this kind of crazy-tight interaction between the fans and the creators would be inconceivable without the internet. There are so many other examples, like Sibsy the storyboard artist’s occasional appearances at Equestria Daily and Lauren Faust’s frequent (and much appreciated) comments on her deviantArt page, and it all just goes to show how extraordinary the rise of “Friendship is Magic” has been.

There are even more big things ahead for FiM and its fan base, of that I have no doubt. Both will probably continue to grow in the near future, and there’s no telling what kind of surprises are in store for us. At this moment in time, though, I thought it appropriate to reflect on how utterly spectacular the journey has been. Nothing like this phenomenon has ever happened before, and we will probably never see the likes of it again. That such a show could so suddenly achieve this degree of fame and attention, carried only by the wings of the internet—it strikes me as simply magical.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Apollo Justice: Shady Attorney?

Apollo has only 4 cases under his belt, but he’s already made quite a name for himself (rather like his mentor, Phoenix, actually). He’s undoubtedly the talk of the town for revealing the bombshell truth behind the dissolution of Troupe Gramarye, Phoenix Wright’s disbarment, and the sudden, unexpected fall of once-renowned defense attorney Kristoph Gavin. However, all is not rosy for the “passionate heart burning red.” It’s easy to overlook, considering Apollo himself is such a good guy, but in only 4 cases, Apollo has managed to rub shoulders and establish ties with as many genuine criminals as Phoenix did in his entire career. What is more, if subjected to just a little scrutiny, one crucial detail, combined with how questionable his client history appears to the disinterested observer, could cause Apollo’s promising career to come crashing down like a cursed house of cards. On what grounds do these claims rest, and what could they mean for Apollo? Let’s take a look.

(Before going any further, it should be made clear that I’m specifically referring to criminal ties through the client. For example, Phoenix has definitely crossed the mob far more than Apollo has, but never by way of the person he was defending.)

Let’s examine Phoenix’s client history first. Over the course of his 13 playable cases spanning 4 games, Phoenix has gotten a genuine criminal for a client only about once a game, on average. In GS1, it was Lana Skye. She may have been innocent of Bruce Goodman’s death, but she was guilty of tampering with the body (not to mention tampering with the crime scene of Neil Marshall’s murder and the umpteen other crimes Gant almost certainly made her commit over the course of 2 or 3 years). In GS2, the guilty party was (obviously!) Matt Engarde. No, he didn’t technically kill anybody, but he was enough of a slimeball to hire an assassin to do his dirty work for him. In GS3, we actually had two guilty parties. In case 3-2, Ron Delite was no murderer, but he really was Mask*DeMasque, with all of the thieving and pilfering that implies. (Thanks to some clever finagling, though, he was never actually convicted for it.) Finally, in case 3-5, Iris’s hands were clean of blood, but she, like others before her, couldn’t keep her hands off that crime scene.

If we turn our attention to Apollo, we see that not only does he have his own share of dubious clients, he has also managed to rack them up consecutively. In case 4-2, he successfully defended the son of a mafia boss. Think about that again. He didn’t just encounter the mafia, he defended one of their own! It doesn’t even really matter that Wocky was innocent of the crime he was accused of, the point is Apollo worked for these people and (presumably) accepted money from them for his services. You could say it doesn’t really matter, but just think about how it sounds when you hear of a defense attorney who has successfully defended the mob…

Things would be bad enough for Apollo if that were his only crooked tie, but the fun doesn’t stop there. In case 4-3, he defended a wanted smuggler. This is certainly not on the same order as murder or the like, but if Gyakuten Kenji is any indication, it’s still serious business. Finally, we arrive at case 4-4, where Apollo’s client is…a forger. Not just of art, either. No, we’re talking about one of those talented forgers, one of those people who can produce that accursed bugaboo of the entire series—forged evidence.

So, both Phoenix and Apollo have had more than a few criminals for clients. This never really came back to bite Phoenix, though, so why it should hurt Apollo? Well, it may be true that Phoenix never came out the worse for his clients’ criminal activities, but Apollo’s situation is significantly different. Again, consider just how things look overall: he has, to date, defended the son of a mob boss, a smuggler, and a forger. Never mind that guilt by association is not always a fair standard, just think about how that looks. Then remember that his first client was none other than the infamous “Forgin’ Attorney,” Phoenix Wright. (Again, don’t think about the facts, just consider public perception.) Every single case Apollo has taken thus far, his client has been, shall we say, questionable. (Even if we remember that Phoenix was ultimately exonerated, then Apollo simply trades one fishy relationship for another, considering his former boss Kristoph was accordingly exposed as a totally unscrupulous and manipulative piece of trash).

