Monday, December 19, 2016

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" now up at IGMS #54

My latest short story "Poison Maiden, Open Skies" went live a few days ago at Orson Scott Card's Intergalatic Medicine Show as part of their special Festivals on the Front holiday issue.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" is about a group of women who were caught in a chemical explosion at the munitions factory where they worked, turning them into literally poisonous women, who constantly emit a cloud of deadly poison around them.

Together they now form Harpy Squad, a special assault team the British use against the Germans on the Western Front, but even though their abilities now make them invaluable living weapons, the women hold out hope for a cure and a return to a normal life.

The amazing art for my story is by Nicole Cardiff, and you can pretty much see what happens to the hapless souls who have the bad luck to just be standing near them.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My 2016 Award Eligibility Post

It's the last month of the year, so it's time for eligibility posts. Cat Rambo, our SFWA president, is encouraging everyone to make them, and I do have a few things that are eligible for the Nebula and Hugo awards this year.

All of them are short stories. If you'd like a review copy, please shoot me an e-mail.

In publication order, my works are:

"Confidence Game" - Galaxy's Edge, January 2016 - An ex-con man turned magician gets roped into back into his old work, by the space station authorities no less. Sleight of hand in space!

"The World That You Want" - Galaxy's Edge, July 2016
- The demon apocalypse happened and most of humanity died in the ensuing months, but Joan continues to survive because she can reconcile her existence with the that of the demons.

"The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang" - Swords v Cthulhu (anthology), 2016 - Jiang Wei is saddled with the impossible expectation of becoming the successor to Zhuge Liang, the greatest general the kingdom of Shu has ever known.

"Hunters of the Dead" - Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 2016
- Wild magic marks the site of an ancient war, causing the dead to rise in search of a battle that has long ended. The king has abandoned those lands, but the hunters have not.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" - Intergalactic Medicine Show, December 2016 - The women of Harpy Squad are literally poisonous thanks to an accident in a munitions factory. Now there is no place they can safely exist, save as weapons on the battlefield.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Anime Talk: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School

My non-spoilery review of Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy, both Future Arc and Despair Arc will be up at Diabolical Plots later this month with the rest of my anime reviews, so if you don't want to be spoiled, check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is all the things I couldn't discuss due to being spoilers that came up midway through the series, or even at the finale.

Mostly, I figured this was the best way to wrap-up the Danganronpa series that I've been doing on my blog, seeing as this is the conclusion to the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. (Annoyingly, Funimation and Aksys differ in their translations, so you'll often see me revert to the game translations; i.e. "academy" instead of "high school.")

How does Danganronpa 3 serve as a capstone for the games and does it work?

Obviously, spoilers for all games and the anime from here on out!

Danganronpa 3 had three things that the series needed to address. 1) It had to deal with Makoto facing the Future Foundation's ire after having saved the Remnants of Despair in Danganronpa 2. 2) It had to deal with Monaca and her grooming to become the next Junko Enoshima. 3) Though not a plot issue, it also had to deal with the retirement of veteran voice actor Nobuyo Ōyama, who was the voice of series antagonist Monokuma, whose sadistic brand of creepy cute is what defines much of Danganronpa.

I'll tackle the last point first, in that the series deals with Ōyama's retirement by drastically cutting back on Monokuma's involvement, such that Junko Enoshima actually has nothing to do with the third killing game at all. Monokuma only shows up to make the characters believe that Junko is involved.

I don't know if this decision was made to accommodate the change in VA, but I did have difficulty adjusting to the new Monokuma (now voiced by Tarako) and the series did hurt for lack of Monokuma's involvement. The new killing game honestly felt like it was left on autopilot (and truthfully it was) since Monokuma did not show up to regularly taunt and tease the unwilling players.

Going back to the first point, the series does deliver on the promise of following the story of what happened to Makoto after he reported back. He gets thrown into another killing game, but he does report in and we see the friction between him and the various heads of the Future Foundation.

I think it's a testament to the writing that even with different translation teams, it's quite clear that Kyosuke Munakata, the vice-chairman of the Future Foundation, is the unnamed writer of an e-mail chewing out Makoto in Danganronpa 2.

As far as the second point goes, I think that series writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka was kicking himself for leaving that loose plot thread and teasing Monaca as the second coming of Junko Enoshima.

For one thing, she appeared in a side game, which means that a fair portion of the fan base never played it. (I did not until the anime came out and I wanted to get her backstory.) And for another, her existence makes it harder to plan a surprise revelation as to who the mastermind is, because the players who have played Ultra Despair Girls will be expecting her.

Danganronpa 3 has no choice but to include her if it's going to close off all the storylines, but having a villain come out of nowhere (for most viewers, since she is definitely not part of the Future Foundation) is a bad idea.

The TV series chooses to handle it by introducing an android version of Future Foundation member Miaya Gekkogahara, who was killed off camera before the series start. Fairly early on, Monaca is revealed to the audience as the controller behind Gekkogahara, and because of the early reveal, we know she can't be the mastermind. It's very rare that the audience finds out information before the protagonists, and something as critical as the mastermind's identity isn't going to come out in the first half of the series.

Eventually at the mid-point is there is a strange and mildly nonsensical side episode that is full of nothing but Ultra Despair Girls fanservice, which reveals that Monaca is not the mastermind and that she's actually done with the whole Despair crap.

It's played off as funny, with Monaca being a slacker in a trailer rather than a megalomaniac's base, and her dismissal of Nagito, who was going to train her to be Ultimate Despair, is likely to elicit a laugh from those who know what he's like.

But Monaca then exits the series and we don't know find any greater significance to her meddling. She does leave a couple clues behind for Makoto to puzzle over, but they don't really feel like they had to come from Monaca. We find out that she was an unrelated interloper, which makes her abrupt departure is unsatisfying. The game had built her up to be something, and Danganronpa 3 (prior to the trailer reveal) had done the same.

So when she finally leaves, it feels like all that time spent on her for little to no payoff was a waste.

I'm honestly not sure how it could have been handled better, but I think she should have been used for a second half reveal that could have counted for more, and it would have helped if she had participated in the game in person (like the previous masterminds). Having her depart in a side episode and relaying her clues by proxy was what really ruined her appearance.

Danganronpa 3 also had two sides to it, in order to make a whole. The Future Arc followed Makoto's story and the Despair Arc covered the lead-up to Danganronpa 1 and had the messy task of showing the backstories of the eventual Future Foundation members as well as how Junko Enoshima corrupted Class 77 (the main characters of Danganronpa 2).

While the two sides were good for building out the characters of the Future Foundation, the Despair Arc had far too much on its plate and unfortunately it needed to be a giant retcon mess in order to work.

Granted, we know Junko Enoshima can lie as it suits her, but there is no reason for her to lie at the end of Danganronpa 2 about what she did to Class 77. At that point in the story, she wants them to know the truth, because the truth is so horrible, that knowing it will bring them to the point of despair. If the survivors in Class 77 don't believe her, if they have reason to doubt, then her words won't have impact.

Junko and the assorted documents she reveals to them, tell the story of individuals who were corrupted and fell into despair. Even Izuru Kamukura, was described as simply being broken by her. It builds Junko up to be this horrifying human being, with the both the charisma and the capacity to cause hundreds of students to commit suicide in her name.

Lifting the curtain to see exactly how she did all that turns out to have been a poor decision as it comes down to brainwashing, and suddenly she's not really much of a boogeyman anymore. She's still a ruthless individual, but she's much more human and less a force of nature.

Izuru is not even that involved with her, so much as trying to decide whether he's more invested in Hope (which Junko says is boring and predictable) or Despair (which is chaos). But I will say that the Despair Arc does gift the series with the best reason for Izuru to have starting the second killing game. He says he can't decide between Hope and Despair, so he wants to see for himself which is stronger, and that provides the best reason, from his perspective, to upload the AI to the virtual world in Danganronpa 2.

Moving on to the ending, there are a few points I want to touch.

The Danganronpa series is known for its high body count, and while Danganronpa 3 is no different (seriously, so many Future Foundation members die), who dies bothers me. There are a couple of faked deaths in the series, and I'm fine with that. Juzo Sakakura surviving what had looked like a kill was freaking amazing! But what I had a problem with was plot immunity.

If this had been a conventional killing game by Monokuma, everyone would have had specific buttons pressed to make them go off the deep end, and Kyoko's forbidden action in the third killing game is making it past the fourth round if Makoto is still alive. She dies and it was the moment I'd been waiting for, because Makoto relies on her so heavily and he's closer to her than any of their other fellow survivors.

But the series seems to have trouble killing anyone who was not canonically dead at the end of their respective games. It chooses to err on the side of hope. If there was any way possible for someone to live and they came from Danganronpa 1 or 2, then they survived.

Kyoko was revived in an off-camera moment, so she could show up as a surprise to Makoto, and everyone from Danganronpa 2 has been restored from their brain dead/coma predicaments.

I was also a bit disappointed that the Danganronpa 2 cast looks perfectly healthy and in peak physical condition considering that they were supposed to have been maimed and abusing themselves while in Junko's service. The only nod to that is Fuyuhiko's eyepatch, which he sports in-game even in the virtual world.

The Danganronpa 2 cast also takes out specially trained military units which is kind of fun to watch, even though it's eye-rolling at the same time. Even though they're Ultimate students, that doesn't make them an elite combat unit.

