Monday, April 25, 2016

Breaking Down Amnesia: Memories - Part 1: Intro

My Hakuoki post series is still the most popular ones people stumble across, so I figured why not do another with Amnesia: Memories? This first post will have only minor spoilers, and look at what makes Amnesia different from others of its genre, but over the next month I'll go through each of the five paths and break down what I thought of them.

Amnesia: Memories is an otome visual novel, what is sometimes referred to as a dating sim, though that label is not quite true. It's really more of a choose-your-own-adventure book that happens to be a computer game with voiceover and visuals. Otome is geared at women, meaning that the protagonist is female and usually has male romance options (some indie otome will have female romance options as well). Visual novels in general do not have to have romantic elements.

For those already familiar with the otome sub-genre, Amnesia: Memories is a little different. Usually you start the game naming your protagonist, who probably has a default name in case you're lazy, and over the course of the opening hour or two you meet most if not all the potential love interests.

Through choices, that may or may not be obvious, the player ends up spending time with the different love interests, getting to know them, and is eventually locked into a "route" where their love interest is set.

Depending on the game it may branch when this happens, making for a different story on every route, or it may run through largely the same plot with variations depending on who the love interest is.

Choosing who to have a romance with is typically aided not just by the story, but by the voice actor casting and the character designs, so the player will have a fairly good idea of what a love interest is like and the kind of relationship her protagonist is likely to have.

Amnesia upends a lot this.

During the prologue the protagonist is informed by a fairy-like spirit that he accidentally collided with her, pushing her memories out of her mind and trapping himself in their place. Worse, her consciousness has been bumped between worlds and there are multiple realities the protagonist could have originally come from. Orion, the spirit, tells her to pick the one that draws her the most and she will go back to that one.

The worlds are identified by suits from a deck of cards; Heart, Spade, Clover, and Diamond (I guess Club wasn't fancy enough). That's all the player gets to make their decision. There's no looking at the men or getting to know them beforehand, and each world gives the player a different love interest.

It's kinda ballsy to lock in the player before they even meet them, but it makes sense in a storytelling fashion, since the protagonist has amnesia and doesn't remember her boyfriend or if she even had one.

From a player perspective it's a little more dicey since the love interests are usually a diverse group to increase the chances that there are one or more the player will like. It's entirely possible to end up playing a route that doesn't tickle a player's particular fancy.

Since I was anticipating the game before it came out, I already knew what the love interests looked like and a little bit about them (bios from the official web site, gameplay trailer), so I didn't choose my first world completely blind. The character designs incorporate the suit the love interest represents, so I made an educated guess on whose storyline I'd have the most fun playing.

From there, the player is tossed in a world the protagonist has no memory of, and has to recover her memories without letting on that she's actually an amnesiac, lest someone take advantage of her. Since it's magically-induced amnesia, getting professional help is not considered an option as she needs to see and do things important to her to trigger memories.

Amnesia makes an unusual narrative choice that I've never seen in an otome, or any visual novel really, in that there is no narration; only dialogue. Usually the protagonist also serves as narrator, telling the player what they observe, and making comments about their situation. It's a useful way to get information to the player and gives the audience some idea of the protagonist's personality.

Since Amnesia forgoes this, the game uses Orion in its stead to feed the player information about their surroundings. This turns out to be a fantastic choice for two reasons:

  1. It really makes the amnesiac protagonist a blank slate for self-insertion. Outside of rarely spoken dialogue and player choices, her conversations with other people are implied rather than spelled out. We see their response, but not what she said, leaving it up to the player to decide how she said anything.
  2. Since Orion is a separate character, the player is free to have a different assessment of the situation than he does and there are even dialogue choices to disagree. I really liked having opinions counter to what I was being told and still feel like everything I concluded was valid.

There haven't been many prominent otome games released in English (most are indie or mobile productions, or both), so I can't say if how common it is, but Amnesia at least feels more risky to me in that one of its routes is seriously messed up.

