Monday, August 14, 2017

Persona 5 - Flashback's Over, Caught Up With the Present

I'm a bit slow compared to other people, so I'm still winding my way through Persona 5, and this weekend I finally caught up to where the story starts.

When the game begins, it's in media res. The Phantom Thieves are in the middle of a heist gone wrong and the protagonist, code-named Joker, is captured by the police. He's told that there was a traitor among his teammates and he's been sold out. That's not a spoiler. That all happens before the player even gets to enter his name.

As he's being interrogated by the prosecutor in charge of his case, the game flashes back to the chronological start of his story, when he first arrives in Tokyo, and then proceeds forward from there, in the day by day fashion of the Persona series since the third entry.

Spoilers from here on!

The real reason I wanted to write this post is because of Goro Akechi. He is the last party member to join the team and the one I was looking forward to the most, because I knew from early promotional material that he was a teen detective and I liked the idea of hauling a detective around with my band of phantom thieves after he became convinced that what we were doing was actually for the greater good.

I knew he had a Persona, so it seemed like a done deal that he would be part of the party. And he was portrayed on my lovely Steelbook disc case, just like all the other thieves. He's also shown with the gang on the title screen, towards the back of the line-up along with other late comers. His Persona, once we see it, is Robin Hood, and considering that the Persona is a manifestation of what's in one's heart, it's easy to read him as an honorable sort of thief. One's outfit in the Metaverse is supposed to be a sign of how a person rebels against society, and his a white, princely set of attire. Akechi sees himself as a good person.

Which is really weird, because of the plot revelations that happen at the end of the sixth Palace.

Mind, I haven't played past those plot revelations yet, so there are possibly good explanations of everything. I'm only going to cover my thoughts up until the day after Joker's arrest, because I have thoughts on the handling of Akechi's betrayal.

We first meet him as a high school detective who's a bit of a media celebratory due to his age and capability, and he's one of the first to speak out against the Phantom Thieves, not because he thinks they are bad people so much as they are taking the law into their own hands. He's the Confidant representing the Justice arcana, so it makes sense that he would take such a stance.

He continues to appear throughout the story, gradually befriending Joker despite their opposing views on the Phantom Thieves. Though Akechi is against them, it never comes off as malicious, and when the Phantom Thieves are framed, he defends them because the crime doesn't fit their usual MO.

This culminates in the Phantom Thieves reaching out to Akechi to help clear their name at the same time that Akechi reaches out to them to bring the real criminal to justice. However, unlike my hope of Akechi joining the team because he has been persuaded, he actually blackmails the team into working with him. They help him with this job and he won't reveal their true identities to the police. Also, they will have to disband afterwards.

It's a pretty crappy deal, but I could see where he was coming from. The Phantom Thieves, despite their good intentions, are vigilantes and working outside the law.

Now, ever since Akechi was introduced, some odd things happened, some of which the player is likely to remember, others which might slip by unnoticed or forgotten (especially the early ones).

The first one that happens in the story is that Akechi unknowingly hears Morgana without knowing that it was a cat talking. Only people who have been to the Metaverse can hear Morgana's real voice instead of a cat meowing. So when Akechi comes around the corner he remarks on Morgana's suggestion to get pancakes, thinking it had been another member of the group speaking, but if he had been an ordinary person, he shouldn't have heard that at all.

He reacts a second time to hearing Morgana ahead of going into the Metaverse with the Phantom Thieves when they arrange a meeting with him at their school, though by this time the Phantom Thieves are aware of his prior screw-up.

Also, just from the player's perspective, when the president of Okumura Foods is killed, there is a silhouette who walks in after he is shot. The silhouette matches Akechi's distinctive mask when in his Phantom Thief outfit.

Finally, getting one's Persona in a Persona game is a big deal and generally involves overcoming a personal obstacle. We never see or hear from Akechi about how he awakened his.

So even though I was happy that he had finally joined my team and I used him throughout the sixth Palace, I had some suspicions about him, even before he figuratively stabbed the Phantom Thieves in the back. Knowing what I did, it felt incredibly obvious that Akechi would be the traitor in the opening segment of the game, and I was hoping for a twist where I would discover it was someone else.

But Akechi was the traitor, and when he walked into my protagonist's holding cell and "killed" him (not realizing that he'd actually off-ed a dummy), that pretty much ruined any chance of him having an alternate agenda.

So what bothered me about this, is that there was a plan underway, and I didn't know it was happening.