The final bit that I wish to address is the main story itself. Danganronpa 3 is not a game related in Junko Enoshima, but rather the entire thing was engineered to produce the opposite effect. Instead of enforcing a world of despair, Kazuo Tengan wants to create a world of hope, and he intends to do it by showing Ryota Mitarai so much despair under the pretense that the Junko's followers are making a comeback, that Mitarai concludes the best thing to do is to brainwash the world into becoming a world of hope.

This is why brainwashing had to be used so much in the Despair Arc because Mitarai was the unwilling key to providing Junko the power she needed.

At the time Mitarai is finally set off, there are hardly any Future Foundation members left standing (only four remain in the killing game, including himself), so it's not surprising that he gets pushed off the deep end. He gets talked down from it by the Danganronpa 2 cast, who by rights should have been his classmates if fate hadn't intervened, and that was all right, but let's circle back to the game.

The third killing game, like the others, had another purpose besides causing despair to those immediately involved. But the execution of that purpose, was flawed. And while I might set lower expectations for Tengan than I would Junko, he does make a number of mistakes.

Tengan needs Mitarai alive at the end of the killing game in order for his plan to succeed. Mitarai gets involved on accident because he wasn't supposed to be at the meeting when everyone gets trapped and gassed unconscious. At this point, Tengan should have removed Mitarai from the game, and let it continue without him.

Sure, there would have been some comments about that, but his plan would have automatically failed if Mitarai had gotten killed, because the game is run on autopilot. Whoever is closest to a Monokuma monitor at the end of a round, gets brainwashed into killing themselves (which, by the way, was one of the ingenuous twists--that there was no secret traitor).

Even if he had built in a failsafe to avoid brainwashing Mitarai, the Monokuma-encouraged witch hunt to find the traitor results in other people dying. Mitarai is pretty non-aggressive, so he doesn't top anyone's list as a suspect, but if he had just gotten unlucky, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he easily could have died.

And then some of the forbidden actions were just senseless. Since this was Tengan and not Junko, one would think the forbidden actions would balance the playing field. And to some degree they do. Sakakura, the former Ultimate Boxer, can't punch anyone. Munakata, being unable to open doors, is incredibly crippled.

But then other people have limitations that are downright bonkers. Kizakura can't open his left hand. Great Gozu can't be pinned for a three count (incredibly unlikely considering he's the Ultimate Wrestler). Kimura can't let anyone step on her shadow.

Bandai's would be the worst, since he can't witness acts of violence, but I assume that was given out to make him a sacrificial lamb, so everyone else would take the forbidden actions seriously.

Danganronpa 3 doesn't quite come together, but as a series capstone? It could do worse. It's clear from the ending that Hope has won. Makoto is now the principal to the newly reopened Hope's Peak Academy, with the implication that everything is going to be good again.

The Danganronpa 2 cast sails off into the sunset (almost literally since they're on a boat) taking Mitarai with them.

And even Munakata, the only Danganronpa 3 cast member aside from Mitarai to survive, has found a reason to keep going.

Watching the Future Arc felt pretty good while the mysteries were still unknown, and I did like the ending despite being fluffier than I expected. The anime may have been incredibly messy at times, but there are no questions left. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is not a game I would have ordinarily picked up if not for the Danganronpa name, largely because it's a third person shooter, and most people who've played shooters with me know, I'm terrible at them. My tactics are very much along the lines of "spray and pray."

But playing was the only way to see the story, so I set the game mechanics to the easiest difficulty, held my nose, and took the plunge.

Ultra Despair Girls is an interquel, taking place between Danganronpa 1 and 2, specifically, three months after the death of Junko Enoshima. The Remnants of Despair are still on the loose, and if anything are even more fanatical now that she's gone.

Most of this is background noise for Komaru Naegi, who is the first series protagonist not to have gone to Hope's Peak Academy, instead being the younger sister to Danganronpa 1's Makoto. After being held captive in an apartment with no human contact for a year and a half, Komaru escapes to find the surrounding Towa City is full of Monokuma robots that are killing all the adults in town.

She finds herself in a middle of a child revolution, where the children are using Monokuma robots to slay all the adults and establish a child-only paradise, and they're led by five children in particular who call themselves the Warriors of Hope.

Aside from how the children managed to get a hold of such technology (tech that must have originated from Junko and the Ultimate Despairs), I found the Warriors hard to empathize with since they initially come off as a bunch of delusional brats. Even if they are supposed to be geniuses (having come from Hope's Peak Elementary, the elementary school associated with Hope's Peak Academy), I had trouble imagining them finding life better without adults.

Though parent-child conflicts happen all the time, I think most children understand that the adults are the providers, and without adults, there won't be anything for them to eat, wear, or use. There is a power difference, and sometimes an unfair one, but one they have to live with until they're old enough to become independent.

Danganronpa is well aware of that power difference, and so are these kids. The Monokumas finally put them in a position where they can have power over the adults. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the reason the Warriors of Hope are so angry and trying to kill all the adults is because they're all abused children. Kotoko's story is particularly triggery, with sexual abuse and a side of victim blaming. When Komaru tries to tell her that not all adults are bad, Kotoko asks "Then why didn't anyone help me?" and there's no good answer for that.

The Warriors' vengeance is very much along the lines of "They hurt me so I'm going to hurt them back," which is childish, but perfectly in line with their ages.

This also puts the player in the uncomfortable position of fighting against abused children, and the game takes advantage of the fact that Komaru and her reluctant partner, Toko, are both teenagers, making them straddle the divide between being an adult and being a child. At the start of the game the Warriors almost spare Komaru because she isn't quite an adult yet, but ultimately turn her into their prey for their hunting game when she spends too much time trying to rationalize with them, which is a very grown-up thing to do.

The player never actually fights any of the children directly, instead facing them in proxy boss battles with robots, but what happens to the Warriors when they lose looks fairly horrific. Despite the stylization, it's heavily implied that all but one of them are killed (though there is an ending credits image that shows them alive post-game).

Being a Danganronpa game, the conflict between the adults and the children isn't truly about the war we see on the surface, but something more sinister. It's clear early on that the real leader of the Warriors of Hope is the girl Monica, who is very interested in despair, much like Junko Enoshima, and Monica has been manipulating the rest of the Warriors of Hope. The child-only paradise isn't her end goal, but having the other Warriors think that has been useful for her.

Her end game culminates in an attempt to turn Komaru into the second coming of Junko Enoshima. All the trials Komaru suffers throughout the game are designed to bring her to the peaks of hope and then crashing down into despair so deep she can never emerge. Naturally, Komaru was chosen because her brother Makoto had become known as the Ultimate Hope in his face-off with Junko, the Ultimate Despair.

Unlike Danganronpa 2, where I complained that the choices were too heavily weighted towards the emergency shutdown being the only good decision, the ending choices for Ultra Despair Girls are both bad. One more bad than the other, but there is no ending that results in a happy ending for the people of Towa City.

Komaru is given the controller that is operating all the Monokuma robots in the city, robots that are busy killing any adults they can find, and she is told to destroy it. But if she does, the helmets controlling all the brainwashed children (all the children aside from the Warriors of Hope) will explode.

The moment of that reveal was a pitch perfect moment of despair, or would have been if gameplay hadn't been so annoying about repeatedly hammering in the "break it/don't break it" decision. People will die if the robots are not stopped, and another set of people will die if the robots are left alone. The fact there was no easy end to the fighting is not the end game that anyone except Monica was looking for.

Komaru is pressured into pushing the button by Monica, who knows this will destroy her, and also by the leader of the surviving adults, who argues that the exploding helmets could be a bluff.

Interestingly, the adults who still survive in the city are incredibly likely to be single and without children, since the brainwashed children turned on the nearest adults first, which were likely to be their parents. This puts a divide between the adults and the children, since the adults who remain are those who are least likely to be sympathetic towards them.

While not pushing the button is clearly the "right" thing to do, so much as anything can be, the game unfortunately spends an hour (not kidding!) of yanking the player back and forth and forcing them to confirm that they do not want to press the button with other people yelling at them to do it. It got really annoying and it's not a good sign that my greatest fear on facing the last boss was that I'd die and have to sit through that all over again.

Nothing in Ultra Despair Girls directly feeds into the other games, so it's fairly skippable with the exception that the Danganronpa 3 anime makes use of it for the majority of one episode, and that's likely because there is a plot thread left hanging.

The game ends with Monica having survived her confrontation with Komaru and being carried away by Nagito, who promises to help groom her into the next Junko Enoshima, so she won't have to worry about having a proxy. The ending credits bolster the idea that she intends to follow his instructions, which clearly sets her up to be a villain the future, and the anime could not leave that unaddressed.

Ultra Despair Girls does have some worth on its own though, as it's one of the few girl "buddy" games I've seen. The player is in control of either Komaru or Toko at all times, and while there are some conversations about Toko's one-sided crush on Byakuya, most of the dialogue is refreshingly about either their objectives or trying to get along with each other. Komaru doesn't have a love interest and the strongest relationship in the game, the one that gets its moment to shine, is the friendship between her and Toko (both of her personalities, even the psychotic one).

Toko can be a bitter pill and she's so prickly and delusional that I found it hard to sympathize with her in the first Danganronpa, but she makes an excellent partner for Komaru who tends to make fun of how generic she is. And indeed, considering how colorful the rest of the cast is in all three games, Komaru is frightfully normal. As ironic as it sounds, Toko humanizes Komaru, so she's not just a generic everygirl. She gives Komaru such difficult material to work with that they're entertaining to watch, as Komaru tries to normalize that which can never be normal.

