Monday, August 22, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 1: Cardia

I played Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ back to back after Zero Time Dilemma. Not because I really needed a palate cleanser, but because I had been wanting to play it for a while. I picked it up at a nice price at Anime Expo and I still had a little vacation time left to get started.

I generally like playing otome visual novels when I'm in the mood for something light and fluffy and Otomate is my favorite producer of them. Otomate's Hakuoki, which I covered earlier on this blog was the first otome I played, and I've played few more since. Amnesia: Memories aside (which uses a different story structure), I like the Otomate otome style because it makes a point to have a plot, one long and engaging enough that it takes several hours to get through, and it's more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a dating sim where you decide what to do everyday.

The typical Otomate heroine starts in the same place and has a chance to meet and get to know all her potential love interests before the story eventually branches off based on the player's favoritism towards a particular man. Equally important is that the love interests interact with each other, which allows them to become fleshed out characters who are more than a pretty face to pine over the protagonist.

Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ outdid itself in length as this is probably longest of the Otomate games I've played through, with a single branch taking me over 15 hours to get through, which is feat considering that gameplay is primarily reading/listening and making the occasional decision. I'm used to having 7 to 9 chapters for each storyline, but Code: Realize jumps to a whopping 13 for each love interest (unlike Hakuoki which shortchanges a few characters).

Also, Code: Realize has probably one of the best otome heroines ever.

It's common for the heroine to be passive so her love interest can protect her and she can be the one he is fighting for. If she has some meager combat skills they generally won't be enough to do anything meaningful.

Cardia (who can be renamed at the cost her name being unvoiced in dialogue) starts out like a doll because of who and what she is, but most importantly, she grows over the course of the story. She has her own emotional arc besides supporting the guy she's with and her own turbulent history she's trying to get over, which puts her on even footing with the guys. Once she's trained to look after herself, she does a fair job of it, whether escaping from imprisonment or busting a few mooks.

One of the things I disliked about Chizuru in Hakuoki is that she had special powers of regeneration and was a full blooded demon, but she didn't do anything with her natural abilities. She should have had the potential to be an equal combatant to the swordsman she loved instead of sitting on the sidelines bawling about how helpless she is.

Cardia likewise has something unusual about her, but she's not afraid to use it. Her body is filled with a corrosive poison so strong that anything that touches her skin (save her specially treated clothing) melts away. It even eats through titanium. She has a note at the start of the game from her father telling her to never to leave the mansion she lives in and to not fall in love, because it will cause her suffering on account of being a monster. Her poison accumulates around her, so if she remains in one place too long it builds up, and she knows firsthand that anyone trapped in an enclosed space with her will eventually die from prolonged exposure.

Obviously Cardia does leave her mansion at the start of the game, and over the course of the story she falls in love, but the game never forgets that she's filled with a powerful poison. Aside from causing romantic complications, Cardia understands that she can use that ability as a tool, and there are multiple times where she takes her gloves off to burn through something. In one ending, she even uses it to attack the man harming her love interest.

Code: Realize does not get enough love for having this girl as the heroine.

As for the rest of the game, it takes place in an alternate 1853 steampunk London. Each of the five love interests is taken from either history or a 19th century novel and aged appropriate to the heroine, so the player can romance a twenty-something Arsène Lupin, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Count Saint-Germain, or Impey Barbicane. I was at least passingly familiar with most of them, with the exception of Impey Barbicane, who I had to look up. (He's a Jules Verne character from From the Earth to the Moon.)

The game does an excellent job of introducing the five and how their disparate quests come together and bring Cardia in as well. Though the shared path between all of them is a weighty eight chapters long, it's a lot of fun as the group gets into a variety of hijinks and you can see how the guys play off each other. I consider it important that the rest of the group interacts and have lives outside of their relationship to Cardia. The airship race chapter in particular was fun, because it made the cast come together as a well-honed team.

Cardia's story does not always come to a conclusive end. In fact, there's only one route where all the cards are laid out on the table, but they all feel like endings, with the promise of a happily ever between Cardia and the man she loves, even if she might still be a poisonous maiden who can't touch anyone. The love interests who don't get a poison-free Cardia at the end mostly take this in stride, though those endings also make it clear that they'll keep looking for a cure.

Code: Realize is probably my favorite otome to date, not just because Cardia is an awesome protagonist with her own growth, but because the story is good about keeping everyone involved no matter whose route the player is on. This is vital to keep interest from flagging when the player needs to play each of the routes to get the whole story, and the personal goals of the different men get nods even if they aren't the focus of a given storyline.

In general, Code: Realize is also good about making elements from one timeline exist in another. While the player's choices should have an immediate effect on Cardia and her friends, they shouldn't change things beyond the scope of her personal influence, and most of the time the game respects this even while furnishing wildly difficult climaxes for each route. It's not perfect, but generally it's possible to understand why certain things only happen in one timeline and not another.

