Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on Persona 5 - No Major Spoilers

I've been slowly working my way through Persona 5, and it makes me realize just how long it's been since I've dug my way through a good JRPG. Part of it is because the medieval fantasy JRPG formula went stale on me a long time ago, but also because they haven't evolved much from their roots; talk to people in a new town, buy new equipment, go into the new dungeon, and repeat as you take a tour of the world.

A good plot certainly helps too.

The Persona series has always been different for taking place in a contemporary setting and that you don't jet around the world. Aside from a field trip, you probably won't even leave town. The third game in particular laid the groundwork for successive installments. It implemented the current system of balancing dungeon delving with having a successful life as a high schooler.

Having the systems feed into one another was a stroke of genius. Bonuses earned for the social aspects of the protagonist's life, apply to the creation of more powerful personas for combat, and money earned from dungeon delving in turn funds the protagonist's social activities.

It introduced a unique playstyle, and rather than visiting new towns, there's just one main town that actually looks like a town with different neighborhoods and districts. As the calendar year passes, dialogue changes, the store offerings change, making for one really good, living location instead of many lesser ones.

And because of its contemporary setting, the Persona games aren't about fighting nations or overthrowing some empire. The end bosses are typically some supernatural entity that most of the world is completely oblivious to.

Persona 5 adds something new though, that I find particularly invigorating.

It makes everyone a thief.

Usually in JRPGs, the thief is a weird class. Their combat skills are mediocre, their rate of stealing items is poor, and it's hard to find any justification for putting them in a party other than because the player likes thieves or wants to steal a specific high level item. (Occasionally they might class promote into a ninja or something that makes them useful, but vanilla thieves tend to suck.)

Specially, Persona 5 makes the entire party a group of phantom thieves and then completely runs with it. All the cool stuff you expect a gentleman thief to do, like leaving calling cards, and doing bold and daring heists, are things that the protagonists accomplish while the player is at the controls. And you can see that the development team had a lot of fun with it. You know how in movies like Ocean's Eleven every member of the team has a job? There's one heist where the party does that, where they split up and everyone's got their own thing to do at the same time.

In most JRPGs, if there are visible enemies, it's a case of you see them, they see you, and one of the two parties charges forward and attacks (maybe even both). But in Persona 5, you're thieves, so you can hide behind objects and ambush your enemies. This is crazy fun and feels like it rewards players who actually act out the part of a thief since ambushing gives everyone a chance to attack before their enemies in the first round.

The dungeons are built specifically to have gimmicks for the player to maneuver around, whether it's something to hide behind, infrared sensors to slide underneath, or air vents to crawl through. And though I'm calling them gimmicks, they don't feel cheap at all, because they're there to sell the fantasy of being elite phantom thieves and they do!

Rather than simply have treasure chests all over the place (though there are quite a few), the player also has the ability to loot certain items that are part of the scenery, so grabbing vases and sculptures is desirable, since the player can sell those items later.

When you exploit the weaknesses of all enemies present in a battle, you enter a Hold Up, which features all members of the party surrounding their enemies with their guns out, and you can actually demand for money or items in order to let them go.

There are so many nice touches, from the costuming, to the code names, and even the annoying nights I had my protagonist working on making lockpicks so I'd have them ready to go the next night we went into a dungeon.

I can't remember the last JRPG I played that's worked so hard at selling a particular fantasy, and probably the thing I like the most about it, is that there are plot reasons behind a lot of what they do. The characters don't have crazy costumes just because they happen to like cosplay, just like they aren't sending calling cards just because they want attention. When the plot and the game design support each other, it really makes something fun.

I'm at the end of July (in game) now, so I'm still less than halfway through, but I'm looking forward to the rest.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Preparation Tips for Giving a Talk

Last weekend I gave a talk on how and why to write short stories to a local writer group. Though I have been on several panels at conventions, it's much rarer for me to give a solo talk. In fact, this was only the second time I had done so.

