What exactly is quality in respect to a work? Is quality how we describe execution, or is it based upon the ideas a work implements? Or, is quality a subjective take based on one’s experience? It takes a special game, a special experience to shake up one’s perception of quality, and after playing through the mind trip that was Subahibi, this was all I was thinking about… even if the reasons weren’t what you would expect. The thoughts on my mind weren’t of how amazing it was but because of the experience it provides, instead I was fixated on the concepts of quality itself, and the concept of catharsis: Is an unpleasant experience without catharsis inherently a bad thing, and is an unpleasant experience enough to warrant calling a work bad?
WARNING: There will be spoilers in this article for Subahibi. you have been warned. Proceed with caution.
FYI: This article is a 2nd part of my thoughts on Subahibi, succeeding my main pseudo-review that has more general thoughts on the game. This is written as a complimentary piece to that review, discussing some ideas that I was thinking about when playing the work, so go read that first. Thank you for your understanding.
Why do we play games, read books, watch movies, etc? Generally, it’s to have a good time but if that’s the case, why do we enjoy tragedies, dramas, war films, etc so much? While the feeling of pity and depression can be an engaging experience, the main reason we tend to go back to these kind of works is of course, because the works use those unpleasant experiences to make an experience worthwhile, usually through the form of catharsis.
Catharsis is a greek word which describes the effects of tragedy on the mind of a spectator, and it’s part of a work that takes negative emotions and gets rid of them in a pleasing manner. Catharsis is a key aspect in our experience with these kinds of works, and is one of those aspects of a work that is looked at fondly. When talking about Subahibi however, the concept of Catharsis is interesting not because of how it is implemented but because it is an element that is notably absent from the work.
Subahibi, for the most part strives to be an engaging philosophical mystery that throws interesting experiences at you, but its two longest routes in particular (It’s My Own Invention and Looking Glass Insects) has a notable lack of Catharsis. They are hard reads because of the characters they follow, but they add additional pain by subjecting the player to acts of cruelty that are so horrifying and absurd that they can break the suspension of disbelief. Here’s a few scenes that serve as terrifying examples: In Invention we get to experience bullies force one of the characters to steal a classmate’s uniform, dress up as a girl and then masturbate in front of them and in Insects, we get to witness our main character for the route getting kidnapped and raped them under the name of bullying. While many people didn’t see these scenes as deal breakers, they were what broke the straw of an already unenjoyable experience, making it feel like Subahibi consistently punishes you for the mere fact that you are reading this work. What makes this all worse is that these events that we are forced to see are almost completely unrelated to the events that lead to the true end of the game, failing to lead to any matter of catharsis in my opinion.
While it makes an attempt to implement catharsis by succeeding such events with slice of life, it never truly does, and as a result Subahibi is a work that permeates its experience with pain, and never uses it’s pain to directly lead to anything worthwhile. Given that, is it then valid to say that the lack of any true catharsis alone is enough to say this game is bad? Can one call a work a well done work if it is made to provide a bad experience, and where do we draw the line between objective quality and a subjective one?
This is a dilemma to me, as what I consider quality is inherently linked to my experience because a positive experience is my number one priority in a work. This doesn’t mean that a work has to be necessarily positive all the time, but the overall experience has to be a positive one for me. An example of this is an anime called Now and Then, Here and There: while it isn’t a very pleasant experience of the tragedies that occur throughout the work, it used these tragedies to a powerful extent, to make an overall positive experience.
A work with a lack of catharsis then, can only be good if it’s negative feelings add to make an overall positive experience. There’s a few works that I know that can do it, Remember 11 and Devilman Crybaby are both works that serve as a great counterexample to Subahibi, with similar structures and themes, but unlike Subahibi actually use the lack of relief and pain to directly and meaningfully make the story and themes better.
Thus, my opinion on Subahibi: While there were aspects of the work I adored and I thought some of the moments were absolutely remarkable, they had no real direct relationship with the pain in the work, while being simply too overwhelming and horrific. Even though the work was written well, for the most part it executing it’s ideas and goals with finesse, what I found was a work that doesn’t bring quality to the player. So in the end, I can’t really call Subahibi a good, quality work because even though the lack of catharsis isn’t inherently bad, Subahibi was ultimately just painful for no reason - it doesn’t add to the story and provided a poor experience because of that.
I’m sure many will disagree with this statement, as it goes against the notion of the objective quality that so many people adhere to (and most people say Subahibi’s one of the best VNs out there). When you really think about it though, what exactly is objective quality? Objectivity is the state of something outside of personal biases, and there’s no physical law on what makes something good or bad in regards to a work. The only solution to what we call objective quality has to be collective take as the collective is the only opinion that is truly outside of individuals.
So, in this way, the objective definition of quality that is inherently related to the subjective experience. This relationship is in regards to aspects of a work -we agree to specific attributes of a work like how sloppy animation looks bad, but disagree on how those pieces slot together to make a complete work. So, in a way I believe I’m justified in saying that Subahibi is quality in terms of writing, presentation etc, but not in general, as the way it pieces things together does not coincide with what is deemed a good, quality work.
Do you think that the absence of catharsis alone, the experience itself is enough to qualitatively grade a work, or do you think that there’s more to that, like I mentioned before? What do you think determines quality in a work? These are my thoughts on Quality and Catharsis, and I’d love to hear other people’s takes on this topic. I’m sure this is rather long and nonsensical to some, and some of you might flat out disagree with what I have to say, but that’s fine: it’s a part of the world we live in. I was compelled to write these things, and these are what I think about the work itself. I hope you enjoyed reading the article regardless, and I appreciate you reading it through even if you don’t.
Thank you for reading! This is Rockmandash Reviews, a blog focused on everything revolving Visual Novels, with stuff like tech and anime every now and then. If you want to read more of my writing, check out FuwaReviews and AniTAY where I am a contributor or follow my twitter, @RockmanDash12.
Major edit on 4/17/18 , cutting out and rewording stuff - because the end half wasn’t really clear and the R11 stuff didn’t really add to the article itself.