Monday, June 1, 2015

RPG Talk: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker

I finished Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker's Triangulum Arc this weekend and it was a real joy from start to finish.

Devil Survivor 2 for the Nintendo DS took its time earning my affection. At first I really couldn't decide whether I liked it or its older sibling, the original Devil Survivor more, but as a gamer, I suppose the proof is really in how much time you spend with a game, how hard you try to complete all the extras.

By that measure, Devil Survivor 2 ranks up there as one of my all time favorites, one of the games I would take with me if I was stuck on the hypothetical deserted island.

It's not that it's a flawless game, but it's delivers everything it promises. There's no throwing the game at the wall for story or game mechanics that come out of nowhere, and when you win a tough battle it totally feels like you earned it.

The cast is almost completely gender balanced, with seven recruitable males and six recruitable females (the main character is unfortunately set as male, which is too bad since he's player named). What this allows for is a wide range of personalities, and this is particularly noticeable with the female characters.

None of them are forced into the role of representing for the entire gender, so there's a lot of room for a variety of characters, and half of them hold positions of authority within the secretive JP's organization, whether as a doctor, researcher, or military officer. The artwork is unfortunately male gazey, but their behavior is not. The game easily passes the Bechdel test, and none of them are ever the helpless, whiny girl there to hold the team back. They're not all made of steel, but each one is fully capable of pulling herself together.

Though the cast is crowded with a total of 14 playable characters, each with their own subplots, it manages to do a fairly good job of it. The cast size is one of the reasons that I initially was unsure how much I liked the game, because there is so much game time spent getting to know everyone that DeSu2 loses the tension that ran through the first game, where time is very much a precious commodity you will never have enough of.

But now that I do know everyone, they're collectively one of my favorite casts in any game ever.

The Triangulum Arc is essentially a sequel storyline packed in with the original Septentrion Arc in the in the 3DS re-release, Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker. Atlus thoughtfully allowed for players to jump immediately into the new Triangulum Arc without replaying the Septentrion Arc, which I did.

Considering that the original Septentrion storyline had five different endings based on player decisions, I was curious how they were going to handle the Triangulum Arc, and they basically merged two of the endings to make a sixth that allows for the necessary storyline to take place (because it honestly wouldn't work in any of the five legitimately obtainable endings).

I found I didn't mind this, because that means that none of the original five endings are the "real" one, so any of them could be. (I founded a meritocracy with Yamato my first playthrough, so that's my headcanon.) To me, the Triangulum Arc is still just one possibility based on choices the protagonist might have made throughout the storyline, even though the player could not do so while in command of him.

But that doesn't mean it's not a good story on its own.

The Triangulum Arc starts after the world has been regressed to an earlier state, undoing all the damage that had happened during the Septentrion Arc, and introduces the new female character Miyako Hotsuin, who appears to have taken Yamato's place in the restored world.

Despite having saved the world from an otherworldly administrator beyond our reality, the world doesn't enjoy the peace that it should have, so the plot is rife with people trying to figure out what went wrong and why extradimensional beings are invading again. Worse, the cast is initially split up all over Japan because they had lost their memories in the restored world and the protagonist and his friends put a priority on reuniting the team.

As more and more of the cast join together, it's possible to see how they've grown since their ordeals in the the Septentrion Arc (the Triangulum Arc behaves as if everyone had lived and their subplots followed to completion). Friendships are stronger. They're better people than they were.

I loved spending another round of adventure with these characters, and due to the way time is managed in the game, I know I haven't seen even half of the sub-plot scenes. The fun part in following their new sub-plots is seeing what they plan to do with their futures now that they remember everything they did to earn them. They continue to grow and try to be better people than they were, while still remaining recognizably the characters I fell in love with in the first place.

The Triangulum Arc also feels more tightly written than its predecessor. I suspect a lot of this is aided by the audience and the characters already knowing each other, but it's also a shorter storyline than the original (though not as short as it would initially have you think). I finished in just over 40 hours, but I was definitely taking my time. Other estimates would place it closer to 25-30.

