Some Thoughts on Isekai

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with isekai. On the one hand, I love the whole idea of the Portal Fantasy/Trapped in Another World scenario. Witch World, by Andre Norton, was one of the first books I ever read that used this setup, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.

But Witch World did what a lot of modern isekai fail to do; it set up the main character of Simon Tregarth as a very specific person, with certain history, skills, and good reasons to abandon Earth as we know it for something… other. A WWII veteran, in fact, who’d fallen into the black market, had run for his life, and was prepared to die fighting until someone made him a very surprising offer.

Most modern isekai don’t do this. The Main Character is simply summoned to another world, or hit by Truck-kun, or wakes up reincarnated some other way. Their past life is left mostly vague and unspecified. They’re Joe Average EverySalaryMan (or woman), and with the exception of using past accounting skills to run a duchy or adapting programming to create spells, who they were in the past and what they did to get by just… doesn’t matter much.

I get that’s usually intentional, so the reader can easily imagine themselves in the MC’s place. Yet I think this is a flaw, and makes a lot of isekai so much less than they could be. You don’t empathize best with an Average Guy, you empathize with a specific person. Even if they’re very unlike you. A unique person is a human being, and believe it or not, by nature humans are predisposed to like other humans. (As long as they’re not swinging something sharp and pointy your way, at least.)

More, if you don’t know what a person was like and doing pre-transfer, how can you get the full Awesome of the new world? And how can you get the full Awesome of someone learning that new world and what to do in it?

I ran across a YouTube review on an isekai (specifically Ya Boy Kongming), on which someone left a comment that a lot of isekai “burn out” because they go for the next fight instead of character development and an evolving story. (YBK made sure to weave all the characters’ stories into solid arcs, so it dodged that bullet.) Which ties in, because if you don’t have a starting base for your character, how can you develop it?

…And yes, this relates to a story idea in my head, because it seems to want to be an isekai, but I have solid characters for everybody except the isekai’d guy. Very frustrating.

Working on it, though. Library research ahoy….


89 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Isekai

  1. Now I don’t remember the name but there was a old manga with isekai that had a strong female lead who had a strong backstory about being a illegitimate child and struggles surrounding that.

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  2. Parallel World Pharmacy ( don’t confuse it with Pharamcy in Another World) is a really good isekai that recently got an anime. The main character is a doctor and pharmacist who dedicated his life to trying to heal people after his 5 year old sister died of an incurable brain tumor and then died from working himself to death. He has a genuine desire to help people that I find compelling and his extensive knowledge of the chemical components of medicine are pretty interesting especially when he uses them with his new worlds magic system.

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  3. Magic Knight Rayearth looks like that, but it isn’t. Three high school girls are summoned to a magical world, given magic, and told to go save the Pillar of the world, who’s been imprisoned by her advisor. They have never met before, and none of them get the power the giver intended. (They are, however, color coded for your convenience, so you have some clue what powers they’re going to get.)

    There’s at least one trial they go through to acquire material that forces them to face good memories of their past to get it. One of them is her parents, one of them her beloved dog, and the other herself (which turns out to be an avatar/representation of her positive relationships with others. It’s not at all egocentric, despite what it feels like when you see her trial after the other two.) And once you think it’s done, the advisor slain and the Pillar freed, it turns out the story isn’t over, even though they get to go home to the moment they left. They get summoned back, this time by mysterious means, to help deal with the consequences. It’s really good! I think it’s a six manga series? Old though!

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    1. This was one of the first manga I ever read and it is still one of my favorites because of this! It is done by Clamp, just FYI. And I will say I was rather disappointed with the anime version. But the manga is one of the best “summoned to another world” that I have read! And each character also uses skills that they each had prior to being summoned to help with their goals.

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      1. Yes, hands down one of the best group of authors/artists of manga, no argument! I have a whole shelf too, although some of their older stuff is out of print now. 😢😞

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      2. I don’t exactly remember what the first manga I ever read was, but MKR was one of them, I have the first three books but didn’t learn about the other three until a couple of years ago. It’s an amazing series though.

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      3. Second three are my favorites, hints at romance without it being the actual focus, a bit more of a mystery to solve, and more about the worlds 🥰 I am torn between wishing they would redo the anime and do it better and praying they will leave the story alone. Not a lot of fanfiction either, unfortunately 😕

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  4. I do have to wonder when Bland MC became the go-to Thing. Because… Okay, yeah, it might work for reader projection, they might finish the story, but I doubt they’re going to come back. (See the disappearance of Hunger Games and it’s whole genre, which was basically built on the idea.) Like, did it start as just general bad writing but then some of it sold so people started copying it? (Again, see Hunger Games.)

    Or maybe it’s people just not wanting to put in the legwork. There’s that too.

    (Brought to you by my cranky at a YouTube review of Shield Hero who was comparing it to SAO and basically said that SAO and Kirito’s determination to go home are so yesterday, Isekai writers have realized readers don’t actually want to go back to the real world so they write characters with no background or interest in return on purpose because that’s what the reader wants. Grr.)

