Monday, September 1, 2014

"Living Rooms" Reprinted in Galaxy's Edge #10

"Living Rooms" is a special story for me.  Part of it is because it was my first professional sale in the hugest way possible.  It won first place for its quarter in the Writers of the Future contest and went on to win the grand prize, which really does things to inspire confidence in a writer.

But I didn't write "Living Rooms" to win a contest.  I actually didn't have many expectations for it at all.

I wrote it while in a local writing workshop simply because I knew I would be too embarrassed to show up empty-handed for class, which required me to come up with somewhere between 500-2000 new words a week.  (Pocket change now, but it wasn't then.)  I didn't have much to start with other than a dream I'd had, where I had come home to find a strange wizard in the dream's version of my living room.

It wasn't my living room, but I knew it was mine and this wizard shouldn't be there.

Anyone who's read "Living Rooms" will recognize this was the opening of the story.  The villain, Morrin (then unnamed), was in the dream, as was James, the embodiment of the living room, though I changed the name of the room from "living room" to "parlor" to better fit with the time period.  I left a callback to it in the to the title though.

From the basic dream fragment, I drew out the rest of the story; why the magician was there, what was this magic house where the parlor came to life?

I had a lot of fun with it, and to my surprise, so did my fellow workshoppers.  It was a mixed group, not all of us were science fiction and fantasy fans, so when I realized that most of them really, really, liked the story, I realized I was on to something.  I had never had such a pleasant reaction from a crowd of strangers before.

Based off the comments from the workshop, I rewrote the story and ended up pretty happy with it.  I thought it was the best thing I'd ever written.  Which meant that I should submit it somewhere.

I noticed that Writers of the Future was going to end its Q4 submission period soon, so I stuffed it in a manila envelope (two quarters later they would allow e-subs) and then dropped it in the mail.

As they say, the rest is history.

From now until the end of October, "Living Rooms" will be available free online in Galaxy's Edge #10.  If you'd like a more permanent copy, it's also available as a stand alone ebook on Amazon, as part of Writers of the Future Vol 26, and as part of Galaxy's Edge #10, which is available both as an ebook and a very nicely printed paperback.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


My brother visited today and we talked about a lot of things as we cleaned up the family home. I enjoy having discussions with him, because he sees things a lot differently from the rest of the family and from my friends. And even though he's my younger brother, he's always looking out for me, making sure I'm taking care of myself; things like that.

Today after we were talking about retirement savings (we're not that old, but we're both in our 30s), he said something that I hadn't really thought about. He said, that what I've done with my life is remarkable. My day job is in the video game industry and I'm a published writer. I'm earning enough to pay for my home and I'm building a nest egg for retirement. I have never taken a job that was just "a job."

Well, he actually said, "a real job," but what he meant is that I didn't do something ordinary like become an accountant, something that might draw a paycheck even if one's heart wasn't in it. (I'm sure there are accountants who love their jobs, but we know one in particular who is definitely doing it just for the paycheck.)

I've been fortunate enough to have always been paid doing something that other people find entertaining and exciting.

Since this is the only life I live, I don't normally think about it, because it's what I do. I work with games in the day, and I write stories in the free time around that. I live in my house, and I diligently kick money into my retirement savings because that's the lesson my dad taught me when I got my first job out of college.

So today might not be anywhere near Thanksgiving, but I'm feeling grateful.

Monday, June 30, 2014

“The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart” Now Available in Galaxy’s Edge #9

A hundred years ago, Europe plunged into a war variously called “The War to End All Wars,” the Great War, and more commonly now, World War I. Thinking about the war tends to conjure up images of the Western Front; men dying in trenches, and maybe a Christmas football game between soldiers of different countries.

But World War I also bought submarines to the seas and planes to the skies. There was still a bit of an old world chivalry to them; stories of submarine captains who still adhered to the old prize rules for the capturing of vessels so civilians would not be harmed, stories of pilots like Oswald Boelcke, who risked enemy fire to deliver a letter from two captured pilots so their families would know they were alive.