Finally, as a gamer who generally sucks at shooters, Ultra Despair Girls is fairly forgiving on the lowest difficulty. There are moments I died, but it's a sort of game where slow and steady (rather than twitch reflexes) can help a lot. Many times it's possible to hear the Monokumas before seeing them, so it's possible to creep out and lure them one at a time, and the worst places tend to have reasonably placed checkpoints. Bosses actually throw out healing items, so if a fight is going poorly due to a mistakes, it's usually possible to play defensively for a minute or two and get back to full strength before going on the offense again.

I wouldn't entirely recommend the game, but as a novelty it's interesting, and manageable for Danganronpa fans who wouldn't ordinarily play shooters. It is currently only on PS Vita, but there are PS4 and Steam ports on the way.

Now, having covered all the games in the Hope's Peak continuity, there's just one more Danganronpa post in me, and I'll use that to cover the Danganronpa 3 anime.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Loscon 43

I'm going to be at Loscon 43 and will be there for all three days. My panel times and locations are below and because they're evenly spread out I will have plenty of time to talk both before and after panels in the event anyone would like to catch me.

Reboots, Reimagining and Fandom FRI 16:00 Boston

All About Editing and Editors - SAT 11:30 Chicago

Best Advice I Never Got - SUN 14:30 Marquis 2

I did not request an autograph table, but if you run into me and have something you would like me to sign, feel free to ask. I'll have a pen on me.

Also! If you have a 3DS, I will have mine with me at the convention. I'm not currently playing anything on it, but I love Streetpassing and I have a ton of puzzle pieces. If that's your thing, you want to bump into me! :)

Monday, November 14, 2016

VN Talk: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

Continuing my Danganronpa replays, today we move on to Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, which is also available in English on Steam and PS Vita.

I originally played this right after I finished the first game (for the second time), which made going into Danganronpa 2 hard. In retrospect it might have been better not to have played them so close together because I may have unfairly judged the new cast against the old without giving them adequate space to grow on me.

Having played through DR1 twice and finished all endings in the optional School Mode, the cast of the first game had become quite dear to me, and it was hard getting thrown into a new game with sixteen new strangers and expecting to get to know them all as well.

Once again there is a group of Hope's Peak Academy "Ultimate" students who are forced to play a killing game, where the winner gets to "graduate" and escape confinement (in this case, the abandoned tropical resort island they're stranded on) as long as they are not found out in the subsequent class trial. Discovery equals execution. If the culprit succeeds, then all other students will be executed, giving a huge incentive for the culprit hide their tracks (better yet, pin the deed on someone else) and for the innocent students to find out who the murderer is.

But why is there another game? How is Monokuma back? Why are there more students when the first game said that the members of Class 78 were supposed to be the only ones from Hope's Peak Academy who survived the worst tragedy in human history? And how did they get unwittingly transported all the way from their school in Japan to some tropical island?

It's kind of amazing how much about the early portion of DR2 doesn't make sense, but the player is willing to overlook it as just a stretch beyond expectations for an already exaggerated set of circumstances.

The opening scene with Hajime Hinata heading to school for his very first day at Hope's Peak Academy is an easy parallel to Makoto Naegi's from the first game, but instead of passing out, the player's screen glitches with a graphics bug we call "tearing" in the industry. Shortly thereafter Hajime finds himself in a classroom with his new classmates who are also having a bizarre first day, which is capped off with the reveal of their new teacher, a robotic plush rabbit called Usami, and the classroom walls falling down to reveal that they're actually on a tropical island.

Usami lets the group know that they are on a school trip and their goal is to become friends with each other to collect Hope Fragments, and after they've gotten them all, they will be free to leave the island.

Everyone is naturally suspicious. How did they end up on a school trip, and to a tropical island no less, without being aware of it? But just as some of the students are starting to think this might be okay, Monokuma, the sadistic teddy bear of the first game, usurps Usami's position, remodeling her as Monomi so she looks more like him, and then declares the rules of the killing game in order to leave.

As before, it's impossible to talk about the full story without giving away the ending, so spoilers from here on out!

Danganronpa 2 plays with and subverts the expectations of the audience from the first game, which is one of the humorous highlights of the game. For instance, Monokuma reveals that an organization called World Ender ruined the world outside (the destroyed world being a major reveal towards the end of the first game) and they're the organization that trapped the students on the island as well as removing memories of their previous years at school. Players of the first game will immediately connect World Ender to Ultimate Despair, the group that included Junko Enoshima, the mastermind behind Monokuma and the first killing game. The memory removal was a similar late reveal in the first game to the survivors who made it to the end.

But because of when in the story this gets revealed, it's so early that the students have no proof that anything Monokuma says is true, whereas in the first game the reveal was the only thing that made all the weird clues make sense. It's a nice reversal that plays with player expectations while still using the same foundation of the characters not knowing what happened before.

As the player goes through Danganronpa 2, the students begin to uncover proof of their missing memories. One of them even recovers her memories entirely and murders two of her fellow students because she now remembers who she is, and that the Future Foundation (aka World Ender) was the one who put them in this situation. The other students are horrified by the glee with which she goes to her execution, particularly because she now behaves like a completely different person.

The truth behind Danganronpa 2 hits like a truck, much like the surprise reveal at the end of the first game, though it's not quite as cleanly executed as Monokuma essentially provides everyone with a gigantic infodump of assorted clues that he swears are all real, and the clues lead to the discovery that were other survivors of Hope's Peak Academy besides Class 78 and that they were subsequently taken in by the Future Foundation

Seeing as the newly acquired fifteen were similar in age to the participants of the first game, the Future Foundation placed the newcomers under the supervision of the survivors from the Hope's Peak Academy killing game.

But it turned out the fifteen students were a part of Ultimate Despair (explaining why they survived when no one else did), and followers of Junko Enoshima. Together, they were responsible for setting off the spark that resulted in civilization's fall.

The members of Ultimate Despair had originally been Hope's Peak Academy students who had become corrupted by Junko Enoshima to the point that they were functionally considered limbs of hers, doing whatever she required. Most of Ultimate Despair committed suicide when they discovered Junko had executed herself at the end of the first game, but that was not true of the fifteen who became known as the Remnants of Despair.

They were a psychotic bunch, trying to get close to despair, and committed all kinds of atrocities to themselves, to their friends and families, and to complete strangers. It's heavily implied that the fifteen have no one left to go back to, and that several of them are disfigured in the real world (whereas their virtual bodies have been rewound to 2-3 years prior to the game so they appear normal).

Makoto Naegi, the protagonist of the first game, objected to their destruction and with assistance from his fellow first game survivors, placed the fifteen Remnants of Despair in a VR machine that removed their memories prior to their stay at Hope's Peak Academy, prior to them meeting Junko, and prior to becoming corrupted by her.

In the virtual world they would have a chance to make new, happier memories, so they could go back to being the more joyful people they had been before they ever met her, and then this new version of them would be uploaded into their bodies, replacing the ones who had become Ultimate Despair.

But there was a complication, leading directly to the conflict in the second game.

Unlike Makoto, Hajime is a more complex protagonist, and his past is all kinds of jacked up to the point I'm not sure it's useful to discuss it for what I want to get at here. In a nutshell, Hajime is both the lead protagonist and the mastermind behind the second killing game, but he's unaware of it due to his memory loss.

It's clear that the Remnants of Despair knew what was in store for them when Makoto and company took them into their custody, and past-version Hajime uploaded an AI clone of Junko Enoshima as a virus into the virtual reality system, kicking off the second killing game in a bid to resurrect the real Ultimate Despair.

This explains the return of Monokuma, the strange graphics glitches at the start of the game, and other nonsensical things that shouldn't be possible but the audience could handwave as Danganronpa-style silliness taken to the next level.

The plan behind the second killing game was to kill off the majority of the Remnants of Despair (which is why the one who got her memory back was thrilled to accelerate things) and then get the remainder to graduate, which would cause their memories from the virtual world to be uploaded into the real one. But the AI Junko would be uploaded into the bodies of everyone who had died in the virtual world, essentially resurrecting the villain of the first game.

It's the kind of horrible plan that a bunch of devoted and psychotic followers would voluntarily come up with, but the problem is, the surviving characters at this point in the game are no longer crazy. They don't want to be manipulated by their former selves, but now they're trapped between graduating and bringing a monster back into the real world with them, or remaining forever in the virtual world.

Hope arrives in the form of the timely arrival of three of the first game's survivors, which together give them the eight votes needed for a majority to activate the emergency shutdown sequence. (And it was a lovely moment seeing Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya charge into the virtual world to save their former schoolmates.) But in another twist, the Junko AI was prepared for that too, and if she's to be believed, getting them to jump in like that was her primary reason for the killing game.

What the survivors of the first game reluctantly reveal is that while the emergency shutdown will allow everyone to escape the Junko AI as well as preventing her resurrection, it will also erase everything else that happened in the virtual world, which means that all the memories the second cast had built up would be deleted, including all the friends and sacrifices they made along the way, and they would revert to the former Despair versions of themselves on awakening.

It's a Catch 22, and the AI Junko capitalizes on the fact the five surviving Remnants of Despair do not want to forget what happened to them on the island, or, in Hajime's case, to simply cease to exist, since Hajime's 2-3 years' ago personality was so damaged that what he is in the virtual world is simply the best reconstruction the system can come up with.