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      1. Had a random thought– maybe the folks are projecting what “everyone” wants from what they want, but can’t allow themselves to want?

        As miserable as a lot of folks are, and as solidly as they insist there is no way to actually leave what is making them miserable, maybe part of the appeal is “I could escape.”

        Our family has bounced across the country, and both my husband and I joined the Navy exactly because we knew it would move us around, take us somewhere else– and you’re right, “homesick” is human. If there’s something about a place that sings to your soul, you miss it. Even if you’re glad to be gone. It may be as silly as “I wish I could get that taru tea smoothy that one place had, and grab a big bag of deep fried gyoza and go sit in the park for a few hours while the kids play…..”

        I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people make the choice to do the objectively scary thing of leaving everything you know.
        I’ve heard a lot of excuses that boil down to “it won’t work, anyways.”
        (And yes, excuses, not reasons– the…the *FEEL* of it is different, I don’t know how to describe it.)

        Liked by 5 people

      2. I have heard grumbles about people who imagine themselves as heroic and dramatic if only they could escape their quotidian life. It is NOT that they are just plain ordinary people.

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    1. One thing I notice is that the complaints about SAO and the suggestions that Kirito is a “bland MC” are directly proportional to the ignorance or outright dismissal of cultural context by the complainer. He’s “bland” if and only if you ignore or shun everything that makes him who he is and that guides and motivates him…

      And yes, that does seem to tie into why “bland MC” became a thing. Not a case of “some bad writing sold, so people started copying it”, but instead “some interesting writing sold, and bad writers (or at least bad comprehenders) didn’t understand what made it work so tried poorly to copy what they thought was the key features of it.” Just look at all the derivatives of Ranma 1/2, that go “it’s a comedy, so let’s just throw in all the slapstick and random jokes without stuff making sense” and then wonder why they fall flat (or that just have the girl hitting the guy for no reason, instead of there actually _being_ a reason that just happens to be wrong given the knowledge of our outside perspective but that the limited perspective of the character doesn’t see).

      Liked by 7 people

    2. I think it’s lifted from romance novels– which do traditionally sell a lot, because the folks who read them want popcorn reading.

      Probably some philosophy that fantastic fiction is about “escapism” thus of COURSE they want a spot for self-insert, rather than enjoying doing a ride-along with someone who is very different.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. See, I never understood the appeal of reader insert in books or fanfiction. I love reading because good books play as a movie in my head, I want to Watch the movie Not be the main character In the movie. If i want to be a charcter, I write my own story. And even then, they are usually a different version of me that I can step into, not really me as a person. I want to be the casual bystander watching the drama unfold with an inexplicable sixth/seventh sense to hear some of the thoughts and sense some of the feelings of the people involved in all the drama/adventure/war I’m watching, not be the person it is happening to. When I stumbled across my first fanfiction that had a character/reader tag, I was so confused. Is that really a popular thing? People want to be Mr Darcy or The Villan or whatever? Instead of watch them tell their story? 😵‍💫

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      2. There’s at least three _very_ different forms of this, that are mostly mutually incompatible while looking vaguely similar from the outside:
        1) The “for escapism” reason, where the key point is “this is different than my life/experiences (and sounds exotic and thus _obviously_ ‘better’ than what I don’t like about my own life.” They’re attempting to escape without putting in the real work, so “bland MC” helps by making it so they don’t have to actually _think_ about what they’d really do (and thus about why they aren’t doing it in reality), just vicariously experience “not my life.”
        2) The “for greed/lust/envy” reason, where the key point is “I want _this_” (rather than “I want to _escape_ not-this”). These also just want to experience things that may look a little like escapism from the outside (getting the unattainable girl, breaking the social contract, going villain, etc), but it’s with “positive goals” for it, so the MC being too bland isn’t good… they want an MC that seems special in the same way they think they are, but want the _setting/world_ to be bland so they can do stuff they know would not work if they tried it in RL (like going on a rampage of revenge against everyone they think has wronged them).
        3) The “for ego/intellect” reason, where the key point is the initial idea “why did they do _that_? This would have been a better solution there. You know what, _I_ could do better.” This type wants the world as well developed as possible, and the MC developed but “wrong” so there’s something to fix by inserting themselves. If the world is too bland/inconsistent, it usually devolves to the second type of insert via “author rant/bashing”. If the MC is too bland it’s difficult to get up the motivation to “do better”.

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    3. Late last night, I was playing with some stuff, and taking notes on a series of possible romances.

      A couple of the heroines might be based on time travel tropes.

      But, I’m having some trouble with merging one of the sets of concepts. My inspirations were a combo of Inuyasha with another manga I saw about a sixteen year old JK with a sword who was sent (apparently one way) to a warring states period, and met historical figures.

      Basically because of that ‘connection to the original world’.