Unfortunately Code: Realize is only on Vita (which seems to be the console of choice for visual novel fans), but since more and more Vita games have been finding their way to Steam, I suppose it's possible this one might be ported someday.

A US localization of the Code: Realize fan disc has also been announced, which I think is the going to be the first of its kind released stateside, so I assume it has been doing fairly well in sales. Even though Hakuoki has had fan disc material released in English before, it was only in a much later edition that combined it with the original game.

In Japan it's common to for successful otome games to have a fan disc (not literally a disc anymore) that provides additional scenes set either during or after the main story. They're generally fluff that doesn't affect the main plot but allows the audience to spend additional time with their favorite character(s).

Judging from the opening movie to Code: Realize's fan disc and the wedding motif, this one's heavily focused on the happily ever after.

I've also heard that an anime version of Code: Realize has been announced, but a release date hasn't been set yet. I hope it makes it out of development and into production, because I think of all the otome games I've played this has the most compelling story and, more importantly for an anime series, the most compelling protagonist, so people will want to cheer her on instead of viewing her as dead weight for the rest of the cast.

Though otome is aimed at heterosexual women where they can choose a romantic partner for their protagonist, Code: Realize doesn't focus as strongly on the romance as other titles. The plot has plenty of action, tension, and humor that I think will let it appeal to a wider audience once the buttons the player is pushing are removed.

Next week I'll dive into the first of the routes I played and spoilers will begin!

Monday, August 15, 2016

5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Time Dilemma was one of my most anticipated games this year, being the third and final game in the Zero Escape series, but while I enjoyed it, it didn't quite live up to the hype. I suppose part of that comes from the long anticipation period I had after Virtue's Last Reward, which is one of my favorite visual novels of all time. ZTD had an incredible legacy to live up to.

So I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised that it didn't. I enjoyed it to be clear. I ended up taking the week after Anime Expo off from work and spent most of that in a gigantic bum rush going through Zero Time Dilemma.

But even though ZTD did some very cool things like the non-linear storytelling and the memory loss every 90 minutes, there were other things that felt weird or left me cold. So here are five writing lessons I learned from Zero Time Dilemma (spoilers included), starting with the negative stuff and ending on a positive note.

1) Hiding information for a surprise twist can backfire spectacularly, even if you've done it well before

This is an issue because of Q, and probably my biggest beef with the game. The nine people trapped in the Decision Game are divided into three teams of three, and the player is mislead by camera angles during the team leader announcement to think the boy with the helmet is Q, but Q-Team actually has four people on it. The real Q is not shown on screen until Sean (the boy) correctly identifies him as Delta, and the mastermind behind the game.

However, Q has been with the rest of Q-Team for the entire portion of the game. The reason the player doesn't know is because the camera angles never show more than his shadow and even his own team members barely mention him because they think he's blind and deaf and unable to be communicated with.

This was particularly annoying, because when I finally discovered Delta was the mastermind and had Sean call him out, the camera suddenly moved over to reveal him and I was shocked that there was an old man in a wheelchair who had apparently been sitting in plain sight of everyone except for me.

In retrospect I was able to find clues to his existence, but they are so minor as to be easily missed during a player's first time through. The characters are disoriented by their ordeal and enforced memory loss so the player tends to be similarly adrift.

Now, this trick can be done well, because Virtue's Last Reward did it earlier in the same series. VLR hid Sigma's physical age from both Sigma and the player (that he's an old man instead of a young one). But the reason it worked is because the game took place almost entirely in first person from Sigma's point of view, so what he didn't know, we didn't know. Also, Sigma's arms are cybernetic and clothed with artificial skin and muscle, so he didn't know the arms he was using were not his original 20-something year old limbs.

Finally, there were multiple conversations that Sigma had directly with other characters where they made fun of his age. Unlike Q, who was not party to the conversations that mentioned him, VLR's conversations were directly with the player character, so it's unsurprising that the insults are more memorable and taken more personally. At the time it's easy for the player and Sigma to write off other people as being rude, only for those clues to come back when the reveal is made.

2) Don't set up expectations you can't or don't expect to fulfill

Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were conceived at the same time, but due to VLR's poor sales in Japan, ZTD came along years later and only after a successful fan campaign on the part of the English-speaking audience. I'm not sure if that factored into the discontinuity, but there was a bonus post-game scene in VLR that was included for players who managed to get all the bonus files in the game.

Game writer Kotaro Uchikoshi came out last week and said that the Another Time ending in VLR is not canon, because not every player who reaches the end of the game will see it, but the thing is, it feels very real and sets up a lot of expectations for what needs to happen in ZTD.

