Monday, September 24, 2018

Thoughts on Persona 5: The Animation

Almost exactly a year ago I posted my RPG Talk entry for Persona 5. Though I enjoyed the game, I noted that the pacing was bad and the story was bloated, making my playthrough much longer than it had to be. I wasn't inclined to play the game again anytime soon.

So the best way to relive the highlights is to watch the anime, which is coming up on its final episodes.

Unlike the game, which can bloat without care for the player's time, the anime is restricted in episode count (there won't be more than 26 for a two cour show) so they have to practice some restraint.

I started catching up on it recently, and I'm still behind, but it's a much smoother ride than the game. Though it faithfully follows the same order of events, meaning that we have a regular pattern of getting new party members at the same time we get a new dungeon, it cuts out a lot of bloat by reducing most dungeons to montages of various shots with only key moments actually being animated. The new pattern is roughly three episodes involving the dungeon and the characters around it (most of the scenes being outside the dungeon itself) and then one or two episodes of filler during which the characters get to know each other and the protagonist, Ren, gets to have scenes with other Confidants who are supporting characters in the game.

The Persona 4 anime ended up implying the friendships being made between a bunch of its Social Link characters in a single "catch-up" episode (so it wouldn't have to dedicate an episode to each of them), but Persona 5 seems more intent on showing everyone as a person, so even secondary characters like Tae and Hifumi have multiple appearances in different episodes to establish them as part of the world before Ren goes diving into any personal stories.

Though I didn't think it's necessary, the show also put more focus on Akechi early, and makes it clear early on that he will get directly involved with the Phantom Thieves. I thought he showed up enough in the game that he was already important to me by the time he got heavily involved, but the newer scenes at least make his encounters with Ren in more comfortable settings than say the subway station on the way to school.

One thing I really like in Persona 5: The Animation versus the Persona 4 adaptation is that the characters are depicted using their weapons in combat. I thought it was really strange how Persona 4: The Animation more or less ended up with the characters standing around and yelling while their Personas did all the work. It oddly made it feel like watching Pokemon or Digimon, with its largely passive human trainers.

Persona 5 lets its humans get their hands dirty and actually watching the characters fight is much better than watching their Personas fight, as the Persona budget seems to have been mostly limited to a few very good-looking poses and magic attacks. I can't help feeling like the show doesn't know what to do with Makoto's Persona Johanna, which takes the form of a motorcycle that she rides. The other Personas can be safely animated hovering over someone's head, but Makoto is actually astride Johanna, which means that if she's doing something with her, like an attack, she needs to be in motion. And the result is kinda... meh. It's like the animator was obligated to have her move, but didn't want to put any more effort that they would for any other Persona that wasn't moving nearly as much.

But when it comes to the human characters, the action is good, and I don't mind that they're not constantly using their Personas. They also make a point of showing that the Personas appear from the Phantom Thieves' masks, so their masks disappear when their Personas are being used. It's something we know happens in the game from the cut scenes, but because of the size of the models, we don't really notice.

Also, the anime managed to integrate my least favorite part of the game in a very good way. I disliked Mementos for being a gigantic timesink with no main plot purpose up until the end of the game. It was a huge pain and required multiple trips over to avoid falling behind. Since the anime doesn't need to show every fight, it already had an advantage, but it also takes the trouble of introducing Mementos' mechanics, how it connects to the public consciousness, and how each level gradually unfolds with every increase in notoriety. Though the Phantom Thieves don't go there every episode, the show takes a few minutes here and there to remind the viewer that they are constantly exploring it, and that's a nice way to keep the dungeon in the minds of the viewers when they aren't actively slogging through it themselves.

I'm just over halfway through the series now, so it'll be interesting to see how it all comes together.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Changing Tabletop Game Systems

My gaming group has had a rough time with our current fantasy adventure campaign. Though we play a lot of systems to try them out, there was one campaign started about two years ago that is considered our "main" campaign, but even though we've played in it multiple times, it's been moving in fits and starts. We're older than when we first got together (two-thirds of our group started playing together at my first job out of college) and now people have kids and responsibilities. Instead of once a week, we now play once a month, and that's assuming nothing goes wrong, which it often does.

And then there are the game systems themselves.

We started our current campaign in Hackmaster (5th edition) because that's what our Dungeon Master wanted to try. He sold it to us as an updated remake of the older 1st and 2nd editions of Dungeon & Dragons with the kinks hammered out. I cut my teeth on 2nd Ed D&D. That was what I played in high school, so I was willing to give it a shot.