      On the one hand, I think that a healthy romance that isn’t just piling hardship on to one of the couple should not just cut a youngster off from their entire family and culture, with no way back, and no way to choose. So, I like Kagome in Isuyasha having choices. At the same time, when I combine ‘historical figures to the transportee’ with ‘competent military officers’ with ‘traveling back and forth’, there is maybe a question of ‘why not send the transportee home with a bunch of homework, and try to game things for better intelligence?’

      Inuyasha avoids this, because the conflict and the figures involved are all secret history or hidden history.

      Elements seem like ‘this would be a good thing’, but there are lots of little things that bug me in subtle ways.

      I dunno. yet.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I suppose one way to determine the character would be to decide what character development you want them to go through, then solve backwards to the backstory they need to have to get there.

    The other consideration is how they interact with the other characters.
    I think another reason the MC in a lot of stories is bland is because the author has decided on a lot of formulaic behaviors for their other characters, and they need the MC to be a straight man reacting to all of them.
    The problem is that all the characters are different, and there’s no one personality that would work that way for all of them, so they end up with no personality at all.

    Or you could use the characters from Tell No Tales.
    “I think we made a wrong turn somewhere…”

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  6. As far as the method of Isekai, “truck-kun” or equivalent isn’t _inherently_ bad, as long as there actually is a character being sent through instead of something bland. Look at Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen: a police officer in a shootout/stakeout with some badguys gets accidentally isekai’d by cross-time travellers, who try to kill him (per SOP) when they realize they accidentally picked him up, before he manages to escape into a parallel timeline. The method was a more convoluted, but still unintentional/accidental, equivalent of “truck-kun” (it was a “transportation vehicle” that did it…), but it was used to show that the MC is not some bland “random average person” but instead someone with skills and backstory and reason for doing things.

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  7. Hmmmm

    Didn’t go much into the background of the characters in my one venture (“The Princess Goes Into The Forest”) but the conflict between the characters drives the story.

    Then, it’s oddball. Both as a story and as an isekai

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Mushoku Tensei has a protag that we get sufficient backstory for to realize that before he got Truck-kun’d into his new life… dude was definitely not a functioning member of society. And we learn how he ended up that way too, so we have both sympathy for and disgust toward how he ended up a hikikomori and misanthrope in his first life.

    Thing is that in his new life (which he literally enters as a newborn infant for what turn out to be actual plot reasons), he actually develops into a more rounded-out and nuanced character. He gets powerful as he goes, yes, but he still has flaws to his character that he’s gradually working out. So he improves, backslides, panics, feels confident, is completely ignorant of why that thing is so important, and so on. Feels like a real person, you know?

    … it helps that there were no fictional presentations of the world he lands in that he got to read or play (I’m glaring at you, Shield Hero, et al.) to give him signposts to go off of – he’s legitimately learning about the world at the same pace as we the viewers/readers are.

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    1. To be fair to Shield Hero, I do like how Naofumi knows next to nothing about the world because he just so happened to flip open the wrong book at the wrong time, but he’s willing to experiment and try new ways of doing things including making things from scratch by hand, while the other three heroes are hardcore gamers who know the game mechanics backwards and forwards – which gets them into a ton of trouble because they know different mechanics, and all of them work, but they refuse to try the others’ systems and so pidgeonhole themselves.

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      1. I love how at one point he gets a freaking power-up because he’s willing to do the “…wat? Well, whatever, hit the I Believe Brother, my suspension of disbelief is well into hanging territory now.”

        I love Shield Hero because I usually play tanks or healers, and it just so nailed the DPS mindset that frequently frustrates me. 😀

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  9. I really love portal fantasy/Isakai stuff, though generally my favorite ones are fanfiction rather than original stuff just because I really enjoy knowing how a thing is supposed to go, and then watching canon go off the rails as a skilled writer really makes those butterfly wings GO.

    The blandening of the MC is a thing that’s been going on for a while in western literature, all the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters, to the point that it seems like that’s all a lot of publishers want anymore. A protagonist that’s easy to project onto, with no firm opinions or personality traits to get in the way. Lettuce books my mother calls them. Nothing but tasteless filler (whereas books that are well done and FUN but not the kind of thing you sink your teeth into too deeply are potato chip books) that aren’t terrible but aren’t satisfying either.

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    1. The funny thing about Harry Potter is that I like the world we get hints of despite the actual story, not because of it. HP fanfiction is great because there are tons of people who say ‘what about this?’ and then do it. What happened in the Marauders time? What if Harry was a girl? What if Sirius had lived?

      Of course, the problem is that tons of people writing means there’s more not-so-great stuff to sift through, but there are also lots of gems to find. And on that note, AO3’s sorting thing is great and I love it.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Yep! I love the worldbuilding people have taken off with, like Flamethrower and Shanastoryteller’s works to name two favorites off the top of my head! There’s a lot to sift thru, but your right Ao3’s search is an amazing tool. The envy of libraries worldwide, I’ve seen people only sorta joke. They’re right.