We learn that a mysterious entity "?" might be what allows the existence of a timeline where Radical-6 never escapes. We learn that Kyle has presumably jumped back in time even though he doesn't have a body to go to.

VLR proper closed everything off really well, only for Another Time to pop open a lot of questions, so players went into ZTD expecting to see how "?" fits into everything, and looking for Kyle, only to not find anything of either, as though Another Time never happened.

It was unsatisfying without knowing this from the start, and Uchikoshi has since said that it was a mistake to connect Another Time to the timeline flowchart in VLR, which made it look like it was canon, when it shouldn't have been. Uchikoshi says it was included as a bonus, since at the time VLR was in production the 2011 Tohoku quake had just happened and he wanted to give a little hope to what was otherwise a grim ending.

I'm not sure if that was always his intention, it's possible he threw away Another Time later on when he figured he could make a better story without it, but it could have been handled a lot better.

3) Player/character disorientation works even better when something expected is missing

This was a fun one to experience in action.

We know the Decision Game involves teams of three, and the three characters on each team all know who the others are. They're already expecting to pass out after 90 minutes, and they're expecting they will have forgotten things since their last period awake. They have a lot of be anxious about.

So the first time I played a story fragment where C-Team woke up with only two people I feared for the worst. Junpei was missing and I didn't know why.

Worse, I was now being forced to solve an escape room to leave the pantry, when the biggest issue on my mind was Junpei's safety.

Much of the anxiety worked because even though this fragment can be played early in the game, Junpei was the protagonist from Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which was the very first game in the Zero Escape series. Junpei and Akane's relationship and how they aided one another quite literally through time and space, was the most memorable part of 999, so when Akane wakes up and Junpei is nowhere to be found, we panic over his absence just as much as she does.

And of course the kicker is… right after we solve the puzzle, we do find out what happened to Junpei.

4) It's fun when one story makes you think of an older one in a new way.

The Zero Escape series has always contained some element of alternate universes, where the story branches depending on choices the player has made, but unlike most games which consider those exclusive from each other, Zero Escape has had information readily cross back and forth between them. Sometimes the information to solve a puzzle cannot be found in the timeline the player is currently in, but can be discovered in a different one that otherwise leads to an undesirable end.

When Carlos discovers his consciousness has hopped between two closely related timelines without understanding how, Akane chooses to explain the multiverse to him by using Back to the Future.

I watched Back to the Future ages ago as a kid, and though Marty McFly changes the future after his trip back in time, I didn't take the ending as much more than what I saw at face value. Marty went back in time where he started with a mousy "loser" for a dad, changed the past by making his dad cool, and went forward in time to discover his adult dad is a much more confident person.

Akane is not me though, and says that when she got to the end of the movie, she wanted to know what happened to the Marty of the second timeline, the one who grew up with the confident, rich dad, because that Marty must have existed, before the Marty we know goes back to the future. So whatever happened to the second timeline's Marty?

It was a good question to ask! And one I'd never thought of.

5) A little humor, even black humor, goes a long way the darker the main story gets

Shortly after Akane explains the multiple timelines to Carlos, she suggests the team hop timelines to escape their current predicament. This kickstarts a hilarious string of events where Carlos, Akane, and Junpei hop timelines with the specific intent of abusing their ability to do so.

It's a creative sequence because it's very much something a player would be inclined to do.

The reason for the humor comes from multiple sources. First is Akane's completely blasé approach to overloading a nuclear reactor specifically because it's easier to hop timelines when under duress.

Second is that when someone's consciousness jumps, they switch places with the version of themselves that they're going to, which means that if they're about to die, they're going to be killing their other self when they jump. While Junpei and Carlos are initially reluctant about swapping under those circumstances, they get comfortable fast, to the point they treat their alternate lives about as cheaply as the player does.

Third is that they choose very strange timelines to jump to while they have very little time to discuss anything resembling a plan. There's nothing that gets a laugh and a fair bit of concern like suggesting they jump to the timeline where they're all about to die in a hail of machine gun fire.

Fourth, Junpei wants to break the game by getting two of them killed in one timeline so they can use their X-codes (obtained on death) and then hopping to safety to another where they can use the codes to escape.

It's a very meta way of looking at his own existence, and involves him and Carlos sacrificing their other selves (who, by the way, are currently celebrating their amazing victory at rolling three 1s on three different 6-sided dice, a 0.46% chance) and jumping just ahead of Akane, who stays behind long enough to hear their X-codes before jumping herself, presumably leaving her other self bewildered and confused with the bodies of her friends.

Since you can repeat fragments whenever you want, going back through this sequence was one of my favorite parts to replay. It's so messed up, but it had me in stitches, and it's just what I needed since this is by far the darkest and most bloody installment in the Zero Escape series.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Writing "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang"

I was really tickled by the idea of writing a more action oriented Cthulhu Mythos piece, particularly one that should be set in the past to accommodate a focus on melee weapons. I had previously written "The Ancestors" as my Chinese American take on "Shadows Over Innsmouth" so I figured why not make another go around?

It didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to work in the Three Kingdoms period due to it being one of the most famous and intense periods of Chinese history. But the problem was, aside from the names of the major players and a few of the battles, I really had no idea what the context for the whole thing was. Most of my previous Chinese history research had been regarding the Qing Dynasty (which served as the model for the fictional dynasty used in "The Held Daughter") and there's about 1400 years of history in between the two.

All I knew about the Three Kingdoms was that the Han Dynasty had fallen and there was a war that divided the empire in three as three different men claimed themselves to be the true emperor and successor to the Han.

It was a setting ripe for conflict and made famous by the 12th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

While brainstorming my initial choice for protagonist was Zhuge Liang, because he was known as the master strategist of Shu and possibly the most brilliant person on any side of the war. Due to the nihilistic nature of Lovecraftian fiction, I wanted to set the story during Zhuge Liang's final battle, because I knew he had died before the war was over.

But then I learned that Zhuge Liang had died due to a combination of stress and overwork, which was not a dramatic death at all, even if he had been on the campaign trail at the time.

I also considered using his wife Lady Huang, who was considered to be as talented as he was, but information on her was so scant and I could find no evidence that she accompanied him on the campaign trail.

Then I considered making Sima Yi the main character, figuring that it might be interesting to tell the story of the person who was fighting against an opponent with mythical tactical abilities (and supernatural powers), but it just wasn't clicking, because Sima Yi only wins by outlasting Zhuge Liang and when he finally gets out of his fortress on the Wuzhong Plans he's routed largely due to his own paranoia.

Finally I noticed a name that I remembered hearing before, but didn't know much about. Jiang Wei. He was Zhuge Liang's successor.

Reading about Jiang Wei I found him to not be as cut and dry a successor as I thought he would be, but his mixed legacy was attractive, and I found it fascinating that he was so devoted to his adopted nation of Shu even though he had originally been an officer in Wei (his personal name "Wei" is written differently from the country "Wei").

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms Jiang Wei is presented as a very romanticized character, with the brains of Zhuge Liang and the fighting skills of Zhao Yun, who had the misfortune of being one of the last Shu generals of any standing left towards the end of the war, at which point there was nothing he could do to save the kingdom.

The reality was more complicated, but still, I liked the idea of the student who can never surpass the master, when it's something we always want to happen. Zhuge Liang today is still a part of Chinese culture, with four different actors portraying him in two different movies and two different TV series in the last ten years alone. That's pretty good for a guy who's been dead for 1800 years! How can anyone live up to that kind of legacy?

So I decided that the heart of the story would be about Jiang Wei trying to live up to being Zhuge Liang's successor while also keeping the Shu army intact during their retreat from the Wuzhong Plains. While the reality of Sima Yi's retreat was more a combination of paranoia and a well-placed ambush, in folklore the Shu army either used a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang or Jiang Wei dressed as Zhuge Liang himself to scare him off.

I figured on something a little more supernatural…

But I still have a nod to both, because I think readers who are more familiar with the time period (or are only familiar with it from the novel) might be expecting them.

I really enjoyed writing this one, and I'm mulling over ideas for the future considering that Jiang Wei has many more battles ahead of him in which I could still being the Mythos to bear.

If you would like to check out a preview of this story, there is a teaser now up at Stone Skin Press.

Music listened to while writing: "No Differences" from the Aldnoah.Zero soundtrack and "Kimi no Matsu Sekai" (trans: "The World Where You Are Waiting") from the first set of opening credits to Magic Kaito 1412

Monday, August 1, 2016

Swords v Cthulhu is Out!

The Swords v Cthulhu anthology is now out and available for purchase from most online booksellers. I had the luck to get my contributor copy last Friday, but unfortunately I seem to be having camera troubles so I haven't been able to take a photo of it.

Sad face.

I'm looking forward to reading everyone else's stories though, and it's a happily diverse anthology with people from all cultures wielding their melee weapons of choice against the Lovecraftian horrors that we love and tend to sell as game pieces and plushies. I wonder sometimes what Lovecraft would think of the pop culture influence his work has had on the modern geek.

My contribution is the short story "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang" which fuses Romance of the Three Kingdoms with a certain Lovecraftian menace from some of his lesser known works. I love Deep Ones, but everyone loves Deep Ones, so I didn't want to go the predictable route. (And besides, I already used Deep Ones when I wrote "The Ancestors.") So I'm not going to name the particular menace I use in this story. Just know that it's not one of the more common culprits.

If it sounds up your alley, feel free to check it out!

