Monday, July 25, 2016

Writing "The World That You Want"

"The World That You Want" is a favorite of mine. It's probably the first story I've written while aiming to hit a specific length, and when I went over, I edited the crap out of it to bring it back to the appropriate size.

This is probably one of the densest things I've written, fitting in a post-apocalyptic world filled with demons and a journey to create a new one in just 4000 words. If you're a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series, you'll be able to see a lot of influence on this particular work.

I originally wrote this for a themed dark fantasy/horror anthology I didn't get in, and the guidelines were to pick something personal as the subject matter. As it happened, a few days before I heard of the anthology, I’d been talking to a coworker about Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

The Shin Megami Tensei series typically features teenagers or twenty-somethings dealing with extreme and deadly supernatural events that often shatter their notion of what reality should be. Rather than going to pieces though, the protagonists somehow obtain a way to fight the supernatural through magic of their own or by recruiting demons to their side (or both). Several, though not all, of the Megaten games will give the main character, the player surrogate, the ability to choose among several endings that will decide the fate of the world.

While I was deciding what to write, what struck me was a decision I hadn't made when I was playing Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. There was a particularly appealing ending available to me, if I was willing to kill a particular NPC to get it. But I wasn't. Sure, it was just a game, but I was trying to play from my personal perspective and that forbade me from killing a character who was more of a bystander than a bad guy.

The seed of my story grew from there. That was the personal hook, though I don't think I would have chosen the ending my protagonist does since it, as a friend put it, "leaves people in a world of suck."

In fact, my "usual" Megaten ending is one the protagonist overhears (and obviously does not choose) on her way up the US Bank Tower. I thought it would be funny if she passed by my dying player insert on the way up.

The US Bank Tower is a real building by the way, though it's a lot less imposing as the scene for demon congregation ever since they put in a glass slide you can ride between two of the upper floors. That hadn't existed at the time I wrote the story and it just opened earlier this year.

"The World That You Want" is my love letter to the Megaten games with a local southern California twist. The world we know has ended and the cityscape is populated by demons and ghosts. In the face of all this, a pair of teenagers head towards the US Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles where an important Decision will be made.

If you still have not had a chance to read it yet, you can find it in the July 2016 issue of Galaxy's Edge which is online free until the end of August.

Music listened to while writing: Soundtracks to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.

Monday, July 18, 2016

VN Talk: Zero Time Dilemma - Non-Linear With Style

I'm a big fan of the Zero Escape series which, as a whole, combines escape room mechanics with visual novel scenes to tell a gut-pounding story of nine people trapped playing a sadistic and possibly lethal game intended to bring out the worst in human nature. And yet, no matter how dark the games get, there's always humor, and sometimes a few tears.

Zero Time Dilemma is the third and final game in the series, and just came out at the end of June. This is much sooner than I usually talk about games, but as mentioned, I'm a big fan of the series, so this was one of the few Day 1 purchases I make these days. Also, I'm aware that this game very nearly did not get made at all if not for the incredible amount of fan support, so I made it a point to contribute to the sales tally and let the production team know their work hasn't gone unappreciated.

There are spoilers for the first half hour of the game and spoilers for how the plot is structured, but I've left out specifics since it's the nature of the narrative I want to talk about here. I'll talk about plot specifics later.

Zero Time Dilemma is the story of nine people participating in a Mars simulation site in the Nevada desert, the kind where everybody is physically isolated from the outside world so researchers can track what people's behavior is like and how they deal with problems when trapped in an enclosed space for a long period of time.

The whole thing goes off the rails though, when the nine people wake up in three different cells and are informed by a robed man named Zero, who is wearing a plague doctor mask, that they are now to participate in the Decision Game.

This game takes place during a simulated blackout period between Earth and Mars, so the nine participants cannot expect anyone to be monitoring them or to be able to communicate with the outside world. Worse, they seem to have been removed from their facility and transferred to an underground shelter.

