I know what you're thinking. "Dex, you're writing about this again?" Yes, yes I am. I'm talking about it again because it really was a defining entry in the genre, at least for me. It was the culmination of the intersection between sci-fi, deconstructionism, and postmodernism for the modern era, and it continues to be.
Muv-Luv is, of course, a Japanese visual novel that technically never made it beyond the shores of the land of the rising sun, but it was translated by fans and has made its way into countries across the world due to the efforts of these fans. Still, it never had an official release outside of Japan, which has limited western exposure to it.
Be aware that this article will contain some spoilers for the first game, specifically the second part called Muv-Luv Unlimited and some minor spoilers for the second game that concludes the story Muv-Luv Alternative.
Postmodernism and the Modern Era
The new millennium has been characterized by a great number of highly serialized and postmodernist storytelling tendencies since its origins in the late 20th century. From the highly serialized Lost to the postmodernist films in the like of Blade Runner, science fiction has evolved to be capable of such postmodernist ideas.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. What is postmodernism you may ask?
A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.
Put simply, and into terms of literature and storytelling, Postmodernism is a reaction to the idea that there are rigid definitions of the truth. Postmodernism presents the idea that all explanations are subjective and instead are solely based in our perception of reality.
In literature this is found in literary techniques like subversion, deconstruction, and outright trope aversion. Subversion and deconstruction play off the audience's expectation of an established storytelling tool to play out as intended. They expect something to be true, because that's just how it always is.
In reality, the writer is setting up the audience by toying with their notion of set reality and will instead undermine the trope or story element to deliberately show the audience their folly in believing it was ever an established idea at all. It was simply an element, how the element was used was never set in stone. This... is postmodernist literature.
That said, postmodernism has the tendency to defy definition. Its range of coverage is so large and its related professions so diverse that it can be difficult to define. Like postmodernism postulates, this explanation is subjective by nature and merely based on one perception.
Science Fiction and the New Millennium
Much Science fiction of the late 20th century and 21st century were characterized by a shift from a more general episodic and low-concept approach to a higher concept approach that makes use of serialized arcs. This was illustrated by television shows like Lost and by movies such as Ghost in the Shell. The former prided itself on intensive serialization (i.e. the continuation of stories beyond one episode and the preservation of continuity) and the latter was heavily postmodernist in nature.
Since then many television shows and science fiction shows were based on these postmodernist-backed ideas of deconstruction and subversion. Battlestar Galactica was a retelling (and in many ways a deconstruction of) the original series.
Even so, postmoderism, modernism, and other such literary tendencies are cyclic in nature. Recent science fiction stories have begun a shift away from this deconstructionist and cynical look at the genre. Think movies like the J.J. Abrams Star Trek remake and Pacific Rim. Both have shifted somewhat away from the deconstruction that characterized science fiction for somewhere in the realm of a decade and present a more normalized and straightforward story. This isn't a bad thing. It's just the nature of literature.
However, for a brief time in the mid-2000's when the postmodernism was very much at its height with movies like War of the Worlds and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Muv-Luv came out.
Had it been released to the wider market of the world, I believe it very well could have become a poster-child for this era.
A Romantic Comedy They Say...
While I was not old enough at the time to even know about it, Muv-Luv was released in 2003 to mixed acclaim from the Japanese audience. Ostensibly the first visual novel is pitched exactly according to stereotype that popularized the medium: the romantic comedy. The story is a harmless and otherwise innocuous journey through a teenager's daily life in Japan.
Like many romantic comedy visual novels, the story is completely based around the concept of getting to know one of the "heroines" of the story (the main cast of girls) and following the story of her and the main character in their relationship. It plays every story element and trope associated with a visual novel romantic comedy straight, including the explicit sexual content that the medium can be noted for.
This perception is unchanged until the second route of the game is cleared, after which a new story is revealed to the audience at the main menu. Called Muv-Luv Unlimited, there's no real indication of what it will be at all.
Unlimited is a twist on the story. It rips the player out of the established reality of the previous part, Muv-Luv Extra, and drops them into a new setting: a planet Earth that is being destroyed systematically by an extraterrestrial species.
Unlimited carefully avoids changing the formula too quickly and opts to continue being rather lighthearted in tone and keeps its romantic comedy roots while offering a new twist on the formula.
Wishing There Was More...
Muv-Luv is not a great story, at least at first glance. Many people that read it will be baffled by its insistence on being a romantic comedy when the world is being destroyed. I know I wished it was more when I was reading it. I was interested in the world, the conflict, and what was happening.
I wanted more. I wanted to see this conflict take the center stage. Simply put, I wanted more story and less hi-jinks.
That's when an alternative came along.
Given An Alternative...
Released in 2006, Muv-Luv Alternative is the direct sequel to Unlimited and ultimately picks up right where it left off. After nearly twenty to thirty hours of being annoyed with the lighthearted approach of Extra and Unlimited before it, I was immediately greeted with what may be one of the best opening themes in decades, followed by a sufficiently epic main menu screen.
