Subverting Expectations

A letter on screen saying: You continue to sing on...

I think a huge factor in how good a piece of artwork feels to me is how much it subverts my expectations. The "artwork" in question can be literature, illustration, music or perhaps more other types.

If a work sets up a high expectation from me, by either making really good marketing materials or its author(s) is/include someone who has produced good works before, it will need to reach or overachieve for it to not be "disappointing". It can still be objectively really good, but for me, because it is comparatively worse than the expectation, it may feel like as if it’s actually bad.

Likewise, if I don’t have much expectation for a work. For example, a low-budget work from someone I have not heard of, or works that does not appear to be serious (like a comedy or a meme). As long as it turns out to be better than that low expectation, I will feel like it’s amazing. Even if objectively, it’s so-so at best.

I want to give some examples. The movie Your Name directed by Shinkai Makoto. It has a highly-reputed director, stunning marketing posters. And before I watched it, countless praises had been seen from my peers. The resultant expectation was floating to the skies. After I watched it, I felt it was "not bad", but was it worth the hype? That was hard to answer. The plot progression felt like there’s too many coincidences, the main characters' experiences seem to just be a road laid down by the writer (which to be fair, it obviously is) rather than a believable adventure. So right after I finished the movie, I gave it 3.5/5 stars. I felt this was exactly what "overrated" means. But let us think rationally, is Your Name a good movie? I suppose most people would agree, and I agreed after I thought rationally.

On a similar vein, also an anime movie, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, but this one faces the opposite scenario. The Sword Art Online series is not known for it’s depth. In fact, its story is considered really shallow and only good for "thrills" by critics. To be honest, I like Sword Art Online, I mean, I like plain thrills without much depth. So I watched the movie, and it offered me exactly what I expected: thrills without much depth. It actually overachieved a little because the movie has flashier visual effects than what’s in the TV series which I was used to. I somewhat felt better after watching this than after watching Your Name, but I would not put the 2 works on the same level.

There is a work I surprisingly liked because of this weird reason. That’s One Room season 1. The 12-episode 5-minute-each anime series that shows each of 3 girls (they don’t appear together, each one has 4 episodes dedicated to one) talking to the camera as if she is spending time with the viewer. The makers call it "first-person anime". It felt like a novel concept, but as you may guess from its description, it’s going to be an awkward anime to watch. I obviously didn’t expect much from stereotypical anime girls talking to a silent camera. I just watched for the novelty since even if it was terrible, I only lose 5 minutes each week. The first 2 characters (8 episodes) was as I expected, kind of sweet but still boring, but it only lasts 5 minutes so I didn’t mind wasting those 5 minutes 4 more times. Each character has a song sung by the voice actor and used as the ending song, the songs are ok.

Spoiler Alert:

The following 1 paragraph contains spoiler for One Room season 1 episode 9-12. Although you may not think spoilers for this work is worth worrying about, the way I wrote has indicated that those episodes are unexpected. They’re probably worth a watch, they are only 5 minutes each anyways.

The last character arc was so different. The main character (the silent camera, the supposedly viewer’s substituent) starts out writing a letter on a computer. Accompanied by the character song of our girl this time: Aoshima Moka. The show later introduced how the main character met her, on a city street, as Moka plays her song in solidarity. She was surprised by the fact that someone was actually listening to her work, so they got along. Later they also spent time together, discussing about life and chasing dreams. Moka said she comes from a rural place, but she wants to become a musician in the city. It was challenging that no one had yet employed her. The show showed Moka’s multiple failures, and her earnings from part-time works were not covering the living expense. Eventually, she had to leave, as she said goodbye to the main character and we hear the character song for the last time. The song is named Hope Refrain (click here to play). The scene went back to the letter from the beginning, as the main character finishes it.

This time the song felt vastly different. It has a soul now. The story behind it, while simple, was unexpectedly engaging. I could not believe I was moved by a show this awkward-appearing. If One Room had marketed itself as a collection of nice stories, it would not have this effect.

This behavior of mine, using how are expectations are subverted to decide whether to like an artwork, is probably irrational. It’s definitely better if I can view works more objectively, isn’t it? I assume this is not weird and many other people do the same.

There may be situations where this subversion-seeking behavior is beneficial, if many people have it, I guess. Like maybe it gives more chance to start-up authors than to established ones, which perhaps encourages innovations. Although it probably makes life harder for people under high expectations.

The video game series Half-Life by Valve is an interesting example. The first game (1998) is a classic, people were astonished by it, including me who played it at about 20 years later. Then the long-awaited sequel Half-Life 2 came out in 2004. People then had high expectations, and that’s probably when the fear of it being a disappointment was the highest. But Valve had apparently once again astonished the audiences by introducing so many new things that would definitely not exist had they been keeping their status quo. I remember reading about an interview to the games' leader, and he said astonishing people and making new breakthroughs was exactly what they worked hard for. The developers expected very high from themselves to match the expectations from consumers in order to succeed. But this high self-expectation was, as I understand it from reading various information, also their detriment. Half-Life 3’s development slowly halted and never completed, probably because both consumers and developers expected so high that they were unable to fulfill it.

So…​ Well, I don’t know what to take away from the discussions in this article, I just wanted to spontaneously talk for no apparent reason. So I hope this is informational, and thanks for reading.

The heading picture is taken from 0'23" of One Room season 1 episode 9.

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