The nine people are divided into teams of three, named C-Team, Q-Team, and D-Team, after Carlos, Q, and Diana, who are designated the team leaders. Each team is isolated from each other in three different wards (Wards C, Q, and D) so there is no way for them to directly communicate except through a messenger dog that is small enough to move through the air vents.

Zero informs them that the only way to leave if is six people die. Each time someone dies, an X-Pass is revealed, and they need six X-Passes in order to open the X-Door which leads to the elevator which will take them outside. To jumpstart everything, Zero asks each team to vote for which team should die, since that will give them three passwords right away. Whichever team gets two votes will be executed. Choosing to not vote will result in two votes for not participating.

Each participant in the game is also given a watch they cannot remove, which has two functions; 1) to tell the time, and 2) to inject a drug cocktail that will knock them out and remove their memory of the past 90 minutes. Naturally, they're only allowed to be awake for 90 minute stretches throughout the game, so the injections will remove their memories of whatever they did. As a "thank you" for voting though, Zero will not inject the amnesia portion for the first knockout, so people will remember their vote and have to live with the consequences.

So that is the setup.

From there, the game assumes a nonlinear style of play, based on the four possible outcomes of the vote; everyone is spared (by spreading the votes), C-Team dies, Q-Team dies, or D-Team dies.

But the player is not allowed to proceed directly to the next segment after the vote.

Instead the game opens up "fragments." The player can choose which team they want to play as, and are presented with a number of fragments in the timestream with little to no context for what happens in them other than a thumbnail graphic from one of the scenes.

This fits in with the memory loss, since the characters wake up with no idea what has happened since the vote or if this is even the first time they've woken up. They have watches, so they have an idea of how much time has passed, but nothing more than that.

The game plays with this, with some fragments occurring later in time than others, or even at the same time for the same team (in which case they're in different timelines based on how the vote went). Since they're in a shelter and they're unable to see the sky, time is also relative, since they only know what the watch tells them and there's no guarantee it's accurate.

A lot of games like to advertise having a non-linear story, but really, no one quite does non-linear like Zero Time Dilemma's opening fragment scramble.

Sometimes a team will wake up and discover someone's missing and they don't know why. Other times they'll discover through announcements that someone on another team has died, and have absolutely no context for what happened, leading to rampant speculation over whether someone on another team can be trusted.

But the fun thing is, as the player, it's possible to start to piece together things before the characters, because the player has access to all the timelines. After completing fragments, it's possible to see a flowchart (with unplayed areas blacked out). As more of it gets filled in, players can guess from context where the latest fragments will eventually wind up.

Being a Zero Escape game, this also means that the different timelines do not exist in isolation and it's not just the player who has access to all the information regarding what happens. Certain characters can get flashes of insight into things that happened in another timeline, even if it did not directly involve them.

As awareness of this phenomenon grows, this culminates in both characters and players intentionally jumping timestreams in order to accomplish what could not be done in a linear existence, and many later segments cannot be played at all until the player has done some jumping. It's only by collecting information gained across different timelines that it's possible for everyone to unite and escape the Decision Game.

Though the game starts at the same place for everyone, each player's method of getting to the "real" ending is different. There are certain funnel points where the information is controlled and it's not possible for players to deviate much (you can tell from when people get stuck and run to the GameFAQs message board and they all have similar flowcharts), but for the most part, and definitely for the first half of the game, players will have wildly different experiences.

It's entirely possible to play a fragment from late in the timeline and then go back and see the events leading up to it, all without intending to do so. Other times, it's possible to make Choice A in one fragment and then end up jumping to the timeline of Choice B in another. (That was probably the most gut-wrenching one, when I realized why I was missing someone because I was in the timeline where I hadn't saved her life.)

The little epiphanies that happen throughout ZTD are what make the game fun, and though they don't snowball to quite the level of Virtue's Last Reward (my favorite of the series), it's a very unique storytelling style that relies on the player being active and engaged.

