The Uncanny Power Level Valley — A Metaphysical Aside

May 22nd, 2008


Musings on one of the stranger things that’s come to my mind lately. 

After I brought up the way ZKC handles their Power Levels, I got to thinking about power levels in general and realized that they follow a pretty predictible pattern between the amount of exposition needed to explain them and the exactness of the power level.

First off, let me say that there’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with having Power Levels. The real world does, so why not real life. Just try walking into a frat house and declaring that you can bench press X pounds and suddenly everybody in the room will be able to benchpress X+Y pounds. Likewise, they’re really just a measure of skill and training. A professional athlete is better than an amateur is better than the neighborhood softball team. These classifications are easy and provide a good basis for your expectations.

It’s a little harder to define magical powers in the same way, so your generic power levels are a pretty good (if lazy) way to just set things down in stone. How does one define one magical fireball as stronger than another magical fireball in any other way? It’s only when the exposition grows out of control explaining how the magical fireballs are formed and characters giving long soliloquies about the exact power level when things actually become cumbersome and problematic from a narrative perspective. They are neccessary for certain things and simple number or letter rankings are the easiest way to do it.

Elsewhere… In a Parallel Dimension Without Numbers…

A very special thanks to AT&T for providing the voice acting. I’m frankly amazed at how little editing that actually took…

I suppose I should at least give a brief introduction to the Uncanny Valley in general. It’s a phenomenon wherein a normally linear relation has a point where it suddenly drops off and is almost always referring to the relationship between the appearance of humanity and our comfort around it. The basic principle is that humans know how things are supposed to look, act and move. When they’re different enough from the norm (like a cartoon), then we’re fine with them not moving or not looking exactly like a human.

Tell It To Me In Star Wars!

Once something is pretty close to being human-like, then instead of seeing the similarities, we suddenly see the flaws. For example, a corpse or a particularly life-like robot upsets us a lot more than a video game’s dead body. For evolutionary purposes this is useful to recognize (and be warned of) grievous injuries or other wasting illnesses and to know to stay away or at the very least that something is very very wrong. Things in motion tend to exacerbate the reactions one way or the other. Just think of a zombie vs a corpse… or a wax statue vs the creepy robot linked above.

The Otaku Uncanny Valley

Yes, I am putting it down here and now that despite Naruto cosplayers being more lifelike, people are about as attracted to them as they are to Optimus Prime. Try and argue with that. I dare you.

The Uncanny Valley for Power Levels is based on the relationship between how exactly the Power Level is defined, and the amount of exposition or obsessing that the writing does over it. In any action show, there’s going to be some exposition about it, whether it’s about training, innate talent, or just "gasp, they look strong." The more magical things get, the higher the baseline generally is just to provide at least a semi-plausible grasp of the world’s physics for the audience. The more that the writing relies on the magical abilities, the more than the amount of the exposition increases. Even if they don’t call it Power Level, but instead call it… oh… I don’t know… Soul Resonance… it’s pretty much the same thing. You’re still cutting away from the action every 30 seconds to explain how this particular Power Level functions instead of letting the narrative and the action take center stage.

Once you reach a certain point though, characters just accept the relative Power Levels, starting assigning exact ranks and the focus moves to other things. At this point, the writers have decided that making sure there is a hierarchy is important to the story’s plot, but maintaining that hierarchy (or changing it slowly) is not the focus of events.

The Power Level Uncanny Valley

Ikki Tousen’s a pretty easy example of this for a couple reasons. First off, the transitive property of strength is completely out of whack with Ikki Tousen despite every fighter having a letter rank for their strength. Remember that anime is a narrative and in a narrative, cause and effect must be preserved. The stronger character will always win, though generally it’s because their will or drive or the strength of their friends is stronger, etc etc. A weaker character winning on a fluke breaks cause and effect and thus, is terrible for maintaining a comprehensible narrative.

In Ikki Tousen, Ryomou and Hakufu alone provide a convoluted web that doesn’t make a ton of sense. Hakufu > Ryomou < Kann’u = Hakufu. YES YES, the Hakufu vs Kann’u fight never finished, but the point of that fight was to show that they were evenly matched. Myosai has another weird web surrounding her since she was more or less evenly matched with Gakushu and Koukin, but also evenly matched with Ryomou. The important part though… is that nobody obsessed over it at all. There was no "Ryomou’s power is only 3/5 of Kannu’s… GASP," they just ignored the ranks and went on with things.

Nanoha also provides an interesting example. In the first two series, they liked to occasionally spit out letter ranks for the attacks, but nobody really cared about them. This was especially weird since Nanoha (and Fate’s) powers and movesets were growing, so you’d think there’d be at least some exposition as to why an Axel Shooter is stronger than… whatever Nanoha’s first remote controlled energy blasts were called. Then when we hit StrikerS, their growth stopped and it became static and very precisely defined, but the obsession with it increased quite a bit. It was still pretty much limited to "we’re too strong, and we wear limiters" or "stay away from those thingies, they lower your power level." We still have no idea how or why a Divine Buster works, nobody’s tried to explain how Reinforce functions, and thank god we never got a midichlorian-esque discussion on the pseudo-physics of the anti-magic fields.

Power Level To Maximum!

Of course, once you go beyond a certain point, you end up back in the hardcore Power Level territory where people are crushing rocks or (other people) with their Power Level/Spiritual Pressure/whatever, hiding it from their enemies so it’s only 1/10th as noticable, and then tearing off their limiting thingy/activating bankai/becoming a super saiyajin in order to declare their new power level for another 5-10 minutes of back and forth dialogue explaining everything about their new powers and how surprised their opponents should be.

I won’t deny that there are some holes in my current theory; it’s still very much a work in progress and nowhere near as complete as my (very) old Theory of the Atomic Ninja, but I think this is a good start. It still needs to make some allowances for shows where the whole narrative is about training and/or coping with Power Levels (See: Kenichi and ZKC), but perhaps there’s a second valley if you go a little further. Now I just need a research grant from Harvard and I’ll be set for life.

Posted in Deep Thoughts | 2 Comments »

2 Shouts From the Peanut Gallery

  • Kikaifan says:

    I was always surprised that Nanoha didn’t go the ‘spell power is proportional to the combined area of all magical circles (and related paraphernalia) used’ route.

    It was kind of like that during the first season with Fate’s ritual spells getting huge circles but then they stopped.

  • sage says:

    A post about POWERLEVELS? With GRAPHS?!

    This is it. Tenka Seiha jumped the shark. I won’t be surprised if you announce a joint blogging project with saturnine Jason Miao next week.

    (On the plus side: Jason would force you to blog Code Geass)