Monday, March 20, 2017

Anime That Could Be Done in Hollywood Without Whitewashing

With Ghost in the Shell ramping up its PR engine in advance of release, and thinking about all the other attempts by westerners to do live action adaptations of anime, I started wondering, why do they love to choose the ones with a Japanese cast?

Because that's what sets off all the whitewashing problems.

Right now we have Ghost in the Shell coming to theaters, Death Note is in production for Netflix, and it's hard to forget early forerunner Dragon Ball.

But there's a lot of good anime out there that has a multi-national or even completely non-Japanese cast, and I'm not sure why Hollywood hasn't picked those up. Some of them have had or will have live action versions themselves, but Japan's own movie industry doesn't have the deep special effects pockets and expertise that Hollywood does.

So I thought about five series that could be great with a Hollywood budget and casting directors wouldn't have to jump through hoops for. I'm also primarily picking older properties (because Hollywood people with the clout and money probably favor things from their younger days, like James Cameron's persistence with Battle Angel Alita) and series with crossover potential since popularity in Japan alone doesn't carry much weight in the US.

#1 - Attack on Titan

Let's get the behemoth out of the way! Attack on Titan is a freaking juggernaut. It's the highest anticipated anime series for spring 2017 (when the long anticipated Season 2 begins). Volume 1 of the manga was on the New York Times bestseller's list for 81 weeks! You could buy Attack on Titan clothing at Hot Topic (maybe with the new season around the corner you still can). Anyone vaguely current on anime in the past 5 years will have heard of Attack on Titan.

It takes place in a world where humanity lives inside three gargantuan concentric walls that are all that protect people from the titans who would otherwise devour them. The only vulnerability titans have is a small space in the nape of the neck that must be cut out, otherwise the rest of the body will regenerate, so the soldiers who fight them zip around on vertical maneuvering gear that works like a pair of gas-powered grappling hooks.

The animation looks amazing and captures the feeling of what it's like zipping and flying through a cityscape to fight giants as tall as buildings, but getting that level of fidelity in live action would difficult to achieve without lots of special effects experience and budget. The live action Japanese version doesn't come close. Hollywood probably could do it though.

And for casting, the people inhabiting the world of Attack on Titan are fair-skinned with Germanic (occasionally English) names for the most part. Hollywood can have a cast largely populated by white people and no one would think anything of it. The only explicitly diverse character is the biracial Mikasa, whose father is from the majority ethnic group and whose mother is Asian.

#2 - Cowboy Bebop

To be honest Cowboy Bebop isn't my cup of tea, but I know it's a lot of other people's. It's one of the biggest series of the 90s, putting it in the zone of Hollywood's current nostalgia cup, and it's a series I still hear about from time to time. Usually in the form of "You haven't watched it yet?!" until I finally did.

Cowboy Bebop is a work of near future science fiction where tech has been discovered allowing people to jump around the solar system, though not to other stars yet. You have your badass crew of bounty hunters that's constantly low on funds and needs to take on more jobs to make a living. And that's without getting into Spike's backstory.

Cowboy Bebop is not too out there, it's not too anime. It's one of those series where if someone told me it was more popular in the west than the Japan I'd believe it, because you can see the influence, and there's not really any fanservice beyond Faye's outfit, which fits her character without being too ridiculous. I think people who enjoyed Firefly would find a lot to like about Cowboy Bebop as well.

We don't have canon ethnicities for any of the Bebop crew, though Faye is probably Asian. To be honest, I think a casting director could go wide with the Bebop crew and cast just about anyone regardless of ancestry into any role and it would work out just fine, because the Bebop crew visually doesn't look like they have to belong to any particular group. Ed especially with her brown skin and carrot colored hair (dyed?). It wouldn't be great if Hollywood cast this all white, but they could arguably have a leg to stand on.

#3 - Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist is set in an early 20th century style world in a European-inspired country, where alchemy is practiced and can be used as a form of magical combat based on the law of equivalent exchange. Something cannot be created from nothing, but it's possible for an alchemist to change one thing into another.

The story follows the titular Fullmetal Alchemist Ed and his brother Al, who are trying to find a way to restore their bodies after their badly botched attempt to resurrect their mother. (Something can't be pulled from nothing, so you can see how this was a bad idea.) But there's a lot more going on than their quest to fix themselves, since Ed is also a state alchemist and there is something very rotten going on in the government.

Like Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist is a series built for Hollywood special effects with all the different alchemical abilities. Though there is a live action Japanese movie in the works, it won't have the look and the budget that Hollywood would be able to pull off.

And again, most of the cast can safely be white. There are Chinese and Middle Eastern-inspired characters in supporting roles, which Hollywood is generally decent about filling without whitewashing (because they're not the protagonists), but all the major characters are of European equivalent descent.

#4 - Vision of Escaflowne

This was a 90s juggernaut and a crazy genre mash-up involving a girl with powers to influence the future, steampunk mecha, portal fantasy, and the lost civilization of Atlantis. You couldn't trip over a 90s anime fan without some knowledge of Vision of Escaflowne and this is one instance where a little something for everyone really worked.

Hitomi initially appears to be an ordinary schoolgirl who happens to like fortune telling with tarot cards, but when she gets transported to the world of Gaea, she learns that her powers can have a real influence on the world and she gets caught up in a crazy war.

The titular Escaflowne is a transforming mecha that can change from its humanoid shape to a dragon with its pilot riding on its back. Her travelling companion, Prince Van, can fly with feathery wings that sprout from his back when he needs them, and there are a multitude of fantastical non-human characters she meets along the way. This is stuff that would be great with the right budget and special effects crew. (Though the wings could still look terrible, since Hollywood has still put out some cheesy people with wings shots.)