There is usually a sort of bad boy route that can be taken on later playthroughs with someone who may actually be the villain, or is of questionable morals. Amnesia may be the first to prominently feature a dysfunctional love interest among the default. This one route is potentially triggery and I'm surprised that Amnesia got away with a T rating from the ESRB because of it. (He doesn't just cross the line, he's speeding on a motorcycle when he does it.) I'll discuss his route in a later post, but would not give Amnesia to younger teens because the start of his route is nothing like where it ends up, and it's creep city.

Monday, April 18, 2016

More Whitewashing, More Facepalming

When the week started I wasn't certain what Monday's blog post would be, but then Hollywood did a one-two gut punch to all Asians, and suddenly I have something to talk about. I suppose it's no wonder that movie theaters have largely lost me as an audience. It's a good year if I see more than two movies in the theater.

I do, however, watch a fair bit of streaming media out of Asia, both live action and animated.

I wrote before about how it's easier for an Asian American to go to Asia and become a successful performer outside of their birth country, because their birth country won't accept them and their dreams. Asians are not "believable" in certain roles. And apparently, even the roles Asians can play, can easily be supplanted by white people and Hollywood still thinks this is a good idea.

There is no facepalm strong enough for this.

So, the two things this week are the Doctor Strange trailer, featuring a very white Tilda Swinton playing an elderly Tibetan man, and the first released image of Scarlett Johansson as "the Major" in Ghost in the Shell.

Even though the Doctor Strange punch came first, it didn't hit me that hard since I wasn't paying much attention to the movie in the first place. Or at least it hadn't until I saw this screenshot of all the non-Asian dudes pretending to be Asian:

Really? They couldn't cast a single Asian for that shot?

What bothers me more is seeing Scarlett Johansson as the Major, probably because its an adaptation of a beloved manga and anime; something that Hollywood has a terrible record at doing. And if you want to understand why Ghost in the Shell, despite its cyberpunk trappings, is not a simple cut and paste into western culture, you need to read this excellent set of tweets by Jon Tsuei. Keep hitting Read More until you get to the bottom of his main line of thought.

The part that bothers me the most (being Asian, but not Japanese) is that the studio is clearly intending to keep the look of the series, but while white-ing it up.

The fact that Scarlett Johansson is in a black wig that makes her look like Makoto Kusanagi, means that they want her to look like an iconic Japanese character. I'm not sure they're actually keeping the Kusanagi name (as most outlets I can find seem to refer to her character as "the Major"), but if they want a performer to look like Kusanagi they should damn well make her Japanese.

I know things change in adaptations. I'm not a diehard that needs everything to be exactly the same as the original, and I suspect that if they made her character Major Liz Gregory, set the story in New York, and gave Johansson her natural hair, there would have been much less eye-rolling. It wouldn't be the Ghost in the Shell anyone grew up with, but it could ask the same questions about the nature of intelligence while retaining its near future trappings. Yes, fans would complain about a Japanese story being set in the US, but at least it wouldn't look like whitewashing.

The Japanese novel All You Need is Kill was adapted into Edge of Tomorrow. People expected that Keiji Kiriya would be turned into a white character, and he was, but there was no attempt to make Tom Cruise look a Japanese man, and the movie went down well liked by fans. It was a good adapatation. I can be disappointed about the loss of an Asian role, but I can stomach that. Cruise's character, William Cage, wasn't trying to be Keiji Kiriya.

Right now, I am hoping that the live action major isn't keeping the Makoto Kusanagi name. The fact that yellowface sfx was even experimented with is terrible.

If this was what we had gotten, a Japanese woman, playing Makoto Kusanagi, I would damn well run out and see that movie, because that right there... That is Makoto.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Anime Talk: Magic Kaito 1412

At the time this is going up, I'll have been out traveling for the past few days and I didn't have time to come up with something I was comfortable posting, so instead I'm pulling out a backlogged post that never went live about a favorite anime series of mine.

