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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"The World That You Want" Now Live in Galaxy's Edge #21

"The World That You Want" is my latest published short story, appearing in Galaxy's Edge #21.

Most stories involving the apocalypse involve stopping it, or living with the immediate fallout from it, but teenage Joan has gotten used to life a year after the civilized world ended and demons have taken over as the dominant form of life. Unlike her companion Brandon, she's willing to deal with them, and at least attempt to co-exist.

But even a world with demons can have an ending, and Brandon is determined to make that happen.

"The World That You Want" and the rest of the July/August issue Galaxy's Edge will be available to read for free until the end of August.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bibliography and Mailing List Added

I did a little maintenance work on the blog, adding features that I've been meaning to add for a while.

You'll notice that there are now tabs above this post! One will take you to my online bibliography, complete with links to my work when applicable. I've noticed that about half my short fiction is locked behind a paywall of some kind or venues that remove issues after a certain period of time.

I can't entirely control that, each individual market handles their fiction differently, so if you like my work in the online magazines and they're likely to be taken down, please read them soon after they come out. I do like me some reprints though, so I'm trying to get some of those that originally appeared in anthologies into online venues.

The second (third?) thing I added is that I have a mailing list now. The plan is to send a newsletter during the first week of every month, letting followers know about my latest publications and what I'm working on. For fun I'm adding a little widget so you can also see what I'm reading, playing, and watching.

If you'd like to sign up, you can click on the tab and either follow the link or fill out the form right there. I'm hoping the first e-mail will go out July 1st (because I'm expecting a new story to come out!), but it might end up being July 2nd depending on my schedule.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Voltron Legendary Defender: Changing My Favorite Character was the Best Thing They Could Have Done

I was going to write a more general post about Voltron: Legendary Defender, because I've been a pretty big Voltron fan throughout my life and there's so much to say about the decisions the creative team made, and I still might.

But instead, I'm going to write about Shiro.

This guy.

When the original Voltron came to the US I was in elementary school and it was one of my favorite TV series ever. But being a kid with homework and piano lessons, I didn't always get to see every episode after school, but I knew most of the show. Four guys and a girl piloted robot lions that formed a big robot every episode. But there was one character who I knew very little about.

That guy, on the left. In the opening credits of every episode was this one person wearing the striking black and gold uniform. Because of a coloring book my mom bought, I knew his name was Sven, but for a long time I didn't see him in the show (because it turns out that I'd never watched the opening six episodes).

Sven took on a bit of a mythic quality for me. When I finally watched far enough, I saw the episode where he came back after having been a prisoner on Planet Doom. I was thrilled to finally meet him and as a character, he didn't disappoint. Sven had a lot more development than the rest of the cast, due to being a fusion between older brother Takashi and younger brother Ryou from the original Go Lion anime. The American adaptation probably didn't intend it, but they created a character who changed over the course of the series.

Voltron eventually went off the air, but when my family would go rent movies, I'd ask for whatever Voltron I could find, which eventually included the first five episodes, letting me see the character for the first time as he was originally presented. Looking back, his faux Scandinavian accent was atrocious, but even after I entered middle school it was still magic.

Which brings us to Voltron: Legendary Defender.

The showrunners were making an active effort to avoid having a show starring five white dudes, and as part of that, they replaced Sven with Shiro, taking the name from his original Japanese one, Takashi Shirogane.

When I first heard this, I hoped they meant to do more with this childhood character I had come to love, and not simply kill him off or remove him from most of the show just because that's what happened to the original. Sven, despite his name and accent, had scanned as Asian to me, and as a Chinese kid growing up in the US I was starved for Asian protagonists. I grabbed on to just about any I could find and came up with ways to justify how this clearly Asian character could have such a distinctly non-Asian name.

I mean, look at him. Black hair, dark eyes, and when you see his full outfit it resembles an 80s Japanese high school uniform. His character design doesn't scream Scandinavia.

So Sven reverted to Shiro in Voltron: Legendary Defender, and the creative staff talked about pulling in a lot of Takashi Shirogane's traits from Go Lion that never really carried over to the American Voltron.

It sounded good, but until I saw it play out it would only be good intentions, and I'd seen good intentions before.

There's a lot to like about Voltron: Legendary Defender, but for me personally, I was most happy to have Shiro, whose full canonical name in the show now isTakashi Shirogane (you can see it on the news in the flashback when Pidge is learning about the Kerberos incident).

It is so rare to have an Asian team leader in an American-produced show, where the series isn't about being Asian. Shiro's heritage never comes up and I'm happy. The focus is on fighting an alien tyrant and becoming a team, none of which requires that the team leader be Japanese.