The choices are self-destruction, to graduate (which will also doom Makoto, Kyoko and Byakuya since AI Junko will not allow them to graduate and graduation is subject to instructor approval), or to remain in the virtual world (trapping Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya along with them).

And this is the part where I think AI Junko falls down a bit. While the five remaining Remnants of Despair are justified in asking why they should sacrifice themselves when it means losing the people they've become, their alternatives are really not all that great.

The first game's final vote against hope or despair worked because everything they had been fighting to return to no longer existed. Both staying where they were and going outside into a post-apocalyptic world were equally despairing options, but the latter involved clearly seeing the truth with their own eyes, no matter how bad it would be.

In the second game, the options are again to maintain the unpleasant status quo or to leave via two different unpleasant methods. It's easy to rule out graduation, because that brings back Junko, who wants to destroy the world, and could the surviving Remnants of Despair (who are good people again) really condemn the three members of the Future Foundation who came into the virtual world to save them?

While the plot does spend a good bit bringing the five Remnants to the brink of Despair, using the emergency shutdown seems like a foregone conclusion. Even allowing for a continued existence in the virtual world, it doesn't seem like a happy way to survive and they would still be stuck with AI Junko (trapped on a island with their worst enemy!).

The problem with presenting this choice as the final dilemma is that only one of the two options favorable for Junko is the best one. If the Remnants graduate, the Future Foundation members are trapped, and if the Remnants choose to stay, then the Foundation members are still trapped. But even though AI Junko says her real purpose was to draw in the Future Foundation members who escaped her real self, the best choice is for everyone to graduate because that's the only option that sends her back into the world and she completely fails at selling it as a viable choice.

In the first game, her reveal of the truth of the outside world and that the students had voluntarily incarcerated themselves, made it clear that staying inside could be right thing to do (with the downside of being stuck with a psychopath).

She really needed to be telling the Remnants of Despair that graduating and bringing her back was what they want just as much as her, and she doesn't. Instead she tells them how their fallen companions will be inhabited by AI copies of her and how she'll continue the worst tragedy in the history of humanity, which all of them find completely revolting. If she managed to take a step beyond that, and show them why it would still be worth it other than "you guys won't wake up in the real world as Ultimate Despairs anymore" it would have been amazing.

After some soul searching about whether or not to stay inside the virtual world, the five Remnants choose to activate the emergency shutdown and vow to remember as much as they can when they wake up (even though it should be nigh impossible).

The epilogue sequence, much like the first game, chooses not to show the details. We see Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya leaving the real island that the virtual one was based off of and going to report back to the Future Foundation where Makoto's going to take the heat for his unorthodox plan to redeem the Remnants of Despair. He thinks the Remnants are going to be okay. They've woken up and have decided to stay on the island and try to help revive their friends who didn't make it out of the game.

The final shot of the epilogue is a back view of Hajime. As he watches their boat leave he narrates how he's now going to live as Hajime Hinata, rather than the version of himself who had become Ultimate Despair.

The implication is that the Remnants now have both sets of memories, both the horrible ones and the new ones they made on the island, leaving them changed people.

I was satisfied with the ending, and didn't feel that there really needed to be more for this particular cast of characters. If anything, thanks to the world building and the introduction of the Future Foundation, I wanted to follow the continuing adventures of Makoto and company. Fortunately, there's the opportunity to do both in Danganronpa 3.

But first, we'll take a side trip to to the spin-off game, Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls.

Monday, November 7, 2016

VN Talk: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

This past summer Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy aired as two parallel anime series, one that was a prequel to the Danganronpa games, and one that was a sequel and the chronological conclusion to the story of the students at Hope's Peak Academy.

It was a must-watch show for me, having fallen in love with the series a year ago, so I decided now would be a good time to replay (or play for the first time, in the case of Another Episode) the original games.

The first one, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, is one of my favorite visual novels ever (and it's now available on Steam as well as PS Vita). Unusually, I played it a second time immediately after completing it. I only run into a game that drives me to do that maybe once every ten years. It's not uncommon for me to replay highlights, but the whole thing?

Outwardly it looks like a cross between the Ace Attorney series and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. On the one hand, the player searches for clues they can later use in a courtroom situation to suss out a murderer. On the other, the player is trapped in a sadistic game where people can die in a horrific manner.

Fifteen students who are the "Ultimate" at what they do (the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Fashionista, the Ultimate Programmer, etc.) have the most bizarre first day of school at Hope's Peak Academy when they pass out and wake up to find themselves trapped inside. The windows and doors leading out have been completely bolted over with metal plates that cannot be removed. A plush mechanical bear called Monokuma declares itself the headmaster and informs them that they are to spend the rest of their lives enjoying a peaceful communal existence inside the school... unless they want to graduate, which is done by killing one of their classmates and getting away without being discovered in the ensuing class trial.

Outwardly no one wants to kill anyone else, and accepting a peaceful life without escape is certainly an option, but Monokuma stirs the pot by providing additional motivation for people wanting to leave the school; for instance, providing video footage that heavily implies that friends and family are in danger.

The students are completely cut off from the outside world with Monokuma holding the only key to escape. They have very little choice but to follow his rules, as he makes it clear early on that breaking them will result in a swift death.

This sets up the stakes pretty early, and it's not terribly long before someone makes the first kill, but what I find most remarkable about the story is something that I rarely find discussed, and it's what made the most lasting impression in my mind. To talk about it, I'm going to have to spoil the end of the game.

So beware of spoilers from here on out!

As the player goes through the story they find clues that there is something going on besides killing each other for Monokuma's entertainment, and it has to deal with the school itself, which turns out to have closed a year before the start of the game. Monokuma never hides this, and allows the students to explore at leisure, but he's cagey about providing too much information that would explain any of the school's mysteries.

As the game progresses, the students discover a TV that shows the killing game is being broadcast on every station they can receive, and we're not sure why.

Then there are these strange photographs of a time when the new students were hanging out together like friends when they had never met each other before. There's even a collection of video interviews with each of the students saying that they understand that once they enter the school it was possible they would spend the rest of their lives inside.

None of them remembers any of this, and Monokuma teases more than once that if they knew the real secret behind the school they would never want to leave.

The secret comes out in the final class trial, when the mastermind behind Monokuma reveals the real reason behind the students' imprisonment and that their memories were tampered with. They thought they had only been at Hope's Peak for the few weeks the killing game was going on, but their first day of class was actually two years ago.

Their first year was relatively normal, which was when the happier photos were taken.

But then one year ago civilization effectively ended in a tragic disaster and most of the student body was killed, except for the sixteen students in Class 78. The real headmaster had the school transformed into a shelter for these "ultimate" students, humanity's best hope for a better tomorrow, so that they would be safe and could emerge at a future time to help rebuild the world.

All of the students consented and assisted in sealing themselves inside the sanctuary they might never leave.

But the mastermind, Junko, was one of the sixteen students and she erased everyone's memories so they forgot why they were trapped in the school, to give them incentive to leave the place they otherwise had no reason to escape. Then she turned it into a murder game consisting of fifteen students and broadcast it to the world to further drown the remaining pockets of hope in despair, because nothing would be worse than seeing the teenagers who are supposed to be the hope for a better future killing each other.

Junko's reveal is powerful, because all this time the characters have been fighting to get back to the world they left behind, only to find out that it doesn't exist anymore. They were fighting over nothing. The ones who murdered their classmates and were in turn executed themselves, did it in vain.

For someone whose real title is the Ultimate Despair, having the protagonists discover that escape is hopeless as well, is an excellent twist. The world outside is polluted and the only reason they are safe inside the barred school is due to the air purifier, which Junko has rigged to disable if she is killed.

Junko gives the surviving six students a choice, to vote to punish either Hope or Despair. If everyone votes to punish Despair, she will allow them to leave, but she will execute herself, so they will no longer have an option of staying in their sanctuary since the purifier will be broken. But anyone who votes to punish Hope, will get to live out the rest of their lives safely inside the school as originally intended and Junko will not kill herself.

Additionally, if any one person votes to punish Hope, everyone who voted to punish Despair will be executed, creating a Prisoner's Dilemma, where all six remaining survivors must vote identically for the best outcome.

Since Danganronpa is a game, it's unsurprising that after some wrangling everyone agrees to punish Despair, but knowing the characters and what they've gone through (especially just how much backstabbing they've endured up to this point), it's very easy to view in character through the protagonist that getting everyone to agree for the benefit of all is a dicey proposition and one they have been failing at the entire game.

Some players expressed dissatisfaction with the end of the game, after the survivors successfully vote against Despair and Junko executes herself. The air purifier stops working, but the six of them now have the controls to the vault-like door that opens the school's front entrance. They talk about what they may or may not find out there (since they never get their memories back) and express hope about their future, no matter how bad the outside might be.

Then they open the door, and the game cuts to credits.

Personally, I was hoping that was exactly what the game would do, because seeing the outside would have opened new questions or changed the mood. If it was happy outside, it would thematically undercut the desperation felt throughout the game. If it was as bleak as Junko told them, it would end the game on a sour note. But by cutting off there, we see the survivors at their best in the face of uncertainty. It ended perfectly.

(And if you really want to see their reaction to the outside world, you can now watch it in a flashback in Danganronpa 3.)