World War I, being a hundred years old, has been around long enough now that it feels like a story, and one that isn’t told nearly enough.

A hundred years ago, a newly minted cavalry lieutenant received his deployment orders. Though the cavalry would largely disappear as the war moved on, this lieutenant did not. He became a pilot, quite possibly the most famous pilot of all time. When all other names have vanished from memory, including his own, people will likely remember his sobriquet, the Red Baron.

My story “The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart” is now online in Galaxy’s Edge #9. Would you like to meet him?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Writing "The Held Daughter"

This story took a convoluted path into being. It started with a pseudo-Wild West setting I was building for a novelette which would feature characters from their world's equivalent of the Qing Dynasty. The novelette was written and I was pretty happy with how it turned out. So I figured I would write more stories in this setting.

At some point I came up with the idea of a "held daughter" (which does not exist in Chinese culture). I already knew that historically boys have been adopted in order to continue the male line, but as far as I know girls were still married off when they came of age. But I liked the idea of a girl being able to carry on the line if no male heirs were eventually born. She would just have to wait, and wait, until her parents stopped trying.

The original draft was going to feature a girl of humble means, who at some point in the story tries to console herself with the fact the Emperor had been a held daughter as well (the title "Empress" would not work for a female Emperor because in Chinese the word literally means "behind the Emperor").

And the story sat for a while. In the meantime I watched Bu Bu Jing Xin, a drama set during the early part of the Qing Dynasty to get a better feel for the costuming, the decor, the customs, etc. for that time period.

Shortly after finishing the series (which is a marathon tear-jerker by the last 3-4 episodes), I realized that my story wasn't about the girl who compared herself to the Emperor, but the Emperor herself, before she became Emperor.

It is one thing for a common girl to be held back from marriage when her father only has a single wife to producer heirs, but when one's father is the Emperor and can take as many concubines as he feels able, it becomes conceivable that he may never give up his quest for a son.

Because of "The Held Daughter's" origins in another story I decided to keep the Cantonese dialect for names and Chinese words. Taishanese, a close relative of Cantonese, is the dialect that was primarily used by immigrant Chinese during the time of the Wild West. However, Taishanese is not well documented since it was the dialect of the poor and in the words of one of my Chinese acquaintances the Taishanese are "the hick Chinese." Rather than invent spellings, I decided to go with conventional Cantonese.

As an additional bonus, Cantonese tends to be easier on the eyes and tongue for English speakers unfamiliar with Mandarin. (And as a personal bonus for myself, I am non-Mandarin Chinese and I like to represent the version of Chinese my ancestors spoke.)

I also would like to add thanks to my Aunt Sally for vetting all the Chinese names I used. I showed up at Christmas last year with a print-out (not trusting my handwriting) of all the names I wanted and she was able to approve or suggest changes on the spot.

"The Held Daughter" is currently available free online at Galaxy's Edge until the end of the month, after which it can be purchased in back issues of Issue 3.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Devil Survivor 2's Anime Adaptation - Choosing the Ending

Note: This was actually written last weekend, but I delayed posting because of the fortutious news that my new short story "The Held Daughter" went live. Since Devil Survivor 2 did not begin streaming free in its entirety for general audiences until this past Thursday, I don't think the timeliness of the post was hurt much.

Devil Survivor 2: The Animation finished airing last Thursday. Though it's not one of the Spring 2013 anime season's clear winners, it's popular enough to be in the top third of simulcasts that Crunchyroll was running.

But it has its flaws.

I was trying to find a way to talk about a series that has both struck a chord with me and driven me crazy without writing a massive essay, and while turning over the plot in my head I think I hit a major problem, so I'll talk about just that one, because it was probably the most important decision the writers had to make.

DS2:TA is based on the Nintendo DS RPG Devil Survivor 2, which is a favorite of mine. It's the only game in recent years that I've managed to play through a whopping four times in the space of less than a year. That just hasn't happened since I graduated college (though it did help that at one point I came down with the flu and couldn't do much else).