And though Hackmaster was a lot more granular than 2nd Ed D&D, it really did seem to capture the feel of it. I liked that everyone's stats were meant to be taken as rolled, with a few build points to do some customization afterwards. Best of all, I liked that all characters, even those with middling stats were considered playable, and they were! (Needing obnoxiously high stats just to be viable was my biggest beef with 4th Ed D&D. My 4th Ed group used a point-buy system and I went for what I considered "reasonable" stats and ended up missing with my sword more than half the time because a Str 15 on a cleric wasn't considered passing grade.)

My level 1 ranger came out of the creation system with mediocre rolls. His stats averaged a 10, and there was only one above 13. I probably could have pushed his stats up more with build points, but I spent a lot of them on non-combat skills because I love me some RP and he's based on one of my novel characters, which means that I wanted to have a lot of his personal history and skills represented in the game.

In 4th Ed, he would have been hopeless. In Hackmaster, his arrows were doing so much damage due to the penetrating dice mechanic that a car backfired in the alley next to us and we joked that was my character's shots landing.

We finished our opening adventure (which took three sessions and a hell of a lot more months), and got to level up, where we ran into a jam. It was difficult enough getting everyone to create their characters the first time around, but leveling up in Hackmaster required more effort than D&D since there are all these build points to go into feats, skills, stats, etc. I had fun with it, because I love customizing around a framework. (I dislike truly classless RPG systems, but give me classes and a ton of ways to customize them and I'm pretty happy.) But the rest of the group was not as enthusiastic.

So we changed systems, to make character maintenance easier for everyone, and we went from Hackmaster and its tons of customization to Dungeon Crawl Classics, which has zero customization, other than you can RP that you have the knowledge for something if it seems reasonable (to replace having a skill list).

There were a few problems with this transition. Our elf rogue turned into just a rogue as far as his class was concerned, because DCC is like playing original red box D&D where only humans get classes and all the other races are just elf, dwarf, and halfling. Our elf mage went with the elf class and suddenly could use swords, but our dwarf fighter was largely okay because the generic dwarf is pretty fighter-y anyway.

The biggest problem was that my character was a ranger, and that class simply did not exist in DCC, and shoehorning him into a fighter did not feel appropriate since they aren't built to be archers. So we found a couple fanmade ranger class write-ups and tried one of them.

It was terrible.

Aside from the fact that my damage sank into the toilet, I was missing, a lot. It was so bad I spent half a battle shooting and missing while we were on a boat, and it was only after the enemies got on board and I switched to a sword that I actually hit someone.

I told my DM that maybe we could further mod the class so I could get a power boost, since I was the only one suffering this badly from the transition. If my character had been this way from the beginning it would have just been a shrug and a joke, but knowing what I'd lost actually made my ranger a lot less fun to play. Frustrated, my DM decided to just chuck DCC as a bad fit.

Which brings us to our current system.

We came home to D&D, but it's now 5th Ed. This is my first time playing it, and I recreated my ranger, using the same stats from Hackmaster, and without the human racial stat boost, because my DM was afraid of what the dwarven stat boost would do to our overpowered dwarf, who decided to become a barbarian in this latest transition. (In universe the transition was pretty funny since we did it in the middle of a siege, so the dwarf went from axe and shield in chainmail to a raging dude in leather in a few minutes.)

I was skeptical this would work, given my stat pains in 4th Ed, and especially because my Hackmaster stats are below average for 5th Ed (which uses 4d6 drop lowest rather than a flat 3d6 with no rearrangement).

But I was surprised. The power I'd lost in DCC had come back. It helped that I was using the Unearthed Arcana version of the ranger (one of my group members heard it was improved over the one in the PHB and suggested I use it), which gave me advantages towards attacking first. Aside from that, 5th Ed adds a number of attack bonuses that I didn't have in the DCC version of the ranger (and bonuses I would have been hesitant to ask for). I was hitting more often than not and I was killing things again. I even had a nice AoE ranger spell that shot out thorns from where my arrow landed.

Suddenly I was something resembling a killing machine again.

We're probably going to stick to D&D from here out. Everyone knows the system to some degree, even if it's not in depth, and it seems everyone's found what they want to be. The elf rogue is now both an elf and a rogue again, and our elf wizard has settled into being an elf warlock, which he seems quite proud of. And I get to shoot things again.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Attack on Titan: Historia Choosing Her Fate

First, this post has spoilers for Attack on Titan Episode 45 "Outside the Walls of Orvud District," which aired yesterday, so if you haven't seen it yet, go watch it before coming back here, because I'm going to talk about something that happens at the end of the episode.