Other than Hitomi and the people she leaves back home in Japan, the rest of the human cast is non-Japanese and most could safely be cast as white without much protest.

#5 - Bacanno

Okay, this last one is not that widely known, but I'm including it because it's one of those series where everyone who sees it likes it, but not enough people have seen it. Bacanno takes place in Prohibition America and involves three different plotlines in three different years that weave together to form a single story. It's really quite brilliant.

At the core of it, there were a bunch of alchemists who discovered the means to achieve immortality, and the only way they can be killed is if one of them "eats" the other. Thanks to shenanigans (Bacanno is a master at the domino effect, where one little thing sets everything else in motion), the immortality-bestowing brew ends up in the hands of a lot of people who haven't a clue what it is and well... there are more shenanigans. With three plotlines it's actually hard to say what the overall story is, save that it's what happens when people who really shouldn't become immortal end up doing so.

If you like gangsters, immortality, and crazy plot reveals (because the story is told in a non-linear fashion), Bacanno is pretty amazing and it should go over well with people who like puzzling out what everything means and what's really going on.

Since it's set in the US, most of the characters are white, though there are minor roles of other ethnic groups. If they include more of the books they could even bring in Maria Barcelito, a Mexican katana-wielding assassin.

Ideally, I'd prefer Hollywood movies to be more diverse, but if they're gonna do anime, at least choose something that would work well with the casting choices they're likely to make. We'll get Japanese Death Notes with an all Japanese cast out of Japan, but Hollywood offers the possibility of translating some material to live action that Japan actually can't do as well on its own.

Monday, March 13, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 3: Takuma

I held off playing Takuma's story until I finished all of Nadeshiko's endings in Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, which was pretty hard to do, but I wanted to drain every scrap of her story I could get before moving on. It probably wasn't necessary, but I would recommend getting at least one of the playthroughs where she regains her memories while an inspector before playing Takuma's storyline.

The reason for that is because Mandatory Happiness hinges around Alpha and Yukari's mutual memory loss and the problems that result. Takuma can unravel the truth for himself, but he doesn't experience it firsthand. And usually he finds out about her planned integration with Sibyl as a quickie info dump which is harder to take without context.

But Takuma's story answered a lot of questions I had leftover from Nadeshiko's playthroughs. We know from her flashbacks that he did not spend all his adult life as a enforcer, because he obviously spent a lot of time with her, which would have been impossible as a latent criminal. It turns out that he only became a latent criminal after Yukari went missing, and his Crime Coefficient increased because of his single-minded hunt for her.

Considering that he was meeting with some severely questionable people in his attempts to find her (even Makishima in Nadeshiko's playthroughs), it's not surprising that this was the turning point.

Takuma's story also fixes a lot (though not all) of what I found problematic about him in Nadeshiko's route. During the first case he's incredibly sympathetic towards the perpetrator, Haruto, the high school boy who blackmails his crush into hanging out with him after she was sent away to a different high school. I found the perpetrator's actions to be reprehensible and on Nadeshiko's playthrough, Takuma is upset by the case because he feels that at one point the two kids honestly liked each other. If Sibyl hadn't intervened they might have been happy together and none of this would have happened.

This is possibly true, as Shiori obviously did care about Haruto at one point, but the weird thing that stuck out at me was that Sibyl wasn't what came between Haruto and Shiori, but Shiori's mom, who thought Haruto was a bad influence on her.

Playing through Takuma's storyline it's clear that he's conflating his own backstory with Haruto's, because he and Yukari were similarly close and then Sibyl decided she'd be better educated in Tokyo than the outlying Sado Marine City. This caused them to be separated, and though they continued to meet each other from time to time as adults (which is clear from Nadeshiko's memories), they were living in different worlds in the different jobs Sibyl had assigned them.

Takuma still, unfortunately, sports oddly outdated bits of masculinity. He's actually worse on Nadeshiko's route, but that doesn't eliminate his ideas of how a man should behave. One of the things I was hugely concerned about, given the wide latitude the player has in determining Nadeshiko's fate in her own story, was how much influence the player as Takuma would have over hers.

Takuma's entire motivation for joining the CID is to find Yukari, who we know is a person capable of making drastic, life altering decisions about her own fate, even knowing how Takuma cares about her. I was afraid that if the player as Takuma restored her memories, he could talk her out of her most drastic decisions.

Thankfully, my first ending with Takuma proved my worries wrong, as we end with a situation not possible in Nadeshiko's playthrough, where Takuma is aware of the truth about the Sibyl System and accepts that Yukari is going to become a part of it. He got to meet her again and he knows she's now leaving by her own choice, and he's okay with that. And that's the Takuma I love from Nadeshiko's playthrough. (There are other parts of this ending that came out clunky, but at least this part I liked.)

A lot of his choices throughout the game revolve around how obedient an enforcer he's going to be, and that shapes the way his endings branch. He's a impulsive character, who is currently constrained by the rules of his employment, so unlike Nadeshiko I actually feel like it's easier to play Takuma wildly in one direction or another. Maybe he understands the need to stay in his employer's good graces, maybe he can't help being a loose cannon.

Like Nadeshiko, Takuma essentially has four paths, but a total of six rather than eight True Ends; one where he raises his Psycho-Pass high enough that he's promoted from enforcer to inspector (which is hugely remarkable since that situation never happens in the anime), one where Nadeshiko recovers her memories on her own, one where Takuma goes rogue and teams up with Alpha, and one where he fails to recover Nadeshiko's memories while still remaining an enforcer.

Takuma can still be a bit bone-headed in his endings, the worst offender being the one where he decides not to restore Nadeshiko's memories because he equates that with murder (since Nadeshiko would disappear and Yukari return), to which I say "Wha…?" because Nadeshiko is just Yukari with missing memories.