Part of the reason it's so replayable is that there are many variations of events and five different endings. It is impossible to do a perfect playthrough and see everything the first round just because of how the game is structured. Even allowing for the different endings, you just can't see everything. The clock in game just doesn't give you enough time. And that's part of the point.

The world has eight days until it ends and you can't delay the end of the world by doing side missions and making friends with everyone.

Devil Survivor 2 has 14 playable characters (but never all in the same playthrough) and each of them has different ideas on how to solve humanity's crisis. Who the player sides with among the possible faction leaders determines the ending of the game.

And therein lies the problem with the anime. It has to choose.

The protagonist of Devil Survivor 2 is a blank slate with no default name. The player names him at the start and all his dialogue is chosen by the player. He can be a silly guy who spaces out in tactical meetings and plays jokes on friends when the world is only days from ending. Or he can be a militant badass badgering his friends to toughen up.

It's possible to adapt a blank player protagonist into a successful main character in an anime series. Persona 4, based on a sister RPG, was done by the same director and did it beautifully.

But the difference between Persona 4 and Devil Survivor 2 is that the former series has all the main characters working towards the same purpose, so it's easy to give the protagonist a similar moral and motivational grounding. They're all on the same mission and so is the player.

In Devil Survivor 2 the cast shares the goal of stopping the world from being erased, but are divided on how to handle the rebirth of what remains.

The player will likely side with whoever's philosophy appeals to them the most. But the anime doesn't have five endings for its audience. Its protagonist has a name, Hibiki, and Hibiki is not a blank slate.

When I started getting acquainted with Hibiki I was irritated with him for being overly idealistic in an apocolyptic show, and plagued with far more angst than possible for him to express in game. Though the protagonist's dialogue is always player chosen, the general consensus of the other characters is that he's a very calm and collected individual who rises to the occasion. Hibiki eventually rises to the occasion, but never becomes calm and collected. He oddly feels like he was transplanted from the wrong anime series and dropped into DS2:TA.

But I wonder if it wasn't Hibiki's fault so much as the writers needed a character who would want the ending they went for.

The core struggle in the game is to survive long enough to meet with the otherworldly entity known as Polaris, who is the administrator of multiple realities, including Earth. Polaris has determined that humanity has lost its way and plans to erase the world and start over. But it's possible to convince Polaris to spare humanity and rewrite the world so that humanity has a guiding philosophy again.

This results in one character wishing to change the world into a meritocracy, and another wishing for the polar opposite with a world of equality.

There are other options too, such as killing or replacing Polaris, and of course the reset button that restores the world to what it was before Polaris intervened.

I was fairly certain the show would go for the Restorer ending (which it did) because it allows the world to be restored and for everyone who died in the mass destruction of Polaris's assault to come back to life as if nothing had happened. Everything is normal again, so on the surface it is the happiest ending with the least amount of death.

But was it the best choice?

I understand that certain endings just would not work. The general audience probably wouldn't like the Meritorious ending, because we want to root for a hero who helps people, and not someone who creates a new world order with a social hierarchy based on talent and ability, but there is a very big reason I did not go with the Restorer ending my first playthrough (even though it's the ending I would naturally gravitate to).

And that's because of Polaris.

Polaris doesn't die in this ending, nor are its desires fulfilled, ironically making it the ending where humanity is most at risk of being erased a second time. Hibiki is essentially asking for a second chance, to be given time to fix things without forcing change on others. Humanity continues to be divided and without a purpose and it seems all too easy that Polaris could decide at a later date "Well, that didn't work. Let's clean up this mess." Even Hibiki understands that.

Choosing an ending that leaves humanity in the greatest amount of future danger in exchange for rewinding time to the day of the first attack, means that the hero has to be someone who would make that choice, someone who would be idealistic enough to believe that a difference can be made in the eyes of an uncaring creator when he and his friends will be the only ones who remember how the world nearly ended.

Hibiki is that character.

