Hey all, and welcome to Why It Works! Recovery of an MMO Junkie has turned out to be one of my favorite shows of the season for a variety of reasons – like its great cast, snappy humor, and sharp reflections on online selves. But one of the things that’s interesting to me in a more structural sense is the way the show manages its “misunderstanding resources.” Misunderstandings and other romantic hurdles are a staple of romantic comedies, and the push and pull of managing these “resources” is a key element of whether these shows are successful. So let me try to explain what I mean, and you can judge how well MMO Junkie manages these issues.
Romantic comedies generally focus on characters that you want to get together – that seem like they’d be perfect together, even if they themselves don’t realize it. Of course, “two characters weren’t together, then they got together” isn’t a conflict, and thus also isn’t much of a story. It might work for a tiny vignette, but it can’t facilitate a dramatic narrative. In order to create drama and excitement, your narrative must keep the two apart. On the other hand, if you don’t want the audience to feel like they’re being screwed around arbitrarily, there still has to be some progression, some sense the characters are slowly getting closer in a tangible way.
One way this is accomplished is the old-fashioned way – having the characters actually talk, come to understand each other, and ultimately care about each other’s feelings. Straight romances often go down this route, as do some character dramas. It’s also a common choice for stories that aren’t really about romance as a central topic, but still want their leads to get together – “we’ll experience this adventure together, and hey, looks like we grew close.” But romantic comedies in particular tend to thrive on dramatic reversals and big hurdles keeping two people apart. The potential romance is clear from the start (thus giving the audience a clear thing to root for), but there are just all these frustrating obstacles in the way. Thus: misunderstanding resources.
By “misunderstanding resources” I don’t only mean direct misconceptions on the parts of the characters. In a romantic comedy, essentially every piece of missing knowledge that keeps characters apart is potentially fuel that can be used for both conflicts and comedy. “Moriko and Sakurai don’t know each other in any capacity” is the first, most baseline hurdle. From there, we move to “they know each other online, but not in real life.” From there, “they know each other in real life, but don’t connect that to the characters who’ve already come to care about each other.” From there, “Moriko’s guild leader finds out the truth about her identity, but no one else knows.” And so on.
MMO Junkie essentially starts with a set of available dramatic payoffs based on the distance between its two leads, and has parceled out these payoffs across all of its episodes. Every new hurdle the characters overcome thus feels satisfying, while still allowing the show to maintain the characters’ overall distance from each other. The key here is that these hurdles are tangible problems that resolve in an actual, permanent reduction of distance. If your story uses tricks like “I ran out of battery during a key moment” or “a car drove past so they couldn’t hear my confession” too often, the audience will get rightly frustrated. These are arbitrary tricks that do nothing to actually push the characters together, and while you can get away with them occasionally, relying on them too often makes a narrative feel drawn out and artificial. To keep the audience invested, you have to be offering up legitimate misunderstandings, tangible gaps between the characters that the audience can feel truly satisfied when the characters overcome.
In my opinion, MMO Junkie has done a great job of consistently rewarding the audience through consuming its initial misunderstandings piece by piece. The first several episodes were able to rely on mutual gaps of understanding, giving up one slight reveal after another until Sakurai finally learned the truth. From there, the show shifted slightly to focus on Sakurai’s own anxieties, which felt well-articulated enough to justify him hesitating while Moriko herself moved closer to the truth. By carefully parceling out its smaller reveals, MMO Junkie has maintained tension in spite of still focusing on the same “Moriko and Sakurai like each other, but don’t know it” conflict from start to finish. Of course, treating built-in misunderstandings as narrative resources is just one way of delineating the dramatic building blocks of a story – and just because two people are aware of each other doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict or future misunderstandings. How well do you think MMO Junkie manages its drama, and where do you think things might go now that Moriko and Sakurai both know the truth?