Monday, August 22, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 1: Cardia

I played Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ back to back after Zero Time Dilemma. Not because I really needed a palate cleanser, but because I had been wanting to play it for a while. I picked it up at a nice price at Anime Expo and I still had a little vacation time left to get started.

I generally like playing otome visual novels when I'm in the mood for something light and fluffy and Otomate is my favorite producer of them. Otomate's Hakuoki, which I covered earlier on this blog was the first otome I played, and I've played few more since. Amnesia: Memories aside (which uses a different story structure), I like the Otomate otome style because it makes a point to have a plot, one long and engaging enough that it takes several hours to get through, and it's more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a dating sim where you decide what to do everyday.

The typical Otomate heroine starts in the same place and has a chance to meet and get to know all her potential love interests before the story eventually branches off based on the player's favoritism towards a particular man. Equally important is that the love interests interact with each other, which allows them to become fleshed out characters who are more than a pretty face to pine over the protagonist.

Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ outdid itself in length as this is probably longest of the Otomate games I've played through, with a single branch taking me over 15 hours to get through, which is feat considering that gameplay is primarily reading/listening and making the occasional decision. I'm used to having 7 to 9 chapters for each storyline, but Code: Realize jumps to a whopping 13 for each love interest (unlike Hakuoki which shortchanges a few characters).

Also, Code: Realize has probably one of the best otome heroines ever.

It's common for the heroine to be passive so her love interest can protect her and she can be the one he is fighting for. If she has some meager combat skills they generally won't be enough to do anything meaningful.

Cardia (who can be renamed at the cost her name being unvoiced in dialogue) starts out like a doll because of who and what she is, but most importantly, she grows over the course of the story. She has her own emotional arc besides supporting the guy she's with and her own turbulent history she's trying to get over, which puts her on even footing with the guys. Once she's trained to look after herself, she does a fair job of it, whether escaping from imprisonment or busting a few mooks.

One of the things I disliked about Chizuru in Hakuoki is that she had special powers of regeneration and was a full blooded demon, but she didn't do anything with her natural abilities. She should have had the potential to be an equal combatant to the swordsman she loved instead of sitting on the sidelines bawling about how helpless she is.

Cardia likewise has something unusual about her, but she's not afraid to use it. Her body is filled with a corrosive poison so strong that anything that touches her skin (save her specially treated clothing) melts away. It even eats through titanium. She has a note at the start of the game from her father telling her to never to leave the mansion she lives in and to not fall in love, because it will cause her suffering on account of being a monster. Her poison accumulates around her, so if she remains in one place too long it builds up, and she knows firsthand that anyone trapped in an enclosed space with her will eventually die from prolonged exposure.

Obviously Cardia does leave her mansion at the start of the game, and over the course of the story she falls in love, but the game never forgets that she's filled with a powerful poison. Aside from causing romantic complications, Cardia understands that she can use that ability as a tool, and there are multiple times where she takes her gloves off to burn through something. In one ending, she even uses it to attack the man harming her love interest.

Code: Realize does not get enough love for having this girl as the heroine.

As for the rest of the game, it takes place in an alternate 1853 steampunk London. Each of the five love interests is taken from either history or a 19th century novel and aged appropriate to the heroine, so the player can romance a twenty-something Arsène Lupin, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Count Saint-Germain, or Impey Barbicane. I was at least passingly familiar with most of them, with the exception of Impey Barbicane, who I had to look up. (He's a Jules Verne character from From the Earth to the Moon.)

The game does an excellent job of introducing the five and how their disparate quests come together and bring Cardia in as well. Though the shared path between all of them is a weighty eight chapters long, it's a lot of fun as the group gets into a variety of hijinks and you can see how the guys play off each other. I consider it important that the rest of the group interacts and have lives outside of their relationship to Cardia. The airship race chapter in particular was fun, because it made the cast come together as a well-honed team.

Cardia's story does not always come to a conclusive end. In fact, there's only one route where all the cards are laid out on the table, but they all feel like endings, with the promise of a happily ever between Cardia and the man she loves, even if she might still be a poisonous maiden who can't touch anyone. The love interests who don't get a poison-free Cardia at the end mostly take this in stride, though those endings also make it clear that they'll keep looking for a cure.

Code: Realize is probably my favorite otome to date, not just because Cardia is an awesome protagonist with her own growth, but because the story is good about keeping everyone involved no matter whose route the player is on. This is vital to keep interest from flagging when the player needs to play each of the routes to get the whole story, and the personal goals of the different men get nods even if they aren't the focus of a given storyline.

In general, Code: Realize is also good about making elements from one timeline exist in another. While the player's choices should have an immediate effect on Cardia and her friends, they shouldn't change things beyond the scope of her personal influence, and most of the time the game respects this even while furnishing wildly difficult climaxes for each route. It's not perfect, but generally it's possible to understand why certain things only happen in one timeline and not another.