I knew that Akechi was likely the traitor, and most of the game up until now has been Joker telling the prosecutor his side of the story. But the problem was that Joker was now caught and there's a traitor on the loose. And just how was Joker going to avoid getting killed?

After a lot of story scenes, it comes out that the the Phantom Thieves have been planning this operation for the better part of the past month, though the player has been left in the dark. We see some of the scenes, but not all of them, so the characters have context, though we do not.

Considering that Akechi's betrayal was not entirely unexpected, I felt a little disappointed being left out of the planning process.

I assume this decision was made so the player would end up at the opening scene of the game with a feeling of dread, knowing that they were about to get caught, rather than an "All right! It's time to put this plan in action!"

It worked, but I can't help feeling a bit cheated. Joker is supposed to be the player surrogate so everything he knows I should know, and while the game waves it off as part of the drugs he got injected with at the start of his imprisonment, it still bothers me that a lot of other memories are crystal clear.

If the injection was messing with his memories, there should been other things that Joker ended up forgetting aside from details related to the plan to expose Akechi and his boss. Just a little blurring or not entirely remembering things in the days leading up to the heist would have gone a long way. Not only would it have tipped off the player, but it would probably do so in a way that increased the amount of dread because the player would know something was being lost.

And while Akechi being the traitor is a thing, I'm still puzzled by him. I assume the answers will come later, since I'm not done with his Confidant storyline. He has a Persona, and the representation of his inner self in the Metaverse is one of good, so even though he appears to have the capability of a cold-hearted killer, there's got to be more to his character than being a teenage assassin.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Blades in the Dark - First Session

This weekend I played Blades in the Dark for the first time. I'm not up on all the really trendy stuff anymore when it comes to tabletop gaming so this may come as old news to some people, but it was a unique system for me, and extremely flexible.

Like a lot of people, I started with Dungeons & Dragons and then branched out from there. But for most of my tabletop RPG history, D&D of some form or another has been the staple.

It's the easiest thing to get people into. Everyone has a rough idea of what it's like and what the basic character classes are, even if they are only tangentially familiar with the game.

As I mentioned last week, my favorite class in high school was the thief. I'm not sure what that says about me as a person, but I liked the thief conceptually because they could sneak around and do all the clever stuff without anyone being the wiser.

Unfortunately, the thief the pretty much sucked when they weren't being sneaky and clever. Later editions of D&D fixed a lot of their earlier failings (backstab damage got pretty damn good), but they're still in the position of being the party's Swiss army knife. Aside from some scouting ahead, they don't really get to do the fun that I wanted to do as a thief.

Things like delving into guilds, setting up a job, choosing a mark.

I really wanted that stuff and my high school friends never ran a thief-centric campaign. To be fair, D&D isn't really built for it either.

So this is where Blades in the Dark comes in.

It's a thief-centric game! The players are a crew of thieves and instead of going on an adventure, you're out to do a job. And unlike most games, the structure is very loose.

This is the part that my gaming group told me is starting to become trendy. Rather than having a set adventure ready to go, the idea is that the players come up with what they want to do and then the GM frames the play session accordingly. From the GM's perspective, there's surprisingly little prep work, because almost everything happens at the table.

It sounds pretty chaotic, but it actually didn't come off that way when we played. I'm sure we did some things wrong since it was the first time for everyone, but it was fun being prompted to explain how we were doing something, and then being specific about it, because the GM wasn't going to hand out solutions.

My only complaint of the night wasn't anything to do with the game specifically so much as I really wanted to play a Hound and shoot something, but the crew (the player characters) decided to crash the party through a deception plan rather than an infiltration one and I couldn't take my guns with me since the party-goers were being searched. At the end of the session someone had a flashback idea that could have gotten my guns inside the party, but by then it was too late.

It's definitely a game where it helps if everyone is engaged and alert. If no one has ideas then nothing happens. This is especially helpful for the flashbacks, which were a new mechanic for me.

The idea is that the game should be immediate, so rather than planning everything out in advance of the operation like we would in D&D, we start in the middle of the job when we hit our first obstacle. Then if we need something that should have been set up beforehand, we can call for a flashback. Sort of like in a movie, when a flashback shows the prep work that led up to a particular event.

The flashback might fail to provide anything useful, but maybe it worked and something was fortuitously arranged ahead of time. In our session, I called for a flashback that ended up giving us an alternate escape route. It's not what I originally asked for, probably because my roll was only so-so, but still could have been handy.