I only have a small complaint as far as replay goes. Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker uses the same Title system as the original DeSu2 but adds very few titles specific to the Triangulum Arc. Titles are essentially achievements the player can earn in game to make subsequent playthroughs easier.

Each title is worth a certain amount of points depending on how difficult it is to achieve, and then points are spent on perks for the next playthrough. For instance, I completed the game without a single human character falling in battle, which was worth 200 points, but raising Fate to rank 5 (essentially finishing a character's sub-plot) for an individual character is only worth 10.

Because the Septentrion Arc is longer, it's easier to finish sub-plots, and there are bonus bosses on New Game+ that allow the easy accumulation of even more Titles. (With five endings in the original DeSu2, it's nice that each ending progressively gets easier and easier to obtain.)

It will be a bit harder replaying for the extra Triangulum endings since I'll have less to work with, but it might be worth taking a spin down memory lane since there is a hefty Title bonus for having finished both arcs in Record Breaker.

One of the things that Record Breaker is supposed to have done is fix some translation errors in the original Septentrion Arc. There were a few things that were a bit murky for me in the original storyline, so those might have been fixed. The other bonus is that Record Breaker is now entirely voiced save for mid-combat dialogue.

It took a little time to get used to character voices since I already had established my own mental image for how characters sounded, but most of the voice actors eventually won me over. Kaiji Tang is perfect as Yamato, which was a big concern for me considering how the anime series had grossly misinterpreted Yamato's character, but Tang totally balances Yamato's arrogance with his respect and naivete.

Ben Diskin's Daichi was probably the hardest for me to get used to. While he plays Daichi's dorkiness exactly as it should be, it was his voice itself that I found the most jarring since he just didn't have the right sound I expected. My mental voice for Daichi was higher pitched than he turned out (more like Atsuro in the first Devil Survivor).

Still, I had a great time and I'm a little sad that it's all over again.

There will be replays, but the story's done and the cast have earned their happy ending many times over, so I wouldn't want to put them through the wringer again. They survived.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Anniversary of the Red Baron's Death

Wikipedia wanted to remind me that today is the anniversary of the Red Baron's death, and I felt a little sad. Though I got introduced to the Red Baron via Snoopy (like a lot of people my age) and I've eaten Red Baron brand pizza, my impression of the man has changed a lot since my childhood.

Though he's best known for his prowess as a fighter pilot during WWI, the thing that surprised me while doing research reading about him was how tired he sounded towards the end of his life (he was 25). It's something that stuck with me when I wrote "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart," which is still one of my favorite pieces.

Most of the time I don't like my stories much after I've sold them. It's just a quirk of mine. But there's a passage in "Wings" that never fails to get me when the Red Baron remembers the wingmen who were hospitalized or died before him.

I wrote that after trying to find a pilot he was friends with who was still alive and on active duty at that point near the end of the war, and I couldn't find anyone. It was very sobering, very sad.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Even the Mountains Are Not Forever" available in Strange Horizons

If you missed it, my latest short story "Even the Mountains Are Not Forever" went up at Strange Horizons last week. This is one of the first markets I ever submitted to, and I'm happy to have sold a story to them. Anaea Lay also narrated a podcast version of the story. (My first podcast, yay!)

As if last week couldn't be better, io9 selected "Even the Mountains" as one of the best stories published in the week of March 1-7. Considering the first week of the month is when most issues go live, I'm incredibly thrilled and it was a great way to cap off the week.

The concept for "Even the Mountains" is something that I was knocking about my head since I was a scrubby young writer, though it wasn't until last year that I put it in written form. It was a very early idea I had, something that I was going to write years before I decided that I was going to be stubborn about submitting stuff to magazines, and I'm kind of glad that I didn't write it back then, because it would have been much different.

