Some games feel overly mechanically designed as reliant on a single strong or innovative mechanic; the emphasis is on foregrounding and promoting that mechanic and the result is an experience which feels unbalanced. One such example is the recent board game Exile Sun – its slider-based conflict resolution mechanic was uncommon among games of its type but outside of this there was little substance to it. Each other mechanic within the game was focused on drawing the players into using this conflict resolution system as much as possible, in order to draw attention to the limited pool of design strengths and discount the weaknesses in the overall. Such a game can be called a combat engine – a developed idea which ultimately lacks any kind of framework to be anything but abstract mechanics.
This is a relevant comparison to fiction; some genre fiction falls into a similar trap of over-emphasising an interesting detail or quirk of the setting to the detriment of the overall experience. The 2013 animé Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) ultimately embodies the idea of fiction being a “combat engine” like Exile Sun was for board-games. The premise of Attack on Titan is that in a fantasy world, humanity is reduced to a single city-state hundreds of kilometres across and bounded by immense walls, constantly beseiged by grotesque giants called Titans, and that in order to fight these emotionless colossi a new kind of fighting using grapnels and climbing equipment has been developed. From this synopsis the two main interesting aspects of the setting are clear; firstly the unique method of waging war against giants, and secondly the war with the giants. A straightforward story of society under siege provides a basis for a variety of personal conflicts as well as the omnipresent threat of the monsters themselves, while the challenges of a new fighting-style developed over time to fight a previously incomprehensible threat allow for unique action sequences. Yet the framework that these crucial setting details enables is a shallow one; the emphasis is constantly on aspects of it which are almost perfunctory in their depiction – the society fears leaving its safe haven, there is a tense relationship between those who fight the Titans and those who are served by them, and so on. The entire story – of protagonist Eren’s quest to join the Survey Corps and escape the prison of the walled state – seems to be a way of continually emphasising the details which set the world of Attack on Titan apart from other fantasy worlds, without creating any kind of strong context or motivation for the audience to follow.
The first episode’s conclusion, with a Titan attacking the city in order to kick the story into action, emphasises this; the whole episode has been responsible for creating a sense of tone and place and highlighting the unremitting grimness of the society depicted. The walled city is ruled by paranoia and superstition. Its people are ungrateful for those who fight for them, and the human cost of the war with the Titans is immense and horrific. Fighting the Titans invites a terrible death and great risk. The protagonist’s naïve desire to fight the Titans causes friction. These plot points do not stand out to any great extent as providing a reason to care about the world; they are almost ciphers on which the interesting ideas (the fighting-style, the grotesque design of the Titans, the striking visuals of the city and its colossal walls) are hung. It is perhaps expected of an action series that the emphasis should be on the action – yet the seriousness and attempts at depth of the series provide an awkward compromise. The climax of the episode, with its slow-motion – indeed gratituous – depiction of the horrors of the Titans’ taste for human flesh ultimately feels cheap and by-the-numbers – a predictable plot development used to drive the story towards its need for action. Since the human element is so unremarkably depicted, and the emphasis far more on the violence than the victims per se, the end result feels like a “combat engine” of a piece of fiction. Attack on Titan‘s selling point is its war with the Titans, and so the emphasis of the scenes featuring them is on showing off the monster designs and leading towards fights with them.
It is worth noting here that simply being generic or shallow is not inherently a bad thing – similarly, an emphasis on foregrounding points of difference within an apparently formulaic framework is not in itself a sign of an unrewarding story. The problem with Attack on Titan is that its central conceit – the overwhelming power of the Titans and the immense scale of the city-state – is illogical and challenges suspension of disbelief in its fine details that are elided over. A city of the scale depicted built, if the narration in the second episode is to be believed, during a war which mankind is losing defies sense. There is a major disconnect between the threat presented by the Titans – both in terms of the exposition and of the combat with them – and the state of daily life depicted when they are not attacking. Even accounting for the provided explanation – that they have for whatever reason left the city alone for a lengthy period – the sheer scale of the city and the human cost of the continued expeditions outside of the city make it hard to believe a society on the brink of extinction could be sustainable. Like how the human drama – such as the death of Eren’s mother – seems solely there to drive the story towards Eren’s development as a soldier to fight the Titans, the conflict feels strangely and inconsistently defined in order to prolong it to suit the overall narrative. This is a common flaw in genre fiction intent on presenting a hopeless society, or one based on surviving some apocalypse – an inconsistency of scale or threat that does not hold up to close scrutiny beneath its defining quirks.
To conclude, Attack on Titan is a story which has intruiging details and strong action, but overplays these at the expense of a credible and compelling narrative framework. It is perhaps telling that my first impression upon seeing the horrific monster designs, gratituous violence and fluid, visually striking combat was that it would make a far better game of some description than a TV animé or comic series – giving the audience the chance to test their skill against this defined threat and allowing for the same story of personal vengeance and mastery of an unfamiliar weapon as Eren’s story will follow. A series relies not just on a neat conflict and conflict-resolution mechanic, but all the sundries of narrative that tie each fight together and motivate the characters; Attack On Titan takes a very standard framework and as a result feels more like it is consistently driving as quickly as possible from each deployment of its point-of-difference to the next. As soon as one slows down to consider what is being watched, the gaps which are elided over in order to facilitate this become obvious.