        Liked by 3 people

  10. So I’m A Spider, So What? wouldn’t be half as much fun if Kumoko was a bland everyman (everyspider?) hero. She’s easily the most entertaining character onscreen at any given time. Which is good, because for the first third or so of the story she is also frequently the ONLY character onscreen, nonsapient monsters notwithstanding.

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    1. I love the So I’m a Spider, So What manga but I hate the anime. One of the best things about the manga is that you’re learning things along with Kumoko and the world is a mystery. You eventually learn her backstory after several volumes. In the anime however they just tell you straight out in the first few episodes. I also love her struggles against endless forces and the way she when she goes back she kicks so much butt. Also she has to use her brain so much more in the manga.

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      1. It was actually a web novel (…no pun intended) before it was adapted to manga, and the periodic interludes with the other characters are true to the original text. The manga actually stripped those interludes out.

        Personally, I like keeping the interludes in, because it allows for some clever tricks of perspective,foreshadowing, and misdirection that the manga misses out on by dropping them.

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  11. *Dungeon Samurai* is Dungeons and Dragons meets isekai with healthy dose of horror:

    *Light Unto Another World* is a Jewish take on the isekai genre (and it has *gorgeous* illustrations!):

    Isekai are fun, but they really need some careful thought to produce if you want readers to enjoy them…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, Dungeon is great.

        There is also Monster Punk Horizon, where the isekai element doesn’t even show up until the second book.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. I like Faraway Paladin because while the main character doesnt remember much of his previous life, it influences his decisions. His memories lead him to make different decisions since he doesnt want to end up in the same situation he did in his past life. That, and all of his skill comes from hard work and genuine effort.

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  13. I can argue both ways on how one should do the MC set-up– on one hand, yes, it’s interesting to watch This Person doing stuff in A Strange New World; on the other, it’s fun to kind of get behind the eyes and play that YOU are the one in the Strange New World.

    They’re different hungers.

    And yes, this relates to a story idea in my head, because it seems to want to be an isekai, but I have solid characters for everybody except the isekai’d guy. Very frustrating.

    He has TV amnesia?! :teasing:

    Was my instant thought, maybe that’ll knock something lose.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. More along the lines of, is he old? Young? Someone who never got ahead in life? Someone who just got too old/out of political favor for the life he was living?

      I want to dump him in with an oddball group of demon-hunters (I know they end up rescuing him when he first crashes), so he could be just about anyone who had a reason to be on an airplane somewhere near Asia when physics Went Horribly Wrong.

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      1. Well, if it doesn’t matter– roll a die.

        K, truck-kun pun not intended, but…. my husband and I have literally done this when we hit character sticking points.

        You don’t HAVE to keep it, it just Makes A Choice so you can keep moving. If that choice doesn’t work, you go back and fix it.

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      2. Heh, assign your readers here that job.

        So, age— 1 is 16, or maybe 14, but going with 16 for “generically adult ish.”

        I’d break it down as
        1 -16-25
        2 – 26-35
        3 – 36-45
        4 – 46-55
        5- 56-65
        6- over 65.

        If the result makes you go “Oh, HECK no!,” then that’s more than you started with.

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      3. Jobs, also on a d-6.

        unskilled (fast food)
        technical (plumber)
        degree-professional (teacher)
        high respect professional (doctor, vet)
        trust fund baby (Batman obsession optional)

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      4. His Social Life State:

        Shut in– Does Not Exist. The folks found a year later when their auto-pay rent check bounces.
        Weird– nobody really likes him, but they KNOW them and don’t dislike them.
        Neutral– gets along with most anyone, no strong ties.
        Just Being– mostly neutral, but with a few friends.
        Friendly– a kind of general positive view of the person from even casual friends.
        Awesome– everybody that knows them, loves them, or at least says they do.

        ….I have no idea how that actually shook out to 6, I was just trying to spitball stuff on to paper.

        Liked by 5 people

      5. Geh, WP keeps eating this… putting it on this comment so hopefully it’ll work…

        I haven’t found my d6 yet, but I did some mental poking at your lists and the bunnies at least seem to have a better shape of Jason’s background.

        (Yes, I already had a name for him – it ambushed me when I was looking at a list of English names translated to Korean. There are multiple possible translations/transliterations and meanings to approximate “Jason”. Mine plans to fit a guy who fell out of the sky.)

        So, ATM: I was planning to set this a decade or so in the future to account for the Mad Physicists, meaning making him an older guy (56-65 range) works out fine. I like the idea of a shut-in, but I was also thinking he was a professional guy… so I’m pondering a teacher (history? literature? I don’t think STEM) or librarian shoved into early retirement by, ahem, not being in line with institutional politics. Mind, not the bravest of guys, just stubbornly convinced that some things were Not Right, and it got him kicked out.

