Wow, a post about Muv-Luv. What is this, a tale of love and courage circa 2006? I have to admit that this post has been rattling around in my head for like, almost four years, but I really only felt motivated to put the pen to paper now because how all of a sudden in the last month or so, there has been an upswell of interest in the games in places like /m/ and the Amaterasu Translations blog review. The post should be pretty much spoiler-free for Muv-Luv Alternative, although it does spoil Muv-Luv Unlimited.
The Muv-Luv series consists of three games, Muv-Luv Extra, Muv-Luv Unlimited, and Muv-Luv Alternative, which must be played in order. This is literal in the case of Muv-Luv Unlimited, which is unlocked when you complete the routes for the two main girls (Sumika and Meiya) in Muv-Luv Extra. Muv-Luv is spinoff of Kimi ga Nozomu Eien which basically your standard zany high school life comedy. There’s some wacky hijinks, a little drama, and then you fuck the girl of your choice and the game ends. Unlimited is the same: wacky
school military academy hijinks, a little drama, and then you fuck the girl of your choice (assuming that the girl of your choice is not Sumika, because she is mysteriously absent in this universe) and the game ends. The difference is that in Unlimited, your character (Takeru Shirogane) has woken up in a post-apocalyptic version of his town following an alien invasion (the BETAs, which stands for the Engrishy “Beings of the Extra Terrestrial origin which is the Adversary of human race) which has annihilated most of the population of the earth. Alternative begins the same way as Unlimited, but this time there are no more wacky hijinks and instead we have the SRS BIZNES befitting a story about soldiers trying to prevent the extinction of mankind. (JINRUI WO BUREIRU NA!)
However, while I say that you are “required” to unlock those two routes in Extra before moving onto Unlimited (and need to play both Extra and Unlimited to “get” Alternative), in a sense you aren’t really “required” to. After all, Extra is an eroge. You’re going to be playing every route anyway so that you can see all the porn scenes. You can extend this all the way out to Alternative; as a sequel, you are “required” to play the prequel so that it will make sense, but at the same time, as it is a sequel, you likely would not have cared about it in the first place unless you were already a fan of the series.
Now, when you replay the game to get all the other routes, you know what’s going to happen in 90% of the game because you’ve already played through one route. This is the same for basically every eroge out there. Therefore, you hit fast-forward until you get to a choice, and then use your past experience to choose the correct answer. Eventually, you’ll reach a point of divergence and then pick what sounds like it should be the correct choice so that you can peen0r a different character and get that ending.
With all those replays, you know what will happen, but the game does not. However, the structure of the game forces you in place. To put it another way, you will know that Sephiroth is going to kill Aeris, but you can’t actually do anything about it. Steven Poole touches on a scenario like this in his book, Trigger Happy, where he talks about how a hypothetical Hamlet: The Game or Oedipus: The Game would be frustrating to play. We would say to ourselves “Note to self: don’t kill Oedipus’ father and marry his mother”, or we’d want to walk right up to Claudius and stab him, but we can’t do that. The game wouldn’t let us. In a sense, every ending in Unlimited is like this. No matter who you hump, they’re all the bad end because none of them are Sumika, the canon heroine. (This reminds me a lot of how Janet Murray talks about Groundhog Day in Hamlet on the Holodeck.)
And then, if you still needed convincing that this is the actually the game’s bad end, mankind loses the war. The survivors take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure, after all.
That’s where Muv-Luv Alternative comes in. The game starts off just like Unlimited, but now both you and Takeru know what is going to happen from the numerous times that you’ve both been through Unlimited (so that you could see all the ero CGs), it’s time to do everything the right way. From the start, however there is foreshadowing that this isn’t going to work out quite as easily as it sounds. In Unlimited, Takeru walks up to his school/base and acts like a retarded harem protagonist, causing the guards there to wonder what the hell is the deal with this weirdo and then throw him in the brig. In the brig, he meets with the woman who in his old world is his science teacher (Yuuko-sensei), but here is the vice-commander of the base and is engaging in some highly theoretical research on parallel worlds. She takes his presence in this dimension to mean that there is some validity in her research and immediately enlists him to help her.
Now, the Alternative approach. We/Takeru know that we have to go to school and help Yuuko with her research so that we can save the world in time. So he walks up to the base, sees the same guards, and then starts going on to them about how he needs to meet with Dr. Kouzuki to tell her these top secret facts about her classified research. This approach makes the guards and Yuuko extremely wary. Who the hell is this guy and how does he know this?
Things then begin to unfold along the same lines as in Unlimited, but with Takeru making the “correct” choices this time that he didn’t have the opportunity to make the first time as they were simply scripted events. Don’t get bitten by that snake during the survival training. Provide some suggestions for upgrades to the mecha. Tell Yuuko which days there will be a BETA attack so that they can be ambushed. After a certain point, however it becomes clear that this timeline is now going to be significantly different from the previous one: Yuuko completes her research; Takeru and his unit graduate from pilot cadet school; the BETAs launch an unexpected new attack.
Then things start to get even more meta within the game itself in terms of playing and replaying video games. And speaking of meta, there is an explicit video-game-about-video-games thread running through all the games: Extra begins with Takeru playing Virtual-On; characters bond over playing Virtual-On; Takeru loans Meiya his Game
Boy Guy in Unlimited; Takeru provides firmware upgrades for the mecha based on his experience playing video games. Along with the afforementioned divergences because of knowing the correct ways to “beat” the game, we get explicit divergence when Takeru tries to return to his world following the conclusion of Yuuko’s dimensional research. Here, the knowledge from replaying the game is a negative, both within the game itself and on a meta level. Extra is a comedy, and comedy is based on thwarted expectations. A joke that we know is coming is no longer funny. It didn’t thwart our expections, much less thwart them in an entertaining way. Instead, it exactly met them.
Now, it’s no longer funny when Sumika, playing the stock childhood friend character, oh-so-HIL-LARIOUSLY misunderstands Takeru and punches him. We saw her do this over and over again in Extra, repeated both in different specific events within the overal story, and then when these events were repeated in each of the playthroughs we ran in order unlock the new game (and by the new game I mean all the porno cartoons). The joke is dead. Being Alternative, the game then goes with this change of perspective. She punches him, and rather than him flying through the roof or something, she hurts her hand since after all, now she’s punching a muscular mountain of manmeat due to how he’s been going through the same boot camp training over and over again back in the Unlimited and Alternative loops. This instantly deflates the comedic atmosphere of the scene, leaving the characters feeling weirdly dejected by how Takeru is no longer acting goofy. Then, to make it explicitly clear that all this knowledge of replaying a comedy game kills the comedy, we learn that Takeru’s presence in this dimension is explicitly screwing up the timeline, causing Very Bad Things to happen and forcing Yuuko to try to send him back to grimdark Alternative world before things completely unravel.
So basically, this is kind of like the epitome of the whole media mix model where you’re supposed to experience works in a multitude of different ways. Watch the anime! Pose the figure! Listen to the net radio! Hump the body pillow! At its heart, (I’m cribbing this part from Hamlet on the Holodeck) this whole setup builds upon a combination of both the sophistication of the fans to imagine the work in all sorts of different contexts (here they’re goofballs, there they’re heroes), along with a kind of breadth and consistency from the work as a whole that invites the audience to explore the work and reward their knowledge of the work. On that note, I’ll conclude by saying that this is probably by summed up by the unspoken implications of one of the ending CGs during the credits which I obviously won’t explain for spoiler reasons.