Unfortunately, he's ridiculously so, to the point it's not even possible to play the main character that naively optimistic in game. He even wins his final battle in the anime through the power of friendship (I'm not joking).

And it creates this strange dissonence between how bleak the story is supposed to be and how Hibiki behaves. The world is being destroyed and Yamato, the leader of the secret JP's organization, is making tough calls to allow humanity to survive long enough to face Polaris. If it means sacrificing one city so others may survive, he will do that. His decisions are harsh, but his position demands it of him. Hibiki would not have survived until the end of the series if not for Yamato.

But Hibiki constantly butts heads with him. Granted, Yamato has terrible social skills so he doesn't make any attempt to get Hibiki to understand his point of view, but Hibiki makes no effort to understand either.

The result is a lot of wailing about how Yamato's tactics are terrible and unfair with Hibiki unable or unwilling to present any alternatives. The times Hibiki proves Yamato wrong are always with the one thing Yamato lacks; an idealistic heart that refuses gives up.

In another show, this would be all right. There is a place for idealism. But it's really hard to root for Hibiki when most of the time logic demands I agree with Yamato. In the final episode, even Hibiki admits that humanity wouldn't have made it as far as it had without him.

I personally would have liked to see either the Kingmaker or the Liberator endings. Since they don't involve reshaping human society, they would not have required a protagonist who the audience might be philosophically opposed to.

The Kingmaker replaces Polaris with a different otherworldly entity that loves humans, and he in turn creates a brand new world for humanity where they will be free and he will not interfere. It's happy enough, though presumably anyone who died wouldn't come back from the dead. Still, it's a win for humanity and people can live in freedom.

The Liberator is simply killing Polaris with no replacement. The characters return to a shattered Earth where they have to rebuild from what remains, which at this point in the story consists of three vastly reduced islands of Japan. It's a bit bleak, but humanity is completely free from outside interference.

Either one would be a permanent solution to the Polaris problem and would allow for a victory at some cost.

Devil Survivor 2: The Animation is streaming for free online at Crunchyroll. Though I have mixed feelings about it, it does have its moments and the action scenes are well done.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Short Story "The Held Daughter" in Galaxy's Edge

My short story "The Held Daughter" is now live in Issue 3 of Galaxy's Edge! It's free for the two months until the next issue, after which it can still be read through digital copies sold through the likes of Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and others.

"The Held Daughter" is a fantasy set in a country inspired by the real world Qing Dynasty, where a princess is not allowed to marry until the emperor is certain that he will not have a son.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hakuoki Part 3: The Protagonist as Player Stand-In and Character Arcs

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, is a visual novel game I became engrossed with and decided to dissect (with much love) so I could figure out why I liked it. After all, I’m a writer, and I want to see why the story works.

This week I’m going to discuss Chizuru as the player stand-in and who really gets character arcs in this game. You can see Parts 1 and 2 over here:

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself
Hakuoki Part 2: Handling Romance

Though romance is unavoidable in this game, it is still technically the subplot to the real story, which is about Chizuru’s search for her father and discovering her secret heritage. In the majority of paths through the game, her heritage drives most of the supernatural conflicts around her and all but the bonus sixth path end with a supernatural note.

Which makes me wish that Chizuru was a more active protagonist. Though the player can make decisions as her, she has to be protected by the Shinsengumi a lot. This is not entirely the fault of the story. Given the time period it’s unlikely that the daughter of a doctor would be trained in weapons to the degree she can fight on par with career soldiers. The real world Hajime Saito was considered among the best of the Shinsengumi, making it unlikely to impossible for Chizuru to be able to hold her own against any opponent powerful enough to physically threaten his fictional analog. Staying back and letting him protect her is often the only sensible thing to do.

And most of the time I’m fine with that. Since this is a visual novel this is one of the few games where being a non-combatant is viable, but there have been a few times where if I had been the outclassed combatant in Chizuru’s place, dammit, I would have done something instead of passively watching my loved one get mauled by the bad guy. Even if I had to scream and throw rocks at the villain because I didn’t have a weapon, it would at least give rise to the possibility of distracting him so my chosen guardian could find an opening.

