Hey, welcome to Back to the Backlog! Are you a patient gamer? I certainly am. It’s practically a given, if you’ve been around these parts long enough. Between the trove of cult classics I have yet to contend with, relentless sales, and the constant influx of great new stuff, my backlog has grown rather…big to understate it. Every so often, I like to give the library a good dust and shake, which is where this series comes in.
Back to the Backlog is where I’ll talk about not-so-hot off the press things that deserve another look. As time passes, games can appeal and provoke thought in novel ways. As such, these articles won’t necessarily be written in the usual impression-style but are instead intended to be a mixed bag of reflective pieces. Please join me on this retrospective and hopefully we’ll find some old gems to glean over!
Here we go. Emerging from the backlog today is…
Bad Apple Wars – Common criticisms: reframed
Autumn is the season otome fans eagerly await. After nibbling on months of promotion and warming wallets by the light of preorder screens, Aksys Games releases a handful of localised otome games. This year is a bumper crop of old Vita ports (Code: Realize – Future Blessings, Collar X Malice and its new fandisk) and new IPs (Piofiore: Fated Memories and Cafe Enchante). In the West, the otome genre has traditionally been a niche of a niche, a little represented but much loved branch of visual novels within the community. Interest in this sub-genre has been slowly growing in recent years as more PC publishers get in on the action (have a look a Steam prison [Mangagamer], Fashioning Little Miss Lonesome [Mangagamer], Nightshade [D3 Publisher], My Vow to My Liege [CubeGame], and TAISHO x ALICE [pencil] for the wide range on offer). Alongside them, the flourishing EVN community has encouraged indie developers around the world to create all sorts of fascinating takes on the genre. All in all, the otome scene over here has been swimming along nicely with plenty of standout titles since the first official English translation of Yo-Jin-Bo (ooh, remember that?) in 2006.
After that long exposition, today we are not looking at one of those outstanding titles. Bad Apple Wars arrived on western Vitas to little public fanfare in 2017, compared to the heavyweight Collar X Malice, which as mentioned has been ported to the Switch along with its fandisk this year. Bad Apple Wars was controversial. At times, unpalatable. You might call it a game that revels in misery. After I finished all the routes, I understood why many reviewers felt lukewarm about it and yet I had found it a thoroughly intriguing, if not enjoyable, work that left a great impression on me long after I played it. So while I wait for my copy of Piofiore to arrive, I decided to write this thought-piece discussing the common criticisms I’ve seen floating around about Bad Apple Wars and shed a different light on them. Heavy spoilers abound so tread carefully.
Firstly, what is Bad Apple Wars?
Bad Apple Wars is an otome game with an unusual setting: the afterlife. Newly-dead Rinka is enrolled into NEVAEH (read that backwards) Academy, where the only way to graduate from limbo is to obey the rules, lose your individuality, and become a ‘good apple’. But, there’s another way out: expulsion, which is the goal of the ‘bad apples’. Bad apples are students who don’t conform. They’re a ragtag family of delinquents who hold their identity close and aim to break the academy’s supposed unbreakable rules in the hope that they’ll obtain the ‘forbidden’ apple, which will return them to their own lives. Two paths are set before Rinka, who has been stuck in her own personal limbo even before she was dead. There are five routes to pursue (three bachelors if Rinka joins the bad apples: Alma, Higa, Shikishima; two for the good apples: Satoru, White Mask).
So after all those apple puns, let’s get into the critique!
RULE 1: Thou shalt conform
A common criticism I have seen is that Bad Apple Wars is very formulaic. The common route is relatively long and where the plot deviates to incorporate scenes between Rinka and her chosen partner is minor in this first section. Even when things get personal with a specific character, there is little difference in background events so the plot does feel very similar across routes.
The plot is basically:
1) Rinka and Satoru enter NEVAEH
2) Rinka joins the dark side (or not)
3) Unbreakable rules are broken
4) The Traumatic Event happens
5) The aftermath of the Traumatic Event
It’s a bit like the stages of grief, really, in the way all sorts of emotional messes come together to finally reach acceptance of the unacceptable. The close associations with enlightenment are important to the game’s setting and overarching themes but we’ll get to that shortly.
