Monday, February 29, 2016

ReLIFE Vol 1-3

I hadn't tried a new manga series in a while, one that I hadn't been introduced to via an anime, and decided to try ReLIFE, which will be getting an anime adaptation later this year.

I picked ReLIFE by Yayoi Sou because of the twist on the usual manga about high school life. Rather than following yet another teenager through school, ReLIFE focuses on the second chance of Arata Kaizaki.

Arata is twenty-seven years old and at the start of the story he's looking for full time work. He has a few disadvantages. He's a little older than expected for a new worker due to having entered college two years later than normal (even allowing for the fact he attended grad school as well) and his only prior full time job lasted for a mere three months before he quit. Arata looks unfocused and less than ideal for a new employee, but he really needs work, especially since his parents have decided that he's old enough that they're going to stop paying for his apartment. If he wants help, he's going to have to come home to the countryside.

His situation is a frightfully relatable one for anyone in a tough job market. When Arata meets his more successful friends for dinner he pretends he's gainfully employed, dressing in a suit and tie as though he had just come from work, but he can't keep this up while his only income is a part-time job at a convenience store.

On his way home after one of those meetings, he encounters an employee from the company ReLife, who introduces him to a project they run for people like him, for people who have potential but may need a second chance to get it right.

The encounter and Arata's induction into the program is a little contrived, but once that's out of the way, the rest of the first three volumes are a lot of fun.

The ReLife project de-ages Arata to seventeen and sends him back to high school where he will live for a year as a third year high school student (the equivalent to a senior in the US system). While part of the project, ReLife will pay for all his living expenses, and should he graduate successfully from the project he will be offered a job on his return to being an adult.

ReLIFE is told in short vignettes of a few pages, detailing the problems that Arata runs into in trying to hide the fact he's an adult while also getting used to going to school. While most manga have 4-6 chapters per volume, ReLIFE can have 16 or more.

His adjustment going back to school is unsurprisingly rough. He forgets to bring a pencil for schoolwork, and he's shocked by the fact students are allowed to carry cell phones when that was forbidden when he was in school (a sign of the changing standards for technology). Probably the best moment early in the first volume is when his homeroom teacher asks to see his bag and then finds the pack of cigarettes inside.

As an angry teacher might, she asks him "What are these?" and Arata, completely nonplussed, says, "Cigarettes."

It takes him a moment to realize that as a teenager he shouldn't be smoking them, let alone bringing them to school.

When his homeroom teacher talks to him after school about cigarettes and how they'll ruin his health, he realizes that she's actually a little younger than him, and dealing with problematic kids is part and parcel of her job. Arata can see that she honestly cares and is trying to steer him on a good path, which makes him respect her more than he would have had he been the right age.

The chapters are interspersed with notes by Ryo Yoake, the ReLife employee assigned to support him, and are filled with his hopes and concerns. Though Yoake is not front and center in Arata's life, he's always there, since as a supporter he has de-aged himself so he can go to school with Arata and monitor his progress. The two aren't allowed to be close since that would interfere with Arata's school life, but Yoake is far from impartial. He really seems to want Arata to get something out of his experience.

Yoake's notes are also how the passage of time is marked. The first three volumes cover just a little over a month, but it's enough to see and be entertained by Arata's adaptation to school as well as introduce a couple potential wrinkles.

Only three volumes have been released in English so far, and the fifth Japanese one just came out this month. At the pace they're going it will be a while before Arata's year as a seventeen-year-old is up.

The manga's not in paperback format in the US yet, but it can be read by anyone with a premium membership at Crunchyroll. Unusually for manga, it's also in full color.

Monday, February 22, 2016

On Replaying Dragon Age II

I finished revising a short story recently and sent it off to one of my friends who does a bang up job of pointing out flaws. He's not a writer, which is important, because he doesn't suggest fixes. He just lets me know what looks wrong or weird to the untrained eye, which ought to be most of my readers.

What's this got to do with Dragon Age II?

Well, I knew I was going to be getting a reply back in a few days and I didn't want to lose momentum. It's terrible setting aside a project only for your mojo to leave you, so one of the things I sometimes do is go play a game with a customizable main character and play as my protagonist. This means that I get to think idle thoughts about my character during the empty times when I can't actually work on the story.

I picked Dragon Age II because it's the only one in the series that allows for a human character of common birth, and my protagonist is a scrapper.