[Amazon] [Barnes & Noble]

Monday, July 25, 2016

Writing "The World That You Want"

"The World That You Want" is a favorite of mine. It's probably the first story I've written while aiming to hit a specific length, and when I went over, I edited the crap out of it to bring it back to the appropriate size.

This is probably one of the densest things I've written, fitting in a post-apocalyptic world filled with demons and a journey to create a new one in just 4000 words. If you're a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series, you'll be able to see a lot of influence on this particular work.

I originally wrote this for a themed dark fantasy/horror anthology I didn't get in, and the guidelines were to pick something personal as the subject matter. As it happened, a few days before I heard of the anthology, I’d been talking to a coworker about Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

The Shin Megami Tensei series typically features teenagers or twenty-somethings dealing with extreme and deadly supernatural events that often shatter their notion of what reality should be. Rather than going to pieces though, the protagonists somehow obtain a way to fight the supernatural through magic of their own or by recruiting demons to their side (or both). Several, though not all, of the Megaten games will give the main character, the player surrogate, the ability to choose among several endings that will decide the fate of the world.

While I was deciding what to write, what struck me was a decision I hadn't made when I was playing Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. There was a particularly appealing ending available to me, if I was willing to kill a particular NPC to get it. But I wasn't. Sure, it was just a game, but I was trying to play from my personal perspective and that forbade me from killing a character who was more of a bystander than a bad guy.

The seed of my story grew from there. That was the personal hook, though I don't think I would have chosen the ending my protagonist does since it, as a friend put it, "leaves people in a world of suck."

In fact, my "usual" Megaten ending is one the protagonist overhears (and obviously does not choose) on her way up the US Bank Tower. I thought it would be funny if she passed by my dying player insert on the way up.

The US Bank Tower is a real building by the way, though it's a lot less imposing as the scene for demon congregation ever since they put in a glass slide you can ride between two of the upper floors. That hadn't existed at the time I wrote the story and it just opened earlier this year.

"The World That You Want" is my love letter to the Megaten games with a local southern California twist. The world we know has ended and the cityscape is populated by demons and ghosts. In the face of all this, a pair of teenagers head towards the US Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles where an important Decision will be made.

If you still have not had a chance to read it yet, you can find it in the July 2016 issue of Galaxy's Edge which is online free until the end of August.

Music listened to while writing: Soundtracks to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.

Monday, July 18, 2016

VN Talk: Zero Time Dilemma - Non-Linear With Style

I'm a big fan of the Zero Escape series which, as a whole, combines escape room mechanics with visual novel scenes to tell a gut-pounding story of nine people trapped playing a sadistic and possibly lethal game intended to bring out the worst in human nature. And yet, no matter how dark the games get, there's always humor, and sometimes a few tears.

Zero Time Dilemma is the third and final game in the series, and just came out at the end of June. This is much sooner than I usually talk about games, but as mentioned, I'm a big fan of the series, so this was one of the few Day 1 purchases I make these days. Also, I'm aware that this game very nearly did not get made at all if not for the incredible amount of fan support, so I made it a point to contribute to the sales tally and let the production team know their work hasn't gone unappreciated.

There are spoilers for the first half hour of the game and spoilers for how the plot is structured, but I've left out specifics since it's the nature of the narrative I want to talk about here. I'll talk about plot specifics later.

Zero Time Dilemma is the story of nine people participating in a Mars simulation site in the Nevada desert, the kind where everybody is physically isolated from the outside world so researchers can track what people's behavior is like and how they deal with problems when trapped in an enclosed space for a long period of time.

The whole thing goes off the rails though, when the nine people wake up in three different cells and are informed by a robed man named Zero, who is wearing a plague doctor mask, that they are now to participate in the Decision Game.

This game takes place during a simulated blackout period between Earth and Mars, so the nine participants cannot expect anyone to be monitoring them or to be able to communicate with the outside world. Worse, they seem to have been removed from their facility and transferred to an underground shelter.

The nine people are divided into teams of three, named C-Team, Q-Team, and D-Team, after Carlos, Q, and Diana, who are designated the team leaders. Each team is isolated from each other in three different wards (Wards C, Q, and D) so there is no way for them to directly communicate except through a messenger dog that is small enough to move through the air vents.

Zero informs them that the only way to leave if is six people die. Each time someone dies, an X-Pass is revealed, and they need six X-Passes in order to open the X-Door which leads to the elevator which will take them outside. To jumpstart everything, Zero asks each team to vote for which team should die, since that will give them three passwords right away. Whichever team gets two votes will be executed. Choosing to not vote will result in two votes for not participating.

Each participant in the game is also given a watch they cannot remove, which has two functions; 1) to tell the time, and 2) to inject a drug cocktail that will knock them out and remove their memory of the past 90 minutes. Naturally, they're only allowed to be awake for 90 minute stretches throughout the game, so the injections will remove their memories of whatever they did. As a "thank you" for voting though, Zero will not inject the amnesia portion for the first knockout, so people will remember their vote and have to live with the consequences.