I've mentioned before that there were a number of changes from the manga to the story arc for Season 3 of the anime. This was mostly to punch up the pacing, but as a result, some scenes were removed entirely, resulting in lost motivations and smaller details that would have made later scenes (which were kept!) more effective.

One of those removed scenes was when Historia finds out that part of Erwin's plan is to install her as the new queen. Originally, this happens shortly after the team tortures the Interior Military Police and learns that the Reiss family is the true royal family. Once Erwin learns this, he realizes the military can use Historia to overthrow the current government, which is currently using a false king as a figurehead. With Historia, they can spin their coup as restoring power to the true royal family.

Levi, Historia's captain, receives Erwin's instructions and tells Historia that she's going to become queen. And if you know Levi, he's a bit of a jerk, and doesn't bother sugarcoating anything, so he has zero sympathy when she hesitates in the face of this understandably enormous responsibility. He get that it is a lot to take in, but he doesn't have the time, and this results in him physically grabbing and shaking her to get her to make up her mind. Though he stops short of immediately ordering her, he essentially gives her a few seconds to either get the hell out or he's going to make her queen whether she wants to or not.

Historia agrees, but it's not from a position of strength, as she's obviously rattled and looks at it as just another role to play. She's pretended to be a kind of person she wasn't before, so this is no different.

The anime initially removed this scene. Historia is not at the cabin when they learn the truth about the Reiss family because she has already been kidnapped. Thus she is in the dark about Erwin's plan to make her queen until she is eventually rescued several episodes later, and during this time, she has a fair bit of character development and finally figures out the kind of person she wants to be.

As the Survey Corps prepares to face the largest titan yet, Levi informs Historia that she is to become queen on Erwin's orders and her fellow squad members protest about forcing her into that kind of role. I was surprised to see this scene here, because Historia is now a different person at this point in the story, and Levi shaking her would undermine everything she's gone though.

Fortunately, the scene has been rewritten--for the better!

Historia meets Levi's order on her own terms and agrees to become queen, with the admonition to her squadmates that it is up to her to decide whether or not this role has been forced on her. Moreover, she places a condition on her agreement, which as manga readers can guess, it's that she will participate in the upcoming battle.

The following scene has Historia striding into the strategy room, fully geared for combat, to take her place by her squadmates, to a sweeping and inspiring theme by composer Hiroyuki Sawano, and all I really wanted to do was root for this girl. She's come a long way, and it's even better having her so proactively choose this fate for herself.

Most of Season 3 I feel like the manga did better, but this was extremely well done and the best change I've seen so far.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Escape Rooms Have a Narrative

I like escape rooms. The kind where you (and possibly your friends) are stuck in a room and have to find your way out. My first introduction was the old Crimson Room flash game, but I mostly cut my teeth on the Zero Escape series on the handheld video games systems (and now on Steam!). While I was playing solo, physical escape rooms gradually became more popular in the US to the point that there are probably over a dozen of them within 30 miles of me.

I haven't done those as much, owing to the fact that they require a group and I'm not the best organizer, but I've done three now, the most recent one being on Saturday night, which is what inspired this post.

At its most basic level, the story of an escape room is that you have to escape. But that's not enough. There should be a reason why you're trapped. A video game has plenty of room to explore this. The Zero Escape series is largely a visual novel outside of the escape room segments for this very reason. However, a physical escape room in the real world doesn't have the time to sit the players down for an elaborate story. Generally a "room" is actually 2-4 rooms in which a small team of players work their way through multiple puzzles and have somewhere between 45-60 minutes to escape.

Typically any given escape room entertainment center will have multiple rooms, each with a different theme. You might be trying to escape zombies in one, or a detective's office in another. This gives players some variety and sets the atmosphere.

It's also what provides the story.

And it's how I realized that I didn't get into my third escape room as much as I could have.

Last Saturday my friend had a birthday get-together and had never done escape rooms before so a group of us went to one where we needed to escape an insane asylum. (Completely not my choice. I don't do well with horror attractions.) When start time hit, we were led into the room and the attendant prepared to close the door behind us, which was my first instinct that something was off.

It was well and good that we were inside the room and about to start, and obviously nobody wants to be locked in an insane asylum, but what was the story? Why were we there? Why were we trapped?