Danganronpa's story discussion usually focuses on the killing game, but people miss the post-apocalyptic side of it, why the killing game was broadcast, and the complete futility of the students trying to return to a life that has since ceased to exist. Even the broadcast version of the anime neglects it, in favor of the easy ending of bringing down the villain. (Though the extended home video release puts the reason for the game back into play.)

Junko doesn't start up the killing game just to get the students at each other's throats. She is a sick and twisted individual who wants to bring despair to everyone including those outside the school by attacking their symbol of hope, and the students are just chess pieces.

I didn't think Danganronpa could get more messed up than the student murders and subsequent executions, but the truth behind the school and their imprisonment, and that they were trying to escape a place they had voluntarily sequestered themselves inside, exceeded my wildest expectations.

When I finished the game, I wasn't sure how Danganronpa 2 could play out, given that the killing game feels like a unique situation and by then the sequel was already out. While I felt there are more stories to tell with these characters, it didn't seem like it could possibly follow the same format. Next week I'll cover Danganronpa 2!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Writing "Hunters of the Dead"

"Hunters of the Dead" took a long road getting to where it is now, and to be honest it didn't have a glamorous beginning. A year or two out of college I was going to play a homebrew RPG with some friends; an RPG of the tabletop variety. I needed a character.

Jan was created out of leftover gameplay ideas for a different character who was originally created for a piece of fiction. But where that other character was a wizard, Jan was less into the magic and more into the gritty aspect of fighting undead with sword and shuriken. What passed between the other character to Jan was the use of shuriken as a weapon and a lot of necromancy spells (because this was a game and I needed something to do with my turns).

In the week or two downtime between character creation and the game getting started, I wrote a short story called "Hunter of Dead." It wasn't very good, but it my first outing with Jan, so I could get a feel for his personality.

I ended up doing four revisions to that story before leaving it to rest, and it was rejected many, many times.

I think a part of me knew that it wasn't very good, but true to Heinlein's rules, I intended to keep it out on the market until it sold.

Then I won Writers of the Future. It was my first pro sale, and suddenly I had friends and mentors in the writing community that I hadn't before. I couldn't put out crap. What would people think of me?

So I let all my submissions lapse and used a spreadsheet to tag which stories I wanted to take another look at, in case they were worthy of going out again, and which I would in all likelihood trunk for eternity.

While I'd tagged "Hunter of Dead" for a second look, I looked at it again sooner than expected since I was tipped off about a horror anthology and "Hunter of Dead" was the only thing I had that was remotely suitable. I printed out a copy to revise, thinking it would be quick work.

It wasn't.

As I revised I realized how much was wrong with the story, and it wasn't that the character or the concept of his world was bad. It was that there wasn't any plot. It was just a day in his life, and I realized I needed to show the reader why this day was important.

Out went the extended flashback. Out went the original ending. I threw out about half the story, and wrote in its place at least another 75%, which meant that less than 25% of "Hunters of the Dead" came from the original story.

This version benefited from not having been touched in years. I had written other stories set in the world, so there was more backstory to the history of the borderlands, and I knew more about Jan himself since I'd been planning a prequel story at one point.

I thought the story wasn't perfect, but still the best I could do, so I sent it off to a few more places that opened in the interim between when I retired it and when I did the revision. It still got kicked back, but tended to make second rounds. At the time though, it was the best I could do, so I wasn't expecting to go back and do yet another round revisions.

Time passed, and finally I got a rewrite request from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores to improve the pacing. By this time I had several professional sales under my belt, and Jan has been with me for fifteen years (no one ever said that it was fast becoming a professional writer). He's been my player character in two different pen and paper RPGs, my ranger in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, my Hawke in Dragon Age II, and more recently my avatar in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright.

I know Jan, and I still believed in his story. I took a hard look at my last revision and cut it down from 9000 to 7000 words, making it tighter, stronger. I was a better writer now. I knew I could do this.

Now Jan's story is finally out there, and it can be viewed by CR&ES subscribers here as a September 22, 2016 release.

Music listened to while editing: It's been so long I don't remember what I originally wrote it to, though I'll admit there was a period in my life where every other song I heard of the radio could make me think of Jan. LeAnn Rimes's "Life Goes On" was my go to song while RPing (I'm not sure why since I can't listen to it and see Jan anymore), but while doing the latest editing I was stuck on the English cover of "Renegade" performed by Aruvn with lyrics by Jefferz.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Revision and Outline Week Check-In

Part of the reason I made last week's post was for accountability. There was no way I could not work on the revisions and outline that I said I would, if I said I'd do it.

And so I did.

I completed revisions of two novelettes and one short story. I also did some brainstorming for a short story that really ought to be a novelette or novella due to the sheer amount of world building info that I want to use in it. The expansion was not something I expected to start work on this week, but if the stars align it's a potential December project after NaNoWriMo is over.

My main outlining project of the week was in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and that I definitely started. I didn't finish, nor did I expect to, but I have all the major characters and their motivations laid out as well as the opening segment of the novel. Now that I know what everyone's doing and what the tentpole events are going to be I can connect how the plot's going to get from point A to point B and so on.

It really helps me to have a quick outline I can check during the throes of NaNoWriMo, because I'm generally writing too fast to spend brain power on figuring out plot. I usually write somewhere between 2000-3000 words each day, which is a fair bit above the NaNoWriMo daily minimum to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The reason for that is 2000-3000 matches my natural chapter length, and I've found my work comes out more coherent if I think of a day's work in terms of chapters. I have a beginning, middle, and end, and then I'm done for the day. I start fresh with each sunrise.

There's still a week left until November begins, but I should finish the outline by then!

Monday, October 17, 2016

It's Revision (and Outline) Week

I'm fortunate enough to have a job with paid vacation time, and a boss that doesn't mind me taking off to write. My novel work (drafting and editing) tends to get planned out in advance, and because NaNoWriMo is coming up next month with Loscon taking up the majority of the Thanksgiving weekend, I know that my writing time (and writerly activity time) is going to be jammed.

I plan on drafting a new novel during NaNoWriMo, which I've done for the past three years. I find I work well with that kind of schedule, because it lets me keep the whole story relatively fresh in my head, resulting in less continuity errors. There's nothing like realizing you've lost a character for a whole afternoon in a story with a compressed timeline to make you wonder if there might be a better work process to avoid to that. (Better note-taking probably would have helped too.)

Anyway, my November is going to be packed and I have a number of shorter works that I've been meaning to revise. They're stories that were drafted without a specific market in mind so I never finished the revision process, or stories that may have not have turned out as well as I wanted.

Most of them are complicated multi-scene novelettes that require a deeper assessment on whether not all those scenes are necessary. Whatever the reason, I've been hesitant to send them out, but they're doing me zero good sitting on my hard drive.

So I'm taking this week off and devoting at least three days to improve three stories.

Any time remaining will go into working on my outline for my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel, which is still in the throwing things at the wall to see what subplots I'm going to have phase. Thankfully the main plot is pretty set.

Monday, October 10, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 6: Lupin

After a brief break, we are back for the conclusion of my Code: Realize story breakdown.

Lupin ending up being my final playthrough not because I was saving him for last (if all routes had been open from the start I think Lupin would have been third, pushing Impey to fourth, and Saint-Germain last), but because he's gate-locked, I didn't have much choice in the matter.

While it's not uncommon to have a gate-locked romance, it's often the villain or the anti-hero; a sort of reward allow the player to see the story from a new perspective after having gone the proper way through. However, with Code: Realize it's very clear from the opening video and promo art that Lupin is considered the lead romantic option, the closest thing to a canon playthrough, and it's not possible to play his route without having gone through the game four previous times to see Van Helsing, Frankenstein, Saint-Germain, and Impey Barbicane's routes.

While there are players who will do this, not everyone will, particularly if there is a character they just can't stand. To be honest, Impey's route was slow enough that I almost put down the game a couple times and I pushed my way through mostly because I knew Saint-Germain and Lupin's routes would be better. (This is why I put Impey in the middle, because otherwise there was a good chance I wouldn't finish.)

I understand why Lupin's route is locked, after having played it. His story brings everything together for a grand finale that includes elements of everyone else's stories as well as the true reason for Cardia's creation, but it seems needlessly tedious for someone who buys the game because she wants to have a fluffy romance with the gentleman thief on the cover.

I thought Lupin might be a harder love interest to get to know, since he's typically portrayed as the consummate gentleman thief who never loses his cool. But because of that, he's a lot of fun. Sure, he can't fight worth beans and his idea of a dramatic rescue is appearing in a puff of smoke and then running away, but it was hard to play his route without a stupid grin on my face.

Seriously, one of the times he shows up, he says "It was never my intention to fight! This dashing thief's specialty is... dashing!" And then he does, dash that is, while the triumphant romance theme plays. (It helps that he's running away while carrying the woman he loves in his arms, but he's also running away from the "last boss" which is typically a heroic no-no.)

Lupin comes alive in his route in a way he doesn't in most of the others (save Saint-Germain's) and I think that's partially because he's very fond of grand gestures and the writing team might have been afraid he would overshadow the other men if allowed to grandstand. And that's too bad, since the result is that Lupin doesn't really come into his own until the player is almost done with the game.

Because Lupin's route is going to be the player's last, the writers throw in an awful lot of references to the other routes without bothering to explain them. The player will already be familiar with them at this point. Nemo and his Nautilus return from Impey's route, we see the deployment of the Zicterium Twilight had hidden in Victor's route, Idea from Saint-Germain's route shows up to help/hinder the heroes, and Van Helsing learns the true killer of his family and faces off against Aleister.

