Anime Quick Reviews: Re-evaluating How Not To Summon a Demon Lord and Overlord

Housekeeping news:

I routinely troll Jeff Hays of narratorial fame with requests for him to read explicitly bad books, known as “Cringe Theater”.  And the cringe is strong in the series:  Troll: The First Three Books.

Described by Jenny Nicholson as “The worst book ever written”, it’s chock-full of cringe at every moment, worse than some of the previous ones he’s read, (previous entries include Rough and Ready, Chuck Tingle books, and Wesley Crusher: Teenage Fuck Machine).

Unlike the aforementioned books which have some tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, Troll does not have any self-awareness.  The author clearly thinks that s/he’s writing serious erotic fiction, but everything is awful.  Also, you should watch Jenny Nicholson.

Here’s the link to torture jeff:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1822629184684006/permalink/2199578026989118/

Actual Review Time

I enjoyed Overlord Season 3 quite a bit.  There are a few problems though and obviously, we’ll be looking at those.  Meanwhile, How Not To ended up surprising me in the end.  Compared to my initial viewing, I enjoyed the later episodes a bit.  Now Blaise, this doesn’t mean it’s getting a ringing endorsement from me.  However, it is impressive to go from a show I despise to a show I get some enjoyment from.  Exploring how it turned that corner is an interesting lesson in writing.

Let’s start off with a problem both of these shows have.  They use a trope I call Not Actually Evil.  This is where someone is set up as a bad guy or an evil person initially.

I did not check TV Tropes to see if this is already a thing

Except that whenever the characters do something evil, it’s immediately explained away as being a secretly good action.  So maybe they killed a busload of newborn kitties, but those kitties were secretly Nazi kitties!

As a side note, there’s a Reddit post where someone is furious about Unbound DeathLord. One thing we do agree on is the problem of Unbound DeathLord‘s MC is he’s a victim of Not Actually Evil.  The MC is a “bad” guy, but to make him sympathetic, he’s surrounded by even more bad people.  In other words, Nazi kittens are everywhere.

Let me throw in a caveat that I haven’t finished the book yet, but I don’t agree with the review.

To me, Unbound shows an interesting contrast to AlterWorld. In AlterWorld, literally every NPC is throwing quests and high level gear at the MC. This gets unrealistic, but it keeps the action flowing.  There’s always more quests, more loot, more adventures and quests to be had.

Unbound DeathLord does the opposite. No one is giving the MC anything, so he’s reduced to constantly trying to pick up whatever scraps he can get, begging/pleading for things and quests, all of which slows down the pacing.

I always enjoy seeing what happens when two authors make different choices, because it makes the pros and cons of any approach to story more clear.  AlterWorld gets you an action packed story that’s highly unrealistic and overly geared towards player progression, Unbound gets you a story that moves slower and more realistic, but isn’t as easy to get an OP fantasy character out of.

I can see how someone wanting an action-packed book can get bored by that, but it’s not at the level the Reddit poster describes.  As of right now, it’s rated as “enjoyable, with some flaws”.

One fun and interesting way to do the not evil character can be seen in Everybody Loves Large Chests.  The MC isn’t evil in any sense, just completely amoral as he’s a literal monster.  It nicely solves the problem of wanting an immoral/amoral MC without having to constantly try to simultaneously make the audience like the MC.

One particularly annoying trope that abuses the hell out of this is the trope where the main character doesn’t kill the bad guy immediately in their final confrontation.

This is after the MC has mowed down hundreds of random henchmen. And the bad guy has murdered the protagonists family, two thousand innocent bystanders, and skinned puppies and made handbags out of them.

When the MC and bad guy get into the final confrontation, the protagonist declares he doesn’t want to kill the bad guy.  But then, the bad guy turns around and tries to kill the MC, forcing the MC to kill the bad guy.  Other variants are where the MC won’t kill the bad guy while he’s unarmed.

