Autonomy, aliens, and a study in female character agency with 16bit Sensation

By: Alex Henderson May 17, 20240 Comments
Konoha staring in open-mouthed shock as the game case in her hands explodes into golden light

Spoilers for 16bit Sensation: Another Layer

When addressing fiction through the lens of feminist criticism, the idea of female characters’ agency is a topic that frequently comes up. Agency usually refers to someone’s ability to act freely and with control over themself; a fictional character’s agency, then, is their ability to act and exert control over the story that they’re in. Obviously, fictional women are fictional, and they do not have actual agency over their decisions and actions because whatever they do is dictated by the real humans writing them. Discussion of character agency, then, is a discussion of authorial choices, and ultimately a discussion of representation: how has this creator constructed their heroines? Has this creator made a narrative world in which female characters have an impact on their setting? And has this creator built their story in such a way that it feels like the female protagonist is genuinely driving it forward with her decisions and actions, all informed by who she is as an autonomous person… or is the story happening around her or to her without any of her input?

2023’s 16bit Sensation: Another Layer is a useful case study in this discussion because it manages to be an example of both. In the beginning and middle of its story, the female protagonist drives the plot forward with her choices, actions, and personality—ultimately altering the very fabric of the universe with her decisions and creating problems that the narrative hinges on. However, by the show’s final arc, her agency as a character is drastically reduced: she reacts rather than acts, has no impact on nor personal stakes in how the climax resolves itself, and is superseded as hero of her own story by a male side character. It’s a frustrating turn for the series to take, though it does helpfully demonstrate what “female characters driving the story” looks like—and doesn’t look like—by providing the audience with this internal contrast. 

Konoha sitting in her room, surrounded by posters of cute anime girls, looking determinedly towards the camera. Subtitle text reads: One day, I'll have a game with my art on this shelf!

16bit Sensation follows Konoha, an aspiring game illustrator who loves vintage visual novels and laments that she’s missed the golden age of the bishoujo game. She gets a chance to experience this heyday firsthand when a mysterious copy of Doukyuusei sends her back in time to 1992. Though other characters warn her not to meddle in the past, the desire to be part of this niche of pop culture history is too great, and across the series Konoha jumps back and forth between the current day and the 1990s, visiting and helping with projects for the game studio Alcohol Soft. There are also aliens. I’ll get back to that in a moment. 

So, what about Konoha’s narrative agency at this early stage? Admittedly, the plot kicks off with something happening to her. This is the case for many protagonists, whether that’s inheriting a mysterious house, running into a stranger who will change their life, or getting isekai’ed. A good story finds the balance between throwing its protagonist in the deep end and letting their decisions drive what happens next. For some recent examples: the protagonist of A Condition Called Love kicks off the plot by offering her umbrella to a heartbroken stranger, but the result of this choice she makes is unexpected to her; meanwhile, the lead in Villainess Level 99 gets sucked into an otome game and into a situation beyond her control, but she asserts what agency she has and decides to level up so she can try to protect herself—a decision that sends the plot veering in a new direction. 

To be clear, agency is not a matter of physical strength or even a character’s competence; “strong female character” does not mean a stereotypically badass fictional woman, but one who receives strong character writing, imbued with complexity and motivations that cause the story to happen the way it does. As we’ve discussed with various series across the years, a protagonist for whom everything is immediately easy makes for a low-effort power fantasy… but they’re often not very dynamic characters, and the lack of stakes and tension in their stories often mean that they’re not very satisfying to watch. Likewise, a heroine who is so thoroughly caught up in the tide of the plot that they are completely disempowered and have no impact whatsoever, is dissatisfying to watch and concerning from a feminist analysis perspective. Character agency is important no matter the protagonist’s gender—however, in a social context in which women are still marginalized and denied agency in real life, the agency of fictional female characters is especially important to unpack.