To be fair, there are a few times where she will do just that, or intends to do just that before someone else intervenes, but they do not happen nearly often enough. Despite Chizuru’s supernatural heritage, and the powerful abilities displayed by her distant kin, she never completely embraces it and only takes limited advantage of the fact she has regenerative abilities that would make X-men’s Wolverine envious.

There is only one time on one story path when she directly throws herself into melee and takes a hit intended for her chosen guardian because she knows she can survive what he cannot. I was hoping that would turn out to be the one path where Chizuru learns to kick butt, but unfortunately nothing moves beyond that moment.

On the other paths the idea that Chizuru is useless in combat is hammered in just a bit too heavily, and since she is the narrator, it comes off as rather irritating. We already know she can’t fight well. She doesn’t have to keep bringing it up. She’s supposed to be the stand-in for the player, and the player doesn’t want to identify as being a mopey whiner with low self-esteem. (Or at least I don’t.)

I’m fine with her wanting to repay the Shinsengumi for their hospitality, so I don’t mind that she does some cooking and cleaning, or that there are multiple scenes with her serving tea. Given the time period and limited ways she can repay at all, this is acceptable. It’s just the “I’m useless” comments that bother me, and to be fair, the only time this came to the level of me wanting to slap her has been on the Hijikata route, and I suspect it may be to balance the fact that Hijikata is an incredible overachiever to the level that Chizuru has an inferiority complex when she’s around him.

Strangely enough, if the player is aggressive about getting Chizuru to draw her sword whenever the option is available, she will likely end up with scenes involving Hijikata, which is totally at odds with the way Chizuru keeps calling herself useless if the player actually goes down his path. In fact, if the player makes Chizuru put her foot down when dealing with Hijikata his respect for her goes up. So it’s terrible knowing that being pushy gets through to him, because if she’s not being pushy at the player’s direction and she’s left to her own devices, she’s whining about her inability to help him. If Hijikata’s route is done perfectly to get the most romance points possible this makes Chizuru come off as head-scratchingly passive-aggressive.

But most of the time she just comes off as a well-meaning, but shy teenage girl/young woman (age never established, but I figure she’s probably around 16 at the start and 20-21 by the end) who feels bad that she has a hard time repaying the Shinsengumi for their help, first in finding her father and second in protecting her from the demons who want to capture her. Depending on the path taken, her love interest will voluntarily give up his humanity and become a monster called a fury in order to protect her, which of course adds a certain amount of guilt and feeling that she needs to repay him somehow.

I’m fine when she angsts over that. It’s realistic, and I like that in those cases where the love interest transforms, it’s after the relationship is established and Chizuru already cares for him. (I’m generally not a fan of stories involving normal everyday humans dating vampires, werewolves, and other inhuman things that would, all things considered, be very scary boyfriends you couldn’t take home to your parents.)

But because Chizuru is the stand-in for the player, she doesn’t really change in the story, even though she is the character with the most at stake. When playing Saito’s route I had no idea how much he grew over the course of the story until I restarted the game to do my second playthrough and realized that I barely recognized the character I had happily fallen in love with at the end of my first.

It was largely through conversations with Saito that I came to understand why the Shinsengumi were such romantic figures to portray in fiction. I saw his work crumble around him as the Shinsengumi began to fall apart. As a man who only knew how to make a living with the sword, it was terrifying to imagine a world where swords were no longer needed. He tells that player that the sword is the soul of the warrior, which raises the question: If the sword is the soul of the warrior, what is a warrior without his sword?

Saito has to learn to survive independent of the Shinsengumi, to discover what will give his life meaning. This being a game with a strong romance element, Saito is prevented from seeking death in battle because Chizuru stays with him and he comes to realize how important she is to him and that he will protect her, not because someone told him, but because he loves her, thus making it clear for the first time that he is doing something whole-heartedly for himself and not because he is a good soldier following orders. It’s a satisfying character arc.