This is not my first time playing through Dragon Age II (it's actually my third, since I did two back to back playthroughs when the game first game out), but it's been enough time that I'm able to look at it with more distance than I did before. And coming off the third game, Inquisition, it's a very different animal. But I still like it a lot.

I was never one of the people who disliked the second game, and despite any shortcomings, there's a lot to enjoy about it.

Usually I talk about a game's story on this blog, and while I do like the writing, particularly as far as the characters are concerned, this time I want to talk about the things I didn't appreciate the first time around.

For instance, the getting around town and doing quests is very user friendly. After the initial visit to any given location in Kirkwall, the player can easily rack up a bunch of main and side quests, and then systematically knock them out one area at a time. It makes it possible to completely clear out all or most of Kirkwall in an given story act with just an afternoon's play time. A second afternoon will cover the outlying areas and any backtracking.

The side quests are dropped right alongside main quests and are very easy to do along the way. Other than a few straggle quests that are usually related to major characters I rarely felt I had to go out of the way for anything. In these days with 100+ hour games I really appreciate the efficiency as time spent running around just getting from one place to another is time I'm not actively progressing.

I also find that I like the entire game being centered around a single city and its multiple districts, because how many games are built like that? I never felt like I knew Denerim in the first game, but I know Kirkwall. The good part of town looks different from the bad part of town, and the city itself has all kinds of flavor leftover from the empire that once built it. I don't remember being quite so disturbed the first time I played as I did now walking beneath the bronze statues of tormented slaves. (Seriously, who commissions those kinds of pieces?)

Dragon Age II got a lot of flak for its reused dungeons, and I remember being annoyed by them the first time around, but now I barely noticed. Yeah, it's the same cave for the fifth time, but most of the dungeons are very small and quick. I'm in and out so fast that I can run through a couple of them in a single night. I'd rather have a small dungeon reused several times than go through a long unique dungeon where I have to make several trips back to town in order to empty out my bags.

And bag management is quite reasonable. I love being able to do several side quests that involve lots of fighting and looting and not have to empty out my bags until I'm halfway through the act, and by most standards I'm a packrat.

Okay, there is one story thing on my mind though, and it stuck out at me more this time than it did before.

The whole thing with Kirkwall in Dragon Age II is that the simmering hostility between the mages and the templars who watch over them has reached a boiling point and the two sides are braced to shed blood over it.

I think most players are predisposed to feeling sympathy for the mages. Mages are born with their powers and they can't help being vulnerable to possession by demons, so the Chantry mandates mage Circles as a place for them to live and train with others like them. It's not a voluntary choice to live in one, and the templars oversee the mages should any of them tread down a dangerous path, but depending on the mage it's not a bad place to be. Ideally the templars are there just in case anything goes wrong, but each Circle and the templars watching over it are different.

My first playthrough was as an apostate mage (a mage who has never been in or has rejected the Circle) and I ended up siding with the mages in the final battle between mages and templars. It made sense that she would defend them.

My second playthrough I was determined to be a jerk to everyone and sided with the templars. I wanted a different playthrough and did one that would justify taking a harsher route in the end.

Now that I'm in my third playthrough, I know what's going to happen, but I have more distance, and my protagonist is not a mage. I think I'll end up siding with the mages this third time, but it's less of a blind choice than before.

Seriously, there are blood mages practicing illegal, sacrificial magic all over the place! I don't think it's that I didn't see it my first playthrough, but being a mage I was very much in the mindset of "not all mages." This time, my protagonist recognizes that there is a serious problem here and the mages are out of control. For a while I thought I might actually side with the templars and it'd make sense.

But I probably won't. My protagonist still can't imagine mass killing an entire group of people and that's what the templars call for at the end of the game; the Right of Annulment. Even if half of the mages are psychotic nutjobs, I couldn't condone killing all of them just to be sure no more of them turn. I suppose some characters could justify it, but my protagonist is a kinder person than that.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Belated Year's Best Surprise

Last year I received word from Julia Rios that she would like to publish my flash story "The Ancestors" in the Year's Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2014. I was extremely flattered and agreed. And once the table of contents was released I was shocked to find the company I was in! Kelly Link! Nalo Hopkinson! Lavie Tidhar! I'm not supposed to share a ToC with these people.

And then I moved on to other things. More stories to write. More stories to sell. Contract was taken care of. I was paid. But there was still just one little thing that bugged me from time to time.

