Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing "The Nightmare Beast"

My first work-for-hire story, "The Nightmare Beast," is available now to the general public at Story Portals. This is not the first time I've written in someone else's universe (my story "By Whatever Means Necessary" was an Honorable Mention in the first of Blizzard's annual writing contests for their Starcraft/Warcraft/Diablo properties), but happily enough, it's the first time I've been paid to do so.

"The Nightmare Beast" stars an assassin named Katya, the lead franchise character over at Story Portals. One of the best, Katya finds herself on a variety of dangerous jobs over the course of the series. In "The Nightmare Beast" she finds herself meeting an old acquaintance who hires her unaware of who she really is. She's asked to assassinate a man and steal package he neglected to deliver to her client, but the job can't be that simple, can it?

Doing work-for-hire can be fun since a lot of the world-building is already done, I can just cut loose and write, and I was able to write the first draft much more quickly than I could my original work.

"The Nightmare Beast" was also my trial run using Scrivner. I don't normally do first drafts on computer anymore, since I find the lure of the internet to be too distracting, but I didn't want to write "The Nightmare Beast" in longhand in my notebook because it would end up getting mixed in with the novel project I was working on at the time.

Scrivner has a feature though that allows the entire screen to be covered with nothing but a big white sheet, reminiscent of a typewriter, that hides everything else in the background. At first I thought it was a silly feature, but when I used it, I found it really did do a good job of blocking out distractions. The only problem was that the "typewriter" didn't advance with every new line (I was using the Beta) so I was usually writing at the bottom of the screen instead of the middle.

I’m not a complete convert, but the program might be used another time in the future if I need to avoid getting my notebook cluttered with multiple projects again.

I listened to several songs to get into the mood for writing Katya. Songs used for "The Nightmare Beast" were "Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry, "According to You" by Orianthi, and "Who Knew" and "Please Don't Leave Me" by Pink.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

RPG Talk: Lunar: Silver Star Harmony

Platform: PSP
Year of Release: 2010

The original Lunar: The Silver Star holds a special place in my heart. I was sixteen, loving console RPGs, and at an age when games were finally powerful enough to start including complex stories and cinematic moments. Lunar was one of the first RPGs to feature a well developed cast of characters in a setting that was unique enough to not be just any old fantasy land and featured a plot with something more personal at stake than just saving the world.

It also featured the first RPG villain that I really felt sympathy towards. Until then all the villains I'd seen in games had been fairly cartoony or quite thoroughly evil. Ghaleon was amazing. He was a former hero who had a legitimate reason for hating the Goddess Althena. While I disagreed with his means, I could not disagree with his reason, and that cemented him as one of my favorite villains of all time.

Perhaps as a testament to the story's enduring appeal, Lunar: The Silver Star has been remade a number of times; Lunar: Silver Star Story, Lunar Legend, and now Lunar: Silver Star Harmony. With four versions now in existence, there are variations in how the tale has been told in each one, though the later remakes tend to follow SSS more than the original TSS.

I recently finished playing through Silver Star Harmony and there are some things to be appreciated considering that the game was brought over from Japan by the third company to localize it. Perhaps knowing that many of the people buying it would be players who remember it from childhood (seventeen years passed between the original TSS and the release of SSH) the names of the characters use the changes and spellings used by the original localization team, even when they did not match the Japanese.

Name changes are much rarer in RPGs now, with fans demanding fidelty to the Japanese as much as possible, but Lunar continues to skate by, and so Fiddy continues to be Quark, Killy is still Kyle, etc.

I was initially reluctant to buy yet another copy of the same story, but was convinced to open my wallet when I found out about new material added in. If there's anything the Lunar remakes have done, it's that they add their own tweaks and turns, as if to tell the repeat player this story really is a legend and there are many variations to it.

Comparing this to a more recent property, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony is much like Harry Potter in that the actions of the previous generation echo down into the present and nothing that happens now would have happened if not for what happened before.

Lunar has always had the Four Heroes in every iteration; Dragonmaster Dyne; the sage, Ghaleon; the pirate, Mel; and the heir to the magic guild, Lemia. Every version tells how Dyne went off on one final adventure with his best friend Ghaleon and never returned, and only Ghaleon knew what had really happened. (And no, he didn't kill him.)

Lunar: Silver Star Harmony Various

Silver Star Harmony's addition to the legacy allows the player to go through a new prologue sequence as the Four Heroes (image above). I wonder if this was perhaps an apology to fans who've requested a Four Heroes game in the past and never got one, instead getting three other games set in different time periods with different characters. The prologue is decently involving, its two boss fights surprisingly punchy, and features a fair deal of new "lore" in gaming parlance. We learn of a Black Star for the first time and finally know the name of the villain who made the Four Heroes household names.