Now that I take the time to count out how long its been, I came up with the original idea some eighteen years ago, and the me of the past would not have make the choices I did when I finally wrote it this last year.

But that's the fun part, and I think it's a better story for the time that it took.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing "Unfilial Child"

It recently came to my attention that there were a couple reviews written for the anthology Streets of Shadows which published my story "Unfilial Child" back in September. The reviews had not been published until months later so I missed them at first. I'm very happy to have had my story called out in both of them, considering the number of authors who appear in the anthology!

The first one is from Urban Fantasy Magazine here and The Big Click covers it in a capsule review calling it a "diamond in the rough."

"Unfilial Child" was written in April last year and I had a month to write from start to finish since that is the time between when I discovered the anthology call and when the deadline was. I figured it was tight, but doable (and obviously it was). It was only later that I ended up panicking.

I immediately knew that I wanted to write about Los Angeles's Chinatown, since it's really the only heavily urban area I'm passingly familiar with as something other than a tourist, even though I hadn't been there in years. After my grandmother passed away the reasons to go just became more and more infrequent.

To get my supernatural element I decided to use the myth of the gu huo niao (Mandarin pronunciation, and written 姑獲鳥), a Chinese mythical bird known for stealing children and raising them as her own.

But to get the feel of Chinatown right, I thought I had to do more than just visit it for myself. I also visited my dad, who was able to tell me stories about things he saw in Chinatown as a kid, and stories about my grandmother who had lived there. As we talked, I realized that I couldn't write this story using the Mandarin or Cantonese I've used in previous fiction because that is not the dialect of the early Chinese immigrants. Until the 1980s, most Chinese in America spoke what we called Hoisan, or Four County dialect. Wikipedia uses the term Taishanese, after the Mandarin pronunciation of Hoisan (Taishan).

The problem with using Hoisan in a story though is that it's a non-standard dialect and there are no formal romanizations into the western alphabet. Among the early immigrants, names were frequently spelled differently in English even if they were written the same in Chinese. The surnames Hom, Hum, and Tom are generally all the same character. (The Mandarin have it easy. It's Tan.)

I approximated spellings for this story based on what the word sounds like to me and how I've seen Hoisan and the related Cantonese spelled in English.

I finished the bulk of my research halfway through April, but I found myself stalling on the story itself. I had been brainstorming and outlining since the beginning of the month. I had six solid single-spaced pages of material for a story that couldn't be any longer than 4000 words. But it wasn't coming together. I knew after writing the first page I wasn't coming at the story the right way, but I didn't know what the right way was.

Against my better judgment, I binged watched Guilty Crown, a 26 episode sci-fi anime series, despite knowing I had two weeks to go and jack for a story.

One of the characters stayed with me after the show ended. Daryl Yan wasn't necessarily my favorite character, and I probably would never want to meet him if he was a real person (he was one of the bad guys), but one of the things that made him sympathetic was that he really wanted to be loved by his father.

And then I realized what I had gotten wrong about the protagonist in my story. She had been a good daughter with a wonderful relationship with her grandmother. The ending of the story would hurt even with a good relationship, but it would be even worse with someone who didn't have, but had wanted that relationship and later realized that what they had wanted had all been a lie.

A week ahead of the deadline, I went nuclear. The previous draft was thrown out (though I later rescued two or three paragraphs) and essentially wrote a new first draft in two days. I set it aside again for a little breathing space, did a revision based on my gut feeling and the reaction of a few friends, and then sent it off.

It worked, and I hope with the details from the current Chinatown and my family's history, it feels real, or at least as real as it could be with a mythical bird in LA.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Winter 2015 Anime Viewing

I review anime over at Diabolical Plots and this season I've been banging my head over the overabundance of simulcasted anime I want to see. (I guess I'm just a big kid inside.)

In my winter first impressions I went over the new winter shows I was checking out and the older ones from summer and fall that were returning/continuing into the winter and it was turning into a wreck.