So that is the setup.

From there, the game assumes a nonlinear style of play, based on the four possible outcomes of the vote; everyone is spared (by spreading the votes), C-Team dies, Q-Team dies, or D-Team dies.

But the player is not allowed to proceed directly to the next segment after the vote.

Instead the game opens up "fragments." The player can choose which team they want to play as, and are presented with a number of fragments in the timestream with little to no context for what happens in them other than a thumbnail graphic from one of the scenes.

This fits in with the memory loss, since the characters wake up with no idea what has happened since the vote or if this is even the first time they've woken up. They have watches, so they have an idea of how much time has passed, but nothing more than that.

The game plays with this, with some fragments occurring later in time than others, or even at the same time for the same team (in which case they're in different timelines based on how the vote went). Since they're in a shelter and they're unable to see the sky, time is also relative, since they only know what the watch tells them and there's no guarantee it's accurate.

A lot of games like to advertise having a non-linear story, but really, no one quite does non-linear like Zero Time Dilemma's opening fragment scramble.

Sometimes a team will wake up and discover someone's missing and they don't know why. Other times they'll discover through announcements that someone on another team has died, and have absolutely no context for what happened, leading to rampant speculation over whether someone on another team can be trusted.

But the fun thing is, as the player, it's possible to start to piece together things before the characters, because the player has access to all the timelines. After completing fragments, it's possible to see a flowchart (with unplayed areas blacked out). As more of it gets filled in, players can guess from context where the latest fragments will eventually wind up.

Being a Zero Escape game, this also means that the different timelines do not exist in isolation and it's not just the player who has access to all the information regarding what happens. Certain characters can get flashes of insight into things that happened in another timeline, even if it did not directly involve them.

As awareness of this phenomenon grows, this culminates in both characters and players intentionally jumping timestreams in order to accomplish what could not be done in a linear existence, and many later segments cannot be played at all until the player has done some jumping. It's only by collecting information gained across different timelines that it's possible for everyone to unite and escape the Decision Game.

Though the game starts at the same place for everyone, each player's method of getting to the "real" ending is different. There are certain funnel points where the information is controlled and it's not possible for players to deviate much (you can tell from when people get stuck and run to the GameFAQs message board and they all have similar flowcharts), but for the most part, and definitely for the first half of the game, players will have wildly different experiences.

It's entirely possible to play a fragment from late in the timeline and then go back and see the events leading up to it, all without intending to do so. Other times, it's possible to make Choice A in one fragment and then end up jumping to the timeline of Choice B in another. (That was probably the most gut-wrenching one, when I realized why I was missing someone because I was in the timeline where I hadn't saved her life.)

The little epiphanies that happen throughout ZTD are what make the game fun, and though they don't snowball to quite the level of Virtue's Last Reward (my favorite of the series), it's a very unique storytelling style that relies on the player being active and engaged.

Most tellingly, the key to Zero's identity is never directly revealed to the player. A lot of times when information needs to travel timelines, the information is clearly marked as something the player needs to remember. Sometimes Zero will even explicitly say something to that effect. But to identify him, the player needs to be able to put 2 and 2 together rather than just plugging in various potential keywords.

This makes Zero Time Dilemma a lot of fun, because there's a strong element of mystery in additional to all the pseudo-science, mental time travel, and death game portions of the storyline.

Now that the series is over, I'm not sure where I find anything else like it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

RPG Talk: Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest was my present to myself for finishing my novel revision back in April. After having enjoyed Fire Emblem Awakening, I followed the development of Fates fairly closely. I liked the central conceit of the story, where the player finds themselves at the start of a war and faced with the choice of siding with either the family of their birth or the family that raised them.

Normally I get around to games fairly late after their release, so I don't worry too much about mentioning spoilers, but since Fates just came out a few months ago, be aware that I usually spoil things when I discuss the plot in my RPG Talk series and I will be including the ending of the Conquest storyline.

The protagonist is a scion of the royal family of Nohr with the default name of Corrin (which I'll use from here on). Corrin's name, gender, voice, and hair can be customized. To make it easy on myself, I'll be referring to Corrin as female in this write-up since that was the gender of my avatar.

At the start of the game Corrin is finally allowed to leave the isolated fortress where she grew up and join her father's court, but it quickly becomes apparent that King Garon is a tyrant rather than a benevolent king. The naive Corrin doesn't understand that he cannot be reasoned with, which sets her apart from her four siblings, who have learned to tiptoe around their bloodthirsty father for most of their lives.