This the only route that closes off everyone's storyline completely with no further battles to be fought, and everyone has an epilogue that shows them moving on with their lives.

I'm pretty sure that if the announced Code: Realize anime happens, Lupin's route will be used and the final confrontation involving everyone's storyline has the potential to awesome when rendered in animation.

Lupin's route is blast, and everything I could have wanted from a romance with a gentleman thief who is very much both a gentleman and a thief. But there are just two things that nag at me about his storyline.

One is that Cardia is more helpless in his route. It's not because Lupin is a jerk about it like Impey, but she gets discombobulated in ways she doesn't in others. Normally she's good about keeping herself calm under duress. Yet for some reason, Cardia can't keep her head on straight when faced with the various dangers on Lupin's route.

Yes, they are unnervingly more personal in many ways, but she ends up being a helpless damsel a lot. This does come with the side benefit of giving Lupin frequent opportunities for a daring rescue. In fact Lupin has a boatload of scenes depicting him being dashing towards Cardia compared to any other love interest, but I can't help wanting more considering how awesome she is elsewhere.

My other complaint is that Lupin's motivation, once it comes out, is pretty weak. We know Impey is in London to steal back his anti-gravity device, Victor is there to destroy the remaining Zicterium stockpiles, Saint-Germain is there to stop Isaac's plan and destroy his creations, and Van Helsing wants to kill Finis (and later Aleister once he knows the truth).

Lupin's story should be the linchpin, since he's the only one at the start of the game who is specifically there to stop Isaac's plan, but his reason for doing so is because his mentor was a former Twilight operative who didn't like what Isaac was doing and ran away. While this allows Lupin to be aware of what Code: Realize (Isaac's secret plan) is ahead of everyone else, it feels very odd he would feel driven to thwart it.

It might have been different if his mentor had been an honestly good person, but he had betrayed Lupin's trust and fled from Twilight, making no attempt to stop Isaac himself because he was too scared to stay. Though Lupin still has fond memories of the man he thought his mentor had been, he doesn't delude himself about his betrayal, so it seems odd that Lupin considers it an obligation to destroy Code: Realize in honor of his mentor's memory.

I can understand wanting to stop an attack of mass terrorism for its own sake after learning about it, but Lupin's frames his involvement as specifically because of his mentor, and that's enough to make him pack up and move from France to Britain. It's really hard to buy into.

Lupin's story and involvement with Cardia is fun, but doesn't come out as intrinsically tied to her story as with Victor, which is really what stops Lupin's from being my favorite. Perhaps it's his nature as an interloper to not be tied with or to anything (save in marriage to Cardia in the ending), but I thought the romance wasn't as strong because of that. Dashing, yes, but not as deep.

Monday, October 3, 2016

#My5: My Five Writing Influences

My friend Mike Ripplinger invited me to be a part of K. M. Alexander's #My5 project, and I figured, hey, this could be fun! Most of us started writing because we enjoyed someone else's work so much that we wanted to try our hands at it too.

So... "Where do you get your ideas?" The short answer is all over the place. I don't have a novel like K.M. or Mike, but I have short stories enough, and I've been asked the question more than once. A writer tends to be a combination of their interests and life experiences, and that in turn informs what they chose to write about.

So here are the five biggest influences on my work as a whole:

1) Shin Megami Tensei

This RPG series is a gold mine for mythology buffs, as long as one doesn't mind urban fantasy with varying levels of darkness. I think one of my friends got a little destroyed by what he called a "BS" ending when he got to the end of Shin Megami Tensei IV. The series and its various spin-offs frequently have multiple endings and not all of them as nice, but it's the only series where I've restored the world at the end of the game and wondered if preventing the apocalypse was really the right thing to do.

Depending on the game, the answer could be yes, it could be no. But I like that moral ambiguity. It makes me think harder when my protagonist is forced to make a choice.

And the demons! The demons are demons by East Asian definition, which means, "demon" includes any supernatural creature. This is a series where gods, heroes, and monsters of all mythologies, including extant religions, exist simultaneously, and if you've ever wanted the chance to discover new myths you've never heard of, whether they're Inuit, Sumerian, or what have you, there's a good chance you'll stumble across something new in Shin Megami Tensei.

This series was an influence on my stories: "Unfilial Child" and "The World That You Want"

2) Stage Magic

I've enjoyed magic tricks for as long as I could remember. When I was a kid, I had a book on how to do (really crummy) magic tricks. But for most of my life, I was more of an audience member than a magician. I watched TV specials, lined up to get David Copperfield's autograph (I got to see him live while in middle school), and if I got the chance in Vegas I liked to catch a magic show.

But there are a lot of good things in storytelling to learn from stage magic. The best magicians tell a story while they perform, and the reason for that is they want a certain reaction from the audience, and the story preps them for what the magician is looking for. Patter, the words the magician is saying, may also serve the purpose of misdirecting the audience so they are busy thinking about one thing while the magician is doing something else.

This isn't so different from writing. I know I've read more than enough books where I thought "This was pretty good, so good I'll forgive it for not doing X, Y, or Z," which is an excellent bit of stagecraft.

While the magician's audience might come away knowing that magic didn't actually happen, and they might even have an idea of how it happened, if they enjoyed the performance it won't matter. As an author you're directing the reader where you want them to go and leading their expectations. Writing is just like giving a good performance. If it's well done, everyone walks away satisfied.

And these days, if you catch me at a con and ask nicely, I might have a trick ready to show you. I did go back eventually and learn some real sleight of hand.

Stage magic was most obviously an influence on: "Confidence Game"

3) Erich Maria Remarque

When I was in high school, I was assigned All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque for mandatory reading. This turned out to be a life-changing experience, and he was the first author whose work I tried to emulate. While still in high school I tried recreating All Quiet's under attack while making pancakes scene when writing a space opera.

All Quiet on the Western Front left me with a profound interest in WWI-era Germany and an appreciation for the period language of the time. Remarque was the first author I'd ever been assigned in school whose work I would later pick up on my own. I don't know if it's the manner of All Quiet having been my first or that it's the most notable of Remarque's work, but it's the one I always return to, though I also highly recommend The Way Back, which is a sequel of sorts, following different men of the same company when they return home from the war.

His work was an influence on: "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart"

4) Being Chinese American

I debated whether to put this down here, but when I thought about it, I realized that being Chinese, specifically American-born Chinese, is directly responsible for a fair portion of my work. While I've written Chinese-themed stories that have nothing to do with my life, there are a three in particular that draw heavily on my experience as a third generation Chinese American and cultural tidbits dropped by my dad.

I dislike the thought of only writing Chinese stories, as goodness knows I don't want to be pigeon-holed into being a Chinese writer, but sometimes I feel motivated to write because Chinese in the United States are often written as immigrants or the children of immigrants.

As a third generation Chinese American whose Chinese vocabulary is limited to single digits once you exclude food items, I'm about as American as my ethnicity is going to get, so much of my contemporary fantasy features Chinese characters who pretty much suck at being Chinese. They know the traditions, they know the food, but they can't speak for beans.

It's a type of character that I don't see often enough, so if I'm writing contemporary fantasy (or near future science fiction) I usually make them a third or fourth generation Chinese American that I can relate to.

Influence on: "Mooncakes," "The Ancestors," and "Unfilial Child"

5) Japanese pop culture

I was exposed to anime while still in elementary school, before I even knew what the word was. All I understood was that these Japanese cartoons were "better" than the majority of American ones. I liked that they had ongoing storylines, and that the characters' actions had consequences. Sometimes, people even died.

Adding icing on the cake, once I got a video game system of my own, I discovered that the vast majority of games I liked also came from Japan. I liked the art style, and I liked the kinds of games they made, which were rarely attempted by western developers. (I was a big JRPG fan.)

This grew into a life-long appreciation for Japanese pop culture. When people ask me "Who would you cast as your main character?" My reply is invariably, "I don't know. Everything looks like an animated movie in my head." Specifically, it looks like an anime in my head.

With the internet these days, it's easier than ever to find Japanese exports. I read translated manga and books, watch translated anime and dramas, listen to J-pop, and I happen to live next to a city with one of the highest Japanese ex-pat populations in the US, which means that great, authentic Japanese food is just a few minutes away.

This was an influence on: Just about everything

If you'd like to check out more writerly influences, you can read the other #My5 posts here:

K. M. Alexander's #My5: The Bell Forging Cycle
Mike Ripplinger's #My5: The Verdant Revival
Eric Lange's #My5: 30 Second Fantasy

Monday, September 26, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 5: Saint-Germain

I saved Count Saint-Germain for second to last because I heard his storyline was very good, so I figured this would pick me up after Impey's route and carry me well into Lupin's.

Though it took me a while to get into it, it ultimately made a good impression. I was still thinking about the final chapters of his route days after I finished it. It wasn't perfect, but the ending made up for a lot.

The problem is that Saint-Germain is a difficult character to get a handle on. He's the mysterious man with an enigmatic smile, so you never really know what he's thinking. When I went through the shared route a fourth time to catch all the Saint-Germain specific scenes, I didn't get much to illuminate his character that I didn't already know. I didn't feel closer to him. And then there was the confrontation with Finis.