        I’m seeing a guy who stayed retired a year, realized he was spiraling down to an early grave, and nerved himself up to go do something completely different – teach English in a foreign country. You know, an adventure, but a relatively safe one, because he’s never considered himself a brave guy….

        Aaaand then boom.

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      6. I like the idea of a shut-in, but I was also thinking he was a professional guy… so I’m pondering a teacher (history? literature? I don’t think STEM) or librarian shoved into early retirement by, ahem, not being in line with institutional politics. Mind, not the bravest of guys, just stubbornly convinced that some things were Not Right, and it got him kicked out.

        So, online college teacher?

        A decade from now, it’d let you avoid people.

        Liked by 3 people

      7. I often like ideas for an older transportee. The younger transportee scenario hasn’t been depleted of possibility, but older can have a lot of interesting shaping to personality.

        I have a bunch of opinions regarding tertiary education, and pushes due to office politics. STEM actually does have possibility for getting pushed out. One of the things being inflicted on everyone is the ‘evidence based’ changes in teaching methodology from the Education ‘scholars’. The Education and the Studies folks are pretty much in those fields because they do not have experience or desire to train people in advanced mathematics. It seems like few people are publicly asking “Could ‘math is racist’ and ‘grades are racist’ possibly result in fewer blacks properly learning Applied Mathematics at the tertiary level?”

        My feeling is that the current university system is going to be gone in ten years. Intellectually, I sorta realize that things don’t happen that fast. Even if it does, the parasites fleeing the corpses they make of mainstream schools could easily go to a private Christian school that had previously resisted the corruption enough to survive.

        I suspect that you are right that a non-STEM field is probably better for your purpose. STEM might be expected to have some unusual for our world understanding of what the mad physicists are up to, and inventing such explanation could be wasted if it is not going to be relevant to plot later.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. I like the idea of a shut-in, but I was also thinking he was a professional guy… so I’m pondering a teacher (history? literature? I don’t think STEM) or librarian shoved into early retirement by, ahem, not being in line with institutional politics.

        Let’s see… what kinds of things Ripped From The Headlines have (allegedly) gotten people fired at universities lately…

        Saying something positive about the wrong president.
        Refusing to use the politically correct pronouns.
        Saying something that someone unreasonable interpreted as harassment.
        Publicly disagreeing with a college administration decision.
        Refusing to take experimental medical treatments.

        Those might not go with him being a shut-in, though.

        Or, possibly it doesn’t have to be the institution out to get him.

        “Budget cuts eliminated your entire department”, with or without the possibility of teach-out, is always a fun one for “you’re gone with no possibility of return”.
        “We’re merging your department with another, and no longer need your services” is one that works in schools or businesses.
        “Your classes don’t make enrollment, and your teacher evaluations aren’t good enough for us to give you different ones” is like budget cuts, but personal.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. I’ve had a couple of ideas for isekai. One involved three orphaned cousins, raised by now desceased grandparents, about to graduate from college.

        One involved someone in a disaster that would have killed her.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Isekai recommendation: Death is the Only Ending for the Villainess. If you like specific characters, you might enjoy this one – and also it plays ironically with a lot of the ‘escapist’ parts of isekai, when comparing your old life and world to the new one. Forget homesick, this MC wants to leave this world and never hear or see tell of it again – not least because she wants to live!

    Cha Siyeon, the protagonist, was an illegitimate child who escaped her abusive family by going to university. Through her classmates she heard of the viral Otome/Dating Sim Game “Daughter of the Duke – Love Project” and got hooked. The game has two modes, Normal mode and Hard Mode; the modes are played from the point of view of two different heroines, and start at different points in the timeline. Normal Mode is Yvonne Eckhart, a daughter of the Duke Eckhart who went missing six years ago, suddenly returning to her family who welcome her with joy. Hard Mode is Penelope Eckhart, a commoner who was adopted off the streets a few months after Yvonne went missing; the duke, who had given Yvonne up for dead, was getting a ‘replacement’ daughter. In Normal Mode, Penelope acts as a ‘villainess’ who wants to sabotage Yvonne’s relationships with the five ‘love interests’; a good end for Yvonne will end in Penelope being killed. In Hard Mode, the game begins a few months before Yvonne’s scheduled return, during which Penelope has to build enough favorability that her target will choose her over Yvonne.

    As in most otome games, players build their relationship with the love interests from 0 to 100 percent by making the correct dialogue and action choices; the wrong choice may mean less progress, no progress, or a progress setback. Most games have you start at 0. This one, if you’re playing Normal, gives you a 30% with each love interest – talk about a handicap! In Hard mode, some of the relationships begin at a negative percent. To win, any one love interest has to reach 100%; Normal route also allows progress by getting rid of ‘the villainess’. But where Yvonne’s mode was so easy to win, she finished all the routes in less than a day of playing, Penelope’s route will result in zero or negative progress for two out of three options every time you have a choice. If any of the love interests reach 0% or a negative percent, that’s also a bad end. And a Bad End means death/game over.