After getting her first military assignment, Corrin is captured by a warrior from the opposing kingdom of Hoshido, but instead of being killed, she's taken to the Hoshidan capital, where she learns that she is actually part of the Hoshidan royal family. As a very young child her father was killed at a supposed peace summit and King Garon of Nohr took her for his own.

Hoshido is invaded shortly thereafter and Corrin finds her Nohrian siblings at the head of the army, coming to rescue her. But her new royal siblings from Hoshido do not wish give her back to the people who had taken her from them years ago.

Since I was following Fates prior to release, I had a good idea of which side I was going to pick, which was necessary because physical copies of the game have either the Conquest or the Birthright storyline by default, and the other choice has to be purchased as DLC.

I wanted to role-play my choice, and since I haven't been in the position of being raised involuntarily by another family, I viewed the decision as one of immigration. I'm ethnically Chinese, but was born and grew up in the United States, and I can't imagine leaving that. Even though the United States is not perfect, it's home.

I figured that my Corrin would choose to stay with the family she knew, rather than a bunch of strangers, even if it meant going back to a country that was wrong in so many ways.

Her birth siblings do not take the news very well (not unexpectedly).

The Conquest campaign from there is rather dark for a anime-styled RPG. Corrin has to come to terms with the fact much of Nohr is an oppressed country, and though she and her adopted siblings are a close knit bunch who want to be good people, they often aren't allowed to be.

They deal with their father's cruelty in different ways, trying to find a means to disguise their actions and cope even if they can't condone. In one case, this means that the younger brother Leo will possibly have to kill a few innocent civilians to maintain the facade that the witch hunt is actually happening, but by starting his search in all the wrong places he buys time for more innocents to escape.

Conquest writes King Garon as uncompromising and powerful, and his influence over his children is unmistakable. Older sister Camilla disagrees with his methods, but is baffled that Corrin doesn't understand just why they can't do anything about it. Elise, the youngest of all of them, is still young enough to believe that despite any awfulness, everything will be okay.

Eldest brother Xander is my favorite of the Nohrian siblings, because it's clear that he's a noble man who will do whatever he has to in order to serve his country, while simultaneously being unable to directly disobey his father. It's implied that he has done some reprehensible things for Garon, and we see early on that he's willing to execute prisoners in cold blood at his father's word. The early scenes that juxtapose both his power and powerlessness as the crown prince endeared me to him.

When Corrin returns to Nohr unexpected and unwanted, King Garon reluctantly allows her back into the royal family at the bidding of a higher power he calls Anakos. From there, Garon sends Corrin on a variety of missions to stomp out rebellion in Nohr before turning everyone's full attention to the conquest of Hoshido.

Corrin and her siblings lead their forces into Hoshido out of love for their country if not for their country's actions. They want Nohr to be a place of honor, mercy, and peace, but right now it can't be, and there is no getting around that they are the invaders.

They realize the only way to end the war with the least bloodshed (given their warmonger of a father) is to win it as quickly as possible. For Corrin, this means fighting against her blood siblings, who are still reeling from the betrayal of their kin. It's one thing for Corrin to abandon her birth family; another to lead the army to conquer them.

Conquest plays the sibling conflict for all its worth while Corrin pleads her case, that she wants peace as much as they do. She manages to convince younger Hoshidan sister Sakura to surrender and older sister Hinoka grudgingly agrees to go into hiding and pretend to be dead for the rest of the war under the condition that Corrin saves their eldest brother, Ryoma.

But saving Ryoma isn't in the cards.

The battle with him is just before the Nohrian army reaches the Hoshidan throne room. Ryoma knows that the Hoshidan army has been defeated if they've gotten this far, and the Nohrian advisor with Corrin wastes no time in presenting Ryoma with Hinoka's bloody lance and the news that Corrin has killed her, a falsehood that Corrin has to maintain in order to save face.

It's a tragic enough set of circumstances even without the melancholy battle theme that plays throughout. But the funny thing is, even though I could empathize with Corrin's horror at the thought of fighting and killing Ryoma, the first thing I thought of was what must happen in the Birthright campaign.

Assuming a parallel confrontation between all the siblings, that meant I would have to fight Xander near the end of the game, and I realized how much that would wreck me. Xander always stood by and protected Corrin, defied his father for the first time for his adopted sibling, and maintained that he always considered the two of them family regardless of blood.

I realized that the thing I least look forward to in playing Birthright is facing him and similar accusations of betrayal, especially knowing what Xander's like and how much he cares about Corrin.

The thing that Conquest does really well (and perhaps Birthright as well) that I don't see many games do is showcase the bonds between siblings.

All the critical plot scenes are between family; Corrin, her four royal siblings, and Azura, another Nohrian sibling who had been kidnapped and raised in Hoshido shortly after Corrin had been taken by Nohr. When it comes down to the final battle, it is Corrin and her five siblings standing together, not Corrin and her love interest plus motley band of heroes.

