Space Live: Flawless Fanservice

Sometimes a good palate-cleanser is just what the doctor ordered, and that’s exactly what Space Live: Advent of the Net Idols provides.

Developed as a West-first release by a collaborative effort between Da Capo creator Circus and localisation specialists MangaGamer, Space Live markets itself as a “short and sweet visual novel that will add some kick into your step for the week” — an eminently accurate description.

It’s not a visual novel that’s attempting to say anything deep and meaningful, nor is it attempting to wow you with its technical proficiency, big budget and days-long play time. It’s simply a bit of fun, aimed with a laser-sharp focus at Western fans of Japanese popular media, and it succeeds admirably at what it does.

For the unfamiliar, Space Live is a short, unvoiced kinetic novel that unfolds from the perspective of a third-person non-participant omniscient narrator and allows us to observe five personifications of popular web browsers battling for ultimate supremacy in an idol competition.

The premise is that in the future, humanity has abandoned its physical existence and instead chosen to reside in the digital domain of Net Space, which subsequently found itself divided into a number of different factions roughly corresponding to five web browser creators: Macro Space (Microsoft), Ai Space (Apple), Goggle Space (Google), Mosaic Space (Mozilla) and Luna Space (Lunascape). To prevent excessive conflict between the five spaces, overall rulership of Net Space is decided on a yearly basis by an idol competition called the Space Live, and it’s here that we join the story as plucky underdog Ai E is in training for this year’s upcoming event.

Ai E, the personification of Internet Explorer, is a lovable, ditzy girl who, appropriately enough for a representative of Microsoft, fulfils the “pretty American” anime trope to a tee with her blonde hair and blue eyes — and her swirly “e”-shaped ribbon in her hair reminds us exactly which browser she’s supposed to be representing. She’s the closest thing Space Live has to a protagonist, since she’s the first character we see, and the one we get to know in most detail over the course of the narrative, though each of the other characters get a bit of time in the spotlight.

The glamourous Sarifa, meanwhile, represents Apple’s browser Safari, a fact made very clear by the compass pendant she wears at all times. Represented as a mature, refined woman with a dislike of rooms with too many windows in them, Sarifa is the personification of the ideal customer that Apple strives for: dignified, creative and effortlessly cool. Her intense beauty and distinctive, provocative outfit is a reflection both of Apple’s emphasis on design as well as its longstanding “think different” strategy.

Goggle Space’s Chrome makes no attempt to hide her identity. A curious blend of cold, emotionless features with the ridiculous cuteness of highly expressive cat ears, Chrome remains an enigma for the majority of the narrative, seemingly unapproachable but occasionally surprising everyone with a pithy remark or an unexpected action. This reflects Google’s perception as a monolithic, all-powerful corporation that is occasionally prone to flights of whimsy, such as its April Fool’s gags, its experimental products and the daily Google Doodles.

Mosaic Space’s Higitsune represents the Firefox browser and, of course, is a fox girl. Following the popular anime trope of having young-looking characters actually being a lot older than they look, she’s strongly implied to be the oldest of the main cast members — a reflection of the fact that NCSA’s Mosaic was one of the earliest Web browsers, along with the fact that modern-day Mozilla likewise has its roots in the early days of the Web, since it was set up by members of Netscape. She’s also a bit of a dick to other people at times, perhaps a reflection over the controversy Mozilla’s leadership has attracted in the past for some of their political stances, though her heart is usually in the right place, much as controversial CEO Brendan Eich stepped down following protests from the LGBT community over his attitudes towards same-sex marriage.

Finally, Luna Space’s Tsukikage represents the relatively little-known Lunascape browser, originally developed in Japan as an attempt to combine the Gecko rendering engine from Firefox with its equivalents from Apple and Microsoft, WebKit and Trident respectively. Her traditional Japanese costume is a direct reference to her Japanese roots, while her constant frustration at people ignoring her, dismissing her opinion or considering her to “fade into the background” acknowledges the fact that relatively few people — particularly in the West — are familiar with Lunascape.

The story unfolds across four events — a singing and dancing competition, a swimming pool-based “capture the flag” affair (during which, some may be delighted to hear, Higitsune, Tsukikage and Chrome all inadvertently expose their breasts at various points), an acting competition in which each of the idols have to perform a “confession” scene based on the outfit they’re given, and finally a sprint race… as well as a bit of a surprise at the conclusion of proceedings. You have no influence on how things turn out; this is a pure and simple linear story to experience and enjoy with no worries about making the “correct” choices to see your favourite girl to the end.

The actual story is silly fluff, of course, but it’s played admirably straight throughout, complemented by beautiful artwork by Shiratani Conaca — somewhat reminiscent of Nan Yaegashi’s work on the Senran Kagura series in terms of its brightly coloured, almost flat-shaded style — and some delightful writing. There are numerous sequences throughout that demonstrate Circus and MangaGamer have a very solid understanding of Western fans of Japanese games and visual novels, how they interact with one another, what they find appealing and how they express themselves — and these manage to successfully poke fun at the subculture without coming across as either mean-spirited or trying too hard.

For example, during the initial introductions of each of the idols, Higitsune deliberately provokes the audience by showing off her armpits, a reference to the inexplicable popularity of this part of the body in fanart, and the general trend of fetishising rather specific aspects of characters’ physiques. The fact that this is one of the few visual novels where the character sprites have poses with their backs to the “camera” is also clearly an acknowledgement of this, too, since all of the characters’ outfits are very low-cut in the back, giving a nice view for those who derive pleasure from a fine pair of shoulderblades.

It doesn’t stop there, either. The “confession” scene in particular is a highlight from a fanservice perspective, with Tsukikage donning a nurse costume, Sarifa wearing a princess dress, Higitsune dressing up as a demon lord (with the camera angle implying she’s stepping on you, naturally), Chrome playing a maid and Ai in a schoolgirl outfit. In this section of the story, the narration switches from third-person non-participant narrator to the perspective of the idol performing her scene at the time, with each essentially providing a delightfully abridged version of some of the most clichéd visual novel “confession” scenes from history. They’re all played completely straight rather than for laughs, though, and manage to be surprisingly emotionally engaging in the process, even though you’re conscious that they’re not “real”.

The narrative and dialogue explore some more “meta” aspects of Western fandom, too. At one point there’s a discussion over whether Japanese phrases should be translated literally or simply use an equivalent in the target language that preserves the rough intent of the original — always a hot topic among enthusiasts of Japanese games and visual novels — and in a pleasingly on-the-nose jab at “progressive” critics who refuse to use the gendered word “heroine” when referring to female members of the central cast in a visual novel, one scene sees Chrome rather pointedly insisting that she is most certainly a “heroine”, not a “hero”.

Couple that with the fact that most of the game is accompanied by a small window filled with an absolutely spot-on parody of the indecipherable, meme-filled garbage that is Twitch chat during a popular event, and you have a product that clearly knows its audience, acknowledges it, pokes fun at it but ultimately appreciates it for its continued and ongoing support.

Space Live feels like a heartfelt and genuine “thank you” to Western enthusiasts of the visual novel community. It’s not going to win any awards for its technical proficiency or deep, meaningful narrative, but it’s a well-written, witty and downright charming title with absolutely gorgeous artwork and a delightfully “storybook” tone to its narration — and a game which doesn’t outstay its welcome thanks to its short runtime and low price point.

Most definitely a visual novel that thoroughly fulfills its intention to “add some kick into your step for the week”. After over 80 hours of Fate/stay night, it was exactly what I needed!

More about Space Live: Advent of the Net Idols

A review copy of this game was provided by MangaGamer.

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