It would have been better if he had made the choice because he didn't want Sibyl to get its hands on her, knowing that her missing memories and lost asymptomatic condition is all that's keeping her from being absorbed into the hive mind, but for some reason that's not really what he seems to be worried about.

Keeping Takuma's single-minded dedication to Yukari is a little rough sometimes when it comes to endings, since he has to respect anything she says in order to remain in character, so if the player recovers Yukari's memories, the game generally handles this by having her hesitate to suggest a plan. In which case Takuma can suggest something, even if it's just to prod her for what she really wants.

The strange thing about Takuma's storyline, as least from the scenes I got, is that how Yukari physically came to be Nadeshiko isn't really touched on. He notices over the course of the story that Nadeshiko behaves a lot like Yukari. She even thinks a lot like Yukari. Of course she doesn't look or sound like Yukari so they shouldn't be the same person, but he can't shake the feeling.

On multiple routes, Takuma becomes convinced that she's somehow Yukari even without it being spelled out for him (which is kind of funny because he doesn't have a clue in her storyline). He even correctly concludes that the reason he was chosen to be an enforcer in Division 1 was to trigger Nadeshiko's lost memories.

Which is nice, because it shows that he has the aptitude to be a detective and pulling him out of rehab wasn't a complete asspull on Sybil's part. Even on the route when he regains his standing as a free citizen and continues life as an inspector, it's not taken from him once his job is done and Yukari has become a part of Sybil. He remains at his position which he now believes is the best place for him, just like Sybil is the best place for a person like Yukari.

Like Nadeshiko, his True Ends are split between whether he stays in the system or leaves it, but one particular ending warrants a special look because it's the only one that goes so far off the rails that I have trouble seamlessly integrating it with the rest of the anime series.

That's the one where Takuma allies with Alpha and fittingly it seems to be really hard to get (I used a walkthrough). It looks like the player has to tank Takuma's Hue all the way to the bottom, get thrown on probation because of a bad counseling session, but take one supplement afterwards to raise his Hue before the final crisis is fully underway. This will allow Takuma just enough freedom to choose to be on the search team rather than the rescue team (he won't get a choice if he's really tanked). It's possible that it's also necessary for Alpha to voluntarily abandon his cyborg body earlier in the story rather than be forced out of it due to head damage.

This setup leaves Takuma rebellious enough that he's willing to do his own thing, which is going to Yukari's old apartment and hooking up with Alpha.

Once Takuma identifies himself to Alpha as his father, this changes everything and throws out two-thirds of how the final crisis would usually play out. When Takuma and Alpha agree to team up and recover Yukari, Alpha ceases to care about his happiness agenda (I guess Mother is the higher priority since she can't praise him for a good job if she doesn't know who he is) and makes for a wild ride.

It was a fun route, but only in a completely crazy off the rails way. Takuma ends up sneaks Alpha along for the ride to the team headquarters so they can get Yukari, but things go horribly wrong and they end up having to subdue most of Division 1 as they make their escape, which is why canonically this is a giant mess, even though it's incredibly funny seeing Alpha mess with the hospital holograms and turn the place into a virtual castle complete with monsters (which are actually the medical drones).

The thing is, there's no way that the remaining members of Division 1 are going to forget the time that Takuma Tsurugi went rogue, ran off with one of their inspectors and the prime suspect of one of the most disastrous cases they've ever had. Something like that leaves a mark.

While there are plenty of endings where the two of them disappear and Alpha survives, Alpha's survival is always hidden from anyone other Nadeshiko, Takuma, and possibly Sibyl. The disappearances happen after the case is closed, so as far as the CID is concerned Alpha is finished. An enforcer (and inspector) disappearing after that is a much smaller, unrelated incident.

Moreover, in this ending Akane discovers the existence of criminally asymptomatic people when she tries apprehending Nadeshiko after she gets her memory back, as well as being told the truth of the Sibyl System, which pretty much undermines all the secrets she eventually learns in the mid-to-late part of the anime's first season.

She also uncharacteristically runs off and lets them go. Takuma's narration presumes that she does this because she really can't do anything to stop them if her Dominator doesn't work, but it's not in character for Akane, who went after Makishima with an unloaded pistol even though it meant hanging off the side of a truck in the anime.

Aside from that, most of Division 1 was knocked out, almost permanently, and Alpha escapes, which is not something any of them are likely to forgive.

Since it's hard to naturally trigger and I really like the Takuma/Alpha team-up, I'm not too upset that this ending exists (and it was kind of funny), but I wish it had managed to stay more in the realm of believability.

Still, it was the final ending I played, and was an entertaining enough capstone to Mandatory Happiness.

Monday, March 6, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 2: Nadeshiko

I chose Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi for my first playthrough of Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness and I'd recommend her first since the crux of the game's conflict unravels more naturally through her. Fortunately, she is the default pick the cursor begins on, and the player has to actually make the choice to switch to Takuma.

Nadeshiko begins the game as an unemotional, even robotic, amnesiac. She remembers all her day-to-day knowledge and schooling, but events that affected her personally are all gone; the result of a training accident. Nonetheless, she's physically healthy and ready to be discharged, so she immediately decides she will go to her new job, because that is where she is supposed to be.

It sounds kind of silly that someone in that kind of condition would be allowed to go, but given the way this society is structured, if Sibyl thinks it's okay, it must be okay, and what's she going to do anyway? Just sit around waiting for her memory to come back?

