Sunday, August 11, 2013

Writing "The Held Daughter"

This story took a convoluted path into being. It started with a pseudo-Wild West setting I was building for a novelette which would feature characters from their world's equivalent of the Qing Dynasty. The novelette was written and I was pretty happy with how it turned out. So I figured I would write more stories in this setting.

At some point I came up with the idea of a "held daughter" (which does not exist in Chinese culture). I already knew that historically boys have been adopted in order to continue the male line, but as far as I know girls were still married off when they came of age. But I liked the idea of a girl being able to carry on the line if no male heirs were eventually born. She would just have to wait, and wait, until her parents stopped trying.

The original draft was going to feature a girl of humble means, who at some point in the story tries to console herself with the fact the Emperor had been a held daughter as well (the title "Empress" would not work for a female Emperor because in Chinese the word literally means "behind the Emperor").

And the story sat for a while. In the meantime I watched Bu Bu Jing Xin, a drama set during the early part of the Qing Dynasty to get a better feel for the costuming, the decor, the customs, etc. for that time period.

Shortly after finishing the series (which is a marathon tear-jerker by the last 3-4 episodes), I realized that my story wasn't about the girl who compared herself to the Emperor, but the Emperor herself, before she became Emperor.

It is one thing for a common girl to be held back from marriage when her father only has a single wife to producer heirs, but when one's father is the Emperor and can take as many concubines as he feels able, it becomes conceivable that he may never give up his quest for a son.

Because of "The Held Daughter's" origins in another story I decided to keep the Cantonese dialect for names and Chinese words. Taishanese, a close relative of Cantonese, is the dialect that was primarily used by immigrant Chinese during the time of the Wild West. However, Taishanese is not well documented since it was the dialect of the poor and in the words of one of my Chinese acquaintances the Taishanese are "the hick Chinese." Rather than invent spellings, I decided to go with conventional Cantonese.

As an additional bonus, Cantonese tends to be easier on the eyes and tongue for English speakers unfamiliar with Mandarin. (And as a personal bonus for myself, I am non-Mandarin Chinese and I like to represent the version of Chinese my ancestors spoke.)

I also would like to add thanks to my Aunt Sally for vetting all the Chinese names I used. I showed up at Christmas last year with a print-out (not trusting my handwriting) of all the names I wanted and she was able to approve or suggest changes on the spot.

"The Held Daughter" is currently available free online at Galaxy's Edge until the end of the month, after which it can be purchased in back issues of Issue 3.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Devil Survivor 2's Anime Adaptation - Choosing the Ending

Note: This was actually written last weekend, but I delayed posting because of the fortutious news that my new short story "The Held Daughter" went live. Since Devil Survivor 2 did not begin streaming free in its entirety for general audiences until this past Thursday, I don't think the timeliness of the post was hurt much.

Devil Survivor 2: The Animation finished airing last Thursday. Though it's not one of the Spring 2013 anime season's clear winners, it's popular enough to be in the top third of simulcasts that Crunchyroll was running.

But it has its flaws.

I was trying to find a way to talk about a series that has both struck a chord with me and driven me crazy without writing a massive essay, and while turning over the plot in my head I think I hit a major problem, so I'll talk about just that one, because it was probably the most important decision the writers had to make.

DS2:TA is based on the Nintendo DS RPG Devil Survivor 2, which is a favorite of mine. It's the only game in recent years that I've managed to play through a whopping four times in the space of less than a year. That just hasn't happened since I graduated college (though it did help that at one point I came down with the flu and couldn't do much else).

Part of the reason it's so replayable is that there are many variations of events and five different endings. It is impossible to do a perfect playthrough and see everything the first round just because of how the game is structured. Even allowing for the different endings, you just can't see everything. The clock in game just doesn't give you enough time. And that's part of the point.

The world has eight days until it ends and you can't delay the end of the world by doing side missions and making friends with everyone.

Devil Survivor 2 has 14 playable characters (but never all in the same playthrough) and each of them has different ideas on how to solve humanity's crisis. Who the player sides with among the possible faction leaders determines the ending of the game.

And therein lies the problem with the anime. It has to choose.

The protagonist of Devil Survivor 2 is a blank slate with no default name. The player names him at the start and all his dialogue is chosen by the player. He can be a silly guy who spaces out in tactical meetings and plays jokes on friends when the world is only days from ending. Or he can be a militant badass badgering his friends to toughen up.

It's possible to adapt a blank player protagonist into a successful main character in an anime series. Persona 4, based on a sister RPG, was done by the same director and did it beautifully.

But the difference between Persona 4 and Devil Survivor 2 is that the former series has all the main characters working towards the same purpose, so it's easy to give the protagonist a similar moral and motivational grounding. They're all on the same mission and so is the player.

In Devil Survivor 2 the cast shares the goal of stopping the world from being erased, but are divided on how to handle the rebirth of what remains.