Unfortunately Code: Realize is only on Vita (which seems to be the console of choice for visual novel fans), but since more and more Vita games have been finding their way to Steam, I suppose it's possible this one might be ported someday.

A US localization of the Code: Realize fan disc has also been announced, which I think is the going to be the first of its kind released stateside, so I assume it has been doing fairly well in sales. Even though Hakuoki has had fan disc material released in English before, it was only in a much later edition that combined it with the original game.

In Japan it's common to for successful otome games to have a fan disc (not literally a disc anymore) that provides additional scenes set either during or after the main story. They're generally fluff that doesn't affect the main plot but allows the audience to spend additional time with their favorite character(s).

Judging from the opening movie to Code: Realize's fan disc and the wedding motif, this one's heavily focused on the happily ever after.

I've also heard that an anime version of Code: Realize has been announced, but a release date hasn't been set yet. I hope it makes it out of development and into production, because I think of all the otome games I've played this has the most compelling story and, more importantly for an anime series, the most compelling protagonist, so people will want to cheer her on instead of viewing her as dead weight for the rest of the cast.

Though otome is aimed at heterosexual women where they can choose a romantic partner for their protagonist, Code: Realize doesn't focus as strongly on the romance as other titles. The plot has plenty of action, tension, and humor that I think will let it appeal to a wider audience once the buttons the player is pushing are removed.

Next week I'll dive into the first of the routes I played and spoilers will begin!

Monday, August 15, 2016

5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Time Dilemma was one of my most anticipated games this year, being the third and final game in the Zero Escape series, but while I enjoyed it, it didn't quite live up to the hype. I suppose part of that comes from the long anticipation period I had after Virtue's Last Reward, which is one of my favorite visual novels of all time. ZTD had an incredible legacy to live up to.

So I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised that it didn't. I enjoyed it to be clear. I ended up taking the week after Anime Expo off from work and spent most of that in a gigantic bum rush going through Zero Time Dilemma.

But even though ZTD did some very cool things like the non-linear storytelling and the memory loss every 90 minutes, there were other things that felt weird or left me cold. So here are five writing lessons I learned from Zero Time Dilemma (spoilers included), starting with the negative stuff and ending on a positive note.

1) Hiding information for a surprise twist can backfire spectacularly, even if you've done it well before

This is an issue because of Q, and probably my biggest beef with the game. The nine people trapped in the Decision Game are divided into three teams of three, and the player is mislead by camera angles during the team leader announcement to think the boy with the helmet is Q, but Q-Team actually has four people on it. The real Q is not shown on screen until Sean (the boy) correctly identifies him as Delta, and the mastermind behind the game.

However, Q has been with the rest of Q-Team for the entire portion of the game. The reason the player doesn't know is because the camera angles never show more than his shadow and even his own team members barely mention him because they think he's blind and deaf and unable to be communicated with.

This was particularly annoying, because when I finally discovered Delta was the mastermind and had Sean call him out, the camera suddenly moved over to reveal him and I was shocked that there was an old man in a wheelchair who had apparently been sitting in plain sight of everyone except for me.

In retrospect I was able to find clues to his existence, but they are so minor as to be easily missed during a player's first time through. The characters are disoriented by their ordeal and enforced memory loss so the player tends to be similarly adrift.

Now, this trick can be done well, because Virtue's Last Reward did it earlier in the same series. VLR hid Sigma's physical age from both Sigma and the player (that he's an old man instead of a young one). But the reason it worked is because the game took place almost entirely in first person from Sigma's point of view, so what he didn't know, we didn't know. Also, Sigma's arms are cybernetic and clothed with artificial skin and muscle, so he didn't know the arms he was using were not his original 20-something year old limbs.

Finally, there were multiple conversations that Sigma had directly with other characters where they made fun of his age. Unlike Q, who was not party to the conversations that mentioned him, VLR's conversations were directly with the player character, so it's unsurprising that the insults are more memorable and taken more personally. At the time it's easy for the player and Sigma to write off other people as being rude, only for those clues to come back when the reveal is made.

2) Don't set up expectations you can't or don't expect to fulfill

Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were conceived at the same time, but due to VLR's poor sales in Japan, ZTD came along years later and only after a successful fan campaign on the part of the English-speaking audience. I'm not sure if that factored into the discontinuity, but there was a bonus post-game scene in VLR that was included for players who managed to get all the bonus files in the game.

Game writer Kotaro Uchikoshi came out last week and said that the Another Time ending in VLR is not canon, because not every player who reaches the end of the game will see it, but the thing is, it feels very real and sets up a lot of expectations for what needs to happen in ZTD.