At the end of the common route, the love interest who Cardia is closest to, will interrupt the completion of Finis's plan and prepare to fight him off, only for Saint-Germain to suddenly show up and stab Finis from behind, killing him and ending the danger. This is the only time on most routes that Saint-Germain is ever depicted with his eyes open. And he's the only one of the love interests to actually kill another person in front of Cardia. (Van Helsing's got a lot of blood on his hands, but all of it's in the past.)

On all the routes, Cardia is shocked by the sudden death of Finis, who in a sense was her brother, being an artificial creation of her father's, just like herself. Saint-Germain's merciless demeanor can be forgiven and even forgotten when Cardia's attention (and thus the player's) is drawn back to her primary love interest, but that doesn't happen on Saint-Germain's route when he's the only other person present and she has to come to grips with the fact the guy she has an affinity for just snuffed out her brother's life like he was a mosquito.

Saint-Germain's route gets rather weird and uncomfortable fast and stays that way for at least a couple chapters because everything is a secret about him. All we know is that suddenly he wants to kill Cardia and he's isolated her from the rest of the gang to do it.

He doesn't come off as wanting to go through with murdering her, which prevents him from being completely irredeemable, but he's clearly willing, since there are multiple bad endings where he follows through. Fortunately, Cardia is a fairly active protagonist, so even though she cares about Saint-Germain and worries about what he's hiding, she has no interest in passively waiting around for him to kill her either.

I was relieved when she manages to escape (quite smartly too) and make her way back to the other guys, who are gallant enough to help her figure out what's going on with Saint-Germain and his connection to the secret organization known as Idea (pronounced ee-DAY-ah).

The story that comes out is a bit over the top, but this is where his route gets interesting. In a nutshell, Idea is run by the biblical Eve, who can see the myriad possibilities of the future due to having eaten of the forbidden fruit. To make up for her failures she is trying to guide humanity to salvation by preventing catastrophes that would wipe out the human race. The immortal Apostles of Idea, which include Saint-Germain, are her enforcers who do whatever is needed to prevent disasters, even if it means killing a few innocents to save a greater number of lives.

The example Saint-Germain angsts over in game is his failure to stop the Black Plague in Europe, which killed millions, and he could have prevented it if he had executed an infected boy he instead took pity on.

Cardia, being an artificial life, is seen by Idea as an attempt to trespass into the realm of God. Saint-Germain killed Finis for the same reason and presumably killed Cardia's father as well, though Eve doesn't specify which agent specifically did the deed.

But there's a slight problem in that Saint-Germain has developed feelings for Cardia, so he's having trouble following through with her.

Assuming the right choices are made, Saint-Germain eventually decides his love for Cardia is stronger than his sense of duty and turns against Idea knowing that doing so will cause Eve to revoke his immortality, so he races to take out the remaining Apostles and Eve before his body degrades entirely, since he originally died thousands of years ago.

Naturally this won't make for a happy ending for him and Cardia since Saint-Germain will end up dead at the end of it even if he succeeds. So it's up to Cardia and the rest of the guys to come up with a plan to haul Saint-Germain's butt out of the fire (even if he did try to kill Cardia).

While I generally dislike it when love interests run around with a deathwish, Saint-Germain's torment really sells it. The way things stand at the point he turns his back on Idea, he really can't do anything to earn a happy ending with Cardia. If he doesn't kill her, another Apostle will, so his only option is to stop them, and by betraying them, he seals his own fate.

The situation the count is forced into, where all options are bad, made for a good story, and when Cardia makes a gambit of her own to save his life, her options are similarly either bad or worse.

I did have two complaints when I got to the end though. 1) Cardia and Saint-Germain both get a little ridiculous in their willingness to die for their other half, when it's clear that whoever survives is going to be miserable. 2) Saint Germain's storyline doesn't make it clear why he never tries to kill Cardia in the other routes, since presumably that has been his secret mission the entire time. If there was an event specific to his route that gave him a reason to kill Cardia that didn't exist on others, this would make more sense.

Lupin and Victor have surprisingly prominent roles in Saint-Germain's storyline, likely because Saint-Germain himself is actually a villain for a fair portion of his own route. I was fairly neutral towards Lupin previously, but after seeing how much he stands by Cardia and tries to help her when Saint-Germain is their enemy/rogue cannon I found I really liked him and I was looking forward to his route. I'm glad I played this one second to last.

Victor is always sympathetic to Cardia, but Saint-Germain's route is notable in that it actually foreshadows what's going to happen to Cardia in Victor's storyline. It makes me want to replay Victor's and see if I can pick out just when he realizes she's turning into a poison time bomb.

Monday, September 19, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 4: Impey

I selected Impey for my third playthrough of Code: Realize because I was pretty sure I was going to have the least fun on his route and I wanted him to be the hump to get over before my ride accelerated again to the finish. The problem with Impey is that he's not a particular deep character. He's fantastic as a supporting cast member, but the other love interests clearly have agendas that have helped bring them together.

Impey is along for the ride because something of his was stolen and he hooked up with Lupin to get it back, and it's clear that finding the thief is a secondary priority to finding Cardia's father and stopping a terrorist plot, which is more or less the end goal at the start of the game. Aside from that, Impey serves as the group's comedy relief. He's loud, he's brash, he's the wannabe casanova who can't get a date, and he's known for two talents; being a good engineer and being a good cook.

From the moment he's introduced he's constantly hitting on Cardia and it makes it hard for a real romance to build. Their initial conversations are entertaining because she begins the game as a largely emotionless doll so when she shuts down Impey's flirtatious invitations she does so in a hilariously blunt fashion with no harm intended save the truth itself. Even moments when she chooses to hang out with him are phrased along the lines of "Well, I'm going with you because Lupin looks too busy and Victor's tired, so you were the last one left."

Because Impey is constantly proclaiming his love for Cardia, and Cardia is constantly pushing back (even correcting him when he tells one of the villains not to hurt his girlfriend), it doesn't feel entirely natural when she first admits she loves him, which actually happens a lot earlier than in other routes.

There are a couple nudges along the way to make it clear that Impey isn't just blowing smoke, but her admission comes out in a rush instead of a gradual awakening. It's more of a "Wow, I guess I do like you!" Considering that the admission comes under pressure doesn't help either, and Impey is so keen to prove to the other guys that she actually likes him that I can't help feeling bad for her embarrassment.

Also on his route it turns out that he's a vampire, which explains why he can constantly be pummeled by antagonists without getting killed. But even that revelation felt underwhelming. Though it makes narrative sense to explain his physical abilities (and vampires in this world aren't sunlight sensitive), it feels rather tacked on. There's a whole chapter in the shared route that deals with the fallout from the Vampire War, and while Impey might not be interested in revealing that he's a vampire, his reactions to the attempted genocide are muted and easily mistaken or forgotten.

This is a stark contrast to Victor, who reacts fairly noticeably and more often when elements of his personal story are touched on in the shared route, even if he might not explain why.

I suppose on the one hand, Impey is the last love interest I would have pegged as a vampire precisely because he's the butt of jokes, so there's something about breaking stereotypes. I don't see many greasemonkey vampires who are terrible at flirting with girls. But what you see with Impey, is pretty much what you get. Even being a vampire doesn't feel like a terrible secret so much as something he just never bothered to mention.

When Cardia pushes to know everything about him, we get a story about how he became an engineer, and why he wants to go to the moon in honor of an old friend. It's in character for Impey, but it just doesn't feel like it expanded his character as much as Van Helsing and Victor's backstories. Their flashback sequences allow the player to see another side of them, but Impey is still Impey.

His route also hurts for having the least compelling final villain. Van Helsing's route ends with a confrontation against his mentor, who he had previously trusted. Victor's route ends facing off against Queen Victoria, who is diametrically opposed to him on the use of Zicterium, which he created while in her employ.

Impey's villain is Captain Nemo (also from a Jules Verne novel), but Nemo is presented as a comically insane side character prior to the route split, unlike Victoria and Aleister, who are respectively the queen of Britain and one of the highest ranked agents in Twilight.

It turns out that Nemo is the one who stole Impey's anti-gravity gadget and he uses it to fly a gigantic air fortress called the Nautilus with which he intends to punish anyone in the world who does not acknowledge the power of science. He also has a serious case of "Please notice me, senpai" for those who get the joke.

The result is that the final villain is a whackjob (the characters in game actually refer to him as that) with minimal ties to the main story. Though the game tries to shoehorn him into the greater conflict, it doesn't quite work. His biggest connection is that he stole Impey's gadget, which is given short shrift in every other route, and the other two strands are also tenuous. He knew Cardia's father, but there's virtually nothing new to be learned from him, and even though Twilight is working with him, to the point they actually ditched the government, the reason for that is never explained nor is there enough information to guess why they would in the first place, considering Nemo's insanity.

Also, this may be more of a personal thing, but I disliked Impey's need to show off. Cardia is a competent heroine, but if Impey is in the position where he can defend her, he outright refuses to let her fight, even when she says she wants her chance to protect him. Unlike Victor's ending, where choosing to trust him at the final decision point nets the good ending, not choosing to trust Impey earns his good ending, because Impey wants to pull one of those heroic deaths while sending his beloved to safety.

Impey is just very macho about how he wants to present himself to his girl and the fact he doesn't trust or respect Cardia's wishes irritates me.

Monday, September 12, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 3: Victor

I went back to Frankenstein for my second playthrough of Code: Realize since he was a close second to Van Helsing, but I was a little more doubtful I would enjoy his route just because I was afraid Cardia would get fewer opportunities to take the initiative as a way to make up for the fact that Victor Frankenstein is never going to be anyone's action hero.