I like Nadeshiko because even though she is considered unemotional and has trouble understanding the feelings of others, she has a healthy streak of common sense and calls it as she sees it. In the first case a would-be boyfriend blackmails the girl he likes into traveling back to their hometown with him. A couple of the enforcers in Division 1 think the situation could possibly resolve on its own without the CID's interference. The kids used to be friends before she moved and the boy clearly has feelings for the girl.

Nadeshiko rightfully says she can't make the connection between affection and blackmail.

Though the game doesn't give a psychological explanation for why Nadeshiko has trouble experiencing and understanding emotion, no one actually faults her for it. It's just part of who she is, and as someone who sometimes has trouble reading emotions in others, I appreciate that. Yes, she thinks differently from most people, but no one yells at her for not understanding. Even the Ms. Droid nickname feels more like it comes from a place of affection rather than malice. (It helps that the Japanese is Droid-chan, which adds a sense of endearment to it.)

Psycho-Pass as a series was heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick, but Mandatory Happiness chooses a different literary inspiration, even called out in game. Nadeshiko's favorite book is The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee (and I about screamed when the book cover was described in game, only to have the narration confirm the title on the next screen).

Rather than empathizing with Jane, the protagonist (who begins the story oddly like the average citizen in Psycho-Pass), Nadeshiko sees herself as Silver, the robot who isn't human at all but seems to become more and more like one after spending time with Jane.

Nadeshiko is highly unusual as a female protagonist because of her mentality, which probably places her somewhere on the autism spectrum though that terminology isn't used. She's the least emotional member of the team, but she's not entirely without empathy, and it's sweet when she pieces things together enough to realize how she can be a little kinder to someone while still being herself. Her emotional needs are low, but not nonexistent. Rather, the same inability to process other people's emotions leads to her not being able to process her own.

This most awkwardly comes out through Takuma Tsurugi, who has a shared past with her, though initially she's unaware of it. Takuma invades her personal space a lot, which annoys her and she calls him out on it (which is why I love her), but it's clear from the early memory flashes that Takuma is also someone special from her past, which is hard to buy when he's being annoying.

If the player gets most of her memories back, we learn that Nadeshiko Kugatachi used to be Yukari Himekawa, Takuma's lost girlfriend. She's had her unemotional state since she was a child and Takuma grew up with her, persistently trying to get her to understand why some things weren't right and why others things were okay even though they seemed outwardly harmful.

But chances are, the player will not unlock most of Nadeshiko's memories the first time through, as it's not obvious which choices will lead to a memory recovery scene and the player needs to trigger enough to them to get the avalanche unlock where nearly everything floods back.

This made it hard for me to like Takuma until I start getting into my later playthroughs using a walkthrough.

The thing is, it's possible to get to a True End of the game without necessarily getting the whole story. In fact, there are multiple endings that all could be considered legitimate, and this is only possible because of the fact the game chose to tell Nadeshiko and Takuma's stories rather than an established character's.

A True End results if the villain is stopped rather than the player discovering all the plot points. I played through on sheer RP mode first, making choices that made the best sense to me given Nadeshiko's personality, but this meant that I never found all her memories.

The result was a bit of a bumpy ride, and satisfying for Nadeshiko's sake if not mine. Lives were saved, but the game is pretty heavy-handed in pointing out that Nadeshiko has all these similarities to the missing Yukari Himekawa that it's bizarre that Nadeshiko herself never thinks that she might somehow be Yukari.

Given the world of Psycho-Pass and knowing what the Sibyl System is capable of, it was easy to believe that Nadeshiko's current identity was forged and she has access to no records of her previous life, but she never even checks, which seems like an obvious step for an amnesiac. Though, depending on how you choose to play her, Nadeshiko can also have absolutely zero interest in recovering her previous self.

Nadeshiko's full story, once it comes out, is that as Yukari Himekawa she was in charge of the Silver Project, which was to create a human-like AI that could be a companion to humans. One of the greatest sources of unhappiness remaining in Sibyl's mostly peaceful society, is that of loneliness. Without a friend to confide in, people's Hues can become clouded, and even though Yukari herself was not adept at recognizing why this happened, she understood that human contact was important, and the Silver Project was aimed to become a stopgap for those whose social circles had become so small they had no one left to turn to.

Yukari wanted people to be happy.

But, she also wasn't very good at determining what happiness was, and ended up murdering a bunch of comatose patients that were never expected to wake up because she thought that would free their families from having to worry about them. She was perplexed that this actually made things worse.

Yukari was apprehended pre-game, but at the same time was discovered to be criminally asymptomatic, which in Psycho-Pass means that they cannot be read by Sibyl and their Crime Coefficient remains low, like a law-abiding citizen. Because the Crime Coefficient is instrumental in identifying and apprehending criminals (the Dominator won't even unlock to allow a paralytic shot if the Crime Coefficient is under 100) the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is hushed up.

Those who are found, are encouraged to join the Sibyl System (a hive mind), by force if necessary, in order to better account for the variations in human behavior. Yukari did not need to be forced as she saw joining Sibyl as a positive, but Alpha, her Silver Project prototype, panicked and messed up the procedure as they were going to remove her brain.

The result was both of them getting their memories fried (though Alpha remembered enough to know that his purpose is to make people happy and that will please Mother). Since Yukari ended up losing her criminally asymptomatic condition along with her memories, Sibyl decided to put her on surveillance as part of Division 1 with a new name, new face, and new voice (presumably so she can't be recognized as the disgraced Yukari) and see if she recovers enough to join Sibyl.

Depending how the player proceeds through the game, Nadeshiko will react differently to being recruited into Sibyl after getting her memories back, and she might not agree with her former self at all.