It finally arrived last week. :)

It's my contributor copy!

Sorry for the blurry photo. I'm not used to taking pictures with my tablet and apparently I just don't hold it steady enough for good picture taking.

Still, it's here, and it's all mine!

Monday, February 8, 2016

RPG Talk: Fire Emblem: Awakening

I wasn't originally planning on writing one of these for Fire Emblem: Awakening, but seeing as Fire Emblem: Fates is coming out February 19th, it seems like this is a good time and I finished up my second playthrough back in January.

I'm not a long time Fire Emblem player, so I was leery of getting into Awakening because some series have a long history where you miss a lot if you aren't familiar with previous installments, but I was assured little to no Fire Emblem knowledge was needed, and it's mostly true.

I did get the feeling I was missing something, but oddly enough, the stuff I thought I was missing from a previous game was actually invented for Awakening (if wikis are any indication), which I suppose may say something about the writing.

Though the dialogue is prettied up, the plot of this strategy RPG feels like it fell out of the 8-bit or early 16-bit era. My first time through the game I kept getting Shining Force flashbacks, which was one of my favorite games on the Sega Genesis. You have your evil country invading to resurrect a long dead dragon and it involves crossing a couple continents and fighting good generals whose primary fault is that they're loyal to the wrong country.

I suppose some of that may have originally been a Fire Emblem thing to do (since it predated Shining Force in Japan), but that doesn't change the fact that the plot is very simple. There's never any question who the bad guys are and the bad guys tend to be irredeemably bad. That border dispute? Yeah, totally the other guys' fault, because that's who they are.

Except if certain individuals get dialogue that shows they're actually nice people and got coerced into doing things.

But Awakening does a few things, besides having awesome gameplay, to make up for its lackluster main plot (which is pretty much beat the bad guys of one country, beat the bad guys of another country, beat new bad guys from the first country who we saw coming a mile away, and then fight the dragon).

The first thing that seems really novel to me (though apparently Fire Emblem has done such things before) is that the player character and the main character are two separate people. Prince Chrom is the leader of the Ylissan army and the one character who is mandatory for every plot-related battle in the game. He is essential to the story, since the titular Fire Emblem belongs to his family and he takes it as his personal responsibility to defeat the Fell Dragon like his ancestor did before him. If he dies it's game over. But he's not the player character.

The player character is Chrom's tactician, who wakes up with amnesia at the start of the game after having a strange dream where he or she betrayed Chrom and killed him. The player avatar is modifiable along the lines of gender, height, hair, voices, name, and birthday (you get presents for playing on your birthday), but sadly not skin color, which I chalk up to Japan being a homogenous country.

This is kind of stupid for plot reasons because once the avatar's heritage is known, you realize that if the avatar's skin color should be set to anything, they would likely be darker skinned than they are.

The avatar is not required to be deployed for all battles, but plays an important part since the player is essential fulfilling the tactician role on the field or off by executing all the movements and attacks in battle. It's a role that is plot-wise equal to Chrom's, if not in some ways greater, especially if the player chooses to play a female avatar and marry Chrom as part of the story.

The second interesting thing is the support system, which forms the basis of a lot of subplots. Support is a Fire Emblem standby, where units that fight next to each other a lot build up Support ranks so they fight even better when paired together. But new to Awakening is that at the highest support ranks, the units can get married (hetero-only, though Fates is taking baby steps and offering two bisexual characters). This creates a fun dynamic where the player gains gameplay benefits from pairing up characters while also serving as a matchmaker's dream, complete with subplot for every romantic combination.

The third item is that the story has a time travel wrinkle. In the not so distant future, Grima the Fell Dragon has won, Chrom is dead, and Ylisse has fallen. Chrom's daughter, Lucina, makes a desperate bid to change the past, traveling back in time along with the children of the other heroes to stop Grima's resurrection.

This means that every married couple in the army will have at least one recruitable child, who (having gone back in time) is now grown up and capable of joining the war effort. But the kids aren't recruitable until after the parents get married so Support dialogues between the appropriate parents as well as inheritable skills and hair colors can be properly set.

It's pretty fun getting the conversations between the parents and the children they've yet to have (or have yet to grow up) and there are more than a few personality clashes, which I suspect is part of the point. Given the grim future, most of the children have been orphaned, some before they even knew their parents, and more than one has trust issues.

