Muv-Luv can be a very difficult story to get a handle on while you’re in the process of playing it. You start the game, immediately you’re thrown into some crazy high school shenanigans. But wait, now you’re in a completely different world! Mechs, aliens, bwuh? Oh, now we have time loops too? It’s a crazy story and you’re just kind of hanging on for dear life as you go through it, so it can be hard to see how everything is supposed to fit together. But once you finish the story, you can step back and see how all the strange, disparate pieces come together in a very deliberate way. Once you strip away all the insane twists and turns and simply take in the story as a whole, it’s easy to recognize Muv-Luv as a very classic coming-of-age story. Literary types refer to this kind of story as a bildungsroman, a story focusing on showing the growth of the protagonist from a foolish child into a mature adult, often placing emphasis on the clash between the protagonist and society. Each chapter of Muv-Luv can be understood as representing a different stage in the process of growing up.
The first chapter, Extra, represents childhood. A bildungsroman usually starts with a very immature character, and Takeru is of course a deeply childish character in this chapter, lazy and carefree, generally not thinking about anything. But the world of Extra is also deeply childish as well. This is perfectly illustrated with the KimiNozo parody early in the game – even though KimiNozo and Extra technically take place in the same world, in KimiNozo Haruka is hit by a car and is sent into a coma for 3 years, while in Extra the same thing happens to Sumika (complete with KimiNozo music) and she just gets up and dusts herself off. In the world of Extra, bad things simply don’t happen.
The original Muv-Luv describes itself as a “super-cliched romance adventure”. In other words, it takes all the standard cliches of the genre and turns them up to 11. Where other games might have a rich girl with a mansion, Extra has a rich girl who levels an entire neighborhood in order to build a mansion so massive it literally changes the face of the map. A lot of Extra is simply about being able to play with the typical tropes of the genre and taking them to the next level without having to worry too much about keeping things grounded or realistic. That’s the kind of childish logic that the world of Extra is built on.
The second chapter, Unlimited, represents the transition from childhood to adolescence. In a typical coming-of-age story, a child one day comes to the powerful realization that the world extends far beyond his previously simplistic understanding of it. For the first time, he begins to grasp that the world can be a complicated and even dangerous place. In the real world, a child would come to this realization by seeing new aspects of the world he lives in, but through the power of science fiction and metaphor, Takeru is literally brought into a different world, where different rules apply. In this world, people are not allowed to sit back and enjoy life in innocence (like a child would) – they must work hard to earn their freedoms (like an adult would). Much of Unlimited, then, is devoted to Takeru coming to terms with the fact that this is the world he lives in now. He must discard any notion of returning to the days of his childhood, and devote himself to becoming an adult. This is the process of maturing that we would describe as adolescence, and by the end of this chapter, Takeru has fully completed this transition: he understands the nature of this world and accepts that he must work to contribute to it.
(I’ve often reflected on just how much the creators of Muv-Luv must love mecha shows, to cast their story this way: in this story, there are 2 worlds, one resembling the real world and one in which giant robots fight aliens. One of these worlds represents the world of childhood, and one represents the world of adulthood. It must take a special love of mechs to decide that it is our world that is the world of childhood, and the robot/alien world that is the world of adulthood.)
The first half of Alternative represents the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Takeru begins this chapter as an adolescent, aware of his responsibility to make a difference in this world, and ready to take his first steps in doing so. But although adolescents have the drive to change the world, they generally lack the experience and knowledge necessary to understand how to best do so. This lack of experience often leads them to believe that the solutions to the world’s problems are simpler than they really are. What’s more, once it becomes clear that society has not implemented these solutions they developed, they may come to the conclusion that this is because they have managed to come up with new solutions that society has not yet conceived of – in other worlds, they have greater insight into the world and its problems than society had up to this point. This is the reason adolescents are often known for questioning authority and clashing with authority figures. Adolescent fiction often targets this sentiment, by portraying teenage protagonists with special abilities that exceed those of their peers, who have special knowledge and insight that are lacking in the adults around them, and whose special talents are the key to saving the world.
In Takeru’s case, his special talents come from his 2 extra years spent in the Unlimited world. This extra training gives him abilities far beyond his squadmates, and he largely carries his squad during his time as a cadet. The time he spent in the previous world also makes him far more knowledgeable about future events than anybody, and even an adult as smart and powerful as Yuuko has to rely on his knowledge. And his unique ability to return to the world of Extra becomes essential to implementing Alternative IV and saving the world. All of these traits fit that standard adolescent mindset, and they instill in Takeru a sense that he alone is uniquely qualified to serve as this world’s savior, a fact that he reiterates to himself throughout this section of the story with an increasingly casual and self-evident tone.
But Takeru was wrong. On his first day as an “adult” (he and his team having become commissioned officers), he discovers that all the special abilities that he believed made him so superior don’t actually allow him to succeed in the adult world. He ends up breaking down in his cockpit, helpless, and has to be saved by the adults that he was so sure he was more important than. And of course, he winds up experiencing his greatest loss to date, the death of Marimo, and is forced to face the truth that the world is far more harsh and unforgiving than he had believed, even after having learned the truth of the world and becoming an adolescent. And so, with the world demanding that he move on to becoming an adult, he instead wishes with all his heart to return to the world of childhood.