Though there are eight True Ends for Nadeshiko, they're really broken in four different sets of circumstances; if Nadeshiko recovers her memories without any damage to her Hue, if Nadeshiko recovers her memories after having her Hue severely clouded, if Nadeshiko gets demoted to enforcer and recovers her memories after killing Alpha, and if she never learns the truth.

My favorite ending is probably one I would not have gotten without a walkthrough since it comes from recovering her memories after damaging her Hue, since I have trouble having Nadeshiko make stupid decisions. She is a logical and efficient character, so I don't think it's likely she would have gotten to that point on her own, even if detective work isn't the job that Sibyl initially foresaw for her when she was Yukari.

But she if does get to this state, she confides her true identity to Takuma shortly before their confrontation with Alpha, and once the big lug gets the story straight he is damn well 100% behind her. Even though he's been annoying and chauvinistic at times, one thing I really like about Takuma is when Yukari needs him, he listens to her, and no matter what, he's willing to abide by her decision. He doesn't talk back, he doesn't try to convince her she's wrong. Once her mind's made up, his entire attitude is "What do you need from me?"

And her ask is huge. But he still goes for it, even knowing that he'll probably never see her again.

That was the one ending path where the final choice is to join Sibyl or escape overseas with Takuma and Alpha. I chose to have Nadeshiko stay, for the greater good, and to have Takuma raise Alpha in her place in freedom outside of Japan. And he does it. He said he wanted to carry half her burden for her and by golly he sticks to his word without a hint of complaint.

I did want to slug him just a little bit though for his last sexist remark about needing to indulge a woman from time to time (he was telling Alpha why they had to let Nadeshiko/Yukari leave them), but if anything it's nice to see a flawed character executed so well that I like the guy despite his issues.

After finishing all of Nadeshiko's endings though, I realized I still didn't have a full picture of the story. I had most of it, but I was still missing a few things, mostly in regards to Takuma and his involvement with Division 1. So we'll cover him next week!

Monday, February 27, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 1

I enjoyed the dystopian world of the Psycho-Pass anime, and was surprised when I heard that a game, specifically a visual novel, based on it was being localized for the US. VNs are still a niche audience in the English speaking world and while Psycho-Pass is one of those series that comes with a high recommendation rate by fans, it doesn't have the same pop culture level awareness of say Naruto or Attack on Titan.

The first season of Psycho-Pass ran back in 2012-2013, wearing its Philip K. Dick inspiration on its sleeve. In the 22nd century Japan is an isolationist country governed by the omnipresent Sibyl System which predicts everything from the occupations a person is most suited for to their psychological well-being. The system is so efficient that it's developed a Crime Coefficient reading that labels the likelihood of a person committing a crime, with the number rising or falling based on the immediacy and severity of the person's psychological state.

People who have not actually committed a crime, but are predisposed to doing so, are called latent criminals, and sequestered in facilities for treatment, by force if necessary. Because of this, Japan is so incredibly safe that nobody has locks on their doors anymore.

But crimes still happen, and that's where the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) steps in. Psycho-Pass the anime follows the story of Division 1, a six person team consisting of two inspectors (who have clear Psycho-Passes from Sibyl) and four enforcers (who are latent criminals given special permission to operate as detectives and help apprehend other criminals by thinking like one).

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness takes place early in the first season of the series, most likely before episode 7, so it's not necessary to be deep into the anime to get a feel for things, though the most informative routes (i.e. the ones where you find out what's really going on) contain mid-to-late season 1 spoilers.

Mandatory Happiness offers two playable characters. Rather than build a story around an established operative, the game offers new characters Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi and Enforcer Takuma Tsurugi, who are assigned to the perpetually understaffed Division 1 at the start of the story.

This sounds like it could have been a poor move for a media-based game, but Nadeshiko and Takuma integrate surprisingly well with the existing cast without feeling redundant and play off other characters as if they're one of the team. And by using original characters, the game is able to build a high stakes, personal story without impacting TV show canon for everyone else.

It's not possible to jerk around the existing cast because we know they have to survive in a particular psychological state to maintain continuity, but Nadeshiko and Takuma are fair game, and Mandatory Happiness runs a pretty solid gamut of eventual fates for them as determined by the various choices of the player.

There are also things that we get out of Mandatory Happiness that the anime can't or is unable to do. For instance, Psycho-Pass the anime is largely romance free, and that makes sense considering the main cast interacts almost exclusively in a work environment. And yet Mandatory Happiness, in addition to being a sci-fi crime drama, has the potential to pull off one of the most touching romantic subplots I've seen in a visual novel (assuming the player manages to trigger it).

Seriously, one particular route in Mandatory Happiness got more tears out of me than the last otome game I played, and Code:Realize was amazing.

I was originally going to write this as a single entry, but because I had so much to say after playing Nadeshiko's half of the story, without having even gotten to Takuma's, I realized that it would be best to split this into three parts; the main story, Nadeshiko's, and then Takuma's.

The main story is the same for both with the same key events. It's how the player reacts to those events that changes the story and the ending. For instance, the first perpetrator Haruto will always be enforced at the end of the first case, but the player's choices will determine how long it takes the team to get there and in addition to how to handle the situation once they arrive. Some results are happier than others, both for Haruto and his victim.

These variables affect the player's Psycho-Pass, specifically the color Hue that serves as the shorthand reading of a person's psychological state. In turn, the player's Hue changes what choices are available and which paths through the game will be taken. In certain mental states the player might have options that the player character would not otherwise consider. Or, in other cases, options might even be taken away.

Frequently the player will hit Turning Points, notifying them that a previous decision is taking them down a particular path, but because of the nature of the Hue, it's not always possible to narrow down one particular choice as the cause.