What was hardest to get used to, was calling for the flashback in the first place, because this mechanic doesn't exist in other games. I think I was the only player who actually used one and the rest relied on innovating on the spot.

We played intending for this to be a one-shot since we have an ongoing Hackmaster campaign for our main game, but everyone had a good time, so we might do this one again.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Tabletop Gaming as a Writer Among Non-Writers

I have a group of friends I like to game with. Our "usual" campaign is currently Hackmaster, but we've been having trouble getting everyone together. It's totally not like it was when we were fresh out of college and showing up every week was easy.

Nowadays, somebody often has a scheduling conflict.

But in a valiant attempt to still get in some gaming without a month going by, we decided we'd do a one-off without the one person who can't make it next Saturday. Hackmaster is on hold and one of our players offered a few possibilities for us to choose from.

I voted for Blades in the Dark, because he pitched the game as being like Dishonored, but everyone's part of a gang of thieves in a steampunk Victorian fantasy setting. It's probably also due to being deep in Persona 5, but I thought "Thieves! I want to do this!"

When I was in high school I loved the thief class in just about any game I could play it in, even though it usually sucked. And I know that's partially because games are generally set up around combat, but the fun part of playing a thief is all the sneaky out of combat stuff, and Blades in the Dark sounds really RP-heavy.

So our GM passed along the quick start guide and my brain went into overdrive.

I can't help it. When I'm creating a character I love building things out, whether it's for a book or a game, and the system looks promising. It might be what I've wanted for a thief campaign since high school.

The GM suggested waiting until Saturday so everyone can work on their thieves together and pick complimentary skills, but we talked a little bit about the playbooks (roughly equivalent to character classes) already via e-mail and I mentioned that I didn't want to fully develop my character until we got together.

By the time I mentioned this in conversation, I already had three possibilities. (I guess I have a lot of pent up thief ideas from high school D&D.)

Our GM said not to worry about picking my playbook too early, because it's really easy to get skills from other playbooks if needed, so I could pick whatever I wanted.

But you see, I'm a writer, most of my gaming group is not. So my problem wasn't that I didn't want to lock myself into an unsuitable playbook. I was afraid my character concept would be incompatible with the rest of the party!

Since I like to RP, character chemistry is important to me. My character needs a reason to be there.

For Blades, my favorite character concept is a former constable who got forced out for crossing the wrong people. He turned to thievery for issues that are more complicated than I'm going to get into here, but I liked the idea of a former cop who wasn't actually a criminal until after he was fired. Because he still has some sense of integrity, I wouldn't want to play this character in a crew of assassins. I'd use someone else.

His playbook isn't nearly as important as being able to play the character in an environment that works for him. Our gang of thieves still isn't decided yet, so if we roll as assassins or something similarly on the heavy side of scummy I have a different character in mind.

And nothing is wasted. I think my former constable might get reused in a story regardless of whether he shows up in game. I even know which universe he'd go in.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local

Baccano! was a rare find for me to stumble over in anime. I watched all 12 episodes (and the 3 bonus ones) in about three days in Japanese, and then I rewatched it immediately afterwards in English. While I often do my second viewing in English, usually the second viewing, if it happens at all, it's months or years down the line. Baccano! scratches a very particular itch I have though.

Namely, period piece mafia and magic. In this case, the magic part is centered around alchemists and immortals.

For a good long time I despaired of ever reading the rest of the Baccano! series. The anime only covered the four books, and the first one had been published in 2003, so it wasn't the hot new stuff anymore. But I loved the setting, the nutty characters, and especially the way the anime made everything happen at once. I was crazy jealous of the writers on that show. They managed to braid together three different time periods across four books so that revelations in one time had an impact on the viewer's understanding in another, even if chronologically they were taking place earlier.

Fortunately, though it took thirteen years, Yen Press picked up the Baccano! series for translation and I've slowly been grabbing the volumes. They haven't passed the threshold of the anime yet, but I'm hoping they're successful enough to do so. Amazon has at least volume 6 set up so far and they're very lovely hardbacks.

Author Ryohgo Narita's work is not quite as crazy as the anime. He does do incredibly short scenes from time to time so the reader knows everyone's positioning before all hell breaks loose, but each of the three main time periods in the anime is one book (with the exception of the Flying Pussyfoot storyline in 1931, which is two books) rather than jumping across time periods in the same book.

That's not to say everything is told linearly, he loves to jump around, but the jumps are more localized.