What makes the game somewhat of a slog to play is that the unbreakable rules are standardised. As mentioned, there is very little deviation between routes, which may frustrate the reader. One chapter concerns a
Cops and Robbers Reaper Game that the bad apples can’t win (but they do), another chapter is about an exam they can’t ace (but they do), etc. Although there are minor changes in how the bad apples accomplish their victory depending on whether Rinka is good/bad, there is little difference plot-wise in outcome or character development – certainly not enough for it to be memorable. Likewise, I sympathise with the general dissatisfaction concerning the irrelevance of Rinka’s ‘choice’ to become a prefect/delinquent to the plot overall. Rinka’s personality and decisions barely change whatever path she chooses. This logically makes sense because her character is defined by her passivity and emptiness, but an exhilarating story this does not make. What Rinka does get is a difference in costume (that is actually pretty cool for the handful of times it’s shown).
It’s hard to wholly criticise Bad Apple Wars’ uniform plot, because it makes a lot of sense thematically. Since the game deals with ideas of individualism and determinism, the lack of freedom to affect the plot’s trajectory is very apt. Rinka’s (and your) agency has negligible effect in a fatalistic system. The choices offered are not free. But in a rather optimistic twist for this type of viewpoint, Rinka appears destined for happiness. Although there are two possible endings to each route, the only way to access the bad end is to complete the soul touch sections incorrectly. This turns out actually quite hard to do. Consequently, Bad Apple Wars feels very linear, almost bordering on a kinetic novel rather than your typical choice-heavy otome, where the wrong decision often means the protagonist(s) will die, even in the most contrived ways.
Now, there’s a contradiction here. The narrative revolves around the bad apples’ ‘resistance’ to their fate of succumbing to NEVAEH’s hold. They rank their individuality and freedom to make choices as essential parts of living. As mentioned, the characters have to be bad apples resisting the system in order to be expelled, whereas the good apples resign to their fate. Yet whether Rinka is a good or bad apple, the plot pans out the same way. So on the one hand, the narrative says ‘resist’ to live; on the other, the game’s systems don’t afford any resistance. It’s an excellent example of the illusion of free choice in the face of destiny.
So let’s say the system is all set. Now, does the game present either resistance or resignation as the ‘right’ way to live? You might argue the bad apples get the spotlight and are eventually successful in their goals. Hence, it is natural for the audience to sympathise with these rebels. Likewise, the good apple routes eventually see Rinka and her love interest transition to the dark side. Yet, there is one example where a non-romanceable bad apple turns good. Avoiding spoilers, the Traumatic Event has such an effect on this apple that he decides to forego his identity and willpower to fight the system. The other bad apples are clearly dismayed but they accept his resignation. Ultimately, none of the good apples are maligned for their decision. It turns out that ‘graduation’ allows them to start life anew in the form of reincarnation, while the bad apples are restored to their former lives, painful as they might have been. In terms of grief, you might think that those who have resigned have accepted their grief and moved on. Those who resist continue to dig into past wounds. Is one attitude better than the other? Is there any difference in the end? Perhaps the difference does not lie in outcomes but rather the emotional catharsis.
RULE 2: Thou shalt be full of c**p, Karappo
This was probably the most frequent criticism lodged at Bad Apple Wars – namely that Rinka is a dull, monotonous heroine, whose repeated self-deprecatory monologues were insipid ad nauseam. Indeed, Rinka constantly calls herself ‘empty’ (‘karappo’). She rarely takes the initiative, having to be compelled into taking action by her peers. However, because she’s the key to the bad apples’ victories, the plot has to figuratively shove her into gear. Perhaps what’s worse is that Rinka actually contradicts herself. Despite what she says, she’s not actually emotionless. In fact, some of her internal dialogue is funny (if you squint) and she clearly starts to grow a heart and backbone once she has something to fight for. For that reason, Higa is one of my favourites for never indulging her self-loathing (he straight up shoots down her karappo line).