My review of Magic Kaito 1412 went live at Diabolical Plots about this time last year, and at the time I really liked it a lot, but it's hard to say how much until time has given some perspective. And you know, it might not break any new ground, but it's still pretty damn fun. As someone said in the Crunchyroll viewer comments, "Magic Kaito is the show you didn't know you needed."

I certainly didn't.

It's cheesy, unrealistic, and soaked with unabashed wish fulfillment, but Magic Kaito's enthusiasm makes up for so much. Kaito himself is really what sells the show.

Teenage Kaito Kuroba is secretly Kid the Phantom Thief, and with the help of his father's friend (who plays Alfred to his Batman), he pulls off stunts and impossible thefts to search for the elusive Pandora Gem, which can only be revealed by holding a large gem to the moonlight to see if there is a second gem hidden inside that shines red. The men who killed Kaito's father are after the gem, believing that when Pandora is held to the sky it will shed a tear granting immortality.

Kaito decides that he will thwart them by finding the gem first, and then destroying it.

But Kaito is a trickster and loves the spotlight, so it's not enough to simply beat them to any gem that could possibly be the Pandora. He has to show off, sending advance notices of his thefts, and pulling off stunts that appear extraordinary, and sometimes they are, but are usually the result of careful prep work, much like any good performance.

One of the things that I love about Kaito is that unlike Batman, he's not consumed by his quest to avenge his father. Why he's doing this vigilante work does bother him from time to time, but he believes that isn't all there is to him, and there will eventually be a lot more to his life than being Kid.

Personally, I love seeing Kaito go about his prep work since it's something we don't often get with pop culture thieves, who often look like they just decided to break in one day and they immediately know how everything is set up. Kaito and his father's friend Jii are a two person operation which means that one or the other of them is doing the legwork and neither of them are fabulously rich (though Kaito seems to be upper middle class since his family can afford a two story house in Tokyo).

Though Magic Kaito 1412 performed well in the Japanese TV ratings, regularly beating anime shows like Dragonball and Pokemon that are more famous on this side of the Pacific, it's largely been overlooked in the United States.

Crunchyroll eventually licensed it, for which I'm glad, though it happened mid-season, which resulted in the show slipping in under the radar with little media coverage. Considering that Crunchyroll already had its sibling program Case Closed I'd like to think that the delay was due to contractual negotiations, but I can't help wondering if part of it also might be that Magic Kaito just doesn't register that well on our side of the pond.

Though Magic Kaito takes place in the same world and is older than Case Closed when it comes to the original manga, Kaito probably would not have become as famous if he had not become a much loved guest star in the Case Closed series, and Case Closed did not perform as well as its original US licensee had hoped. As a result, the series was discontinued with only one release of Kaito's TV appearances as Kaitou Kid ("kaitou" being Japanese for "phantom thief") and a single movie appearance.

Whereas in Japan, Case Closed has been on the air for an incredible 20 years and is releasing its 20th theatrical movie this April (it's an annual thing).

I would love to buy DVD or Blu-ray copies of Magic Kaito 1412, and heck, I'd like to spring for the Case Closed episodes and remaining movies where he appears, but not everything simulcast gets a physical release and I suspect that Magic Kaito continues to fly too far under the radar to be even a rescue license.

But I'd like to hope.

So I'm talking about it in hopes that others who like a good romp with a teenage phantom thief, or are just on the lookout for underappreciated anime, might check it out.

Until then, I'll leave this fan music video, mostly containing footage from Kaito's appearances in Magic Kaito 1412 and last year's Case Closed/Detective Conan movie. If you can't tell, he's the fancy one in the white suit, because a gentleman thief's gotta have style!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Interview at Flash Fiction Online

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have seen this announcement already.

My flash story "The Ancestors" has been reprinted in the April 2016 issue of Flash Fiction Online. This is its third publication, making it one of my most popularly reprinted stories, and this time I've been interviewed along with it!

Anna Yeatts asked some really good questions, and I managed to not stumble all over myself answering them!