It's a different dynamic than I'm used to, but one I could easily get behind. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to take everyone into the final battle with me, I guesstimated that I would be allowed 15 units (in truth it worked out to 16) and planned accordingly to take all family members plus assorted spouses.

(This planning was necessary because Conquest doesn't allow for free leveling outside of story missions, so I had to settle on who my likely final party members were going to be about 60% of the way through the game.)

I had heard prior to beating Conquest that it has a somewhat inconclusive ending, but I found it fairly satisfying. Even though there are unanswered questions, there is no doubt that this is an ending and the characters treat it as a new start.

I had expected that the final battle would be either against King Garon or the mysterious Anakos. In truth it's neither, though Garon is the penultimate boss. After conquering Hoshido and convincing Garon to sit on the throne that reveals the truth, Corrin is able to show her adopted siblings that the man they had called Father has been corrupted into an inhuman creature.

Incredibly (but believably, considering the family dynamic we've seen), they still have trouble standing up to him until Xander speaks up, since he's the only one old enough to remember Garon from when he was still a decent human being. Garon does get defeated, but rather than facing Anakos, Takumi, the last Hoshidan sibling shows up.

We've seen throughout the Conquest storyline that something has been eating away at Takumi's mind, and after a scene that resembles the King's Cross afterlife moment at the end of the Harry Potter series, Corrin comes to understand that the Takumi everyone knew is already gone, leaving only this shell and whatever is animating it.

It makes for a strange last battle, and I can see why the ending feels a little inconclusive because we don't learn what happened to Takumi other than it's probably similar to what happened to Garon.

In what is potentially the most out of nowhere moment, Azura also sacrifices herself by singing a song powerful enough to allow Takumi to be defeated and lain to rest. She makes a comment (clearly not overheard by any of the other characters and therefore only for the player's benefit) about knowing that there would be consequences for her decision to side Nohr, and that by doing so she was unable to save Takumi, so she's going to make up for it now.

We know Azura's songs are magical in nature, from earlier scenes, so it comes as no surprise that she would have something to assist in the battle, but afterwards, she simply disappears, and Corrin and the rest of the siblings are unable to find her.

While most of the ending moves firmly on to epilogue material (Xander is crowned the new king of Nohr, Nohr's army withdraws, Hinoka prepares to become the new queen of Hoshido), Azura's disappearance is surprisingly not more of a freak out. The general assumption seems to be that people feel that she moved on without saying good-bye of her own volition, which would be in character except for a couple things.

Since characters can get married in this game, Azura left her husband and two children behind, none of whom are featured in the ending (since they're not part of the nuclear royal family), and you'd think they would be freaking out and making it clear that Azura's disappearance with not voluntary. It would have put a damper on a happy ending, but probably would have been more realistic.

I suppose it's possible Azura could have taken a moment to say good-bye to her husband and children since the game makes it clear she was still with everyone at the moment Takumi falls and only vanishes while the rest of her siblings are busy talking (maybe she stepped off camera for farewell), but it's the one part of the ending that doesn't jive with me.

If Azura had remarried unmarried to the end of the game, I would have been perfectly satisfied with the ending, even without knowing who or what Anakos is. It's clear that the damage between the two warring countries is being repaired and that everyone else is ready to move on to a brighter future.

As with Awakening, Fates also has character-based epilogues that play during the credits, which shows what happens to everyone after the game ends. Unfortunately it's a lot drier than in Awakening. The endearing thing about marrying everyone in Awakening, was reading about how the couples spent their lives together after the game ended.

For instance, I had married Frederick to Cherche in Awakening and their epilogue was: As Ylisse's new knight captain, Frederick took charge of keeping the peace and training new recruits with his wife, Cherche. Students quickly learned to fear the couple's famously disarming smiles.

It's cute.

But in Fates it's much more common to get one stand alone sentence for the husband, and one stand alone for the wife, and they won't intersect, so it rarely looks like they're even sharing a future together. Sometimes they're bad enough it's like one hand wasn't even talking to the other.

For instance, if Leo marries Selena in Fates we get: Leo sacrificed much for Nohr, leading the effort to spread King Xander's radical new policies. After marrying, he and his wife, Selena, disappeared from records. They likely lived happily ever after.

Somehow, Leo manages to both work really hard on spreading his brother's new policies in Nohr and to disappear from the record after getting married (and you'd think a prince disappearing would be a huge calamity). Clearly, Selena's line is meant to be generic for whoever she marries, and in most cases this is probably fine, but looks incredibly weird when paired with Leo.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Conquest. I did find Corrin a little self-flagellating for taking the steps needed to get the job done, and unfortunately her personality is preset, but the darker storyline is much more engaging since it's so rare to play from what is typically the bad guys' side of the story.