We had a good time anyway. A couple of us really got into it and I now have my friend's most blood-curdling scream to treasure for years to come, but the ending was a tad anti-climatic, even though we escaped with 8 minutes to spare. The problem was that the rooms were escalating the notion that there was something very wrong about this asylum, especially with the creepy words written all over the second room and the bloody handprints in the third, but the third room consisted of a single, relatively easy puzzle with a single part which ended up giving us a key. Rather than opening up to a fourth room, it turned out to be the exit key.

And that was it. We didn't learn the fate of the crazy inmate whose room we presumably rummaging through. We don't know why there were bloody handprints. The atmosphere was just fine (hence the screaming from my friends), but I felt like something was missing.

That's when I looked back at the two previous rooms I had done and realized why I had enjoyed them more.

The first room I ever did was a haunted theater, in which we were informed that we were the new stagehands and we had been trapped backstage by a ghost. The only way to escape was to find and perform a ritual to release the ghost before time was up.

We went through the puzzles, freaked out when we found out there was a second room (being my first real world game I thought it would be literally one room), and with a minute remaining we finally had all the objects we needed, shouted the words to the ritual and shook around the various objects we'd gathered, and the game ended with seconds to spare.

It was a rousing way to end the game. We knew why we were in the escape room scenario, and we had a hell of a way to successfully end it as well. Everything we were doing was building up to a single moment, that ritual, which made for an excellent payoff when we finally performed it.

My second game similarly had a narrative opening and ending (though it was based on the Zero Escape series, so it obviously needed to tie in for the sake of the fans).

Even though an escape room largely serves as a series of puzzles for real world players, it still could use a story, and is made a lot better for it.

Monday, August 27, 2018

On Real Names

Last week, Kelly Marie Tran had an essay published in the New York Times about the harassment she experienced online for not being white. It's good. If you haven't read it, I suggest doing so do.

That is not the point of this post though. What I want to talk about is how she chooses to end her essay with the words: "My real name is Loan."

While Tran is Vietnamese rather than Chinese, it is common for people in several Asian ethnic groups to have multiple names; an eastern one in their ancestral language and a western one. Growing up, I called the latter my American name.

In my case, my American one is my legal one and the Chinese one unofficial.

For some of my friends, it's the reverse. Their Chinese (or Korean) name is the legal one and they use their American names in day-to-day conversation.

Generally, speaking, the American names are for ease of use. It really sucks repeating your name a half dozen times and listening to someone constantly butcher it as they make a valiant attempt to get it right. To me, both my names are real, regardless of which is the one that appears on a legal document.

A conversation came up on Twitter between Asian American writers about "real names" and what made a name real and how the term might not have sat well with them, because like me they have multiple real names, and it's not as though one of them is more real than the other.

But in Tran's case, without knowing her personally, I feel like the use of "real name" here is that if she had the choice, she might have wanted to be credited as Loan Tran, rather than Kelly Marie. But having an Asian name hurts more than it helps in Hollywood. Chloe Bennet is half-Chinese, half-white, and acts under a white-passing name because she could not get work under her legal name of Chloe Wang. For Tran, even if she used Kelly Marie regularly in day to day life, there probably wasn't much choice about whether she wanted to use it professionally.

I've written before about how hard it is for Asians to get entertainment work in the US. Many times they have to make a go of it in their ancestral country, and maybe if they get popular enough there, they can transition to doing work in English (like Daniel Wu). But that's not an option for everyone.

By saying that her real name is Loan, Tran wanted us to know that there was a part of her she felt she had to hide, and because of that she couldn't fully be herself. But she can now, and I hope she will. I want to see her in more films in the future.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians and Being Chinese American

I saw Crazy Rich Asians last week. I don't normally watch romantic comedies. It's just not my genre. But it's been ages since I've seen an Asian-led cast in English speaking media. (The last one I could think of was Better Luck Tomorrow, though most of the press has focused on Joy Luck Club since it was a major studio release.) Usually if I see that many Asians on screen it's because I'm watching something produced in China or Japan. But hearing most of the dialogue in English without dubbing?

That's unusual. And that's why I decided to go see the movie.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, since it was not as comedic as I feared. There was a fair bit of drama and I was in tears at the end, which was all good to me. I'm not sure how closely it adheres to genre convention since it's not my thing, but apparently other people enjoyed it as well, with both critics and the audience giving it a solid 93% at Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.