There were a few redrafted answers though. Otherwise my interview probably would have ended up cluttered with way too much video games and anime. It's really hard to keep that out of my system. They were just so influential to me as a young writer and I've never grown out of either.

If you've ever wondered about my writing process, what to do when writing Asian when you're not Asian yourself, or were curious about what I was thinking when I wrote "The Ancestors" it's worth checking out.

Monday, March 28, 2016

This New Voltron Thing...

Everyone has that childhood show, where even though it hasn't stood up to the tests of time, it's still full of fond memories.

For me, that's Voltron. It aired at 3:30 in the afternoon, so I could watch it if I got home from school in time. It even aired in the mornings at 7am, and my mother would tape it on VHS if I was diligent about my piano practice (though I was disappointed to find out the morning Voltron was the vehicle team rather than the lion one).

At Wondercon this year, a lot of information on the latest incarnation of Voltron was coming out, and having been a long time fan, it's hard being upbeat about any new Voltron media. It's had a terrible track record updating itself.

Voltron: The Third Dimension made a good effort to reach out to fans in those early days of the internet, but good intentions and even the presence of half the original cast and one of the original writers couldn't fix a clunky script or the fact that computer animation was just not ready at the budget they were willing to work with, resulting in characters who were wooden in both personality and movement. (I specify the budget because by the time it came out Square had already released the ballroom dance scene for Final Fantasy VIII and it was light years ahead of what The Third Dimension was doing, so the tech definitely existed.)

Voltron Force was better. I could tell the writers really loved the original, and they likewise communicated with long time fans, but the addition of the three teenage sidekicks, one of whom was a bona fide Voltron fanboy, resulted in a show that was perhaps trying too hard to bring a new fanbase up to speed on the original. While I loved seeing Sven come back for an episode, listening to Daniel info-dump everything (and more) that a new viewer needed to know was tiring even for me. It was a precarious balancing act that never quite found its footing.

Dreamworks' new Voltron: Legendary Defender is going to be my third ride on the "Let's bring Voltron back" merry-go-round (not counting comic books), and I have to wonder, is it even possible to bring back that feeling from when I was a kid again?

Certainly enough people are trying.

One of the problems is that the original material hasn't aged well. Outside of major story arcs (beginning, end, and maybe two or three multi-parters in the middle), it's a very by the numbers show. Zarkon or one of his followers hatches a plan, a robeast shows up, Voltron is formed, and then the robeast dies on the blade of the Blazing Sword. All in under 25 minutes.

I am a bit hopeful for the Netflix/Dreamworks version for a couple reasons though:

1) Unlike the other series which have tried to be sequels to the original, the Dreamworks version is going to be a reboot. This allows new fans to get in without the burden of getting up to speed on the original. After watching the previous two series try to accommodate existing canon, I think this is the best option.

2) The producers and the animation studio previously worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, which played very well to both older and younger audiences. They might be able to better bridge the gap to engage older viewers without alienating kids.

The one decision that stands out at me though is what they did with Sven.

In the original Japanese GoLion, Sven is killed off early in the series, but in the American dub, he's shipped off to another planet to heal and returns later in the series as a scavenger who eventually falls in love with Princess Romelle and helps lead the ground forces in the attack on Zarkon's castle (the returnee is actually his younger brother in the Japanese version).

For someone who is absent most of the series, Sven is a rather popular character. For both The Third Dimension and Voltron Force the common question that came up while the shows were airing is "What happened to Sven?"

Since he's no longer one of the five pilots it's understandable that sequel shows did not have an easy way to accommodate him as a recurring character without also bringing Romelle into the picture (since Sven went to live with her on her planet rather than return to the Voltron Force in the second season). Voltron Force managed a guest appearance with him and without Romelle, but then awkwardly gave him a son, which brought up the question of who the mother was. (One of the scriptwriters later confirmed it was Romelle, but that they didn't have room to introduce her as well.)

Rebooting everything changes this, and I am cautiously hopeful that they do intend to do more with Sven.