    After beating all the routes in normal mode, she had the option to buy the very expensive true ending or to earn it through playing hard mode. A thrifty young woman, she decides to play hard mode. After a few hours of playing (and over fifty deaths), Cha Siyeon is less focused on getting the ending and more invested in the character. From Penelope’s POV, and looking in hindsight on her actions in Normal Mode, she can’t figure out why this character is considered a villainess when she hasn’t done anything except ask to be treated with human decency and a little affection. Even her behavior when Yvonne first showed up is understandable, given Yvonne returned by crashing Penelope’s coming of age party and instantly changing all focus onto the ‘real’ daughter of the duke. Cha Siyeon falls asleep, exhausted, having spent the entire night playing, vowing to keep going until she gets a non-death ending – and wakes up as Penelope, as she is being belittled and mocked by her abusive adoptive family and their servants. Knowing one wrong move could end in her dead. And no restart button.

    This isn’t just a case of abusive old life, abusive new life. Aside from the obvious play on the usual escapist fantasy of isekai, multiple backstory similarities are revealed between Cha Siyeon and Penelope. Born out of wedlock, Cha Siyeon was raised by her mother initially, in an apartment where money was tight but love was never doubted. Then, her mom died and her dad took custody. He was incredibly wealthy, and had two legitimate sons from his marriage, older than her. Nobody in the house was welcoming, however. At home or at school, her half brothers went out of the way to demonstrate how much they didn’t want her there, and their father did nothing to stop them. Cha Siyeon avoided them as much as she could, even preferring to sneak into the kitchen for leftovers at midnight rather than go through family dinners. Rather than make friends or spend money, or plead with her father to intervene, she studied as hard as she could to get into college on scholarships, working in part time jobs to save money. Now, she’s finally achieved her dream of freedom, even if freedom is a crummy apartment, not enough food, and back to back part time jobs on top of needing to maintain her grades to keep her scholarships, all so she can pay her own way and be free of them.

    The similarities of the game resonate greatly with Cha Siyeon because of the setup. Two of the love interests are platonic for Yvonne – Derrick and Reynold two older brothers who have missed her dearly and hate the replacement ‘sister’ that their father provided. While initially wary, they swiftly welcome Yvonne with open arms. Same with her father. The other love interests provide the friendship and romance that the real life Cha Siyeon has missed out on in her quest to escape. And even without a game guide (which I’m not sure she knows might exist; this is her first time doing this) she ‘earns her happy ending’ easily. Even commenting on how easy it was for her as a beginner gamer, saying the mode should be labeled Easy rather than Normal.

    Hard mode, however, matches very closely with Siyeon’s real life, to the point that she begins identifying with Penelope even before the isekai happens. Did I mention that both Penelope and Siyeon have lived with their fathers for six years? Like Siyeon, Penelope came there shortly after her mother died; one of the reasons she agreed to be adopted was because the Duke promised to pay for her mother to be buried, something Penelope was too poor to afford. However, Yvonne’s brothers were mad at their dad for giving up on Yvonne and bringing in a replacement. (Both Yvonne and Penelope have pink hair and similarly colored eyes, though Penelope’s has darkened and her eyes turned more green than blue as she got older.) They took it out on Penelope, and since the Duke did not correct it, the servants followed their lead. Penelope was provided with dresses and jewelry, but none of the education needed to help her navigate the change in status to the highest ranked female noble who wasn’t the royal family, acquiring a reputation of a bad temper, ill manners, and gaudy tastes. And unlike real World Korea, there is no easy way to apply to university or earn money in her own right; Penelope is completely dependent on the Duke and at the mercy of the household, with little way to escape them legally and no way to simply run away without them tracking her down.

    Cha Siyeon is in no mood to put up with a fantasy-world version of her own past, but she also knows the stakes are life and death – and she doesn’t know if that will wake her up in her own body, or kill her for good. And when I say one wrong move could end in her dead, I’m not joking. She comes ‘awake’ as Penelope with Derrick scolding her for making a scene at a party and disgracing the family name; he sends Siyeon/Penelope to her room. The first choice when playing Hard Mode involves Penelope’s maid waking her the next morning (by sticking a sewing needle in her arm and pricking her until she wakes up) and serving her breakfast – which is moldy food. Players can (A) flip the table, (B) force-feed the food to the maid, or (C) eat the food quietly. From her playthroughs so far, Penelope knows that two of the three choices will be an immediate bad end. If she flips the table, it ends with her being locked in her room without food, and starving to death because of previous malnutrition. If she tries to feed the maid, the struggle will end with her falling to the floor and getting stabbed in the neck by a fork that was lying there, bleeding to death. Only if she eats the food does she live, because that is the only options where her ‘brother’ Reynold will see the situation and believe that she is the victim of the maid rather than the other way around.