Konoha tearfully looking back from a 90s computer screen

At the beginning, 16bit Sensation largely strikes this balance. Konoha does not make the initial decision to go back in time. However, Konoha makes active decisions once she gets her bearings, each of these driven by the motivations and passions established about her in the early episodes. She chooses to help Alcohol Soft with their 1992 deadline, and fights for the opportunity to do so. Once rocketed back to 2023, she actively tries to find a way to get back to the past, figuring out how the time travel system works and pursuing her newfound goal of working with Alcohol Soft. While there are new problems for her to bounce off and react to in each arc, Konoha chooses to go where she ends up, and ultimately her making decisions and wanting things is what drives the story forward. If Konoha had given up and stayed in 2023, there would be no story. She’s motivated and is doing stuff that makes the narrative happen. 

She even drives the events that generate the climax of the story. When Alcohol Soft is faced with bankruptcy following its managers’ bad financial decisions, Konoha steps up with a proposal that will save them: develop a game so good it will save the company. She pulls on all her knowledge of the 2020s game landscape and all her love for the vintage VNs that will revolutionize the field, but haven’t been invented yet. Konoha leads the project, she manages to pull her zany plan off, and it seems like she’s saved the day with her unique blend of skills, interests, and decisions. 

But when she’s zapped back to the present day, she’s faced with a horrifying twist. It turns out that Konoha’s game was too good, and its meteoric success changed the trajectory of the industry forever. She emerges into an unfamiliar, alternate version of 2023 in which her precious Akihabara is no longer the nerd paradise she loves so much. Following Alcohol Soft’s success, they moved overseas to continue their careers, and many game studios followed suit, meaning that the heartland of bishoujo games is California rather than Japan, and any notion of moe or cute girl culture has been imported back through an Americanized lens. This dark new timeline is demonstrated, hilariously, when Konoha sees the poster girls of the Fate series rendered uncannily in American comic book art style. Meanwhile, Akihabara has not been able to retain its status as a beloved tech district and all the landmarks Konoha knows and loves are being redeveloped into stylish apartments.

Saber from the Fate series rendered in American comic book style, wielding her golden sword. Subtitle text reads: America's number one hit game is finally being released in Japan!

First off, this is very funny (Evil American Saber is a meta joke made to appeal to me specifically). But it’s also great storytelling, because this accursed dark timeline is the direct result of Konoha’s actions. If you want to get all Ancient Greek about it, you could even call it the result of her hubris. Despite knowing that she should be careful not to meddle with history, our time-traveling heroine got cocky, and her folly created a reality straight out of her own nightmares. She has caused the pop culture she loves so much to vanish from existence. Her actions have inadvertently stripped the personality from the town she idealized. Her motivations and actions have driven us to this plot point and to this world state, and now she must find a way to make things right. So, what’s she going to do?

Well… despite this excellent set-up for the third act climax of the show, the answer is “not much.” Konoha’s decisions, driven by her motivations and character traits, lead the story to this point, but for the climax itself she takes a surprising backseat. Konoha becomes very reactive in the final arc of the show, pinballing around as the events of the climax largely happen to her. It’s her (male) Alcohol Soft co-worker Mamorou—now significantly older than Konoha thanks to the timeskip—who instructs her on what to do, provides her with the means, and ends up rescuing her multiple times.

16bit Sensation’s finale goes off the rails in multiple ways. Konoha’s relatively straightforward quest to design an even better game to send back into the past is quickly derailed when (deep breath) she gets kidnapped and taken to a facility where the country’s most brilliant game devs have been placed in Matrix-style pods and uploaded into some sort of metaverse, where they are toiling away 24/7 making games. Konoha wakes up in a plugsuit and spends the next couple of episodes going “What? I don’t understand!” as the villain—a newly-introduced evil American businessman—monologues at her about how this is the future of the games industry. 

Mamoru calmly grabbing Konoha's arm while she flails, making a cartoonishly shocked expression

Mamorou, meanwhile, successfully hacks into the facility and heroically rescues Konoha, portrayed as cool and competent while Konoha gets dragged around behind him. And to cap everything off, aliens descend from the sky at the last minute to save the day, usefully and quite literally demonstrating what a deus ex machina is.