I'm currently in the middle of Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local, which is the second book and the start of the two-part journey of the Flying Pussyfoot train. In pure Ryohgo Narita fashion, it starts with the epilogue to give the reader a viewpoint of the two minor characters who have clean up the mess everyone else has left behind, and has five prologues to set up all the different factions that are about to get involved.

Some of it is over the top ridiculous, but that's part of the appeal. If the premise is that four different parties (five if you consider the hidden character in the fifth prologue) board the Flying Pussyfoot train, each with their own agenda, then from there it's just a matter of watching all the chaos play out. All the parties are miscreants of some kind or another and naturally fall into conflict.

But part of the fun is in the details that slip in.

The thing is, Ryohgo Narita is a Japanese author writing for a Japanese audience, so he does spend some time explaining things that probably come off as pretty obvious to an American reader, but then at the same time, it's clear that Narita has done his research and he likes the time period. One of the characters, while beating someone to a pulp, compares himself unfavorably to Jack Dempsey, who was popular boxer in the 1920s.

Narita isn't blind to the fact that there were minorities all over the place during the time either. Though there aren't any in the main cast, unless they show up after the anime, there are multiple Chinese supporting characters and Jacuzzi Splot's gang includes a Mexican member.

There a good line where two of the side characters (one Chinese, the other Irish, and totally on board with each other) take a minor character to task on the train for belittling them as immigrants. While manhandling him out of the dining car, they tell him that one half of the transcontinental railroad was built by the disenfranchised Irish and the other half by the disenfranchised Chinese, so between the two of them, they have a claim to everything on the railroad, including that guy's life. (And considering they're also gang members, that's not a point the guy really wants to be arguing about.)

I doubt Jon and Fang will ever be regulars in the series, but this totally made me laugh. It's a nice bit of history that not only educates the readers (because I expect the average Japanese person wouldn't know that), but also defines the characters. It's a pity this part never made it into the anime.

I'm about halfway through so far, and then I hope to move on to the next volume. The series isn't always realistic, but when it isn't, it's usually in the service of fun so I'm inclined to forgive. It's clear when Narita is doing his research so if he wants to start with off with a three way battle between cultists, a mafia gang, and a band of delinquents while throwing in a couple of delusional ne'er-do-wells, I'm not going to argue. It's half the fun.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on Persona 5 - No Major Spoilers

I've been slowly working my way through Persona 5, and it makes me realize just how long it's been since I've dug my way through a good JRPG. Part of it is because the medieval fantasy JRPG formula went stale on me a long time ago, but also because they haven't evolved much from their roots; talk to people in a new town, buy new equipment, go into the new dungeon, and repeat as you take a tour of the world.

A good plot certainly helps too.

The Persona series has always been different for taking place in a contemporary setting and that you don't jet around the world. Aside from a field trip, you probably won't even leave town. The third game in particular laid the groundwork for successive installments. It implemented the current system of balancing dungeon delving with having a successful life as a high schooler.

Having the systems feed into one another was a stroke of genius. Bonuses earned for the social aspects of the protagonist's life, apply to the creation of more powerful personas for combat, and money earned from dungeon delving in turn funds the protagonist's social activities.

It introduced a unique playstyle, and rather than visiting new towns, there's just one main town that actually looks like a town with different neighborhoods and districts. As the calendar year passes, dialogue changes, the store offerings change, making for one really good, living location instead of many lesser ones.

And because of its contemporary setting, the Persona games aren't about fighting nations or overthrowing some empire. The end bosses are typically some supernatural entity that most of the world is completely oblivious to.

Persona 5 adds something new though, that I find particularly invigorating.

It makes everyone a thief.

Usually in JRPGs, the thief is a weird class. Their combat skills are mediocre, their rate of stealing items is poor, and it's hard to find any justification for putting them in a party other than because the player likes thieves or wants to steal a specific high level item. (Occasionally they might class promote into a ninja or something that makes them useful, but vanilla thieves tend to suck.)

Specially, Persona 5 makes the entire party a group of phantom thieves and then completely runs with it. All the cool stuff you expect a gentleman thief to do, like leaving calling cards, and doing bold and daring heists, are things that the protagonists accomplish while the player is at the controls. And you can see that the development team had a lot of fun with it. You know how in movies like Ocean's Eleven every member of the team has a job? There's one heist where the party does that, where they split up and everyone's got their own thing to do at the same time.

In most JRPGs, if there are visible enemies, it's a case of you see them, they see you, and one of the two parties charges forward and attacks (maybe even both). But in Persona 5, you're thieves, so you can hide behind objects and ambush your enemies. This is crazy fun and feels like it rewards players who actually act out the part of a thief since ambushing gives everyone a chance to attack before their enemies in the first round.