Though there is an aside later in the game that refers back to the prologue, sadly I don't think the writers took as much advantage of the new material as they could have. The prologue villain Eiphel prophecizes that Ghaleon will fall the same way as he did, but there's only one other line of dialogue in the first third of the game that refers back to it. I would have liked Ghaleon to recall that warning at the end of the game to bookend with the beginning and it seems too good a writer trick to miss.

The rest of the game hews fairly closely to the first remake, Silver Star Story, though the dialogue may differ a bit.

The mysterious event that led to Dragonmaster Dyne's disappearance and presumed death, is what sets the story of Lunar in motion, and the main character, Alex, is a village boy who aspires to one day be a Dragonmaster like his hero. On his journey he meets the daughters of the Four Heroes Mel and Lemia, and the main cast is rounded out with a pompous young magican who is apprenticed to Ghaleon and a sleazy bandit.

Now that I'm older and no longer a teenager, what follows is decent enough adolescent quest to rescue a childhood friend who happens to be the key to Ghaleon taking over the world. The story is bright-eyed and optimistic, hearkening back to a simpler time when belief in the human heart is enough. Even when bad things happen, they are obstacles to be overcome and the heroes never completely lose heart, though they may at times falter.

The heroes are perhaps a bit unrealistic in their faith. Ghaleon certainly believes so, and not just because he's the villain. Lack of belief in the human heart is the cornerstone of why he fell (in the remakes). And that brings me to what really stood out for me now that I'm older.

Lunar: Silver Star Harmony Various

This guy here is Nash. He looks pretty sure of himself, doesn't he?

Nash is probably the least popular of the five main characters. It might be because he starts the game as an arrogant snotbag, overly proud of being apprentice to Ghaleon, the most powerful magician in the world. But it's mainly because of something else Nash does in all versions of the game.

He betrays the party. (Methods vary depending on version, but rest assured he will do it.)

I remember other players saying that after Nash betrayed them they never could forgive him. They didn't want him back in the party.

But the thing is, Nash is probably the most realistic of the main characters. The problem is that he doesn't fit in the mold of having faith and hope that somehow they will emerge successful. He betrays the party because he calls it as he sees it. Sure, Ghaleon isn't a nice guy, but fighting against the most powerful magician in the world, who is capable of single-handedly capturing or killing dragons and enslaving the goddess? It's suicidal.

Nash wants to live, and he wants to protect the girl he loves (fellow party member Mia). In Silver Star Harmony he sabotages the party's airship not just to prevent the group from attacking Ghaleon, but to prevent Mia from getting close enough to be killed.

That might make him out to be a misguided hero, but Nash isn't entirely selfless in this. There is a part of him that appreciates the idea of being special, of having a place in Ghaleon's new order. We find out midway through the game that Nash prizes status because he's from a peasant family and he wanted his parents to be proud that he became an elite magician.

Still, it's Mia that matters the most to him, and it's because he realizes that he's hurting her by fighting on the wrong side that he choses to come back to the group.

(As an aside: I much prefer the original TSS version of Nash's snapping out of it to the slapping Mia gives him in all the remakes since he comes to his senses on his own. It's visually less dramatic since there is no special sprite animation for it, but the guts it must have taken for Nash to return to the party, almost at the cost of his life and knowing they might not take him back, made a much stronger emotional impact.)

All the characters except probably Alex (who is as noble in the end as he was in the beginning) grow, but it's Nash who grows the most, saying that "We can't value people only for their power, magic, or wealth" in defiance of what he'd once believed.

He's a refreshing voice of reason, and once Nash was ready to believe in the power of the human spirit, I found I was too. He might not have been liked by a lot of players (in this forum poll he's in a three way tie across two Lunar games for least favorite--ouch!), and he's certainly not a character to aspire to be, but I wonder if players will find him more understandable, if not necessarily likable, with age.

If we were real people in the story of Lunar, I think a lot more people would be a Nash than an Alex.

Images courtesy of IGN, which amazingly enough provides links so external sites can embed their images.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"The Nightmare Beast" Now Available at Story Portals

My story "The Nightmare Beast" is now available for registered members at Story Portals (and registration is free!). It will become available to the general public in a week.

In "The Nightmare Beast," accomplished assassin Katya finds herself hired by an old acquaintance, who is unaware of her hidden identity as a killer-for-hire. But Katya is not the only one with secrets and the assassin soon discovers she's not the only one who's changed since they last met.