Most tellingly, the key to Zero's identity is never directly revealed to the player. A lot of times when information needs to travel timelines, the information is clearly marked as something the player needs to remember. Sometimes Zero will even explicitly say something to that effect. But to identify him, the player needs to be able to put 2 and 2 together rather than just plugging in various potential keywords.

This makes Zero Time Dilemma a lot of fun, because there's a strong element of mystery in additional to all the pseudo-science, mental time travel, and death game portions of the storyline.

Now that the series is over, I'm not sure where I find anything else like it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

RPG Talk: Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest was my present to myself for finishing my novel revision back in April. After having enjoyed Fire Emblem Awakening, I followed the development of Fates fairly closely. I liked the central conceit of the story, where the player finds themselves at the start of a war and faced with the choice of siding with either the family of their birth or the family that raised them.

Normally I get around to games fairly late after their release, so I don't worry too much about mentioning spoilers, but since Fates just came out a few months ago, be aware that I usually spoil things when I discuss the plot in my RPG Talk series and I will be including the ending of the Conquest storyline.

The protagonist is a scion of the royal family of Nohr with the default name of Corrin (which I'll use from here on). Corrin's name, gender, voice, and hair can be customized. To make it easy on myself, I'll be referring to Corrin as female in this write-up since that was the gender of my avatar.

At the start of the game Corrin is finally allowed to leave the isolated fortress where she grew up and join her father's court, but it quickly becomes apparent that King Garon is a tyrant rather than a benevolent king. The naive Corrin doesn't understand that he cannot be reasoned with, which sets her apart from her four siblings, who have learned to tiptoe around their bloodthirsty father for most of their lives.

After getting her first military assignment, Corrin is captured by a warrior from the opposing kingdom of Hoshido, but instead of being killed, she's taken to the Hoshidan capital, where she learns that she is actually part of the Hoshidan royal family. As a very young child her father was killed at a supposed peace summit and King Garon of Nohr took her for his own.

Hoshido is invaded shortly thereafter and Corrin finds her Nohrian siblings at the head of the army, coming to rescue her. But her new royal siblings from Hoshido do not wish give her back to the people who had taken her from them years ago.

Since I was following Fates prior to release, I had a good idea of which side I was going to pick, which was necessary because physical copies of the game have either the Conquest or the Birthright storyline by default, and the other choice has to be purchased as DLC.

I wanted to role-play my choice, and since I haven't been in the position of being raised involuntarily by another family, I viewed the decision as one of immigration. I'm ethnically Chinese, but was born and grew up in the United States, and I can't imagine leaving that. Even though the United States is not perfect, it's home.

I figured that my Corrin would choose to stay with the family she knew, rather than a bunch of strangers, even if it meant going back to a country that was wrong in so many ways.

Her birth siblings do not take the news very well (not unexpectedly).

The Conquest campaign from there is rather dark for a anime-styled RPG. Corrin has to come to terms with the fact much of Nohr is an oppressed country, and though she and her adopted siblings are a close knit bunch who want to be good people, they often aren't allowed to be.

They deal with their father's cruelty in different ways, trying to find a means to disguise their actions and cope even if they can't condone. In one case, this means that the younger brother Leo will possibly have to kill a few innocent civilians to maintain the facade that the witch hunt is actually happening, but by starting his search in all the wrong places he buys time for more innocents to escape.

Conquest writes King Garon as uncompromising and powerful, and his influence over his children is unmistakable. Older sister Camilla disagrees with his methods, but is baffled that Corrin doesn't understand just why they can't do anything about it. Elise, the youngest of all of them, is still young enough to believe that despite any awfulness, everything will be okay.

Eldest brother Xander is my favorite of the Nohrian siblings, because it's clear that he's a noble man who will do whatever he has to in order to serve his country, while simultaneously being unable to directly disobey his father. It's implied that he has done some reprehensible things for Garon, and we see early on that he's willing to execute prisoners in cold blood at his father's word. The early scenes that juxtapose both his power and powerlessness as the crown prince endeared me to him.