It turns out that I like his route the best, and Cardia still kicks ass precisely because Victor isn't your typical male hero, allowing the two of them compliment each other's capabilities. There's a lot of back and forth with them looking out for each other depending on who's healthiest or most suited for the occasion. When they're both captured and thrown in separate prison cells, she's the one who breaks out, knocks out a bunch of guards, and rescues him.

Though Victor sometime has trouble keeping up with her (if they're on the run usually he's the one who tires out first), I like that he doesn't express regret at being less of a physical fighter than the other men. His emotional hang-ups have more to do with his past instead of traditional notions of masculinity.

Van Helsing's story involved a lot of vampires and a war with them two years prior to the start of the game. This was expected given his literary origins, so I wondered, where was Frankenstein's monster?

And the answer is Cardia herself.

Though he is not directly responsible for creating her, prior to the story Victor was asked by Queen Victoria to work on creating the Philosopher's Stone. As a byproduct of his research he created a highly poisonous substance called Zicterium. In its gaseous form it can be used for chemical warfare, which the government used in the Vampire War that Van Helsing fought in.

Because Victor never intended to create such a devastating weapon, he quit his job (which is not something you do when working on sensitive material for the queen) and became a wanted man, hunted by government agents for being the sole person with the knowledge of how to synthesize Zicterium. If Victor ever left the country and shared his knowledge with other nations it would be a gigantic security breach.

Cardia's father picked up Victor's research where he left off and further refined Zicterium into the Horologium gem that resides in her chest in place of a heart, the very thing that makes her body a mass of poison.

Victor feels guilty that Cardia's life is a mess because of his creation. Without it, she wouldn't exist, and be trapped in a body that forbids her from ever touching another person.

He actually finds out early on that she's an artificial being during the shared route, but declines to fully explain his role in her creation unless pursued as a romance interest (or in the epilogue of Lupin's ending). Regardless of whether or not he reveals his past, on all routes Victor promises to work on a cure for her and is never less than caring. When she joins up with the group, Victor is the one that manufactures custom silverware for her to use that can't be melted by her poison so she can eat at the table like everyone else.

One reason I like Victor's route the best is that his personal story weaves in tightly with Cardia's. On other routes she may fall in love with a character, but, using Van Helsing as an example, his storyline is largely about him. It's his pain, his revenge, and Cardia is the loving girlfriend who saves him from destroying himself.

While Victor also has something dear to accomplish in atoning for his past mistakes, Cardia's well-being is equally important to him. The emotional undercurrent of the final chapter is Cardia needing to believe that he really can handle both, that he can both stop the stored Zicterium from being unleashed in London while also saving her humanity. It helps that one leads to the other, and knowing that he's going to cut it close, Victor asks Cardia to not lose faith in him even at the last moment. Whether or not she does determines whether or not the player gets the good ending to his story.

And damn does Victor cut it close.

Usually when there's a timer in a story, it counts down and the heroes beat it just before zero. Victor's gamble actually runs over, though he goes in understanding there's some wiggle room and it works out in the end.

The other reason I like Victor so much is that most of the guys are interested in either dying for their cause or doing a heroic sacrifice to protect Cardia, which can be admirable, but isn't so great from Cardia's standpoint as the one who has to carry on. However, when Victor has the option to die to ensure Cardia's survival, he categorically refuses it. He realizes that his death would hurt her immensely and in his ending he is adamant that they will both survive. The achievement for completing his ending reflects his choice, being called "The World, With You."

After completing Victor's route, it's worth rereading his scenes along the shared path on a future playthrough, as a second read makes it incredibly clear how much he figures out about Cardia as soon as they meet, and it's possible to read between the lines of many of his evasive comments. The way his expression changes in his very first CG takes on a whole new level of meaning once you realize just why he's reacting the way he does.

Since he's naturally the most kind-hearted member of the cast the fact he's hiding something doesn't come across as sinister, making it easy on a first playthrough to overlook all the times he changes the conversation, deflects questions, or outright refuses to answer.

Monday, September 5, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 2: Van Helsing

Unfortunately I got horribly sick from food poisoning last weekend, so I didn't get around to finishing my write-up for Van Helsing's route, which ironically was the first one I played in Code: Realize, considering that the rest are pretty much post-ready.

At the time I knew I wanted to write something for Code: Realize I wasn't sure if I'd be doing a single blog post or one for each route as I had done for Amnesia, and since Van Helsing was first, my entry for him ended up being the least developed.

When I started the game I wasn't sure who I would end up with on my first playthrough, and unlike Amnesia, where I had to make a choice at the beginning, I figured I'd just go where the story pulled me. Initially, I bought the game for Lupin, because he looks like a really fun character, but his ego in the early scenes rubbed me the wrong way (and it turns out he's gate-locked) so I figured I would end up with Victor Frankenstein. He surprised me, being the sweetest and most introspective of the five men, but that pretty much went out the window once Van Helsing got introduced.

Aside from the fact I've always favored vampire hunters over vampires, Van Helsing is the one who teaches Cardia martial arts and how to defend herself. (And she uses those lessons!) He lays down one of the best IRL rules for combat, as in don't fight if you can avoid it, and then proceeds to explain what Cardia should do if she has no choice, including weaponizing the poison in her body.

I loved that he didn't coddle her and that he took her seriously, which makes his overprotective change in demeanor later in the storyline easier to swallow, because the fact he acts differently shows that how he feels about her has changed as well. Tough luck getting him to admit it though.

Being a renowned slayer of vampires he naturally has baggage and Van Helsing is carrying so much that he's pretty much only standing for the sake of revenge. When it becomes increasingly apparent just how much his revenge is going to cost, he begins pushing Cardia away so she won't go down with him.

Visual novels can have action sequences, but because the player has no input into them, their success relies on their ability to convey the stakes. What would be a traditional last boss fight usually doesn't work, but the action scenes are fun, and it helps that hearing a gun click is used so well that it invokes a Pavlovian response in the player.

It means Van Helsing is here, and he's about to kick ass.

Van Helsing as a character fits a certain "type," the kind I tend not to have so much patience with anymore, though he's not as bad an example of others. He's very much a tsundere, pretending he doesn't care about Cardia and that there's nothing between them until he realizes that if he doesn't reveal the extent of his feelings she's going to get hurt/killed (never mind all the hurting he himself does while trying to drive her away for her own safety).

I think it hurts a little too that his route loses a lot of levity from earlier in the story. While Van Helsing has a blood drenched past, he has a dry sense of humor that comes out earlier in the story, and ends up the butt of a joke himself. (Seriously, the Van Helsing Cannon during the airship race was amazing! Who needs a weapon when you can shoot Van Helsing himself at your enemies?)

But once his story is fully underway, Cardia's own plot is swept away so the game can drag all of Van Helsing's skeletons out of the closet; how he was blackmailed into killing hundreds of peaceful vampires to save his family (in what world is that okay?), how he was a human experiment, and how his mentor was the one who orchestrated all of it in order to create a monster.

In the final chapter of Van Helsing's route it's obvious that his mentor, Aleister, will succeed if the drugged and brainwashed Van Helsing kills Cardia, because killing the woman he loves will sever the last thread of what sanity he has left. Once Van Helsing realizes what he's done, he'll break.

To her credit, Cardia does not sit in a corner weeping over her fate, and in one of the most badass moments I've seen in an otome heroine, she rips off her glove and grabs Aleister by the throat bare-handed to get him to call off Van Helsing. Aleister is a little too messed up in the head to be phased by the fact she's melting his skin off, but the action does get him to commit suicide, preventing him from seeing the completion of his plan.

This leaves the climax between Cardia and the still brainwashed Van Helsing, and what follows is the only scene that made me want to sit Cardia down and give her a stern lecture.

We just got through how killing her is the last thing that Van Helsing wants, and it's what's going to push him over the edge. But somehow, when he finally pins her and wants to kill her as the object of his revenge, Cardia tells him to go ahead if that's what it takes to break his madness, and I'm like "What part of letting yourself die do you think is going to make him happy?!"

After enough anguished dialogue, he comes to his senses long enough to not kill her, but Van Helsing is aware that it may only be a temporary reprieve, so he chooses to stab himself in the chest and end all threat to Cardia.

Now, I wasn't sure what would happen. This was my first playthrough and I wasn't using a walkthrough. It was entirely possible I didn't get a good ending, and Helsing was going to die right in front of Cardia. His farewell, everything that had led up to this point, was entirely in character,

I had gone into Code: Realize looking forward to a light and fluffy romance, but found myself tearing up instead. (Probably should've known it would happen when I went for the vampire hunter. Alas.)

It turns out that if the player makes enough good choices, Van Helsing pulls through and his unconsciousness is only temporary, leaving the door open to a happily ever after. Now that he's all done with revenge, he's ready for a more peaceful life, and he stops pushing Cardia away.

Van Helsing in the epilogue and his bonus scene is a much warmer person, and much more affectionate to Cardia, though there is still the poison issue since they pretty much discarded that part of her storyline in his route. He does note that he wants to get that fixed, since that kinda gets in the way of any bedroom activities.

Normally I would mind the lack of resolution on that front, but overall I had a lot of fun with it, and aside from dropping Cardia's plot and the weird "it's okay to kill me" part at the end, it was enjoyable and likely what most players would expect from a romance with a vampire hunter.