The story starts with Takeru once again, but this time he isn't just some laze-about protagonist straight out of a romantic comedy. He's an hardened soldier that's been trained and honed into a proper Tactical Surface Fighter pilot (in-universe mecha).
The first hours of Alternative were enthralling for me because it literally answers my wish for the story to evolve into something more. It portrays the protagonist Takeru in rare form: he's competent and he has a plan. Him and I are finally on the same page and we're willing to do what's necessary to make it through this.
Whether I knew it or not, I had actually connected with Takeru by this point. Takeru and I were both foreigners to this world, inhibited by our lack of connection to the people of this universe. After hours and hours of pretending that the story hadn't gotten to me, I had managed to fall into his shoes without knowing.
After several hours of Takeru and I taking advantage of our knowledge of the universe's lore, anticipating what's going to happen, and exploring the nature of parallel realities and how Takeru and I became trapped in Alternative's universe, the story slowly begins to change.
It's unnoticeable at first, but unmistakable in hindsight. Things begin to spiral out-of-control and everything you thought you knew begins to break down, coming to a head at the conclusion of the 12/5 incident.
And that, is where many Alternative survivors will stop talking for a reason. After the 12/5 incident, things rapidly fly off the rails. Previously reinforced tropes and story concepts are revealed to have been a ruse, instead replaced with harsh realizations about how wrong you were.
The game slowly rips the reader apart, carefully and deliberately revealing the folly of the audience (and myself) in such a way that would make postmodernist circles cry out with joy.
The beauty of the attack on your preconceived notions isn't in the attack itself though, but instead in the carefully choreographed buildup to it. Everyone that experienced the story mostly in-the-blind or unaware of what to look for will tell you the same thing: Even as far back as Muv-Luv Extra the writer was trying to tell you this was coming. Everything was foreshadowed or outright spoiled in Extra and Unlimited, but you had no idea.
You'll hate yourself for not seeing it. You'll hate that you can't change what's happening. You'll hate yourself for not taking a subjective look at the reality you were presented.
Takeru can't take it either. He's just like us, but even worse. He's trapped in this hell of a world that he asked for, but didn't actually want. Just like I didn't actually want this.
He retreats and tries to escape his fate, but he realizes that its not enough. After some time, the game capitalizes on this feeling of despair and depression and, in the eleventh hour, it presents you with a powerful and life affirming message, accompanied by a very appropriate song.
While Alternative has destroyed your notions of the story and shattered the message it seemed to be telling up to this point, it returns to triumphantly make you admit that you were wrong. It reconstructs the one remaining aesop it has left: Live not just for yourself, but for others as well.
At the risk of sounding biased and nonobjective, I think this was one of the most brilliant reconstructions in history. After decimating you, it capitalizes on this despair and tugs you back up with the one thing it can: hope.
After that, I never once looked back during the story. I had a drive to finish the story and maybe, hopefully, see my surrogate Takeru make it through this story and return to the life he once knew.
The Poster-Child of Postmodernism and the New Era
Muv-Luv (specifically Extra, Unlimited, and Alternative) is a series dedicated to shattering your expectations and undermining tropes commonly associated with the genre. It's a science fiction story that isn't afraid to admit that its goal isn't to be edgy, it's to destroy you at your core.
It starts out as a romantic comedy, but rearranges itself into a life-affirming action adventure that is just as much introspective about humanity, the nature of living, and fighting for what you believe in as it is about Takeru's growth as a character and his exploration of what life really means to him.
It's a science fiction story that isn't afraid to admit that its goal isn't to be edgy, it's to destroy you at your core.
It starts out reinforcing the tropes associated with the genre. Giant mecha, an unstoppable enemy, and plot armor all are played straight, at least until they undermine some of them so violently it shakes the audience to its core.
Muv-Luv is all about the subjective truth. There is no "safe" trope to fall back on and there is no such thing as a perfect outcome. The foreshadowing mocks you as you look back at Extra, laughing at you as you realize that you might have been duped in the first five minutes of Extra.
It's a slap to the face of the audience that may have forgotten just how good they have it. Extra is filled with foreshadowing and Alternative is easily one of the most cruel strings of deconstructions I've seen in my life.
Whether you've ever heard of it before or if you're only just hearing about this series now, it's a series that defies expectations and, while it might not have universal acclaim (though I'd like to think it would be close to it), it's guaranteed a spot as one of the pinnacles of postmodernist storytelling.
It's a series that I'll always hold in very high esteem simply because it is one of the few series that managed to rip me apart in the most painful, yet life-affirming ways possible.
So that's why I'll always try to talk about it when given the opportunity. This is the sort of story that's worth wider exposure, further examination, and more discussion. While I never count out the idea that there's a more powerful story out there, Muv-Luv is and remains the most powerful one I've seen to date.
And with that, carry on everyone.
David (Dex) is a student of Computer Science that just happens to enjoy writing about anime, games, and rarely literature at large like this. For more articles and reviews, check out Dex's Corner and the Ani-TAY blog.