Again you may say, so what? It’s all guilt by association. This is true. However, now we come to the coup de grâce, the one thing that would, together with his slew of shady connections, really kill Apollo's career: he is guilty of presenting forged evidence in court, in case 4-1.

This simple fact is incredibly easy to forget because the game glosses over it, indeed, deliberately shifts the focus to Phoenix and his crime in creating the forged evidence. However, Apollo’s role in using it cannot be ignored. As the game makes abundantly clear later on, the attorney is responsible for the evidence he presents in court. Ergo, it doesn’t matter how Apollo got the forged evidence, nor does it matter that he had no hand in its creation. The bottom line is, he presented it in court, and Phoenix told him flat-out after the trial was over that it was forged. At the time it is presented, Kristoph, too, plainly declares that the evidence is fraudulent, but Apollo is only saved by Phoenix retorting that Kristoph would only know that if he were the killer. The issue is never raised after that, but it still remains. Looking at what happened to Phoenix as an example, Apollo’s career could be sunk all too easily just because of this alone. Throw in the rogue’s gallery of clients from before, and Apollo is really treading a fine line over his reputation. It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario wherein Apollo gets blackmailed over this incident or is somehow otherwise threatened over his murky past.

You may be wondering what my point was in saying all this. I’m sorry if it was difficult to discern, but all I really wanted to convey is that, just observing him “objectively,” from the outside, Apollo looks like a REALLY shady guy! Put together with the fact that he is guilty of presenting forged evidence, someone could put a quick end to his legal career with just a little digging. Does anything remotely like this have to happen? Of course not! Heck, at this point we don’t even know if there’s going to BE a GS5, let alone what the plot details would be. But even assuming Apollo was the protagonist, there’s no reason to also assume that the writers would take the story in this direction. Nevertheless, it just struck me as kind of a huge deal, not something they would do for just no reason, and not something they should be able to just quietly forget about. But hey, it could happen. After all, they were ready to consider the “new era” of Ace Attorney concluded after only one game.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broken Promise: The Narrative of the Subspace Emissary

The Subspace Emissary, Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s “game within a game,” was probably one of its biggest surprises and one of its best selling points. “Fight through a cinematic adventure! One or two players jump and brawl through enemy-packed side-scrolling levels as they meet Nintendo characters and battle massive bosses,” the back of the box proclaims. Objectively speaking, it was surely a worthwhile addition to the overall package and good fun, for the most part. Still, I can’t help but feel let down by it in the end. The gameplay was solid, the cut-scenes were beautiful, but the mode’s other major draw, the story itself, left me rather cold. Why? Because, quite simply, what we were given was extremely different from what had been very strongly implied, by no less than Brawl’s own official website, Smash Dojo, that we would be getting (before the Subspace Emissary itself was officially unveiled).

Before discussing what exactly the Dojo did imply about Brawl’s storyline, let’s review what we can glean from the previous games. As was strongly implied by the original Smash’s intro and Crazy Hand’s trophies in both Melee and Brawl, Master Hand is the being responsible for everything in the Smash universe. He creates the stages and breathes life into the characters, then has them fight each other. The purpose for this is not definitely known, but, more likely than not, it is purely for his own amusement, which would fit well with the fact that he “loves to create.” When there is only one character left, Master Hand fights him (or her), for “he…seems to feel a certain joy in challenging chosen warriors who’ve claimed many victories.” Crazy Hand, “a seeming manifestation of the destructive spirit….appears out of nowhere when Master Hand’s power begins to ebb,” and he surely takes delight in helping Master Hand crush the upstart opponent. Even if both Master Hand and Crazy Hand fall, though, the victorious character is turned back into a trophy (or in the original Smash’s case, a doll). It is as though Master Hand was not truly defeated, but rather, highly satisfied with the thoroughly invigorating fight he had, he turns the last character back into a trophy so that the process may begin all over again. This is, to my knowledge, a reasonable interpretation of what has been hinted at in the first two Smash games, which brings us to the hints of Brawl’s story which I alluded to before.

On July 20, 2007, Masahiro Sakurai, the main man behind Smash Bros., posted a highly cryptic update titled “This World…” The full text of the update reads as follows:

“In this world, trophies fight.”

“They know nothing but fighting. Fighting is the sole reason for their existence.”