It would have been hideously easy to have cropped Sven out of the reboot. Or to kill/incapacitate him again. But oddly enough, they renamed him, which seems an odd measure to take for a dead man walking.

He's Shiro in the reboot, after his original name Takashi Shirogane (Shirogane being the last name), and news sites are reporting that the story will focus on "Keith, Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro" which makes him sound like he's part of the main cast. His voice actor is in the same promo shot as the VAs for the other four pilots and Allura's is not, even though she is the Blue Lion pilot for most of the original series.

It's encouraging that the production staff seem to have consciously rolled him back to Japanese to avoid having a bunch of white dudes. I have no problem with this, no matter my childhood fondness for the American dub. Of all the original pilots, Sven always came across as more Asian than the others. If you watch Sven's duel against Haggar in the original episode 6, his concentration sequence is very much out of a martial arts movie.

Less encouraging is that reboot makes him the team leader. On the one hand, yay, there is an Asian dude as the team leader, but on the other, everyone knows Keith is the leader of the Voltron Force, so it likely means bad things in store for Shiro to make that hand-off happen. This is not the first time Sven's been placed in charge of the team (Brandon Thomas's Voltron Year One comic also makes Sven the team leader), but that was a prequel. People are going to expect to see Keith in the driver's seat and I'm not sure how long he'll be second fiddle.

My hope is that due to the name change and extra attention paid because of it, Shiro will not be killed/sent off to heal where he disappears the majority of the series. Perhaps he could be incapacitated long enough that Keith has to take command and they eventually leave that as the status quo, but this is an opportunity to do more with a beloved character.

I realize that keeping him on the team would also make it an all dude Voltron Force, which is not ideal either, but he doesn't necessarily have to be a pilot. Just keep him around. Give him other things to do. He's a capable guy. And if there's a season 2, let him meet Romelle again. It'll be fun.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Zero Time Dilemma First Trailer Out

I rarely play games close to release due to having a large backlog, but if there's one game I'm likely to play right away this year, it's Zero Time Dilemma, the third and final game of the Zero Escape series.

The new trailer came out last week and despite being perhaps just a bit overdramatic, it sets up the stakes for what we expect to see in a Zero Escape game, though not why those events are happening (which have turned out to be different in every game).

The Zero Escape series features an unusual combination of visual novel and an escape room gameplay. Most of the story is told through narration and dialogue where the player has no control aside from making critical decisions. (In Zero Time Dilemma all dialogue is supposed to be voiced now, for less reading.) Then the player assumes control of the protagonist for the escape room segments where they have to explore a room and solve puzzles in order to find a way out. Anyone who's played a live version of an escape room game knows how these work.

As usual, Zero Time Dilemma features a case of nine characters trapped in a sadistic game where they have to make life and death decisions, many of which have consequences on the branching story.

New this time around though is that some of the consequences will be random. The example given at the latest presentation has the player deciding whether or not to shoot a gun secured at the temple of a trapped character. If they do not, a second character will definitely die. If they do, the first character has a 50-50 chance of getting shot in the head based on the number of loaded bullets. So the player could get lucky and have two survivors, get unlucky and have one, or choose not to involve luck at all and definitely lose one. The player is given ten seconds to decide.

Also new this time around is that the nine characters lose their memories after 90 minutes (the story being broken up into several segments) so that things can happen that the player has no clue about or how much time has passed. For instance, the nine characters are broken up into groups of three, and the player could wake up with only two characters with no idea how they lost one.

I'm pretty sure Zero Time Dilemma will follow a non-linear form of storytelling like Virtue's Last Reward where everything only comes together once the player has enough information regardless of what order they got it in. (And that would lean heavily on what Sigma and Phi bring to the table after the events of the last game.) Though it hasn't been specified that the game would play out this way, I think it would be a head trip if the story fragments are actually experienced out of order, but the player is unable to distinguish that right away due to lack of information.