When Corrin returns to Nohr unexpected and unwanted, King Garon reluctantly allows her back into the royal family at the bidding of a higher power he calls Anakos. From there, Garon sends Corrin on a variety of missions to stomp out rebellion in Nohr before turning everyone's full attention to the conquest of Hoshido.

Corrin and her siblings lead their forces into Hoshido out of love for their country if not for their country's actions. They want Nohr to be a place of honor, mercy, and peace, but right now it can't be, and there is no getting around that they are the invaders.

They realize the only way to end the war with the least bloodshed (given their warmonger of a father) is to win it as quickly as possible. For Corrin, this means fighting against her blood siblings, who are still reeling from the betrayal of their kin. It's one thing for Corrin to abandon her birth family; another to lead the army to conquer them.

Conquest plays the sibling conflict for all its worth while Corrin pleads her case, that she wants peace as much as they do. She manages to convince younger Hoshidan sister Sakura to surrender and older sister Hinoka grudgingly agrees to go into hiding and pretend to be dead for the rest of the war under the condition that Corrin saves their eldest brother, Ryoma.

But saving Ryoma isn't in the cards.

The battle with him is just before the Nohrian army reaches the Hoshidan throne room. Ryoma knows that the Hoshidan army has been defeated if they've gotten this far, and the Nohrian advisor with Corrin wastes no time in presenting Ryoma with Hinoka's bloody lance and the news that Corrin has killed her, a falsehood that Corrin has to maintain in order to save face.

It's a tragic enough set of circumstances even without the melancholy battle theme that plays throughout. But the funny thing is, even though I could empathize with Corrin's horror at the thought of fighting and killing Ryoma, the first thing I thought of was what must happen in the Birthright campaign.

Assuming a parallel confrontation between all the siblings, that meant I would have to fight Xander near the end of the game, and I realized how much that would wreck me. Xander always stood by and protected Corrin, defied his father for the first time for his adopted sibling, and maintained that he always considered the two of them family regardless of blood.

I realized that the thing I least look forward to in playing Birthright is facing him and similar accusations of betrayal, especially knowing what Xander's like and how much he cares about Corrin.

The thing that Conquest does really well (and perhaps Birthright as well) that I don't see many games do is showcase the bonds between siblings.

All the critical plot scenes are between family; Corrin, her four royal siblings, and Azura, another Nohrian sibling who had been kidnapped and raised in Hoshido shortly after Corrin had been taken by Nohr. When it comes down to the final battle, it is Corrin and her five siblings standing together, not Corrin and her love interest plus motley band of heroes.

It's a different dynamic than I'm used to, but one I could easily get behind. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to take everyone into the final battle with me, I guesstimated that I would be allowed 15 units (in truth it worked out to 16) and planned accordingly to take all family members plus assorted spouses.

(This planning was necessary because Conquest doesn't allow for free leveling outside of story missions, so I had to settle on who my likely final party members were going to be about 60% of the way through the game.)

I had heard prior to beating Conquest that it has a somewhat inconclusive ending, but I found it fairly satisfying. Even though there are unanswered questions, there is no doubt that this is an ending and the characters treat it as a new start.

I had expected that the final battle would be either against King Garon or the mysterious Anakos. In truth it's neither, though Garon is the penultimate boss. After conquering Hoshido and convincing Garon to sit on the throne that reveals the truth, Corrin is able to show her adopted siblings that the man they had called Father has been corrupted into an inhuman creature.

Incredibly (but believably, considering the family dynamic we've seen), they still have trouble standing up to him until Xander speaks up, since he's the only one old enough to remember Garon from when he was still a decent human being. Garon does get defeated, but rather than facing Anakos, Takumi, the last Hoshidan sibling shows up.

We've seen throughout the Conquest storyline that something has been eating away at Takumi's mind, and after a scene that resembles the King's Cross afterlife moment at the end of the Harry Potter series, Corrin comes to understand that the Takumi everyone knew is already gone, leaving only this shell and whatever is animating it.