Why does this stupid trope exist?  Because killing someone in cold blood is a “bad guy” thing to do.  So to make it a not actually evil act, the protagonist kills the bad guy in self-defense (good guy motive), rather than for a lust for revenge (bad guy motive) or killing an unarmed person.

If you’re going to use this trope, then Sandman Slim is the best example, (some spoilers ahead).  He murders a neo-nazi and chops off his head, then throws it to one of the neo-Nazis female groupies after he burns down the house the neo-nazi lived in, with other neo-nazis inside.  That female neo-Nazi kidnaps him, tortures him, and murders one of his friends.  The next time Sandman Slim meets any bad guys, he murders them.

Anyway, as the Nazi space kitty example shows, the trick with this is whatever the plot convenient revelation is, it has to at least be somewhat plausible.  Or more sagely, “Don’t make the obvious plot device out to be an obvious plot device”.

This trope occurs when a writer has to confront the dilemma of writing an evil character but also wanting to also have a likable protagonist. Thus the story is stuck between constantly framing the protagonist as a bad person while simultaneously explaining away any evil actions as being part of some good action in the grander scheme of things to keep s/he likeable.  The writer usually gets caught on the dichotomy of wanting to have a likable/relatable protagonist while also wanting to making sure the commentary about that characters says that “This person is bad”.

It’s the reason why House of Cards was such a critical success, being able to successfully portray Francis Underwood as both villainous and likable.  So, here’s a side tangent about writing evil characters as the protagonist.

obliquely related side tangent

One dirty trick that the writers use is all of Francis’s opponents are buffoons, missing laughably obvious double-crosses and ploys.  Even if it’s “evil” in some sense, we feel more justified when someone gets conned or duped out of a fault of their own.

There’s two ways to do this right.  In the first way of doing it is the classic Shakespearean way of Othello.  The villain of the book, Iago, delights in being evil for the sake of evil.  He monologues about why his actions against Othello are justified, then immediately tells the audience that he’s lying about all of the long reasons he’s given.  At the end, he says he does it because he wants to.

Iago picks up on Othello’s numerous vulnerabilities and masterfully manipulates Othello, until Othello kills his wife in a fit of rage.  Iago’s ability to manipulate Othello’s weaknesses like his jealousy and naïveté trust in Iago turns Iago into the star of the story.  Everyone who reads the story remembers Iago, but Othello is pretty much absent.

It’s still tragic at the end, but most people feel more sorry for Desdemona, Othello’s wife, than they do for Othello himself.  This is the trick that Game of Thrones uses, good guy who gets easily outsmarted and duped by the bad guy.  This turns the bad guy into the star.

The inverse example of this is William Defoe’s legend of Henry Every. Henry Every was a real person and one of the most successful pirates of his day.  His last haul was the Portuguese ship Gungi Suwaie.  The treasure on it was valued at £325,000, or what amounts to 400 million dollars in modern currency.  Another way of looking at it is the average honest sailor earned  £15 to £33 per year.

Every is alleged to have so much money that he offered to retire the British national debt in exchange for a pardon.  The authorities did not take him up on it.  At the time of Every’s crew disbanding, most of them went to the cosmopolitan areas of Europe.  Whereupon, the locals finding men who had been on the seas while having vast amounts of wealth, promptly called the local law enforcement to capture the pirates.

However, none of these captured pirates knew the location of their boss and Every disappeared despite having the first international manhunt for him.

In Defoe’s (almost certainly fictitious) legend, Every avoided capture by moving into the small Devonshire town of Bideford, a place with a strong maritime tradition. Every chose that place because one of his main assets was diamonds, and captains traded precious stones with several other countries and used it as a form of currency.

The problem was that Every had far more precious stones than anyone else had ever heard of.  He negotiated a deal with the local merchants.  They agreed to pay him an enormous amount of money, after making a small initial deposit and promising to finish payment once they in turn sold the gems abroad.

The merchants were lying.  They knew that there was no way an honest merchant would have access to that much wealth, so when Every came to collect, the businessmen told him to go to the local sheriff and file a complaint, and to be sure that he explained where he got all the gems from.  As the legend ends, Every dies in poverty.