It's a much different animal from a panel, because I can't bounce off other people's ideas and I know if I stop talking for whatever reason, it's unlikely someone else will jump in to fill the silence. My first time giving a talk was extremely nerve-wracking, even though I had taken a lot of notes and brought them up to the podium with me. I knew better than to talk while reading off the paper (head pointed down at podium is bad), but I was incredibly nervous, and I know that I ended up speaking a lot faster than I meant to. In turn, that made my talk go faster.

I don't remember at this point, how much I had rehearsed for that first talk, but my second is still fresh in memory, so I can talk what I did to prepare for it, because I did much better this time.

My talk was to be focused around how and why a writer should write short stories. I knew that the group had never had a short story writer speak to them before, so I specifically geared my talk with the assumption that most of the audience was coming from a novel-writing background. I would have 45 minutes, and then there would be time for questions afterwards. The organizer who invited me said it would be okay if I ended a little early, but I didn't want to. I wanted to do this as practice and a character building exercise for myself.

1) Outline in Four Parts

The first thing I did was outline my talk. Given that it was planned for 45 minutes, I figured I would break the entire thing up into four topics, roughly ten minutes each. I decided they would be:

  • Why write a short story?
  • What do short stories excel at?
  • How to write a short story
  • Getting a short story published

After deciding on my four main topics, I proceeded to add notes underneath each heading so I had an idea of what to bring up in relation to the topic. I decided that it wouldn't be critical for me to bring up each individual bullet point, but these were related subjects that I could use to illustrate the answers to the proposed questions or illustrate the hows of the second half.

2) Time the Talk Without Directly Reading

After I figured I'd populated the outline enough, I started talking about my first topic. I allowed myself the chance to glance at the outline, but I could not read in depth. The idea was that I was always speaking, and I let myself go off the rails if it felt like it made sense to do so. I knew what my second topic was going to be, so if I got too far afield, I knew to reel myself in and redirect.

I timed each of the four topics independently of each other. And it turned out that in my first run, the first topic was 8 minutes, the second 4 minutes, the third 8 minutes, and the fourth 16 minutes. Combined with my 2 minute introduction, that ended up being around 38 minutes, which was not a bad place to start at all.

And some of my rambling while attempting to keep myself speaking, actually turned out to be useful, and I added those to the notes.

3) Adjust the Outline

Since I knew how long the different parts were, it made adjusting the length of the talk easier, because I could shore up individual parts without adding random padding at the end in an effort to say more. At this point I also realized that my introduction was only an introduction to the talk, but didn't identify myself or my credentials, so I retroactively added that, and got a couple more minutes added in.

When the day of the talk came, I arrived to find that the music stand that was supposed to be supplied in place of a podium wasn't tall enough to be used while I was standing. We tried putting it on the table, but then it was too tall and would blow the view of people around me.

I did the courageous thing and opted not to use the music stand at all, and laid my outline flat on the table in front of me. This meant that I really could not read off of it without obviously talking to the table.

But you know? It turned all right.

The audience was great and whenever I started to lose myself, I would pause, take a glance, and then only speak again after I looked up. I could feel I was more relaxed this time. I wasn't talking as fast. And once I finished, there were plenty of questions. So many questions! I wasn't used to this, even on panels.

I think we wrapped up about 70-75 minutes after we started, so it was very good considering that the talk itself was only supposed to be 45. I didn't have a chance to check what my actual talk time concluded at, but considering how long we were there, I think it was likely close.

I was pretty nervous leading up to the talk, but I told myself to do it, because it would be good me, and it was.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anime Talk: Attack on Titan Season 2

You knew this was coming right? One last chance to talk about the Attack on Titan anime before Season 2 becomes a distant memory.

My non-spoilery review of Attack on Titan: Season 2 will be up at Diabolical Plots later, probably next month, so if you don't want to be spoiled, you check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is the biggest thing I couldn't discuss.

Obviously, there will be anime spoilers, but I will refrain from manga spoilers.

I already talked about the earlier than expected manga flashbacks involving Ymir and Marco, and I still find those out of place.