The dungeons are built specifically to have gimmicks for the player to maneuver around, whether it's something to hide behind, infrared sensors to slide underneath, or air vents to crawl through. And though I'm calling them gimmicks, they don't feel cheap at all, because they're there to sell the fantasy of being elite phantom thieves and they do!

Rather than simply have treasure chests all over the place (though there are quite a few), the player also has the ability to loot certain items that are part of the scenery, so grabbing vases and sculptures is desirable, since the player can sell those items later.

When you exploit the weaknesses of all enemies present in a battle, you enter a Hold Up, which features all members of the party surrounding their enemies with their guns out, and you can actually demand for money or items in order to let them go.

There are so many nice touches, from the costuming, to the code names, and even the annoying nights I had my protagonist working on making lockpicks so I'd have them ready to go the next night we went into a dungeon.

I can't remember the last JRPG I played that's worked so hard at selling a particular fantasy, and probably the thing I like the most about it, is that there are plot reasons behind a lot of what they do. The characters don't have crazy costumes just because they happen to like cosplay, just like they aren't sending calling cards just because they want attention. When the plot and the game design support each other, it really makes something fun.

I'm at the end of July (in game) now, so I'm still less than halfway through, but I'm looking forward to the rest.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Preparation Tips for Giving a Talk

Last weekend I gave a talk on how and why to write short stories to a local writer group. Though I have been on several panels at conventions, it's much rarer for me to give a solo talk. In fact, this was only the second time I had done so.

It's a much different animal from a panel, because I can't bounce off other people's ideas and I know if I stop talking for whatever reason, it's unlikely someone else will jump in to fill the silence. My first time giving a talk was extremely nerve-wracking, even though I had taken a lot of notes and brought them up to the podium with me. I knew better than to talk while reading off the paper (head pointed down at podium is bad), but I was incredibly nervous, and I know that I ended up speaking a lot faster than I meant to. In turn, that made my talk go faster.

I don't remember at this point, how much I had rehearsed for that first talk, but my second is still fresh in memory, so I can talk what I did to prepare for it, because I did much better this time.

My talk was to be focused around how and why a writer should write short stories. I knew that the group had never had a short story writer speak to them before, so I specifically geared my talk with the assumption that most of the audience was coming from a novel-writing background. I would have 45 minutes, and then there would be time for questions afterwards. The organizer who invited me said it would be okay if I ended a little early, but I didn't want to. I wanted to do this as practice and a character building exercise for myself.

1) Outline in Four Parts

The first thing I did was outline my talk. Given that it was planned for 45 minutes, I figured I would break the entire thing up into four topics, roughly ten minutes each. I decided they would be:

  • Why write a short story?
  • What do short stories excel at?
  • How to write a short story
  • Getting a short story published

After deciding on my four main topics, I proceeded to add notes underneath each heading so I had an idea of what to bring up in relation to the topic. I decided that it wouldn't be critical for me to bring up each individual bullet point, but these were related subjects that I could use to illustrate the answers to the proposed questions or illustrate the hows of the second half.

2) Time the Talk Without Directly Reading

After I figured I'd populated the outline enough, I started talking about my first topic. I allowed myself the chance to glance at the outline, but I could not read in depth. The idea was that I was always speaking, and I let myself go off the rails if it felt like it made sense to do so. I knew what my second topic was going to be, so if I got too far afield, I knew to reel myself in and redirect.

I timed each of the four topics independently of each other. And it turned out that in my first run, the first topic was 8 minutes, the second 4 minutes, the third 8 minutes, and the fourth 16 minutes. Combined with my 2 minute introduction, that ended up being around 38 minutes, which was not a bad place to start at all.

And some of my rambling while attempting to keep myself speaking, actually turned out to be useful, and I added those to the notes.

3) Adjust the Outline

Since I knew how long the different parts were, it made adjusting the length of the talk easier, because I could shore up individual parts without adding random padding at the end in an effort to say more. At this point I also realized that my introduction was only an introduction to the talk, but didn't identify myself or my credentials, so I retroactively added that, and got a couple more minutes added in.

When the day of the talk came, I arrived to find that the music stand that was supposed to be supplied in place of a podium wasn't tall enough to be used while I was standing. We tried putting it on the table, but then it was too tall and would blow the view of people around me.