And those choices add up. Even if the four major crises of the story are always there, the circumstances change. The villain might die or be redeemed at the end. Nadeshiko may or may not get her memories back. Takuma may or may not discover the fate of his missing girlfriend. And in different combination, resulting in vastly different endings that manage to work without introducing any complications to the anime timeline (with one exception, which I'll talk about in Takuma's post).

Considering that the series is a science fiction crime thriller, it's important to have a good villain and I wasn't sure what to expect that hadn't already been done in the anime, but Alpha is unique enough to sustain the plot, which probably would have been 7-8 episodes if done as a TV show.

Mandatory Happiness has no shortage of moral quandaries, just like its parent series. Division 1 exists as peacekeepers and law enforcers, but frequently puts the player in tense situations where there is no clear-cut best option to take and victims become latent criminals with just enough of a traumatic push.

Alpha cannot be judged by the Dominators either, because he's an AI, so even though he's a huge danger to society and behaves in many ways like a human, he can't be brought to justice in the traditional manner. This forces the team to be creative in new ways they never had to worry about in the TV series.

I found the first two cases to be particularly grippy, as Alpha was created to make people happy, but he lacks the emotional intelligence to realize that what makes one person happy can make another miserable, and he's confused by how no one stays happy once he gives them what they want.

Eventually Alpha comes to the conclusion that humanity has too many wants for him to ever make people perpetually happy, and he decides that part of the problem is that there are too many paths to happiness. People want so many things and different things, so his conclusion is to remove choice. He reasons that if there's only one way to be happy, then people will take it.

When they don't, he's even more distraught and upset that people would "choose" to be unhappy.

While I like the idea of a benevolent AI that interprets everything wrong, Alpha does make some odd logic jumps from the idea of drugging everyone into happiness (hence the Mandatory Happiness title) to deciding it was acceptable to kill everyone else who wasn't interested in being drugged into happiness.

His definition of happiness is also twisted. Instead of feeling joy, Alpha defines happiness as freedom of stress and hardship, so he drugs people into a coma from which there is no known recovery. His victims won't be feeling anything, including happiness as we would normally consider it.

I wouldn't say Alpha is a great villain, since he comes across as a overly emotional (even bratty) kid, but in all fairness, he was designed as a child and the reason for it is understandable. And a large part of why he works is because he's written to tie into Nadeshiko and Takuma's personal storylines. The game is really about two people and their wayward AI son, except neither of them know it at first, and in Nadeshiko's case she might never figure it out.

This is why this story could only have been told through this duo of original characters, as manufacturing Alpha's story into a pre-existing character's past would have risked breaking canon, and it's highly unlikely the character would come out of the experience unchanged.

NIS America did a fairly good localization job, since it's always a risk when two different translation teams work on different aspects of a multimedia franchise. But the NISA team did their homework and the terminology is almost identical to that used in the earlier anime translation by Funimation, with only one botch I noticed involving Toma Kuzaburo's name, which gets turned into something unrecognizable, likely due to an alternate kanji reading. (You can hear his name in the Japanese dialogue though, which is how I picked this out.)

Since Psycho-Pass runs heavy on the jargon, hearing consistent terms for things like Crime Coefficient, Criminal Investigation Department, etc. is much appreciated.

That said though, there were smaller issues with the storytelling, some of which is likely due to the game and others probably could have been cleaned up with another editing pass.

I suspect ending branches are generally locked in during the downtime in Tokyo between the middle school crisis and the final confrontation, because a lot of critical changes can happen at this point in the story. This is when the player may have a unique conversation with the character they've bonded with the most, when the Public Safety Bureau decides what to do with Alpha, when promotions/demotions happen, and (usually) when Nadeshiko gets her memories back, if they come back at all.

Everything up until that point though, can be a jumble of individual player decisions, meaning there are multiple ways to eventually arrive at a given piece of dialogue or narration. Usually the whole story comes together and the game has its chronology ducks in a row, but at least two times I had the game refer to events that didn't actually happen in that particular playthrough.

On the first playthrough where I got Nadeshiko's memories back, she mentions being demoted to Enforcer while she's looking at Alpha's abandoned cyborg body. Not only did this not happen, but I don't think it actually can happen because the scene replaces the one where Ginoza demotes her. It's not possible to get both. This might have been in the original Japanese as well, but if that was the case I think the localization team should have cleaned up the error.

On a later playthrough I got Nadeshiko's memories back late in the game and she recalls a memory that resurfaced during her second hypnotherapy session. Problem was, I decided to refuse my second session so this memory was never recovered, and this I'm sure was a flaw in the game design.

Then there are smaller issues, some of which are due to idiosyncrasies of the Japanese language, and another the persistent use of the incorrect past tense of "lie" (as in "lie down") which was driving me crazy. (It's "laid down" not "lied down.") The word comes up multiple times in the story on every playthrough, which shows that it wasn't a typo, but a systematic error where the translator or final proofreader did not know the correct past tense.

But that aside, Mandatory Happiness is a strong entry in the Psycho-Pass series and a welcome return to an earlier time with the original cast, especially poor Kagari who got wiped out partway through the first season. His levity really adds something to the team and it's good to have him back, at least for a while.

It makes me a little sad that new characters Nadeshiko and Takuma don't continue to exist in the anime (at least visibly), as they were fun to have with everyone else, but depending on the ending they might not even be in Japan anymore. I assume the endings where they remain with Division 1 eventually results in them leaving for one reason or another, voluntarily or not, but their fates on those paths aren't covered.

Next week, we look at Nadeshiko!

Monday, February 20, 2017

RPG/VN Talk Index

Since I've written quite a few RPG and VN Talk entries I decided to set up an index at the top of the page so it's easy to find them all.