In the real world, the “world of childhood” would be a more innocent mindset that Takeru would try to return to, but again, through the power of science fiction and metaphor, the world of childhood here is literally another world that Takeru can travel back to. As I mentioned before, the world of Extra is governed by different rules than the world of Alternative. In the world of Extra, bad things simply do not happen. Only now they do. By returning to the world of childhood, Takeru has tainted it with knowledge of the world of adulthood, and this knowledge destroys the innocence of childhood. This is perhaps Muv-Luv’s greatest innovation: by setting the entire first chapter in the world of Extra, the game sets up the player to think of the world of Extra as a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. So when Takeru destroys the world of Extra, he isn’t robbing the Extra characters of a hypothetical future happiness – he is actually robbing the Extra characters of a concrete future happiness, one that we have already seen and that we know would have come to them with 100% certainty. This is the reason why Extra is an essential chapter of the story and cannot be skipped: it is absolutely vital to the experience that the player conceives of Extra as a complete, standalone story in its own right, with its own set of rules governing just how dark the story is allowed to get. This is a story where Meiya can be forced to leave the others and return home without any hope of meeting again – the story is allowed to get that dark, but it is not allowed to get darker than that. So when Takeru returns, there is a real sense that he is breaking the rules of Extra, that he is destroying something that should have been set in stone.
This is the most crucial part of the story, because it is the most crucial part of any bildungsroman. At his lowest point, Takeru must find the strength to accept his limits and learn how to find his place in society. It is because of this that I strongly feel that Muv-Luv is not a story about despair – it is a story about hope. Bad things happen in this story, yes, but this is not a story about bad things happening, it is a story about finding the strength to overcome those bad things. For such a story to work, the bad things that happen have to be very bad indeed – they have to be so bad that we can really believe that Takeru might not be able to overcome them, because we can really believe that we might not be able to overcome them ourselves if they were to happen to us. That’s what makes it a true accomplishment when Takeru actually overcomes them. In the end, Takeru does indeed find the strength to accept his responsibilities as an adult and returns to the Alternative world, now as a full-fledged commissioned officer, signifying the end of the first half of Alternative and the beginning of the second half.
(One thing I find interesting is the symbolic importance of the clothing that Takeru wears. For the first part of Alternative, Takeru spends this part of the story in a commissioned officer’s fortified suit, as if signifying that he considers himself an adult already, even while serving in a cadet squadron. Of course, after the 207th Squadron is commissioned, the whole team switches to the officer’s fortified suit for the XM3 trials. However, after Takeru’s failure during the battle, Takeru and his team switch back to their trainee uniforms for the scene where Takeru tries to recover from Marimo’s death, suggesting how they still have one more step they have to take before they can truly become adults.)
The second half of Alternative represents adulthood. This part of Alternative shows Takeru as a true adult, having transitioned from his adolescent mindset. In the first half of Alternative, Takeru was constantly talking about how he would save the world by himself. The actions he took – traveling to the Extra world and retrieving the formulas – were completely off the grid. Aside from Yuuko and Kasumi, nobody knew what he was up to – not his teammates, not the military, not anybody in the world of Alternative. But from this point on, Takeru operates as a standard member of the military. The vast majority of the story revolves around Takeru taking part in UN-sanctioned missions. Even his work with Sumika, while highly secretive, is an official part of the UN’s Alternative IV project, and many other people (like Lt. Pyatykh) are involved with it as well. A bildungsroman often deals with the conflict between the protagonist and society, and this conflict is often resolved with the protagonist coming to accept the values of the society. In this case, it is Takeru who has come to embrace the role that this society expects him to take.
Alternative places great emphasis on working in a group, instead of working as an individual. In Alternative military doctrine, the smallest valid military unit is the Element (a group of 2 TSFs) – individual action is not permitted. (Try not to pay too much attention to the numerous instances where pilots break their Elements for dramatic license.) But Alternative goes much further than that. Even a full TSF squadron is not enough – the Isumi Valkyries are talented pilots, but they are not overwhelmingly more powerful than any other squadron in the military. They cannot execute missions on their own; they must coordinate with other squadrons in order to accomplish anything. And even a whole fleet of TSFs is not enough – Alternative always makes sure to show that other types of military units, like ships, helicopters, or shuttles, are indispensable to the mission as well.
One of Alternative’s major messages is that the power of a single individual is extremely limited. To accomplish anything of importance requires the strength of an entire society, with each member of the society bringing their own unique strengths to bear on the problem at hand. Takeru winds up accomplishing great things, and can even be said to have saved the world, but he is only able to do so because he played his role in a vast operation involving every major society on the planet. And to emphasize this fact one last time, we learn at the end that even this effort didn’t result in a complete victory. Even after destroying the Superior and the Original Hive, there are still Hives left all over the world, and an unimaginable number of BETA left across the universe. Takeru and his team played their parts, and achieved a historic victory, but that is the limit of their strength. True victory will only come if the people that come afterwards play their part in achieving additional historic victories.
If the second half of Alternative represents the world of adulthood, then it can be said that after the final battle at the Original Hive, Takeru’s life in the world of adulthood comes to an end. But Takeru doesn’t really die – rather, like in the “fairy tale” of Muv-Luv’s tagline (“a fairy tale of love and courage”), Takeru vanishes into light and ascends directly into heaven. In the game’s Final Episode, Takeru is granted the wish he has been longing for the entire story – he has returned to the world of his childhood. But his wish wasn’t simply to return to this world. His experiences in Alternative prove beyond a doubt that “you can’t go home again” – what Takeru truly wishes for is not just to return to this world, but to return to the days of innocence that this world symbolizes, and he can’t do that with his knowledge of adulthood. That’s why the only way Takeru could even truly be happy here is to return to childhood completely. Alternative clearly shows the dangers of an adult trying to return to childhood – but now that he has fulfilled his responsibilities as an adult and has passed on, surely he has earned that reward?
The Final Episode of Alternative, then, represents the afterlife, a place in which Takeru is finally granted his greatest wish – to return to the carefree days of his youth, and spend his days with the people he loves in peace and innocence.