Again, I understand why Rinka acts and thinks the way she does considering the deeper themes at play in Bad Apple Wars. The system lacks autonomy and Rinka follows her predetermined path like a doll without finding any greater meaning in life. She feels unable to change herself and regards herself as just one of many faceless people. In essence, then, Rinka starts off like a good apple in her inability to affect change and value her own individuality. Of course, this is a game of relationships and as Rinka forms real bonds, she learns to enjoy life and find meaning from it. This change is therefore integral not only for her character development but also for building up this tension between the concepts of resignation and resistance.
Furthermore, I believe some of these key ‘flaws’ are actually what make her a sympathetic character, more humane, rather than the robot she purports to be. Apathy sometimes feels like this generation’s calling card and ironically it is something many feel passionate about. Rinka’s concerns that she is bland, unimportant, and dispassionate are very relatable issues for anyone, but especially young people looking for their calling in life. It isn’t strange to feel lost or isolated, especially if you’re surrounded by people with apparently more fulfilling lives. Though, of course, not everything is sunshine and roses for outwardly ‘happier’ people either, as evident from Bad Apple Wars’ energetic side characters. Simply put, such negativity is not uncommon and deserves a sensitive treatment beyond acting like it’s a cringeworthy phase of teenage angst.
However, it’s all a matter of execution. There’s a reason why mental health is still so stigmatised. Society isn’t fond of Debbie Downers. In reality and fiction, it often seems like there is a ‘correct’ way to have and talk about emotional wellbeing. Too much pessimism and it begins to grate; too little and it seems shallow. Particularly in fiction, where there is a sense of distance from real life, characters are generally expected to develop into better versions of themselves. They cannot fail or they appear irredeemable or poorly written. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve and Rinka falls too heavily on one side to be an easily likeable protagonist. It’s a shame because I believe Rinka is an attempt to make a significantly different otome heroine. She’s an emotionally brittle girl whose self-consciousness stems from her own personality. She’s not your typical softly-spoken shy lead nor is she the brave I-can-destroy-dragons type. Her issues don’t primarily concern 1) her appearance, 2) an unequal power dynamic, or 3) insecurities towards romance. Rinka isn’t even like Amnesia’s nameless heroine, whose monologues really are colourless, because she appears far more introspective and fragile. She expresses issues that are rarely highlighted and I think her story is an important one to tell. Unfortunately, heroines are markedly susceptible to the whims of popular archetypal and ideological trends of how women should be portrayed, regardless of how ‘realistic’ it is. Quiet types often appear unfashionable nowadays in favour of the gung-ho type, even though the truth is far more complex with real women lying along a wide spectrum. To create diverse and genuine characters, I think there is still work to be done so that writers don’t just put characters into likeable boxes and hope for the best. Overall, I want to like Rinka, though she’s difficult to love, and if she were not an easy 2D target but a real person, I think audiences would be more sensitive towards her.
So, what could have been done instead? Obviously, if Rinka toned down her pessimism, she would have a better chance at being accepted by the otome community, although this might dilute her core concept. She might have appeared more interesting if she was aware of her own inconsistencies and showed more of an internal struggle rather than her one-directional insistence that she was empty. If her viewpoint changed faster and/or more significantly, she might have been more palatable (but probably less sincere too). Personally, I would have preferred it if Rinka reached another conclusion than a fluffy ‘Love conquers all!’ revelation– or better yet different conclusions depending on what choices she made. Across all routes, Rinka resolves to live, even if that means she will suffer. However, this resolution often hangs off her relationship with her love interest. Romance plots often emphasise a couple’s single-minded devotion to one another (even if that isn’t very healthy), but it’s a shame that Rinka rarely shows any love towards herself. At times, it appears like her deeper issues are merely circumvented rather than dealt with, even though this is a very human weakness. And, yes, this seems contradictory in light of my previous paragraph, but I wanted more. Whether or not Rinka found something to be passionate about (and really, it would be fine if she didn’t, because not everyone does and that’s okay too), I wanted her to stand on her own two feet by the end.