But what I'd like to talk about here is Reiner and Bertholdt.

This is the season where the two of them become prominent characters. While they have always been around, they weren't part of the main trio of Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. Reiner did have some good moments the first season though, distinguishing himself early on as someone Eren wanted to emulate and being a big brother figure by offering to carry Armin's pack during training. He came out ranked #2 in the 104th Training Corps, and we're reminded of that when he faces the Female Titan during the 57th expedition. (Of course, we know now that it's unlikely Annie was trying to kill Reiner when she caught him.)

Bertholdt is a more passive character, so it's easy to forget that he actually came out ranked #3, so he's quite the capable fighter, but he didn't have any stand out moments in the first season. Most people knew him as Reiner's buddy, and some people (like my brother) figured he was one of those characters hanging around waiting for the appropriate Titan to stop by and eat him.

This season we find out that the two of them are the Armored and Colossal Titans respectively, which means that they are responsible for the loss of thousands of lives caused by the destruction of the gate at Wall Maria. Their arrival five years is the reason that protagonist Eren is on a rampaging path of defeating every Titan in existence.

While the audience was prepared to discover more Titans among the cast after Annie Leonhart was revealed as the Female Titan, Reiner and Bertholdt being the culprits was a surprise. Annie was a loner and we had reason to suspect her due to animation cues and a mistake on her part where she reacts to Eren's nickname, which only other members of the 104th Training Corps would know. She fit the profile we would expect of an enemy agent; capable, a loner, and working her way towards the powerful people in the interior.

Reiner and Bertholdt were meanwhile bleeding along with the rest of the Corps. When we meet them again in Season 2 they're among the unarmed recruits racing to warn villages of the sudden appearance of Titans. They get trapped in Utgard Castle along with their fellow trainees and participate in every way one would expect from an ordinary comrade. Reiner even saves Conny's life and is willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of everyone else.

These aren't the actions of a traitor. And we do get some reasoning for that later.

But the nutshell summary is that despite everything, we learn that Reiner and Bertholdt are not inherently bad people. They are doing, and have done, awful things for which they can never be forgiven, and they know that. Poor Bertholdt's face when his former comrades try to talk him down is heartbreaking. He owns up to everything and doesn't even try to justify his actions.

The two of them (three if you include Annie) have been living undercover for five years. Considering their ages, they have spent their entire teenage lives pretending to be who they weren't, all for the sake of their mission. And for three of those five years they slept in the same barracks as the people they are now betraying. It was impossible for them to not feel a kinship with their fellow trainees.

It's a hell of a burden to be carrying, and I'm not surprised that Reiner eventually breaks beneath it, both in his capacity to delude himself into thinking he really is a soldier and not an invading warrior, and how he eventually tells Eren flat out that he's the Armored Titan and he wants Eren to come with him. From his perspective, wouldn't it be so much easier if Eren voluntarily went with them so he and Bertholdt could stop pretending?

We still don't know what the stakes are for them and why the deaths of thousands is worth it in service of their mission, despite any guilt they might feel, but Season 2 really made me care about these two. You would think that someone willing to condemn thousands to a violent death, being alive by Titans, would be a cruel person, and the series intentionally goes out of the way to make Reiner and Bertholdt sympathetic. I'm fond of good characters who do bad things, and the two of them are prime candidates for that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

So I Saw Wonder Woman This Weekend

I wasn't sure I would when the movie was first announced. I didn't grow up with Wonder Woman in either live action TV or animated form. The live action was before my time, and the Justice League animated show was on cable, which my family didn't have.

I mostly thought of Wonder Woman as one of those silly superheroes running around with a flag for a costume. She wasn't the only one, but she was certainly among the most prominent. I didn't know anything about her personality or why people liked her so much other than she was the most prominent female superhero who wasn't the distaff counterpart of a preexisting male one. Though I suppose that in itself made her worthwhile.

One thing sold me on seeing the movie, and it's not what would do it for people. Because I am a World War I nut.