My series is basically me discussing the plot of a particular RPG or visual novel irrespective of the game's non-story related qualities, so I talk about foreshadowing, motivation, pacing, etc. Why did this work? What were the writers trying for? What was attractive/unattractive about the characters?

In theory, it could be a terrible game and I'll still talk glowingly about the story, because the purpose of the talk isn't to discuss the mechanics. In most cases I won't even mention them.

But I'll only discuss games I finished, so if the mechanics are so bad I don't, then it'll never be posted here.

My talks deal with the entire plot, including the ending, so there are spoilers abound, though I usually will not flag that unless I'm discussing a game that's been released within a few months of my post. Because I'm a game hoarder it's not uncommon that I buy more than I can play and unless it's a part of one of my favorites series it's unlikely I'll play close to release day.

Monday, February 13, 2017

VN Talk: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Ace Attorney has always revolved around crazy cases, outlandish witnesses, and other things that would never stand up in a real court where often the player protagonist comes off as the only sane person in an insane asylum. Spirit of Justice continues this irreverence as the sixth entry in the main series, but it took me a while to get into it.

Usually the Ace Attorney games are structured so there is an intro case (short, one trial session, no investigation segment), somewhere in the middle there is a throw-away case that has little to do with the main storyline, and then the remaining cases build on each other so the finale is a culmination of everything that led up to this point.

Spirit of Justice actually has two throwaway cases that are largely skippable except for minor details that could have been introduced at another point in story. It's not that they aren't fun. I loved the magic show trial, and the rakugo trial was fascinating since it covers an art form we don't have in the west, while still making it easy to understand.

But they have no context in the greater story. Their only contribution is the introduction of Nahyuta Sahdmadhi as the prosecutor for the magic show trial and we don't know why he's really suddenly back in the US (story-wise) for the rakugo trial since he just finished the previous trial with Phoenix back in Khura'in. It's a lot of jet-setting and while I know the LA of Ace Attorney is now short on prosecutors thanks to the events of the last game, it seems strange for the characters to not at least comment on that.

The result is that the storytelling feels uneven. I'm used to having one breather case, but two was a bit much (and the rakugo one didn't even have an investigation phase).

Part of the problem is the Ace Attorney series' burgeoning cast. Capcom put Phoenix back in the saddle with the start of Dual Destinies, resulting in at least two active lawyer protagonists, since Apollo Justice had taken the protagonist's seat in the fourth game while Phoenix was disbarred.

But Dual Destinies also added Athena Cykes, who is a fantastic character, but brings the number of lawyers at the agency up to three. It worked in Dual Destinies because the central story that ran through all cases encompassed Athena and Apollo's personal stakes in different ways as well as integrating how Phoenix became a lawyer again with the meta-plot.

Spirit of Justice doesn't have that, but it still (by narrative necessity) has these three protagonists that it has to deal with. The player base isn't going to be happy if the three don't get a turn at the wheel, and the result is that Phoenix gets two cases, Apollo gets two, and Athena gets one.

Unsurprisingly, being the junior lawyers at the agency, Apollo and Athena get the two standalones that don't have much context.

And given the number of game installments, there are so many beloved characters that the plot bends over backwards to accommodate them. Though Maya returns in a way that completely makes sense, Edgeworth feels shoehorned in because the player base would be hugely disappointed without him. Dual Destinies' antihero Simon Blackquill makes a guest appearance as well, and while I really like the character, he's in Athena's throwaway case that has no bearing on the rest of the story.

Spirit of Justice unfolds with Phoenix meeting his friend Maya Fey in the fictional country of Khura'in, which has a screwed up legal system which makes the lawyers share the fates of their clients, which means that if the client is guilty, the lawyer is as well. This is naturally a deterrent since failing to prove an accused murderer not guilty means that the lawyer may also be executed. Thus, the country is largely devote of defense attorneys.

Phoenix, being who he is, can't let someone face a trial undefended, and jumps in protect those he believes in. But because Phoenix's trip was intended as a visit, Apollo and Athena aren't with him, and half the game takes place in the US with the two of them holding down the fort while the boss is gone. I assume this was done because there's no reason for all three of them to go to Khura'in (until the last case makes it so) since their relationship is a professional one. People don't usually go on vacation with their boss and coworkers after all.

It would have been fantastic if somehow the cases in the US turned out to be connected to the cases in Khu'rain but with the exception of the two-part final case Turnabout Revolution they're not.

Fortunately, Spirit of Justice ends on a high note, with what is probably the longest case I've ever seen in an Ace Attorney game, and I can only assume that the rakugo case Turnabout Storyteller was intentionally so short because of all the effort being piled into Turnabout Revolution.

There is still that unevenness over the game as a whole though, because Turnabout Revolution makes it clear that Spirit of Justice is really Apollo's story, not Phoenix's. Yes, even though the game starts with Phoenix and even brings back fan favorite Maya Fey, they aren't the ones who have the greatest reason to fight. In a way, Spirit of Justice is the culmination of all the character growth Apollo has had since his debut in the fourth game.

I actually didn't like Apollo very much when he was introduced, because I had come off the first three games wanting more Phoenix, and not only did I have to deal with a time skip that made Phoenix look like a wino, but I had this new guy who was wound up way too tight and he just didn't feel as compelling to me.

But Dual Destinies gave Apollo's personality some meat, and he had a few badass moments that built out his backstory, which was further elaborated on in Spirit of Justice (to the point I think he now has the most detailed and convoluted past out of the entire cast). Phoenix doesn't have a personal story arc in Spirit of Justice, but Apollo does, so I was really glad when he's the one who takes the reins in the final case.

