This has a huge amount to do with why I love K-On so god damned much. There was such a ridiculous attention to detail, in the environments, in the way that characters interacted with those environments, and even in the way that things and people moved.
And, of course, MLP has a huge amount of this too. It’s not as subtle most of the time, because it’s taking us to a whole other world, but when it is subtle, it’s that much more mind-blowing because it comes out of that world so naturally.
I like MLP as an example—for one thing, simply because of the level of effort involved there. Not every creative team would’ve bothered fleshing out a setting with a name like “Ponyville.” But that they were able to do so reinforces my suspicion that you can fully realize pretty much any setting as long as you make it seem as though your characters actually live there.
So the ponies read books and comb their hair, and that helps one kind of viewer invest, and it also adds up over dozens of episodes. There’s a certain amount of “macro” world-building that goes on with regard to Equestria, the place has a history and a roll call of heroes and villains, but much of the world-building happens at the micro level, which is to say the level of people going about their business—the characters do x, y, and z, and now the world equals x times y times z. That sort of thing.
It still astounds some people that a demographic that might otherwise read fantasy literature or watch Game of Thrones invests so much time into a kids’ cartoon, but the thing is, for a subset of spec-fic fans, Equestria is what a good fantasy setting looks like. Yes it’s simple, yes its target audience is six or whatever, but at least it’s alive, and I’d be willing to bet that most of the fandom has in their memory, as a point of comparison, at least one fantasy novel that reads like out-of-context Tolkien and Leiber quotes with the proper nouns changed glued into a D&D Monster Manual. It takes more than elven architecture and monsters whose names contain seven apostrophes to make a world. To some extent, the characters are the setting.
The point is that Ponyville has a whole lot of personality. And once that personality is established, the show starts introducing characters savvy enough to figure it out, and who exploit it for personal gain.
One episode that sticks with me sticks with me for this reason. It’s the one with these assholes:
Of course! Right? Once you realize that the citizens of Ponyville are open and trusting to the point of gullibility, you have to wonder what might happen if
mass-production-powered, charismatic capitalisma couple of snake oil salesmen rolled into town. The plot basically writes itself. There’s also that episode with the life coach—same sort of thing.
The effect is, in a very literal sense, unsettling—you accustom yourself to the fabric of this place, and then it’s unsettled by characters who see it differently than any character you’ve met so far. Note, however, that this requires all those characters you’ve met up to this point to have an actual stake in the world. They need to participate and have opinions, and their participation and opinions need to matter. Otherwise there’s no real foundation, no reason for the plot to happen as it does.
Digi[suffix] is right in that there’s a difference in the subtlety level of MLP vs. slice of life anime, and I think he’s right about why. It’s a question of what kind of world you’re trying to build. A colorful, whimsical fantasy setting doesn’t necessarily call for contact lenses in the way that a high school story does. How one would speak to an irate rabbit is more relevant. Generally, though, it’s the same principle. Show me that the characters aren’t actors or puppets dancing per the whims of Lord Plot. Show me that they live here. The sense of living-here is my point of entry.
Highjacking this post to talk about (what else?) Rescue Bots.
Pontifdotus brings up the key fact that when you make a setting rich, it becomes a sort of character in of itself. A great way to achieve this is by having the characters feel like real people who really do live in that setting, and have ties/stakes to said world. You, the audience, have come to care about the characters, and as such care about the things they care about.
Within Rescue Bots, in lieu of Decepticons, the greatest foe introduced thus far has been the dandy, Tim Curry-voiced, Doctor Morocco. Again, given the show’s “safe space for the kiddies” nature, the Bad Doctor can’t pose a direct threat to the safety of the heroes. He cannot, for example, threaten Cody or Frankie at drill point as the Decepticons do in Transformers Prime, Rescue Bots’ sister show. Rather, the menace Morocco poses is to the fabric and stability of Griffon Rock.
A lot of time is spent in the early episodes of Rescue Bots setting up Griffon Rock: its people, its history, how it operates, their exports, etc. And all for good reason. Furthermore, Cody Burns (the central character and audience surrogate to interact with the show’s world through) positively loves his hometown and delights community activities, maintaining the peace, and keeping his neighbors smiling.
So the scariest and most dangerous thing a villain in Rescue Bots can do is upset the friendly, island town. And that’s precisely what Morocco does. In small ways at first, as seen in his initial appearances within “The Other Doctor” and “Reign of Doctor Morocco” via replacing the Rescue Bots with Morbots thus causing immense property damage, ejecting Dr. Greene as town scientist, and walling off said scientist’s lab. And then, in much larger ways within the finale “Bot to the Future” and “It’s a Bot Time” wherein a disturbing Bad Future is depicted with Morocco having turned the once cheery Griffon Rock into a dreary, almost Police State-esque Orwellian nightmare.
None of these episodes would work as effect plot peaks in S1 of Rescue Bots if we didn’t care about Griffon Rock. But we do, so in turn do the episodes. Because, for all its oddness and eccentricities of robo-dinosaurs in the museum, flying lobsters, and business men flying on helicopter backpacks, Griffon Rock still feels like a real, lived-town in the context of its narrative.
Great analysis, Draqua! I’d like to bring up the secondary detail point that not only does Griffin Rock feel lived, in, but many of its citizens are recurring. Someone less inclined to be charitable could say “of course, they get to reuse that character object” but I think that it serves a more important purpose. We get to see the townsfolk repeatedly, and since they are each designed, and each live through multiple episodes, we get used to them as not just background characters, but citizens. That’s part of what makes seeing the orwell-future versions of all the same townsfolk (the same people got redesigned: nice touch) more sad.