“Being turned back into a trophy, being unable to fight, is much like death.”

“Those are the rules of this world.”


“When someone…or something…breaks those rules, the world will pay a terrible price…”

Accompanying these eerie words are several screenshots which depict the trophies of Mario and Kirby coming to life and fighting in a huge stadium before a large audience.

Nothing unusual yet. But then…BUT THEN…another screenshot shows Mario standing over Kirby’s trophy, one hand raised over it, with a light shining close to Mario’s hand and Kirby’s trophy.
In the next screenshot, Kirby is alive again, looking up at Mario.

Then, in the next screenshot, a powerful image is shown: Mario and Kirby are shaking hands, Kirby’s little pink stub of a hand in Mario’s gloved one.

Considering the backstory we discussed and the Smash universe as it existed up until Brawl, this image is truly earth-shattering. Two characters cooperating, not fighting? Simply unheard of! As the text of the update explains, Mario’s actions are a complete violation of the rules, and as such, “the world will pay a terrible price.” The next-to-last screenshot shows Mario and Kirby looking up to see the Halberd, a huge airship, descending upon them as the sky turns from blue to sinister red.

In the final image, an unknown character, with a dark purple face, round red eyes and a compact body, stares blankly out at the world, burning holes into anyone who returns its gaze.

Again, taking into account what we already established about the backstory of the previous Smash games, it seems rather clear that what the update was getting at was that, because of one character who thought to ask himself, “Why fight,” all of the characters were going to finally rise up and rebel against Master Hand for manipulating them, the latter doing all in his considerable power to quell the uprising, aided and abetted by his destruction-loving counterpart, Crazy Hand.

However, the story we actually got couldn’t have been further from that. The premise behind the Subspace Emissary is that a completely new character, Tabuu, wishes to expand his current realm, Subspace, by “[excising] this world and [building] up his great maze.” To achieve this end, he forces the Ancient Minister, “the lord of this world” (and another new character), along with his community of robots, all of whom live on “the floating Island of the Ancients,” to deposit and set off Subspace bombs so that eventually the whole world will be engulfed by and become part of Subspace. To execute this plan, Tabuu takes control of and manipulates Master Hand, forcing him to direct Ganondorf, Bowser and Wario according to Tabuu’s wishes. Naturally, our heroes (that is, all the other characters) aren’t about to let this happen, so the story follows their separate efforts to save the world. Gradually, they all come together and unite as one group, ultimately defeating Tabuu and saving their world.

I’ll never understand why, instead of taking the natural step in elaborating on the backstory that had already been established in the first two games, the development team decided to go in a completely different direction and arbitrarily invent a new antagonist. As if that weren’t enough, Master Hand is relegated to the role of a tool, a pawn! That he, who is the puppeteer of the Smash universe, is the one getting HIS strings pulled, so to speak, is nothing less than a rude disregard of what has been established up to now.

So why did the story not correspond with the content of that memorable update of July 20, 2007? If someone can somehow find a way that the words DO make sense within the context of the story, I congratulate them, but personally, I cannot. The crux of the text, in regard to someone breaking the rules and the world paying a terrible price, is absolutely meaningless within the context of the actual story for the Subspace Emissary. Mario’s revival of Kirby did not at all influence the events that subsequently took place, because as becomes apparent with the story’s progression, the Ancient Minister is flying all over the world depositing Subspace bombs at the behest of Tabuu, totally regardless of what any of the other characters are doing. It is possible that the text of that update was never really supposed to be taken too literally, but that seems quite unlikely to me. Therefore, the most plausible explanation for the discrepancy is that the story changed somewhere in development, quite possibly when Sakurai asked Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer for such titles as Final Fantasy VII, to write one for Brawl. Although the scenario Nojima wrote by himself was not used, he and Sakurai collaborated to create what became the storyline for the Subspace Emissary, a real shame since, judging by the Super Smash Bros. Brawl edition of “Iwata Asks,” Sakurai seemed to be fully aware of the importance of crafting a story that worked well with “the world of Smash Bros. and its characters.” Confusingly, however, he also commented that he “had a really hard time figuring out how we might establish a storyline” since “with Smash Bros…there are way too many characters and the game is made without a main character.” If the story about a rebellion (or something similar) had been used, not only would the abundance of characters not have been an issue, the scenario would have also fit perfectly with everything previously established by the other two games. Sadly, the storyline that ultimately got used was apparently satisfactory in Sakurai’s eyes. Maybe they’ll get it right next time…if there is a next time.