    This example illustrates another important point – while Cha Siyeon didn’t manage to get too far in the hard mode, it’s implied that there are as many horrible ways to die as there are bad endings. Some are outright murder, some are neglect or accident. So it’s not just a game over or dying she’s afraid of, it’s dying in horrible, painful, drawn out and very specific ways.

    Easily the most high stakes isekai I’ve ever read, and probably the one that has the protagonist most determined to go back to their own life, too! Some reviewers have argued that the MC doesn’t treat the people in her new world as though they or the relationships she builds with them are real; I’d agree, for a portion of the story, but I’d argue that’s a realistic psychological survival method for her situation, where she has to make hard choices if she wants to survive, but also is reluctant to get closer than a certain emotional distance. There’s a hilarious scene near the beginning where she crosses off four out of five love interests as ‘unsafe’ or ‘impossible,’ deciding on the one she thinks will be safest and give her the most chances while only planning to spend enough time on the other options to keep their favorability safely above zero. Moreover, the author is a master of revealing backstory details over time, both for the game and for the life in Korea, that allows you to assemble clues like a mystery novel. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but I will say that Cha Siyeon had a point when she noticed that the Normal mode was suspiciously easy to complete for someone who had never played an Otome game in her life, especially given the comparative difficulty for Hard Mode, and it hints at a sinister in-universe secret.

    Anyway, sorry for the long review!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As an addendum, the Dialogue Choices mechanic is discarded relatively quickly.

      It’s mostly used to illustrate how many of her options are blocked off.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Right, that’s another horror aspect – when she initially crosses worlds, she’s physically unable to speak unless a dialogue choice pops up. Then, once she picks a choice, her mouth or body stops being under her control and carries out the action she picked – in the example choice I gave, she is unable to stop eating the food until Reynold intervenes. She eventually figures out how to enable ‘free play mode’, which allows her to speak without limiting her to the dialogue choices and keeping her silent otherwise. However, since she didn’t progress too far in the game, that means she has little guidance in what ‘the right answer’ is past a certain point.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. There are quite a number of villainess in the dating Sim isekai, and the interesting thing is that the games rarely have villainesses and when they do, there’s usually a path that lets the heroine win her over as a friend

      Liked by 4 people

  15. *sheepish grin* Guess I’m worried about whether I’m walking the right light between helpful summary, spoilers, and oversharing details. Everyone else who recommended something kept theirs much shorter, after all.

    Glad you like the shiny!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m fascinated! Honestly, from your description I’d say it sounds like a ‘false heiress’ scheme met a ‘actually half-sib.’

      Liked by 3 people

  16. I feel like the “isekai” genre is really a few different sub-genres all going under the same name where they have to do with “traveling to another world through a portal”. However… there’s a lot of different themes areas of plot such a story can focus on. Some focus more on the world on the other side of the portal, some focus on what happens in the “real” world when a person comes *back* from the other world (Returnee fiction). Some are about pure escapism, some aren’t, etc.

    The type of isekai that has the most trouble I think is when the portal is used to “cheat” on world/character building. There are a whole bunch of isekai that are so focused on the world on the other side of the portal that you wonder if they wouldn’t work better if the portal just… didn’t exist… and the person coming through the portal had lived in the world on the other side of the portal the whole time. That is… if they would make for stronger stories if they were just plain fantasy (or sci-fi, etc.).

    However, that requires… a lot… more work on the part of the author to make the character relatable to the modern-day reader. And a lot more work for what this character’s back-story in the world is that would get them to the “starting point” of when the modern-day protagonist portals into. It’s easy to say the main character is a “Demon Emperor” for a starting point when you don’t have to come up with how they became a “Demon Emperor” for example. Or why was that one person completely redoing how the magic system works overlooked for so long? Making the world be a “fictional” world explains away why the world set-up feel very tropy a lot of the time. Or cuts out dealing with various moral quandaries a character would have to deal with before the story starts.

    And that I think is where the feeling that something is wrong with a lot of isekai comes from. Isekai are “portal fantasy” by definition… but a lot of isekai ignore the portal! They focus instead on what is on the other side of the portal. And… there’s a lot of interesting things to explore when the focus is the *portal*. Especially if more than one person is making use of it… or both sides of the portal can get to the other (eep!)… or maybe the portal is a harbinger of something else actually be wrong with the world… or maybe there’s *multiple* portals… or maybe the portal is through time? etc. There’s a lot of themes that can be explored about the concept/use of a portal and many of them are largely ignored by isekai ironically.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely want the portal in there. I just don’t want the main characters to realize there *is* a portal until a story or so later.

      Current setup in my head: Some project like CERN… well, it didn’t open a portal to hell. It opened a whole bunch of temporary small portals to a magic-heavy world. People got flung through the portals randomly across the world – our MC was on a plane, which very promptly crashed due to monsters/magical storm. He then met mermaids and It Got Worse.

      (He’s in a very bad state by the time he’s rescued.)

      So there are isekai’d people scattered across the magical world, but most of them have no way of knowing it happened to anyone else, and who knows how many survived.