It makes for a strange last battle, and I can see why the ending feels a little inconclusive because we don't learn what happened to Takumi other than it's probably similar to what happened to Garon.

In what is potentially the most out of nowhere moment, Azura also sacrifices herself by singing a song powerful enough to allow Takumi to be defeated and lain to rest. She makes a comment (clearly not overheard by any of the other characters and therefore only for the player's benefit) about knowing that there would be consequences for her decision to side Nohr, and that by doing so she was unable to save Takumi, so she's going to make up for it now.

We know Azura's songs are magical in nature, from earlier scenes, so it comes as no surprise that she would have something to assist in the battle, but afterwards, she simply disappears, and Corrin and the rest of the siblings are unable to find her.

While most of the ending moves firmly on to epilogue material (Xander is crowned the new king of Nohr, Nohr's army withdraws, Hinoka prepares to become the new queen of Hoshido), Azura's disappearance is surprisingly not more of a freak out. The general assumption seems to be that people feel that she moved on without saying good-bye of her own volition, which would be in character except for a couple things.

Since characters can get married in this game, Azura left her husband and two children behind, none of whom are featured in the ending (since they're not part of the nuclear royal family), and you'd think they would be freaking out and making it clear that Azura's disappearance with not voluntary. It would have put a damper on a happy ending, but probably would have been more realistic.

I suppose it's possible Azura could have taken a moment to say good-bye to her husband and children since the game makes it clear she was still with everyone at the moment Takumi falls and only vanishes while the rest of her siblings are busy talking (maybe she stepped off camera for farewell), but it's the one part of the ending that doesn't jive with me.

If Azura had remarried unmarried to the end of the game, I would have been perfectly satisfied with the ending, even without knowing who or what Anakos is. It's clear that the damage between the two warring countries is being repaired and that everyone else is ready to move on to a brighter future.

As with Awakening, Fates also has character-based epilogues that play during the credits, which shows what happens to everyone after the game ends. Unfortunately it's a lot drier than in Awakening. The endearing thing about marrying everyone in Awakening, was reading about how the couples spent their lives together after the game ended.

For instance, I had married Frederick to Cherche in Awakening and their epilogue was: As Ylisse's new knight captain, Frederick took charge of keeping the peace and training new recruits with his wife, Cherche. Students quickly learned to fear the couple's famously disarming smiles.

It's cute.

But in Fates it's much more common to get one stand alone sentence for the husband, and one stand alone for the wife, and they won't intersect, so it rarely looks like they're even sharing a future together. Sometimes they're bad enough it's like one hand wasn't even talking to the other.

For instance, if Leo marries Selena in Fates we get: Leo sacrificed much for Nohr, leading the effort to spread King Xander's radical new policies. After marrying, he and his wife, Selena, disappeared from records. They likely lived happily ever after.

Somehow, Leo manages to both work really hard on spreading his brother's new policies in Nohr and to disappear from the record after getting married (and you'd think a prince disappearing would be a huge calamity). Clearly, Selena's line is meant to be generic for whoever she marries, and in most cases this is probably fine, but looks incredibly weird when paired with Leo.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Conquest. I did find Corrin a little self-flagellating for taking the steps needed to get the job done, and unfortunately her personality is preset, but the darker storyline is much more engaging since it's so rare to play from what is typically the bad guys' side of the story.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"The World That You Want" Now Live in Galaxy's Edge #21

"The World That You Want" is my latest published short story, appearing in Galaxy's Edge #21.

Most stories involving the apocalypse involve stopping it, or living with the immediate fallout from it, but teenage Joan has gotten used to life a year after the civilized world ended and demons have taken over as the dominant form of life. Unlike her companion Brandon, she's willing to deal with them, and at least attempt to co-exist.

But even a world with demons can have an ending, and Brandon is determined to make that happen.

"The World That You Want" and the rest of the July/August issue Galaxy's Edge will be available to read for free until the end of August.