The marriage system in combination with the recruitable children, is really what sets Awakening apart from other games, so much so that Fates is going use the same system (though I'm unsure of the particulars because the time travel trick would be a terrible thing to reuse). I have jokingly said that even though this a game about fighting battles and winning wars, the real reason I'm playing is to hook everyone up.

I've played through twice now, once as a female who married Chrom, and once as a male who married someone else, and I'd have to say that narratively playing Chrom's wife makes for the best tension.

Chrom's story is pretty straightforward (protect his country and his loved ones from invaders), but the avatar's is not. Though the amnesia never goes away, the avatar's past gets filled in as the story progresses, both through Lucina and through the villains. The avatar was born to be a vessel for Grima's resurrection, but their memory got messed up when Lucina went back in time and the future Grima tried to follow her. He was weak from the time travel so he figured he would merge with the avatar early to get back to his full power, but it backfired and robbed the avatar of their memory.

The weird dream in the beginning was a memory from the future Grima, and stopping the avatar from killing Chrom is one of the reasons Lucina has gone back in time.

While she is reluctant to raise a blade to her father's trusted friend, the tension is even better when she's confronting her own mother.

By marrying Chrom, the avatar's personal subplot, Lucina's subplot, and the main plot to stop Grima merge and the story becomes one of family and the bonds between them, which doesn't happen with a male avatar (or with a female avatar who doesn't marry Chrom).

Awakening doesn't break new ground from an overarching plot perspective, but it's serviceable and the characters are delightful. Each unit has a unique name, portrait, and personality so you're never moving around Random Archer #2. As someone who enjoyed Shining Force and was disappointed by the various random faces in the starting party of Final Fantasy Tactics this was very welcome.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Writing "Confidence Game"

"Confidence Game" is the first story of mine anyone has ever called "first class space opera," which makes me chuffed beyond belief. I'm glad that Chuck Rothman over at Tangent enjoyed the story and that he found protagonist Daryl Yagami "a smart and funny character who's always on top of things."

When Mike Resnick invited me to write an entry in Galaxy's Edge's Sargasso setting, I thought it would be fun, but I didn't realize by how much. Shared worlds are generally pulpier than stories accepted by most other short fiction venues, which would allow me to write more a more action-oriented plot that would be difficult to sell elsewhere.

I read through the preexisting Sargasso stories in preparation and by the time I finished I knew exactly what I wanted.

I wanted to write a stage magician in space, because it's an occupation we seldom see in a science fiction setting. Then I also made him gay and of Japanese ethnic descent, because there aren't enough lovable rogue characters in Western fiction that are gay or Asian, let alone both.

So I ended up with "Confidence Game," a story about an ex-con artist turned magician who gets dragged back into his old line of work in exchange for clearing his criminal record. There are a lot of stories about a criminal hired for one last job before he retires, but Daryl Yagami thought he was already done when his past catches up with him.

Daryl was super fun to write, especially as I built out his backstory so he would be capable of performing the tasks necessary for the plot, and of course, like any good stage magician, he has an assistant in the form of a Translator alien named Kappa. Though I was not able to work it into the story itself since it was rather extraneous, Kappa got his human name from Daryl, who named him after the Japanese kappa from folklore, since Translators look like tortoises (or turtles, which Daryl figures are close enough).

Probably one of the most entertaining things about writing a magician is that Daryl is allowed to pull off some crazy sleight of hand that might be questioned if another character was doing it, but it's no more outrageous than we might see a live magician perform on stage. Just because the story is set in the future doesn't mean that old art forms have disappeared!

Also, having Kappa in the story not only provides Daryl with a friend who is (mostly) in the know, but it gives him someone to play off of. I don't think "Confidence Game" would work as well without him, as Daryl spends so much time lying left and right about who he really is and what he's really doing. Kappa serves as the anchor for the audience that makes Daryl sympathetic, and my beta readers loved him.

"Confidence Game" is still free to read at Galaxy's Edge from now until the end of February. Though it's part of a larger series, it should still be readable by anyone hankering for some espionage action in a space opera setting.

Music listened to while writing: Selected tracks from the soundtracks to Magic Kaito 1412 (anime) and Liar Game (Japanese live action drama), and "One For the Money" by Escape the Fate. "Confidence Game" had a long brainstorm period so it ended up with more music than normal for a short story. If you like club music, Daryl's dance theme is "Here Comes the Hotstepper (Yuksek remix)." Not that this story has any dancing...