Which makes it all the more important that he is.

A character shouldn't be defined solely by their ethnicity and this is a role that Asians seldom get.

Shiro doesn't fall into stereotypes. Though he knows martial arts, everyone on the team does so that's no big deal. He doesn't speak with a funny accent. He's not the nerdy Asian boy. Character design-wise he's broad-chested and the tallest member of the team. Those are not traits commonly assigned to Asian characters!

This confident guy in the middle? The obvious leader? Totally Asian.

And I'm admittedly a sucker for guys with a strong sense of duty, so as a character Shiro pushes all the right buttons.

He's not entirely the Sven I remember from childhood, but I find I love Shiro just fine.

Okay, maybe there are some things about him that haven't changed.

I have to admit, then when I saw Shiro crossing his arms and leaning against the wall, I immediately thought of Sven, because he did that so many times in what few episodes he was in.

Considering how much Asian media gets distorted and changed when adapted and brought to the US, it's amazing to actually see a previously adapted character restored and made closer to the original.

They could have named him anything when they changed his ethnicity back to Japanese, but the fact they specifically chose Takashi Shirogane means something, and I appreciate that.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Fire Emblem Fates' Child Problem

I've been playing Fire Emblem Fates as a creative recharge and plan to write a dissection of the story as I've done for other RPGs, but there is one secondary game component that I figured was worth its own separate discussion, and that's what I'm calling its "child problem."

As I mentioned when writing about Fire Emblem Awakening, one of the unique things the game did was how the children of characters who married in the first generation went back in time to save the lives of their parents, resulting in two generations of characters fighting side by side on the battlefield.

The marriage plus children feature was hardly required for beating the game, but went over so well with the player base that it was kept almost entirely intact for Fates. But the problem is, going back in time to save their parents was woven into the main narrative of Awakening's story and Fates doesn't bother with the same trick (nor should it, since it would be contrived to figure out a convincing way to do it a second time).

So instead we have the introduction of the Deeprealms.

Under the justification that it's too dangerous to have the children raised at home, their parents send them to the Deeprealms, essentially pocket dimensions in the Astral Plane (presumably with some attendants to watch over them). But in a surprise that no one expected, time passes differently in the Deeprealms than in the regular world, which causes the children to age much faster during the time they're away.

Now, it's not like their parents sent them away and found out the next day they have teenage children. The narration (and subsequent dialogue during recruitment battles) make it clear that the parents visit their children from time to time so even after finding out about this crazy accelerated aging, apparently no one cares whether or not their children largely grow up without them.

Though some of the children rightfully chew out their parents for being away, it's a little surprising the group as a whole aren't more resentful for having been left behind. More than a few eventually break out of the Deeprealms and go to their parents' world on their own, though usually this isn't out of a desire to seek out their parents so much as they're teenagers now and more likely to bend the rules.

Compounding this is that player's base of operations is already on the Astral Plane and cannot be touched by the enemies they're at war with, so it seems ridiculous to send the children even further into the Deeprealms. The garrison does get invaded from time to time by otherworldly entities, but so do the Deeprealms, as we find out during the recruitment missions, so I can't say they're much safer.

The cynical min/max gamer in me considered that the kids are intentionally being left there to grow into adults, because once they're old enough, they can join the army! But this is not actually borne out by parent/child dialogue. (Though it is part of Nintendo's selling point if you watch this promo video at the 0:52 mark.)

Involving the Deeprealms rather than time travel, also results in some weird time dilation as to just when in the story the parents ended up having time to manage pregnancies.

In Awakening the only characters who have a child during the story itself are Chrom and his wife, and the pregnancy and birth happen during a two year time skip. The rest of the children have not been born yet, which is fine, since they're coming from the future.

As other couples marry in Awakening, side missions appear on the map, but the underlying assumption is that the children have already arrived from the future. It's just they have not been located until this time. This bears out with characters like Laurent, who says that he actually arrived a few years ahead of everyone else, which is why he now appears to be older than the other children.

In Fates there is a similar BAM! Instant children! recruitment mission right after a couple gets married, but since the children are being raised in a sped up timeline rather than coming from the future, that means that all the women (who are currently soldiers in an army no less) have somehow managed to get pregnant and take a leave of absence in a ridiculously short period of time.

To give an idea of how this played out in my game, my female avatar married Silas at the end of Chapter 14 in the Conquest storyline, which was right after completing a difficult mission and they returned to Nohr before the start of Chapter 15, which means that there actually was downtime in the story when they weren't on the march.