In Defoe’s story, Every is a bad man who does bad things.  However, his downfall is caused by his own greed.  Every gets what he deserves in the end.

The final example is what happens when you have the weird bastard, “Evil but not really Evil” duality at play.  This gets you the show Dexter.  There’s two ways that the show could have gone.  One is the redemption angle where Dexter would have learned that his desire for murder is the result of repressed rage over witnessing his mother’s murder.  The second is that Dexter could have been captured and gone to prison, completing his downfall angle a la’ MacBeth.

Instead, since it can solve either, it has Dexter become a tree-chopping lumberjack.  It’s been my experience with “Not Actually Evil” characters that they often suffer this fate, since they can’t complete the two normal story arcs.  Instead, the arc concludes by the “Not Actually Evil” protagonist going into a weird sort of limbo, stuck between the two character archetypes.

The other way to do this is simply to play it straight.  A good example is the movie NightCrawler.  It’s about a reporter who will do absolutely anything to get the perfect crime scene photo.  The movie makes no pretenses about its protagonist.  He’s a bad guy.  However, he does have some good qualities as well: He’s hard-working, determined, and intelligent.  He’s an insane guy inhabiting an insane microcosm in the news insatiable lust for bad news, (“If it bleeds, it leads.”).

Some author may have written a book or movie script that does this successfully, but I plead ignorance of what that would look like.

end side tangent

Both Overlord and How Not To Summon a Demon Lord feature this “Not Actually Evil” plot trope. How Not To uses this trope purely for comedy purposes, juxtaposing the cockiness and willingness to proclaim himself “Demon Lord” of the realm vs. his shy nerdy introverted personality in real life.  However, it serves no actual plot purpose.  He could simply stop doing it and that would be that.  The plot device is clearly only there to create conflict and humor in the story.  Obvious plot device is an obvious plot device.

In contrast, Overlord does have a story purpose for this.  Ains is the ruler of an undead army and crypt and he’s supposed to hate the living because of this.  Yeah, there’s a plot kink there because there are tons of regular living creatures including human in Ain’s domain, but that’s the plot device.  Both Ains minions and the regular townspeople accept that the natural order is for undead to conquer the living.

However, because he is a former human, he wants to also do good acts.  Thus he’s constantly trying to do good deeds but then frames it as a bad/selfish deed to his followers.

Where this breaks down is the episode where his tomb gets raided.  A group of adventurers go to his tomb to see what they can get from it.  He plans an elaborate trap to kill all of them.  With one group he captures, he spends an inordinate amount of time monologuing about how dare adventurers come to his tomb.

Except that is stupid.  First, he played the game.  All of the stuff he has is literally from looted dungeons.  Why would he find it so horrendous suddenly that dungeon raiding is a thing?  Particularly because he’s never met any of these people.  Which means they had no idea that the tomb was even inhabited.  So his entire “How dare they insult me” makes no sense, he’s done the same thing they are and he never told them they couldn’t come there.

But maybe that’s fine.  We were told earlier that Ains is starting to become more undead since inhabiting an undead body.  Maybe this is Chekov’s gun come home to roost.  Ains will wake up and realize he did an evil thing, thus giving us some narrative reason for that repeated plot line.

But that’s precisely what doesn’t happen.  Instead, we meet the ruler of the nation that ordered the adventurers, who agrees that it was his entirely his fault what happened.  How dare adventurers go raiding dungeons?  So we have Ains doing something clearly evil, but the narrative framing is still as if butchering adventurers who went into what they thought was an uninhabited tomb is the moral action.

If they wanted to keep the framing as it is, all they’d need is a single scene of Ains confronting them and saying, “Stay out of my tomb”.  Then, if they continued, they would be the bad guys.

The obvious plot device is that this whole situation is clearly set up so Ains can take over the World while not being the bad guy for trying to take over the World.  The problem with this whole conflict is Ains is really, really boring as a central character.

