The last episode before the mid-season hiatus… I was wondering whether to just focus on the episode or include a summary of my thoughts on the season thus far, but I think I can get both birds with a single stone here.
Here’s an image from the latest episode (click on it to get a better view):
Take a look at the character models. You may notice on the right and bottom of the screen there are some older models that have been around since the beginning of season one. Everything about them is basic and simple – hair, eyes, clothing, color scheme, etc. A few plain, broad shapes and little else… and we readily recognize them as ponies and characters that belong in the show. Most of the other models are from this episode/season exclusively, easily identifiable by their level of detail. Why the sudden shift to more “realistic” animation? I suspect they’re trying to make characters appear more believable and relatable to real life. It’s a similar thing with movies and video games as technology has gotten better – if you can make a more realistic simulation, why wouldn’t you?
Minecraft. Originally there was nothing but a few simple mechanics to accompany an incredibly basic graphical presentation. The brown, grey, and green cubes are abstractions of dirt, grass and rock, fairly meaningless without our brains to make the deeper connection. The experience that launched Minecraft into incredible success wasn’t visual; it was mental – exploring a beautiful but unknown land full of danger and treasure, overcoming challenges through your own wit and creativity... but all you were looking at was a handful of colored squares. In other words, the compelling realism was in the core experience of the game rather than its outward appearance, a formula that has earned it an untold fortune of critical acclaim and adoration. Keep in mind that many games of certain “triple A” publishers who, driven by the results of countless focus-group tests and sales figures analyses, dedicate vast amounts of resources to make photorealistic graphics are criticized for offering fairly generic, unengaging core experiences.
Back to the scene in the picture. Zesty Gourmand has walked into the restaurant and is telling everyone that they shouldn’t be eating there because she hasn’t given her approval of the place. It’s a main scene in the episode, lasting several minutes and contributing significantly to the story. Is it realistic? Absolutely not, and hopefully the reasons are obvious. Does it need to be? Well... the benefit of making something realistic, making it so that the audience can relate it to real life, is that they’ll be able to follow along with the content more easily. Conversely, a lack of realism can make things less meaningful. In Testing 1, 2, 3, Rainbow Dash has a tough time relating to any of the Mane Six’s learning methods because she doesn’t have the same experiences as her friends, and as a result she doesn’t internalize the information they’re teaching. A food critic storming into a restaurant and demanding that nobody like the food isn’t realistic, yet that’s what drives the whole scene, causing the resulting dialogue to feel awkward and unnatural. The moral itself is just fine, and honestly as one being in the business of trying to produce “art”, I related a lot to the concepts of arbitrary authority and pragmatism. I just didn’t buy the buildup – in fact I was struck by the irony of clearly favoring a more genuine if rougher-looking experience over a fancier-looking but more by-the-numbers product that is ultimately more generic.
In my post about Applejack’s “Day” Off, I said the following about the use of stereotype Russian accents: “I think it’s used more for its memetic effect rather than being an actually clever joke, but since MLP:FiM didn’t build its show and characters on memes it feels out of place.” That’s probably the most concise description of my view of season 6 – the producers have placed value on different foundations from which the writers and animators build their work, and as a result everything feels out of place. The appearances of the restaurant patrons in our scene are certainly more believable and interesting to look at, closer to the assortment of varying personalities you’d expect walking into a random restaurant… but is there really any virtue in such extraneous detail? Throughout the series, the core experiences behind the stories – the prevailing emotions, the major plot devices and developments, etc. – have been fairly realistic and relatable. The character models were simple, abstractions of things easily recognizable and therefore in no need of any further detail (just like Minecraft). By comparison, this scene, like many others in season 6, appears more visually exhaustive but lacks believability in the underlying events that drive the action.
To me the switch is damning; the newer style of storytelling and jokes just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve been watching and commenting on these new episodes because I love the rest of the show and watch it ad nauseam, and I naturally expect to enjoy watching the Mane Six’s exploits. With the hiatus started and my optimistic expectations for the season unmet, I’m not sure how my enthusiasm for the franchise will fare.