Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1: Learning to Manage Chaos

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

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Dysfunctional Systems logo

Dysfunctional Systems – Episode One: Learning to Manage Chaos is a visual novel developed by Dischan. To be honest, I haven’t really played many visual novels so I was really excited to give this one a try. As it turns out, the game didn’t require me to make too many decisions (it’s very much the “novel” part of “visual novel”) but the decisions I did have to make were the important ones. Dysfunctional Systems is set on a utopian version of Earth – well, not entirely. This Earth has discovered a way to travel to planets on different planes of existence. They’ve also discovered that many of the societies on these planets are pretty messed up, and have taken it upon themselves to fix them through unsolicited mediation. This episode follows fourteen-year-old Winter Harrison as she shadows her second mentor, Cyrus Addington, during his mediation on a planet called Sule. Cyrus is what’s known as a mediator and Winter is a student at the Mediātōrum, studying to become a mediator.

I was really taken in by this premise; the idea of alternate universes and planes of existence has always intrigued me. However, I’ve seen great premises go to waste thanks to poor execution before, so I approached this game warily. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. This episode is wonderful. The art drew me in immediately. It’s truly gorgeous work, both in design and execution. I really love the design of all of the characters, even minor ones. The music is wonderful (I’m psyched to have added it to my ever-growing collection of video game soundtracks!) and each track is perfectly suited to the scenes during which it plays. There’s a lot more I’d like to cover, so I’ll try to be efficient.

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In Winter’s second shadowing of a mediator, she follows Cyrus as he tries to pinpoint and fix the problems of a world called Sule. As they investigate, they discover that the country of Brighton has recently (in relative terms) attained freedom from its parent country, and a superpower of Sule, Gabrea. Although Brighton is technically free, it’s still very much under Gabrea’s heel. Brighton’s citizens live in poverty; in fact, they must work multiple jobs at dismal rates to stave off starvation. Not everyone can earn their living, and in this case the word is all too literal. People are constantly dying while Gabrea lives in luxury. As David, a citizen of Brighton (pictured below) puts it, “Even their bums live better than us.”

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Winter and Cyrus are just beginning to get an idea of Sule’s problems when Brighton’s president, Barnaby (although everyone knows he’s just a figurehead), sends out an ultimatum to Gabrea: Concede to our demands in four hours, or we’ll launch a nuke at you. Brighton has succeeded in creating Sule’s first atomic weaponry, and Barnaby’s not afraid to use it. Cyrus and Winter must stop a war from breaking out, but can a problem like this be solved in just four short hours?

This is Winter’s first time shadowing Cyrus (which isn’t surprising as it’s only her second shadowing ever) but the two make a pretty good team. It’s clear that Winter has a lot to learn, and Cyrus is probably one of a few mentors who will teach her the things she really needs to know, rather than simply regurgitating lines from a textbook. However, Winter might not be ready to learn everything he’s trying to teach her. Having grown up in a world without chaos and conflict, she doesn’t truly understand concepts like war and poverty. The idea of murder, the thought that one person would kill another, is something that is so foreign to her it’s literally unthinkable. Her mind simply will never wander in that direction of its own accord.

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Winter is constantly thinking. She’s always in her head and loves books. It’s interesting to see a character who is so thoughtful, yet completely ignorant. In her line of work, though, that ignorance can mean the death of countless people. Winter knows this, at least to some extent. The Earth she grew up on, which is supposedly a perfect chaos-free utopia, has left her completely unprepared for mediating.

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Very little of Winter’s Earth is seen or discussed at length in the first episode. However, some of Winter’s thoughts make me wonder; is her Earth really the utopia it’s made out to be? Sure, to Winter’s knowledge there’s no poverty. As she puts it, “‘Poor’ is not having enough for a snack. Money is a trivial thing.” However, I’m not sure I trust her knowledge of her own planet. She doesn’t seem well-traveled or really in the proper mindset to consider thinking beyond whatever country she lives in. Cyrus however seems a more reliable source, so I’m inclined to believe him when he says there’s no war on their Earth. “You might even find it surprising that ‘war’ is actually a word in our dictionary.” Is that all a utopia is? A world without war, where a fourteen-year-old thinks money is trivial?

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There’s one thing in particular Winter says that makes me question the state of affairs on her Earth. She wonders why they’re bothering to help Brighton at all, considering the fact that it’s not a major power on this planet. I wonder if that same mindset is how she feels about smaller, foreign countries on her own planet. On Sule, Gabreans live rich lives, thanks to the toil of Brighton’s people. Since Gabrea is never visited in this episode, I don’t know the extent to which Gabrean citizens are aware of Brighton’s circumstances. I wonder if the same might not be happening on Winter’s Earth? Could her country be prospering while lesser societies slowly starve to death, working to enable their easy lives? This is all speculation; I have no idea. It’ll be interesting to see more of Winter’s home world.

Regardless of whether or not Winter’s Earth is the utopia she claims or not, I’m excited to see where this story will go. If it does turn out that her planet is not the perfect world she believes it is, that would be really interesting. On the other hand, simply watching Winter grow, traveling to other planes of existence and seeing levels of chaos and turmoil she couldn’t even imagine before would be really interesting, too. I said earlier I had been worried Dysfunctional Systems might not live up to the premise that drew me in. If every episode is half as good as Learning to Manage Chaos, I’ll be ecstatic.

Let me be clear: I love this game. I love what’s happened, the art, the music, the characters, and I love where the series could potentially go. Dysfunctional Systems has replaced Pandora’s Tower as my desktop background and the wallpaper on my phone. Which surprises me because I generally can’t be bothered to change stuff like that. Everyone reading this article should get Dysfunctional Systems when it comes out on April 4th for PC, Mac and Linux. It’s only $5, plus it comes with the soundtrack. Really, it’s a no-brainer. All that’s left to ask is “When can I get episode two?”

You can buy Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1: Learning to Manage Chaos or download Dischan’s free visual novel Juniper’s Knot from their store here or check out the game’s official site for even more on Dysfunctional Systems.