The player will likely side with whoever's philosophy appeals to them the most. But the anime doesn't have five endings for its audience. Its protagonist has a name, Hibiki, and Hibiki is not a blank slate.

When I started getting acquainted with Hibiki I was irritated with him for being overly idealistic in an apocolyptic show, and plagued with far more angst than possible for him to express in game. Though the protagonist's dialogue is always player chosen, the general consensus of the other characters is that he's a very calm and collected individual who rises to the occasion. Hibiki eventually rises to the occasion, but never becomes calm and collected. He oddly feels like he was transplanted from the wrong anime series and dropped into DS2:TA.

But I wonder if it wasn't Hibiki's fault so much as the writers needed a character who would want the ending they went for.

The core struggle in the game is to survive long enough to meet with the otherworldly entity known as Polaris, who is the administrator of multiple realities, including Earth. Polaris has determined that humanity has lost its way and plans to erase the world and start over. But it's possible to convince Polaris to spare humanity and rewrite the world so that humanity has a guiding philosophy again.

This results in one character wishing to change the world into a meritocracy, and another wishing for the polar opposite with a world of equality.

There are other options too, such as killing or replacing Polaris, and of course the reset button that restores the world to what it was before Polaris intervened.

I was fairly certain the show would go for the Restorer ending (which it did) because it allows the world to be restored and for everyone who died in the mass destruction of Polaris's assault to come back to life as if nothing had happened. Everything is normal again, so on the surface it is the happiest ending with the least amount of death.

But was it the best choice?

I understand that certain endings just would not work. The general audience probably wouldn't like the Meritorious ending, because we want to root for a hero who helps people, and not someone who creates a new world order with a social hierarchy based on talent and ability, but there is a very big reason I did not go with the Restorer ending my first playthrough (even though it's the ending I would naturally gravitate to).

And that's because of Polaris.

Polaris doesn't die in this ending, nor are its desires fulfilled, ironically making it the ending where humanity is most at risk of being erased a second time. Hibiki is essentially asking for a second chance, to be given time to fix things without forcing change on others. Humanity continues to be divided and without a purpose and it seems all too easy that Polaris could decide at a later date "Well, that didn't work. Let's clean up this mess." Even Hibiki understands that.

Choosing an ending that leaves humanity in the greatest amount of future danger in exchange for rewinding time to the day of the first attack, means that the hero has to be someone who would make that choice, someone who would be idealistic enough to believe that a difference can be made in the eyes of an uncaring creator when he and his friends will be the only ones who remember how the world nearly ended.

Hibiki is that character.

Unfortunately, he's ridiculously so, to the point it's not even possible to play the main character that naively optimistic in game. He even wins his final battle in the anime through the power of friendship (I'm not joking).

And it creates this strange dissonence between how bleak the story is supposed to be and how Hibiki behaves. The world is being destroyed and Yamato, the leader of the secret JP's organization, is making tough calls to allow humanity to survive long enough to face Polaris. If it means sacrificing one city so others may survive, he will do that. His decisions are harsh, but his position demands it of him. Hibiki would not have survived until the end of the series if not for Yamato.

But Hibiki constantly butts heads with him. Granted, Yamato has terrible social skills so he doesn't make any attempt to get Hibiki to understand his point of view, but Hibiki makes no effort to understand either.

The result is a lot of wailing about how Yamato's tactics are terrible and unfair with Hibiki unable or unwilling to present any alternatives. The times Hibiki proves Yamato wrong are always with the one thing Yamato lacks; an idealistic heart that refuses gives up.

In another show, this would be all right. There is a place for idealism. But it's really hard to root for Hibiki when most of the time logic demands I agree with Yamato. In the final episode, even Hibiki admits that humanity wouldn't have made it as far as it had without him.

I personally would have liked to see either the Kingmaker or the Liberator endings. Since they don't involve reshaping human society, they would not have required a protagonist who the audience might be philosophically opposed to.

The Kingmaker replaces Polaris with a different otherworldly entity that loves humans, and he in turn creates a brand new world for humanity where they will be free and he will not interfere. It's happy enough, though presumably anyone who died wouldn't come back from the dead. Still, it's a win for humanity and people can live in freedom.

The Liberator is simply killing Polaris with no replacement. The characters return to a shattered Earth where they have to rebuild from what remains, which at this point in the story consists of three vastly reduced islands of Japan. It's a bit bleak, but humanity is completely free from outside interference.

Either one would be a permanent solution to the Polaris problem and would allow for a victory at some cost.

Devil Survivor 2: The Animation is streaming for free online at Crunchyroll. Though I have mixed feelings about it, it does have its moments and the action scenes are well done.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Short Story "The Held Daughter" in Galaxy's Edge

My short story "The Held Daughter" is now live in Issue 3 of Galaxy's Edge! It's free for the two months until the next issue, after which it can still be read through digital copies sold through the likes of Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and others.

"The Held Daughter" is a fantasy set in a country inspired by the real world Qing Dynasty, where a princess is not allowed to marry until the emperor is certain that he will not have a son.