We learn that a mysterious entity "?" might be what allows the existence of a timeline where Radical-6 never escapes. We learn that Kyle has presumably jumped back in time even though he doesn't have a body to go to.

VLR proper closed everything off really well, only for Another Time to pop open a lot of questions, so players went into ZTD expecting to see how "?" fits into everything, and looking for Kyle, only to not find anything of either, as though Another Time never happened.

It was unsatisfying without knowing this from the start, and Uchikoshi has since said that it was a mistake to connect Another Time to the timeline flowchart in VLR, which made it look like it was canon, when it shouldn't have been. Uchikoshi says it was included as a bonus, since at the time VLR was in production the 2011 Tohoku quake had just happened and he wanted to give a little hope to what was otherwise a grim ending.

I'm not sure if that was always his intention, it's possible he threw away Another Time later on when he figured he could make a better story without it, but it could have been handled a lot better.

3) Player/character disorientation works even better when something expected is missing

This was a fun one to experience in action.

We know the Decision Game involves teams of three, and the three characters on each team all know who the others are. They're already expecting to pass out after 90 minutes, and they're expecting they will have forgotten things since their last period awake. They have a lot of be anxious about.

So the first time I played a story fragment where C-Team woke up with only two people I feared for the worst. Junpei was missing and I didn't know why.

Worse, I was now being forced to solve an escape room to leave the pantry, when the biggest issue on my mind was Junpei's safety.

Much of the anxiety worked because even though this fragment can be played early in the game, Junpei was the protagonist from Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which was the very first game in the Zero Escape series. Junpei and Akane's relationship and how they aided one another quite literally through time and space, was the most memorable part of 999, so when Akane wakes up and Junpei is nowhere to be found, we panic over his absence just as much as she does.

And of course the kicker is… right after we solve the puzzle, we do find out what happened to Junpei.

4) It's fun when one story makes you think of an older one in a new way.

The Zero Escape series has always contained some element of alternate universes, where the story branches depending on choices the player has made, but unlike most games which consider those exclusive from each other, Zero Escape has had information readily cross back and forth between them. Sometimes the information to solve a puzzle cannot be found in the timeline the player is currently in, but can be discovered in a different one that otherwise leads to an undesirable end.

When Carlos discovers his consciousness has hopped between two closely related timelines without understanding how, Akane chooses to explain the multiverse to him by using Back to the Future.

I watched Back to the Future ages ago as a kid, and though Marty McFly changes the future after his trip back in time, I didn't take the ending as much more than what I saw at face value. Marty went back in time where he started with a mousy "loser" for a dad, changed the past by making his dad cool, and went forward in time to discover his adult dad is a much more confident person.

Akane is not me though, and says that when she got to the end of the movie, she wanted to know what happened to the Marty of the second timeline, the one who grew up with the confident, rich dad, because that Marty must have existed, before the Marty we know goes back to the future. So whatever happened to the second timeline's Marty?

It was a good question to ask! And one I'd never thought of.

5) A little humor, even black humor, goes a long way the darker the main story gets

Shortly after Akane explains the multiple timelines to Carlos, she suggests the team hop timelines to escape their current predicament. This kickstarts a hilarious string of events where Carlos, Akane, and Junpei hop timelines with the specific intent of abusing their ability to do so.

It's a creative sequence because it's very much something a player would be inclined to do.

The reason for the humor comes from multiple sources. First is Akane's completely blasé approach to overloading a nuclear reactor specifically because it's easier to hop timelines when under duress.

Second is that when someone's consciousness jumps, they switch places with the version of themselves that they're going to, which means that if they're about to die, they're going to be killing their other self when they jump. While Junpei and Carlos are initially reluctant about swapping under those circumstances, they get comfortable fast, to the point they treat their alternate lives about as cheaply as the player does.

Third is that they choose very strange timelines to jump to while they have very little time to discuss anything resembling a plan. There's nothing that gets a laugh and a fair bit of concern like suggesting they jump to the timeline where they're all about to die in a hail of machine gun fire.

Fourth, Junpei wants to break the game by getting two of them killed in one timeline so they can use their X-codes (obtained on death) and then hopping to safety to another where they can use the codes to escape.

It's a very meta way of looking at his own existence, and involves him and Carlos sacrificing their other selves (who, by the way, are currently celebrating their amazing victory at rolling three 1s on three different 6-sided dice, a 0.46% chance) and jumping just ahead of Akane, who stays behind long enough to hear their X-codes before jumping herself, presumably leaving her other self bewildered and confused with the bodies of her friends.

Since you can repeat fragments whenever you want, going back through this sequence was one of my favorite parts to replay. It's so messed up, but it had me in stitches, and it's just what I needed since this is by far the darkest and most bloody installment in the Zero Escape series.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Writing "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang"

I was really tickled by the idea of writing a more action oriented Cthulhu Mythos piece, particularly one that should be set in the past to accommodate a focus on melee weapons. I had previously written "The Ancestors" as my Chinese American take on "Shadows Over Innsmouth" so I figured why not make another go around?

It didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to work in the Three Kingdoms period due to it being one of the most famous and intense periods of Chinese history. But the problem was, aside from the names of the major players and a few of the battles, I really had no idea what the context for the whole thing was. Most of my previous Chinese history research had been regarding the Qing Dynasty (which served as the model for the fictional dynasty used in "The Held Daughter") and there's about 1400 years of history in between the two.

All I knew about the Three Kingdoms was that the Han Dynasty had fallen and there was a war that divided the empire in three as three different men claimed themselves to be the true emperor and successor to the Han.

It was a setting ripe for conflict and made famous by the 12th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

While brainstorming my initial choice for protagonist was Zhuge Liang, because he was known as the master strategist of Shu and possibly the most brilliant person on any side of the war. Due to the nihilistic nature of Lovecraftian fiction, I wanted to set the story during Zhuge Liang's final battle, because I knew he had died before the war was over.

But then I learned that Zhuge Liang had died due to a combination of stress and overwork, which was not a dramatic death at all, even if he had been on the campaign trail at the time.

I also considered using his wife Lady Huang, who was considered to be as talented as he was, but information on her was so scant and I could find no evidence that she accompanied him on the campaign trail.

Then I considered making Sima Yi the main character, figuring that it might be interesting to tell the story of the person who was fighting against an opponent with mythical tactical abilities (and supernatural powers), but it just wasn't clicking, because Sima Yi only wins by outlasting Zhuge Liang and when he finally gets out of his fortress on the Wuzhong Plans he's routed largely due to his own paranoia.

Finally I noticed a name that I remembered hearing before, but didn't know much about. Jiang Wei. He was Zhuge Liang's successor.

Reading about Jiang Wei I found him to not be as cut and dry a successor as I thought he would be, but his mixed legacy was attractive, and I found it fascinating that he was so devoted to his adopted nation of Shu even though he had originally been an officer in Wei (his personal name "Wei" is written differently from the country "Wei").

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms Jiang Wei is presented as a very romanticized character, with the brains of Zhuge Liang and the fighting skills of Zhao Yun, who had the misfortune of being one of the last Shu generals of any standing left towards the end of the war, at which point there was nothing he could do to save the kingdom.

The reality was more complicated, but still, I liked the idea of the student who can never surpass the master, when it's something we always want to happen. Zhuge Liang today is still a part of Chinese culture, with four different actors portraying him in two different movies and two different TV series in the last ten years alone. That's pretty good for a guy who's been dead for 1800 years! How can anyone live up to that kind of legacy?

So I decided that the heart of the story would be about Jiang Wei trying to live up to being Zhuge Liang's successor while also keeping the Shu army intact during their retreat from the Wuzhong Plains. While the reality of Sima Yi's retreat was more a combination of paranoia and a well-placed ambush, in folklore the Shu army either used a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang or Jiang Wei dressed as Zhuge Liang himself to scare him off.

I figured on something a little more supernatural…

But I still have a nod to both, because I think readers who are more familiar with the time period (or are only familiar with it from the novel) might be expecting them.

I really enjoyed writing this one, and I'm mulling over ideas for the future considering that Jiang Wei has many more battles ahead of him in which I could still being the Mythos to bear.

If you would like to check out a preview of this story, there is a teaser now up at Stone Skin Press.

Music listened to while writing: "No Differences" from the Aldnoah.Zero soundtrack and "Kimi no Matsu Sekai" (trans: "The World Where You Are Waiting") from the first set of opening credits to Magic Kaito 1412

Monday, August 1, 2016

Swords v Cthulhu is Out!

The Swords v Cthulhu anthology is now out and available for purchase from most online booksellers. I had the luck to get my contributor copy last Friday, but unfortunately I seem to be having camera troubles so I haven't been able to take a photo of it.

Sad face.

I'm looking forward to reading everyone else's stories though, and it's a happily diverse anthology with people from all cultures wielding their melee weapons of choice against the Lovecraftian horrors that we love and tend to sell as game pieces and plushies. I wonder sometimes what Lovecraft would think of the pop culture influence his work has had on the modern geek.

My contribution is the short story "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang" which fuses Romance of the Three Kingdoms with a certain Lovecraftian menace from some of his lesser known works. I love Deep Ones, but everyone loves Deep Ones, so I didn't want to go the predictable route. (And besides, I already used Deep Ones when I wrote "The Ancestors.") So I'm not going to name the particular menace I use in this story. Just know that it's not one of the more common culprits.

If it sounds up your alley, feel free to check it out!

[Amazon] [Barnes & Noble]