      Meanwhile, back on mundane Earth, someone goes, “hey, that was interesting!” and tries to open more stable portals. Eventually they succeed.

      Image in my head is MC and crew tracking down local people abducted to the local equivalent of Mexico City – yes, quite a ways away from where he landed. And finding some Americans who came through one of the newer portals….

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Have you watched the anime Gate? Kinda a similar idea and one of the better portal to another world, I don’t know if it is really isekai, exactly, but it has similar vibes to what you are describing. Fair warning, There is “fan service” mixed in with the awesome, but I can usually ignore it for the story.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, some anime portrayals of Americans are really interesting. Reminds me of the movie The Mummy with Brandon Frasier 🤣😅 with Jonathan shaking his head and going: “Americans”.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. If your heart doesn’t surge at the fight over who gets to do the helicopter charge…..

        “We’ve got the stereo, the loudspeakers, and the Wagner CD all ready to go.”

        Shortly later… “… Are they possessed by the ghost of Lt. Colonel Kilgore? I can guess exactly what’s going to happen now.”

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Arguably, Isekai does _not_ “by definition” involve “portals”. It involves “a different world” (in the sense of “not like home”, and the associated “not what you’re used to”), and “portals” just happen to be one of the common tools used for getting the MCs into that situation without it being “normal” travel where they’d be expected to have prepared appropriately for their destination ahead of time. That “other world” can be a physically and literally “different world”, it could be merely the same world in a different time or region (looking at some of the early Isekai stories, they were counting things like “gutter orphan adopted into royalty” as counting as a sufficiently “different world” despite it merely being cultural differences that are new to the character), or an “alternate history” of the same world, or any of a variety of other things, so long as there’s a disconnect between the origin and the destination that leaves the MC having to deal with stuff suddenly being different.

      That said, this doesn’t counter the conclusion you have there (it actually makes it stronger), just that “technically it doesn’t have to be a _portal_ that does it”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Depends on whether you define a portal by appearance or function. Anything that moves you to a far distant place and time instaneous works.

        This does preclude the adoption and those that take time

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Can I recommend Kanata Kara, aka From Far Away, as a isekai manga? The heroine Noriko doesn’t have any special powers or skills, she’s a typical schoolgirl that way. But she’s a very well defined character despite that, and her attitude to being thrust into a different world and determination to do what she can – even if it’s just learning the language – is admirable. And the development of her relationship with the hero Izark is very sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Two of my favorite Isekai actually do a somewhat decent job of this– and they come from opposite angles to very similar results.

    The first is ‘Ascendance of a Bookworm’. The hero of that one, Myne (neé Urano), has a very clear personality from the very first scene (where she gets crushed to death by books)– she’s a huge bookworm who just wants to sit around reading. Unfortunately for her, she’s reborn as a little peasant girl in a medieval-esque world with an extremely low literacy rate.
    From the beginning, every single choice she makes is to reach this goal from her old life. But at the same time, we really watch her struggle– her new body is sickly and she nearly kills herself several times because she’s just not capable of the things she wants to do. She also has a VERY hard time reconciling her feelings for her new family with the loss of her previous one.
    She’s selfish and greedy and brilliant and single-minded, and the values she’s gotten from her comfortable life in a modern first-world country *constantly* put her at odds with those of the new world.
    She’s NOT just Joe Everyman, and the choices she makes (and motivations behind them) are NOT the always the ones the reader might make– which makes her feel all the more real.

    On the other hand, Souma, the titular hero of ‘How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom,’ has no such struggle letting go of his old world– he’s a nineteen-year-old college kid whose last remaining relative has just died, and he has no other strong attachments tying him down, so being transported to a new world isn’t exactly a great hardship (although suddenly being thrust into the position of having to rule a kingdom on the verge of collapse is not exactly fun).
    But personality-wise, he’s even more distinct than Myne. His quick mind and Machiavellian philosophy, combined with the strong family values he was raised with give a unique outlook on life, government, and what a leader is supposed to be, and the reader often has a VERY hard time relating to him– but we can *understand* his choices, even if we don’t always like them.
    His goals, training, and motivations from the old world all directly apply to his new role, and he *couldn’t* be replaced with anyone else.

    Both Myne and Souma have very clearly defined histories, goals, and personalities, and while neither of them would necessarily have chosen their new lives, their old lives are directly related to who they are now and what they want to do next. And because both of their stories are more concerned with characterization than action, we really get to see their personal journeys inside and out.

    Also, I’ve noticed the exact issue you’re talking about seems particularly prevalent in ‘villainess’ stories (though maybe it’s just because those are becoming more common). The only thing we seem to need to know about the previous lives of those girls is that they just-so-happen to have read the exact story they’re living in, so they know just what to avoid. Anything else– their jobs, their families, their skillsets– are almost inconsequential. No, the only important thing is their choice of literature. Sure, Jan.

    Liked by 1 person

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