On the one hand, I'm relieved, because my Twitter feed had been bouncing with buzz leading up the movie and it would have been terrible if it just face-planted on launch. But on the other, I don't know that it'll actually lead to a renaissance of Asian-led media. That requires the people who greenlight these things to regard Crazy Rich Asians as the sign of a hungry audience rather than a one time anomaly.

But I saw a few things that really worked for me.

My family immigrated to the US starting with my grandparents. I don't really speak Chinese in any functional capacity. I just know a few words here and there. And my family's dialect is Taishanese, which is not taught anywhere, so learning it in school was never an option (and as a child I really wanted to!). So when the protagonist Rachel doesn't fit in because she's a "banana" being yellow on the outside and white on the inside, I really related to that.

Most of my Chinese friends growing up were from more recently arrived immigrant families, either being born abroad themselves or born from immigrant parents. They spoke Mandarin and to them, Mandarin was synonymous with Chinese. Though my friends didn't mind that I didn't speak it, there were a lot of awkward moments of visiting their homes and getting greeted by their parents in Mandarin and being told "Oh no. Laurie doesn't speak Chinese." Which was 99% true, but if they'd greeted me in Cantonese (which is closely related to Taishanese) I would have had a vague chance at understanding a word or two.

I read that at one point a producer wanted Rachel to be played by a white woman, and thankfully that was shot down. While that would also be a fish out of water story, it would have been tonally different, because a white character wouldn't feel an obligation to belong. But an Asian one looks like she should fit even if she is unable to do so, and that's something I understand very well, as I watch the bilingual language jokes go by on social media and realize that I'm incapable of understanding them even though my heritage says I should.

Not everything was alien though, or a remainder of how I don't fit. The sound of the language (not Mandarin--given that it's Singapore it ought to have been Cantonese or Hokkien), the clicking of the mahjong tiles (the parlor scene!), and the soundtrack (wow, the soundtrack) made me feel welcome and comfortable. And I loved the mahjong parlor scene. Even though I don't entirely understand the game myself, I know enough that when the scene started I knew it was face-off time, and there's a really good article about the particulars of scene from the perspective of those who play.

Crazy Rich Asians is not going to be everything to everyone, but even if it's not, I feel like it's something I've wanted to see. I just didn't know it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Spice & Wolf VR

I'm not entirely sure what a virtual reality anime is, but Spice & Wolf is getting one. It's one of my favorite novel series at the moment, for being a generally low key romance about a traveling merchant escorting a wolf goddess home.

There was a proper anime series a few years ago, but the adaptation stopped after the fifth book, whereas the novel series itself is over twenty volumes (and counting, even though by now Holo has gotten home).

So, the VR anime.

The visual is gorgeous and it's being written by the original author, Isuna Hasekura. But being VR, one of the things I figured is likely, is that the player would take on the role of Lawrence and interact with Holo. The reverse would be be unlikely, as would the possibility of the player interacting with both characters.

This is because Holo is the wolf goddess. She's cute and feisty, she's the face of the series, and she's on all the merchandise.

And it turned out that my original prediction was eventually confirmed.

But I think not having Lawrence does him a disservice.

Though I like Holo, I actually read the series for Lawrence. I love him as a male lead because he has very practical concerns and does a lot with what little he has. He can't fight, but somehow finds himself meeting demigods, smugglers, and soldiers, and yet every situation he gets into he (or Holo) manage to diffuse it without resorting to violence. That is, if those kinds of situations arise at all, since this is a low key series and the source of conflict is not always a grand one. Most of the time, Lawrence can solve the book's problems just by using his knowledge of the local economy. And, particularly for anime, he's not a complete idiot about romance.

Though Lawrence is a bit slow at the start, once he realizes that Holo likes him in return the series gets a lot more fun as he and Holo readily flirt with each other. Their banter, and constant trying to one-up each other, is a highlight of the series. Usually Holo wins, but Lawrence gets in his digs, and he's smart enough to realize when it's better to let something go rather than win for the sake of winning (sometimes Holo's comments bite because she's upset and hiding it). He spends a lot of the series trying to understand her and why they might not be seeing eye to eye.

Also, Lawrence has excellent life goals. After all this traveling is over he wants to settle down and open up a shop.

I find Lawrence incredibly endearing, and while he's not the sort of man one would expect to end up with a goddess, I can see why one might fall in love with him.

And that's why I'm disappointed that the VR anime is making Holo while the viewer is playing from Lawrence's perspective. It's clear that it's being made to appeal to heterosexual men, but for those of us who find Lawrence appealing as well, it's unfortunate.