Konoha needing to be rescued isn’t necessarily the problem here—even a competent protagonist should need help now and then, to prove that they’re not totally infallible, and to demonstrate the power of their relationships with other characters. However, the execution of this arc weakens Konoha’s character writing significantly. She reacts to everything that gets thrown at her and largely stands around crying until someone (first Mamorou, then the aliens) comes to force her to move. She gets reduced to a damsel in a box while Mamorou is shown making active decisions and using his unique skills. The plot moves because he moves it (again, before it’s all interrupted by the aliens) and Konoha is pulled along by the tide, not making any of the active choices that propelled her in earlier arcs. Mamorou being a middle-aged man and Konoha being 19 adds the (perhaps unintentional, but insulting nonetheless) effect of making her look dithery and childish, a scared teenage girl needing to be saved by a grown man.

The aliens, I might add, are also not something Konoha even knows about or has context for. The episode dedicated to meeting them is from Mamorou’s perspective—Konoha literally sleeps through the whole adventure. While the space-folks wax lyrical about how much they love Konoha and how important she is to the universe, this devotion is one-sided and Konoha has no connection to them whatsoever. Thus, as with most of the climactic arc, she spends this whole interaction confused and, again, reactive. The UFO descends and conveniently solves the characters’ problems, beaming away Konoha’s last chance to impact the finale with her decisions.

Konoha (in her gray plugsuit) and Mamorou standing together looking into a bright light. Subtitle text reads: A UFO?

Konoha’s actions create the dilemma at the crux of the climax, but she ultimately plays no part in how it’s resolved. Due to its rapid-fire pacing, the final episode also skims over the development of the new, even better, timeline-altering game—i.e., the part where we might have seen her actually act and make decisions and do the things she’s good at. Thanks to the detour to the evil American metaverse game dev plotline (featuring aliens), little time is devoted to actually showing how Konoha solves the problem she caused, and it feels like a hole in the narrative.

The protagonist ends up feeling like a passenger in her own story. This is frustrating writing on its own, but it’s amplified by the fact that a male side character gets to step up and drive the plot with his actions while she watches and gasps. Mamorou has consistently been an important side character, so his rise to prominence isn’t totally out of left field. However, the bait-and-switch in which he effectively takes over as protagonist while Konoha is rendered helpless and motionless is incredibly disappointing. Even besides the sexist implications of damselling Konoha and valorizing her male counterpart (though let’s not discount those!), it’s contradictory writing that goes against the earlier parts of the series.  

Konoha begins 16bit Sensation as a strongly-defined character: the audience gets an immediate sense of her personality, her passions, and what she wants in life. While she stumbles into her time travel adventure at first, the narrative gives her opportunities to take back control of what’s happening to her and at many points she drives the story forward with her own decisions, each of these pivotal moments informed by the traits and motivations that the early episodes established. In a satisfying case of protagonist hubris, she even causes the dilemma at the heart of the series’ climax. 

Konoha standing in a gray plugsuit, seen from behind, staring down a hallway of water-filled tubes that seem to have people inside them. Subtitle text reads: None of this makes any sense!

But when it comes to resolving that dilemma, the narrative veers suddenly in all directions: introducing more concepts than it has time to flesh out and wrap up, drastically reducing Konoha’s autonomy and casting Mamorou as the more proactive character, and waving away all responsibility and character agency by having everything solved by the sudden introduction of a UFO. Konoha drives the story for most of the series, in stark contrast to the finale where she is simply there.

In this way, 16bit Sensation is (unfortunately) a useful case study for what we talk about when we talk about character autonomy, active versus reactive characters, and how a narrative suffers when the agency of its female protagonists gets reduced. While the whole show is arguably pretty silly, the finale is an unsatisfying, bonkers mess of aliens and alternate timelines that loses sight of the story’s core: Konoha and her passion for bishoujo games. When it ceases to center its own heroine, and stops allowing her to drive the narrative, 16bit Sensation loses the thread of its own story and ultimately misses a lot of its feminist and broader storytelling potential. 

About the Author : Alex Henderson

Alex Henderson is a writer and managing editor at Anime Feminist. They completed a doctoral thesis on queer representation in young adult genre fiction in 2023. Their short fiction has been published in anthologies and zines, their scholarly work in journals, and their too-deep thoughts about anime, manga, fantasy novels, and queer geeky stuff on their blog.

Read more articles from Alex Henderson

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