This is where How Not To got things right.  Ains is boring because everyone is even more underpowered compared to him than he was in the actual game.  This even gets reinforced when one of his spells is able to destroy all of the combined armies of a kingdom and he beats the top fighter of one kingdom while barely doing anything.

There are ways to make a ridiculously OP character interesting is:

  1. Contrive reasons to keep introducing more and more powerful characters to the story.  (DragonBallBleach).
  2. Parody the OP character (One Punch Man) or show the perversion power would create (Watchmen).
  3. Make the central conflict revolve around something other than the thing the OP character is good at, (Mob Psycho 100One Punch Man, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime which is awesome as hell btw).
  4. Give a fatal exploitable flaw to the character, the time limit for All Might or kryptonite for Superman.

But Ains doesn’t fall into any of those categories, which makes him boring as the main character.  He’s good as a catalyst or as a side character, but not the main focus.  However, the entire end of the series focused almost exclusively on him.

The best analogy I can give is to imagine what would happen if Superman started behaving like he was, you know, actually Superman.  Batman fighting the Joker?  Superman swoops in, grabs Joker, and flies him off to prison (Superman can hear the heartbeat of everyone on Earth and identify them).

Then, he goes through the rest of the DC universe, getting rid of every other superheroes’ enemy.  Sound fun?  It wouldn’t be.

Now we’re going to talk about how changes that How Not To Summon a Demon Lord made that redeemed it.

The first change that How Not To did was it made the enemies higher leveled than in the original game.  In Overlord, enemies are weaker than they were in the game.  What this means is that How Not To places the MC in danger, since he can easily underestimate enemies.  This is exactly what happens.  He’s placed into conflict with the military commander of the city, who wants to wipe out the elves and uses the MC to do it.

As the two battle, the commander uses higher level moves than the MC thought he was capable of, nearly getting his head cut off.  This is the payoff for the earlier comments about enemies being higher leveled and it increases the stakes in any confrontation.  Overlord’s decision, unfortunately, has the opposite effect.  It tells us that he’s already more powerful than his previous godlike status, and then shows us how much more powerful he is by having him literally wipe out an entire kingdom’s army.

The fan service also gets better in the later episodes of How Not To.  Here’s an example.  The MC cannot brew potions consciously because it’s a skill his character has, not a skill he as the player has.  The only way for him to brew potions is to distract himself with something else, which is staring at the big breasted elf while she watches him brew in rapt attention.  The fingering scene is another good piece of fan service.  It’s plot relevant, the characters are all enjoying it, and it’s sexy.

The fan service serves the same purpose that Folding Ideas points out about the fuzzy handcuffs and its connection to Fifty Shades of Grey. Fuzzy handcuffs are easy to remove and are not, in any sense, keeping the person bound with them. They are essentially erotic role play with no actual risk to the party.

The master/slave scenario in How Not To is setup, but then nothing comes of it.  All of the various other kinks get explored, but always on a fairly surface level so as to keep them tantalizing, but not turn off anyone.  They are role play kinks rather than serious attempts at kink and that’s perfectly fine with me. (Though, yes, Japanese and their freaking Lolis * Eternal Sigh *).

So, what’s holding it back?  The biggest problem is one I identified many moons ago in my harem article.  Most of the girls in the harem only exist as plot token generators.  Need something to happen, one of the girls gets kidnapped.  Need to release the demon in another girl.  Need to rescue another girl.  So forth and so on.

Underdeveloped side characters are a common pitfall of stories featuring uber-powerful MCs.  Since the MC can already do everything, not much attention gets placed on any of the side characters.  The only female who serves a plot purpose is the other Demon Lord (female), who is able to recharge the MCs mana when he depletes himself, which causes him to go into a funk that can only be overcome with alcohol or a week in bed.

The story will need to flesh out the women and give them a role in the story besides plot token generators.  Nonetheless, the show gets better as it goes on, and if the women are given a real role in the story, it could become a great series.

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