RULE 3: Misery shalt love company
As mentioned, the game can be a bit of an uneven misery fest at times. It veers into objectionable territory as the reader becomes invested with the characters, including the compelling and annoyingly sidelined side characters, before battering them down again and again. The game wants these moments to be poignant to give significance to their determination to keep struggling but the hammer comes down a bit too much. At some point, you get desensitised to the game’s dramatic mood swings between dejection and happy-go-lucky optimism.
The way something finishes can have a disproportionate influence on how a reader views the work as a whole. I expect many will remember the endings of Bad Apple Wars for not very good reasons. Most of the game’s endings are bittersweet and several reviewers deemed them unsatisfying considering all the drama beforehand. Some are tonally deaf, others bland. And while there’s nothing wrong with bittersweet endings (after all, they’re a sure-fire way to get the community talking), making them satisfying can be difficult. A lacking payoff for a tumultuous story is a quick way to get eyes rolling. I’ll mention two of the most disappointing offenders here: Higa and Shikishima’s endings were absolutely frustrating, because – SPOILER SPOILER – they originate from different time periods, so Rinka doesn’t actually end up with the original person she fell in love with. However, because she can’t end up alone, Bad Apple Wars uses some convenient reincarnation theory to make ‘happy’ ends. It’s artificial, awkward and honestly a cop-out finish. This is where the misery feels unbalanced. If the endings were determined to be bittersweet, a little more sweetness in the main plot would be needed to unleash their emotional potential. Because if you’re going to make me cry, you better make me bawl.
Now, I’ll admit that I came to Bad Apple Wars with my own biases. I like fluffy romance and happy stories. However, I also realise that the desolate tone was a major factor in executing some of the game’s key themes. As you can probably guess, Bad Apple Wars explores ideas about suffering. One of the standout motifs is the titular apple. To be specific, the forbidden apple is of interest here. This is the prize that the bad apples desire. For them, it represents the way to regain their sense of self and return home by being ‘expelled’ from NEVEAH. Yes, NEVEAH, which is heaven backwards. The forbidden apple evidently alludes to the biblical apple of Eden, the gift and burden for which Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. After all the trials the rebels go through, they finally receive the forbidden apple and it is grotesque. Purple and rotten, the apple warps into a ghoulish face and asks whether they are still willing to eat it, knowing that this means tasting despair. The apple is the final ‘rule’ to be broken, because eating it represents that they willingly undertake all the suffering that embodies life. Just as Adam and Eve gained knowledge of pain by tasting the apple, the bad apples have to understand that this is the price of returning to their former lives.
Nevertheless, they choose to be enlightened and eat the apple. Deciding that they still want to live, even if that means facing the pain that caused them to end up in NEVEAH in the first place. And once the protagonists have made that decision, the forbidden apple is finally restored to all its beauty. To struggle is to live but there is still joy to be found.
As such, all the chaotic swings between despair and elation are more understandable. The tribulations they faced in the academy are meant to simulate the burden of life and prepare them for making that choice. It’s actually quite a profound message. While you cannot control what fortune brings your way, living and finding happiness in living is a choice.
a bad apple, perhaps, but certainly not rotten
Bad Apple Wars might not resonate with everyone and that’s okay. It certainly has flaws that I have not mentioned, both narratively (there are so many plot-holes and loose ends) and mechanically (the typeface is unwieldy and the skip function is inconsistent). However, there are also so many aspects I appreciated and the sheer amount of emotion just seeps through the game in its writing, sound, and art.
It feels like Bad Apple Wars is a game that cannot help but be disconcerting. It doesn’t hold back in dealing with difficult issues and flawed characters. This was infuriating at times but utterly integral to the entire experience for me as well. It was precisely because I fell in love with these characters and their tragedies that I became all the more frustrated when they got bollocked over. When writing this piece, the word ‘frustration’ stood out to me the most. Indeed, Bad Apple Wars is frustrating but perhaps intentionally so. After all, isn’t there value in media not only for how it delights but also disturbs? This is a game set in purgatory that deals with both the pain and pleasures of living. Sometimes the lesson rings just a bit too true.