Either way, it'll definitely be interesting!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Schwarzesmarken: The Anime Set in 1980s East Germany

One thing I like about watching anime is that they sometimes pick unusual time periods and countries in which to set stories, and rather than getting an American-centric view of the setting, we have it filtered through Japanese eyes.

Schwarzesmarken is one of the series I've been watching this winter, and it's set in 1983, East Germany, during an alien invasion.

I'm not sure why this particular setting was chosen, but it's certainly a unique one. Even though Germany as a whole is normally considered part of western Europe, at this point in time the DDR (the Deutsche Demokratische Republik) is part of the communist Eastern Bloc.

In Schwarzesmarken the aliens known as BETA have landed somewhere in eastern Europe/western Central Asia and are making their march west. Poland seems to have already been destroyed, leaving East Germany as the shield that protects the rest of Europe from invasion. The BETA aren't the usual spaceship faring variety and if anything seem fairly unintelligent. Fighting them is like fighting giant bloodthirsty locusts. What they lack in intelligence they make up in numbers.

The story focuses on the exploits of the 666th TSF Squadron, nicknamed Schwarzesmarken, or Black Marks (though the German is left untranslated, as it was for the original Japanese audience). This being anime, their units of choice are mecha, and they're the best TSF unit in East Germany, often taking the most dangerous assignments.

But what makes this different from other series, is that the 666th is just the best in East Germany.

The writing doesn't always make the best use of the time period, and there are moments where the behavior of the series' characters feels very anime and/or Japanese rather than German, but the one thing it does well is present multiple dangers from multiple sides, and just how hard it is for the 666th to get their job done.

The first time this is presented well is when they participate in a joint mission with the UN to retake land in Poland. Unfortunately the scriptwriter/storyboard artist completely botched which part of the map was ocean and which part was land, resulting in a landing on the southern beaches of Poland. They did land in a real location, and you can see the map in the show matches the real world, except the ocean and land colors are inverted, and the invasion tactics dialogue is scripted to match the inversion.

Geographical errors aside, the joint missions shows what the capitalist west is able to put out in sheer firepower versus the communist east. West Germany and their American allies have much less practical experience fighting the BETA, but they're able to make up for a lot of it with long range ballistics that don't require their soldiers to get up close and personal with their mecha. The scrappy members of the 666th are so used to fighting on limited resources that their western Allies don't realize that they frequently get into melee range in combat and it nearly kills the 666th.

The series isn't just the members of Schwarzesmarken dealing with crappier tech and limited ammo, or that they're constantly under alien attack in a way the western countries aren't. By setting the series in communist East Germany, the squadron also has to deal with political struggles between the National People's Army and the Ministry for State Security (better known as the Stasi), and it's clear from multiple characters that no one wants to mess with the Stasi. Historically, they were among the most effective secret police to exist.

The soldiers of Schwarzesmarken live in the kind of country where one member of their unit is specifically a political officer who makes sure everyone else tows the party line. Even the middle of combat, the question is not what is best to win the battle, but what is best for the party.

Regardless of an alien invasion going on, the most dangerous enemies are human, and a lot of the 666th's difficulties can be chalked up to trying to deal with a system that doesn't always work or have their best interests in mind. But if they want to save their country, this is what they have to deal with no matter how they individually feel about it.

We don't really see how or where the timeline diverged from our world, since relations between East and West Germany seem particular frosty for 1983 (this was a period when they were getting closer in our world, with reunification being seven years away), but the series gets points for making choosing an unusual country for an underdog fight.

Schwarzesmarken is still streaming so I'm not sure what kind of ending it will end up having, but I'm guessing for something along the lines of a Pyrrhic victory. Since it's a prequel to the Muv-Luv series, I'm pretty sure the aliens are here to stay, so at best the 666th might stop them for a short while. But, given their capabilities I'm not sure they'll get even that. I do like rooting for them, for being undermanned, outgunned, and fighting for a country that alternately finds them useful or an inconvenient depending on who's currently in charge.

It's just that they're human, and there's only so much a small group of humans can do.