I did the courageous thing and opted not to use the music stand at all, and laid my outline flat on the table in front of me. This meant that I really could not read off of it without obviously talking to the table.

But you know? It turned all right.

The audience was great and whenever I started to lose myself, I would pause, take a glance, and then only speak again after I looked up. I could feel I was more relaxed this time. I wasn't talking as fast. And once I finished, there were plenty of questions. So many questions! I wasn't used to this, even on panels.

I think we wrapped up about 70-75 minutes after we started, so it was very good considering that the talk itself was only supposed to be 45. I didn't have a chance to check what my actual talk time concluded at, but considering how long we were there, I think it was likely close.

I was pretty nervous leading up to the talk, but I told myself to do it, because it would be good me, and it was.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anime Talk: Attack on Titan Season 2

You knew this was coming right? One last chance to talk about the Attack on Titan anime before Season 2 becomes a distant memory.

My non-spoilery review of Attack on Titan: Season 2 will be up at Diabolical Plots later, probably next month, so if you don't want to be spoiled, you check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is the biggest thing I couldn't discuss.

Obviously, there will be anime spoilers, but I will refrain from manga spoilers.

I already talked about the earlier than expected manga flashbacks involving Ymir and Marco, and I still find those out of place.

But what I'd like to talk about here is Reiner and Bertholdt.

This is the season where the two of them become prominent characters. While they have always been around, they weren't part of the main trio of Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. Reiner did have some good moments the first season though, distinguishing himself early on as someone Eren wanted to emulate and being a big brother figure by offering to carry Armin's pack during training. He came out ranked #2 in the 104th Training Corps, and we're reminded of that when he faces the Female Titan during the 57th expedition. (Of course, we know now that it's unlikely Annie was trying to kill Reiner when she caught him.)

Bertholdt is a more passive character, so it's easy to forget that he actually came out ranked #3, so he's quite the capable fighter, but he didn't have any stand out moments in the first season. Most people knew him as Reiner's buddy, and some people (like my brother) figured he was one of those characters hanging around waiting for the appropriate Titan to stop by and eat him.

This season we find out that the two of them are the Armored and Colossal Titans respectively, which means that they are responsible for the loss of thousands of lives caused by the destruction of the gate at Wall Maria. Their arrival five years is the reason that protagonist Eren is on a rampaging path of defeating every Titan in existence.

While the audience was prepared to discover more Titans among the cast after Annie Leonhart was revealed as the Female Titan, Reiner and Bertholdt being the culprits was a surprise. Annie was a loner and we had reason to suspect her due to animation cues and a mistake on her part where she reacts to Eren's nickname, which only other members of the 104th Training Corps would know. She fit the profile we would expect of an enemy agent; capable, a loner, and working her way towards the powerful people in the interior.

Reiner and Bertholdt were meanwhile bleeding along with the rest of the Corps. When we meet them again in Season 2 they're among the unarmed recruits racing to warn villages of the sudden appearance of Titans. They get trapped in Utgard Castle along with their fellow trainees and participate in every way one would expect from an ordinary comrade. Reiner even saves Conny's life and is willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of everyone else.

These aren't the actions of a traitor. And we do get some reasoning for that later.

But the nutshell summary is that despite everything, we learn that Reiner and Bertholdt are not inherently bad people. They are doing, and have done, awful things for which they can never be forgiven, and they know that. Poor Bertholdt's face when his former comrades try to talk him down is heartbreaking. He owns up to everything and doesn't even try to justify his actions.

The two of them (three if you include Annie) have been living undercover for five years. Considering their ages, they have spent their entire teenage lives pretending to be who they weren't, all for the sake of their mission. And for three of those five years they slept in the same barracks as the people they are now betraying. It was impossible for them to not feel a kinship with their fellow trainees.

It's a hell of a burden to be carrying, and I'm not surprised that Reiner eventually breaks beneath it, both in his capacity to delude himself into thinking he really is a soldier and not an invading warrior, and how he eventually tells Eren flat out that he's the Armored Titan and he wants Eren to come with him. From his perspective, wouldn't it be so much easier if Eren voluntarily went with them so he and Bertholdt could stop pretending?

We still don't know what the stakes are for them and why the deaths of thousands is worth it in service of their mission, despite any guilt they might feel, but Season 2 really made me care about these two. You would think that someone willing to condemn thousands to a violent death, being alive by Titans, would be a cruel person, and the series intentionally goes out of the way to make Reiner and Bertholdt sympathetic. I'm fond of good characters who do bad things, and the two of them are prime candidates for that.