I don't think that it was two years' worth of downtime, to allow for their children Sophie and Kana to be born, but it could have been, so narratively I could buy it. Wars could drag on for years and this could have been one of them. But on the other hand, they could have gotten married between two chapters when the army was on the move, and the kids would have appeared anyway!

Which should result in awkward conversations. For example, in Chapter 16, Xander, the adopted brother of the avatar, returns and asks how things have gone since the last time they met (around Chapter 10 or so).

I kind of pictured the conversation going like this:

Xander: Well met, little princess. I hope I have not missed anything important.

Avatar: Oh, nothing much. I got married and now you have a niece and nephew.


Avatar: They're also teenagers because I sent them off to the Deeprealms for some accelerated aging.

I understand having the children in Awakening was a nifty feature, but part of the reason was for the narrative. It was a unique twist and involving the player's decision-making in who got married to who was solid gold for shipping fans.

But shoehorning the second generation into Fates feels tacked on, since the plot makes no mention of their existence. Considering that most of the major characters are royalty and you'd think that succession would be a big deal, it's incredibly weird that someone like King Garon wouldn't comment on having a grandson by Xander or comment on who Xander chose to marry.

Chrom in Awakening, who was royalty, had a limited set of potential partners, probably to prevent him from marrying someone who would be considered too far out of left field for a queen. Xander, on the other hand, can marry the majority of marriageable female characters in the Conquest storyline, with only his blood-related siblings being ineligible. In my playthrough, he ended up taking the former assassin Beruka for his wife.

I figure they don't have much in the way of bedroom conversation, but damn if they didn't make a fantastic wrecking crew on the battlefield.

Going back to the topic of time dilation, this also creates something strange in Xander's particular case, being the crown prince of Nohr. From his parent/child conversations with Siegbert, we can see that he's concerned about making his son into a good heir, but when you consider that they're physically no more than ten years apart in age by the time Siegbert joins the army, it's unlikely that Siegbert would spend much time ruling at all. Barring accidents, Xander isn't likely to die much ahead of him, making his son's reign a very short one.

Maybe it's because I'm older now, but it feels like the person who wrote the Deeprealms parts of the game either doesn't have kids or know someone who has them.

For gameplay purposes it's fun mixing and matching the parents and looking at the kids that come out of the relationship, but I'm not entirely sure the game needed that. I would have been fine if they had left the support system in (since it has been a Fire Emblem feature for several games now) and just stopped it after marriage.

The kids generally forgive their parents for the bone-headed decision of having left them to grow up alone in a speedier timeline, but it just feels like all that trouble was ultimately unnecessary from a storytelling perspective. And I still would have liked to see how the pregnancies were managed while on the march. I mean, seriously.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Breaking Down Amnesia: Memories - Part 6: Joker World

Initially Amnesia: Memories seems like a strange experiment with four different realities where the player is a particular girl who wakes up with amnesia and has to find out who she was; simply variations on a theme.

But after playing the different storylines, and particularly if the player hits a few bad endings, it becomes apparent that there is more going on.

A mysterious character called Ukyo shows up in all routes, though he's not always named and does not always have much interaction with the protagonist. However, some of his conversations make it clear that they have met before before and allude to him having existed in multiple realities.

It's only after getting the good endings for all four initial love interests that the Joker world unlocks, and there's a good reason for that. The effectiveness of Ukyo's storyline depends on the player knowing what has happened in other worlds, even if the protagonist has less of a clue.

Unlike most storylines, Ukyo does not start out already in a relationship with the protagonist and cryptically comes and goes, leaving warnings about danger. His warnings are not to be disregarded. Doing so quickly results in the protagonist getting killed, giving him more bad endings on his route than any other love interest.

Oddly enough, there is one bad ending where Toma goes psycho and locks the protagonist in a cage to protect her again. (Really? Did we have to revisit that?)

Ukyo's route also dispenses with a lot of the introductory stuff that the other storylines do. Though there are still some elements of the protagonist trying to find her memories, depending on player choices they can be oddly sparse in this world. The game also throws its entire cast of characters in this route, giving them all a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight, which works best with the player already knowing who they are and what their personalities are like.

In a way it feels like a last hurrah, because the game knows this is the last route and the player's last chance to spend time with these characters. I admit I did particularly like the shaved ice speed eating contest between all the love interests, culminating in Shin getting a case of head freeze due to trying to win. He might act like he doesn't care, but he sure does.

In fact, if the player doesn't make a point to seek out Ukyo, there are a ton of alternate events on this route, more than any other, where the protagonist and the rest of the cast can just be friends. Ukyo's route is one of my favorite realities because of it. Everyone knows everyone else, and even the Ikki fan club president (who's a bitch on all other routes) is a decent person.