Chizuru, though it’s her heritage that drives the story, doesn’t have that. The villain is always defeated by her love interest, after which she will live happily with him for however long that may be. Depending on the story circumstances and individual player predilections, this may or may not be satisfying.

There is one ending where the end villain is someone very close to Chizuru and it would be terrible if she was forced to kill him (and in one of the few instances of her drawing her sword, she really does try!). In that ending I really appreciated the love interest making the kill for her, with him emphasizing both to her and their opponent that he was the one killing him, and their enemy had better not lay his death at her feet.

There is a different ending where the villain is fought because he ends up developing a rivalry with the love interest and he is no longer interested in Chizuru at all. Having her not participate in that instance was less satisfying since the villain’s focus changed to someone else, making the story no longer about her.

She makes a fine window through which the player can learn about history, particularly someone unfamiliar with period of Japanese history at all, but as a protagonist Chizuru doesn't protag much, meaning the player is much more likely to form an attachment to the other characters in the game, most likely the chosen love interest. And it's unfortunate. Because Chizuru has the potentially to be so much more.

She obviously has some guts, being willing to disguise herself as a boy to go search for her missing father. She supposedly knows how to use a sword well enough to defend herself (it's just she outclassed by anyone who matters). And she has a supernatural heritage, which if she tapped into she would probably be faster and stronger than most individuals in the Shinsengumi.

It's the last part that really bothers me, especially when she realizes (depending on story route) that her people have a true form that is much stronger than their human indentities. Chizuru has this form as well (only shown in one of the routes), but she never asks how to control it, how to bring it out, how to use it. In some story paths it's not possible, because the characters who could teach her do not reappear after she learns of the true form, but in others it should just be common sense to learn as much as she can about herself to protect what she cares about. It never crosses her mind.

If Chizuru had just a little more backbone, I probably would have loved her. As it was, she was just another personality to travel with, with the lion's share of my caring going to the members of the Shinsengumi. Going back to Dragon Age again, I would never name the Warden or Hawke as my favorite character, but I did feel invested in them as the player surrogate. It would have been nice if based on the choices the player made in Hakuoki that Chizuru's personality would adapt as well. She's the only unvoiced character, so she could have had a large number of dialogue variations without racheting up the voice acting budget.

That said, I really did enjoy the game, and if you want character arcs, the love interests have them. Chizuru's passivity doesn't make or break the game. Though it is her story, the most fascinating thing for me was the historical aspects. I found myself reading the Wikipedia entries for one battle or another, for the different members of the Shinsengumi, because I just could not get enough of an era that had become so fascinating to me, and there is no shortage of historical intrigue. The backdrop is wonderful and I'd love to read more stories set in this time period, and I'd love to see more of the Shinsengumi.

I know they're popular in fiction. I was first introduced to Hajime Saito through the Rurouni Kenshin anime where he serves as an anti-hero, though he's a much more sadistic character. The currently running Gintama uses parodies of some of the Shinsengumi members as part of its cast.

There are also other games in the Hakuoki franchise. Apparently it's quite popular in Japan, with a third TV season of an anime series based on the game starting, a couple movies planned for 2013, and even a stage play. I'm doubtful that the other games will make it to the US, because the target demographic would appear to be teenage girls and young woman, who are not used to be catered to as a gamer demographic in the US. There are tons of similar games in Japan, but here the US the existence, let alone the formation, of a such market is not a sure thing.

As it was, I needed to hear about it twice to decide to pick it up. Once was a review on RPGFan, which I periodically read, and that was what first brought the game to my attention. Then I forgot about it until I saw the fanmade video I posted back in my post about the popularity of the Bakumatsu in Japanese pop culture. If the video hadn't given me a second kick I probably would have passed this game by and I like video games.

I hope Hakuoki did well enough to justify bringing over other games like it, but considering that the Limited Edition is still for sale on Amazon four months after its release I don't think that's a good sign.