Usually I try not to watch more than three shows at a time, but due to Aldnoah.Zero and Tokyo Ghoul returning from summer, Yona of the Dawn and Parasyte continuing from fall, and very promising newcomers in Death Parade and Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Exodus, I was going to have to choose between my top two choices of each season from the current to the past two. And to top it off, Magic Kaito: 1412 came out of nowhere and got licensed mid-run.

After the initial few weeks, my viewing schedule has largely shaken out based on what I've actually wanted to watch the most as soon as it comes available, and in no particular order, they are:

Aldnoah.Zero - The second half is quite a bit different from the first, and while I was initially disappointed, it's ramped up again and I still have much love for Slaine, who is one of my favorite characters, not just in the show, but possibly for all anime.

Parasyte - I keep swinging from completely digging Parasyte to being lukewarm/annoyed with it, but I'm a huge fan of the manga so I keep watching. The series is pretty faithful considering they had to update the time period from the 1980s, though a couple scenes don't work as well with the newer tech. There are some pacing issues to it that feel very weird to me that I completely never noticed in the manga and I wonder if it's because of the different medium.

Death Parade - New show, but full of mystery and suspense. I like trying to puzzle out the secrets of purgatory bar Quimdecim's guests before they're entirely spilled out for the audience. The mostly anthology format works well for the show and I like that it's so self-contained. And that this show doesn't revolve around teenagers!

Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Exodus - I'm enjoying the sequel to the original Fafner: Dead Aggressor and I'm surprised by how much I missed Soshi! He was barely in the movie and the show is really better for having him back. At first I was worried where the story would go now that the original protagonists are all adults, but this is still a war story where war is not glamorous but a duty that must be done. Kazuki has yet to step back in a Fafner, but I'm sure that's where we're going. I'm actually really happy the show isn't shoving him in as soon as possible.

When I have a hankering for something else and I'm caught up on those four I watch Magic Kaito: 1412 because of its stand-alone nature. Each episode is its own story with very little reference to anything that's come before and it's good cheesy fun that I don't need to think about in order to enjoy.

While I still like Yona, it's a little too slow and derivative to make it a must watch the day it goes live (it's time to go collect all the magical followers to help on this journey!). Tokyo Ghoul is a much different show after the mid-season finale and I'm afraid I haven't entirely acclimated to it, so I'm holding off for later, when I'll likely binge watch it. Right now, I'm just not sure it'll get its groove back.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015 Awards Recommendations

I made it a bit more of a point to read this year than I normally do in an attempt to be better educated for award nominating. Unfortunately, I did not read any new novels last year barring a single YA book (my backlog is healthy enough, thanks!), but I did around to several short stories and a few novelettes.

These are my award picks:

Short Stories

Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon - Apex, January 2014
The Fisher Queen - Alyssa Wong - F&SF May/June 2014
Not Her Garden - Yukimi Ogawa - Lackington's #3, Summer 2014


Life Flight - Brad Torgersen - Analog, March 2014
The Pushbike Legion - Timothy Jordan - Writers of the Future 30
The Magician and Laplace's Demon - Tom Crosshill, Clarkesworld, December 2014

Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Alyssa Wong
Yukimi Ogawa*

* I don't know if Yukimi Ogawa is currently eligible, but I can't find any pro publications of her work prior to 2013 (in Strange Horizons), which would put her in her second year of eligibility. She's published quite a few things in 2014 and I love her stuff ("Town's End," "Rib," "In Her Head, In Her Eyes").

UPDATE: Yukimi Ogawa confirmed on Twitter that she is in her second year of eligibility! Please consider her for the Campbell Award.

As for my own work, I had three original works published in 2014.

Short Stories

The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart - Galaxy's Edge #9, July/August 2014
The Ancestors - Crossed Genres July/August 2014
Unfilial Child - Streets of Shadows (anthology)

"The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart" and "Unfilial Child" are not available online, but can be requested by interested Hugo/Nebula voters. If you are a SFWA member, both of them are available in the members-only forums for reading.