Ukyo's route is a little frustrating to play though, because we know he has the key to everything (or almost everything), but he refuses to get close to the protagonist, claiming that he's dangerous, even as he's giving whatever information he can to protect her. His behavior is maddening, especially since the protagonist can barely remember anything about him.

When he visits her in her apartment, he handcuffs himself to the table and gives her pepper spray, a stun gun, and a safety whistle to use in case he gets out of control, which is comical in how seriously he wants her to be able to defend herself against him.

It's not without reason, as the player has seen Ukyo in other worlds and is aware of his split personality. Depending on player choices, his more malicious persona emerges from time to time and that one is clearly not the protagonist's friend. One side of him wishes the protagonist well, the other wishes her harm (and even kills her in some endings).

As a result, the pacing of his story leaves something to be desired, as Ukyo's cards are played far too close to his chest, but what eventually unfolds is a hopelessly romantic story. I won't say that Ukyo's is my favorite route, but it's the only one I cried over.

Ukyo's world is not the "original" world, but it's the one that the Ukyo we know originated from, and Amnesia is not a story of alternate realities so much as many realities.

Joker world Ukyo lost the protagonist in an accident on August 1st, with her eventually succumbing to her injuries on August 25th. His grief and his wish for her to survive drew the attention of Nhil, a god from between worlds who is also Orion's master. Nhil gains power and sustains his own existence from granted wishes, so he wanted to grant Ukyo's wish, for Ukyo to witness a world where she survives past August 25th.

Nhil can't revive the dead, so he merged with Ukyo, making him semi-immortal, and the two of them went reality hopping to find a world where Ukyo and the protagonist could live together beyond August 25th. But they found that he didn't exist in any other reality with her, and if he tried to join a reality where he didn't exist, the world would realize there was a foreign influence and kill him to correct itself by the day of her death (preventing him from seeing whether or not she lived).

These were some of the worlds that the player previously played through. Ukyo began to give up hope, always traveling to a world, always dying by August 25th, but still wanting to see the woman he loved even if she found happiness with someone else. His despair gave birth to his split personality, the part of him that resents dying just so he can watch her live. (And most of Ukyo's deaths are pretty horrible. When the world corrects itself, it's not nice.) His other personality learns that if he kills the protagonist in a given world by August 25th he gets to live in her place, though the sane part of him always departs for another world after recovering himself.

Orion's accident, where he bumps into the protagonist in the prologue, seems to have been an unconscious bid on his part to fulfill Nhil's wishes and find the woman that Ukyo was searching for, which is how the whole amnesia thing starts, even though it's not directly related to what Nhil and Ukyo are doing.

Finally, Nhil decided to make one last gamble and used the remainder of his power to rewind time in the original Joker world to give Ukyo a chance to save the original protagonist that he loved, and he resets the clock to the start of July, a month before the protagonist's death, so Ukyo can prepare. Because this also rewinds past the day they started dating, there are no memories of them dating for her to recover (though she had met Ukyo originally in March, so she does recover the memory of having seen him).

Because Ukyo is aware of the protagonist's eventual fate in Joker world and his own split personality, he behaves differently and keeps his distance from her so he doesn't accidentally kill her before the 25th. Ironically on his part, the only way to get the good ending is to ignore all of Ukyo's warnings about staying away from him and become as close as possible.

Though he does save her from the initial accident on August 1st (assuming the player listens to his warning not to go somewhere), the world spends a crazy amount of time between the 1st and 25th trying to kill the protagonist and correct the fate that didn't happen. It's only because Orion is merged with her that the world doesn't seem to be able to pinpoint her well enough to close in for a complete kill.

The final day of Ukyo's route is pretty frantic, because by then the protagonist has pieced together that Ukyo intends to die in her place, and the world is going haywire with freak weather, mechanical malfunctions, a fire, and more to kill her. And if that wasn't enough, Ukyo's other personality tries to murder her in the final minutes before the clock strikes midnight.

I wasn't really sure what was going to happen.

But Ukyo stabs himself to prevent his other personality from killing her, giving her a reprieve long enough for the clock to roll over to midnight. Knowing that she has survived to August 26th, Ukyo's wish is granted.

A good chunk of the backstory comes out at this point (they really saved everything up until the end!) including that Ukyo has killed her in other realities, and the player is asked whether or not they forgive him.

For me, it was a no brainer. If you want tragic, suffering romance, Ukyo is the poster boy for it. It's an uneven route and filled with a lot of instant death pitfalls, but if one doesn't mind an info dump for a reward and knowledge about how this whole scenario started, it's a fitting capstone to Amnesia as a whole.