It's a pretty heady one that brings the legal system of Khura'in crashing down and beginning a revolution while also solving a twenty-three year old assassination attempt (only in Ace Attorney would that happen through a court trial). And it worked, because not only was it pretty convoluted, building on the prior cases in Khura'in, but it integrated Apollo's personal story into the revolution. He's not defending his client just because it's his job or he's a nice guy, but because the outcome has a personal meaning for him as well.

I can't help wondering if the game's staff is aware of the too many protagonists problem though, because the ending features Apollo choosing to remain in Khura'in to help rebuild the legal system (now that he's the only practicing lawyer in a country that had just about eliminated them). For future games it'll make it easier to find things to do for the lawyers of the Wright Anything Agency if designers only have to worry about two of them instead of three.

But I feel bad about losing Apollo now that he's finally come into his own.

The final scene does tease that he'll come back again though, in an exchange between Phoenix and an off-screen speaker who is his mother. The only known part of Apollo's past that hasn't been brought to light at this point is a leftover plot thread from Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice.

Tangential to the final AA:AJ case, it's revealed to the player (but not to Apollo) that Thalassa Gramarye is his mother, which makes Apollo the half-brother of Phoenix's adopted daughter Trucy. This doesn't come up in Dual Destinies and the two of them are still clueless in Spirit of Justice, which we know because when Dhurke teases Apollo about Trucy being wife material neither of them react with disgust.

At this point, since they've gone on two games without knowing better, I imagine that it'll only come up in a court trial, and it would have to be a plot point.

The exchange between Phoenix and Thalassa make it sound like she's finally ready to reveal her existence to both her children, since Trucy thinks she's dead and Apollo just doesn't know who she is, and I'd really like that. Spirit of Justice brought his family into the picture in a big way with both the his biological father and his adoptive father, so it would be an easy segway into him wanting to discover the fate of his mother.

As for Phoenix, he's considered the main character of the series since he was the protagonist of the first three games, and since they brought him back for the fifth it seems impossible to lose him now. I just hope the next time around they give him his own plot.

It doesn't have to deal with his past since he's older now and I think those depths have been plumbed, but he can still have personal stakes through the people he knows and what compromises he is willing or unwilling to make for the sake of a trial. That would bring the focus back on him.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Writing "Poison Maiden, Open Skies"

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" came out in mid-December, and it's still the current issue for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show for a few more weeks, so I'd like to take a little time to talk about my inspiration and writing process for this one, since I think it's my strongest short story of 2016.

"Poison Maiden" was born out of multiple influences, the easiest one to guess being my playthrough of Code: Realize this past summer. There's a bad ending on Victor's route in Code: Realize where Cardia chooses to leave him behind because the queen says she can help her. Underlying that promise is the potential for Cardia and her growing poison to be used as a weapon, but since it's a bad ending, we never see that scenario never play out.

Now, Code: Realize is not the first media I've seen with a literally poisonous protagonist, there's a whole page dedicated to such characters on TV Tropes, but that ending got me thinking, how would you employ a such a person as a weapon in a war?

I write a fair bit of fiction set during World War I, and if you're going to write a war story involving someone emitting a cloud of poison gas, there's no better conflict to choose.

But in a first for me I decided to write from the side of the British.

I got into World War I from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school, so I tend to picture the conflict from the German side of the war. Airplane models, submarine models, strategies used, I have a decent pool of knowledge I can call on if I'm writing Germans. It's how I wrote "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart" and my upcoming "Kite Dancer" (which deals with zeppelins).

But because I was going be writing about chemical warfare I decided to flop sides. My pet peeve about WWI in media is that frequently people can't seem to tell it apart from World War II and portray the Germans as mustache twirling Nazis. Even the WWI game Valiant Hearts, which includes a sympathetic German protagonist, couldn't avoid having a cartoonishly evil German officer for the last boss.

So for my purposes it made better sense to have the British be the ones deploying a reluctant female soldier as a poisonous weapon. That way the reader could focus on my protagonist's personal predicament rather than the morality of her country's stance in the war.

This required more research though, because I realized I was a complete moron regarding the British situation, and I read up on the draft, the female labor force, among other things. I also studied up on chemical warfare in general since none of my previous stories had involved gas attacks.

"Poison Maiden" went through a lot of changes in its brainstorming/outlining phase. Originally Edith, my protagonist, was going to be the only Poison Maiden, but after some thought I decided it was more realistic for there to have been multiple survivors of the accident that changed her, and thus Harpy Squad was born; a whole band of women who could not help but emit poison wherever they went.

At one point I almost made them literally harpies with an accompanying airborne delivery system to shoot them over enemy lines, but I ended up tossing that out because such a flashy entrance would no doubt result in a lot of Poison Maidens getting killed and given that I wanted them to be a rare resource, I couldn't consider that as a viable strategy.

I also couldn't think of a good reason to give them wings.

Their poison traits are acquired in a highly superhero-ish fashion with the factory accident, but people generally don't connect poison with powers of flight. Still, I did try to keep some of the harpy imagery in through the name and some of my word choices when Charlotte finally cuts loose.

"Poison Maiden" was also written specifically for Intergalactic Medicine Show's Festivals on the Front issue, so I knew that the story was going to be Christmas-themed and I knew going in that I wanted the final scene to be set around an improvised Christmas tree in the middle of no man's land.

Like the characteristics of Harpy Squad itself, the ending went through several permutations of who was there and what condition they were in. Some of the brainstorm endings were incredibly dismal (including one where Thomas, Edith's love interest, ends up feral and insane) before I settled on the bittersweet one that still has hope for a brighter future.

"Poison Maiden" should be up until the end of February, so if you have a subscription to Intergalactic Medicine Show please check it out. There will likely be an ebook version as well on Amazon in the future.