When I saw the first trailer with Wonder Woman stepping out into No Man's Land, I knew I had to see this movie. I love the complexity of the first world war, and how it's not a simple good guys vs. bad guys, which made it an interesting setting for a superhero movie. And there are precious few stories featuring women combatants in World War I. That it was a woman charging out there into No Man's Land meant a lot to me.

So it's a little funny now hearing from so many people that it's the best part.

I'm glad people love it, but I didn't expect that something that sold me before the movie even came out is now considered one of the best parts, because it's not something that uniquely had to be done by Wonder Woman. It's just something that spoke to me.

I've long wanted a good World War I movie (pref PG-13 because I can't take live action violence when it has a lot of gore/blood). That it turned out be a superhero movie hasn't bothered me in the slightest.

It turns out that Diana's optimism and faith in humanity works perfectly for a war with no true villain as she believes that the Germans will stop fighting if Ares is slain. Though she is not entirely correct in her initial view of human morality, she comes to understand that the morality of an individual is left to that individual. Humanity as a whole isn't monolithically good or bad.

Though Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie, it doesn't need to be. It's one of the best superhero movies I've seen and none of the others were perfect either.

And that charge into No Man's Land is going to stick with me for a long time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Favorite Fictional Commanders

I haven't written one myself, largely because I haven't gotten to the point where I'm comfortable juggling an ensemble cast, but in honor of Attack on Titan's Erwin Smith and his valor in the most recent episode, I figured I'd run through a few of my favorite fictional commanders.

They're not leaders of countries necessarily, but likely leaders of soldiers. These are the people that if I was a kid again, I'd say "I want to be like them when I grow up!"

Interestingly, I could not come up with any commanders from novels, so the ones below are all from animation or games. I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it might be because a lot of military fantasy and science fiction is pretty gritty, and I tend to not idealize those commanders as much, though there is certainly one gritty commander on this list!

Optimus Prime (Transformers)

He is my ur-example largely because of the age at which I was introduced to him as voiced by Peter Cullen (and seriously, bringing Peter Cullen back was the best thing the Michael Bay movies ever did).

Optimus Prime cares about the soldiers beneath him, but is willing to make unpopular decisions if it's the right thing to do. I liked that he was always level-headed, never irrational, and most importantly, he could admit when he was wrong. You got the feeling you could trust him, even if he was a giant robot from another planet.

I don't think that I ever viewed him as a father or big brother figure, even in universe, but he was cool character to look up to and my favorite out of all the 80s Transformers. I even had his toy.

Commander Hawkins (Voltron)

Most people are not going to remember Commander Hawkins because he was in the "other" Voltron, the Vehicle Team. It probably didn't hurt that he was also voiced by Peter Cullen, who didn't change his voice much between Prime and Hawkins.

Hawkins was an usual character for me to latch on to as a kid, because he wasn't one of the Voltron pilots. He stayed on the command ship and gave orders, so he would be the guy the team would argue against when they wanted to follow their hearts rather than his instructions.

But even if they didn't like what he had to say, you got the impression that Hawkins was fair, and he actually pranked his disobedient team leaders once after a mission that only succeeded because they didn't listen to him. They were willing to take any punishment he was willing to give them, and the punishment they thought was coming, was actually more of a reward.

Robin (Dark Wizard)

If Hawkins is obscure, then Robin is downright forgotten. Dark Wizard was an old fantasy strategy game for the Sega CD, and Robin was one of four playable army leaders. I loved her for being a kickass female knight in functional armor.

Back then, and even now, it's hard to find games with female protagonists, and here's Robin who serves as knight on horseback with better melee stats than magic ones. This lady was all about leading her army into battle to retake the continent from the titular Dark Wizard.

If she picked up a love interest along the way and agreed to marry in him in the ending, why not. It's a bonus. He asked her to marry him if he won the duel at their victory banquet. She kicked his ass and basically said something like "WTF, did you think I wouldn't like you if you couldn't beat me? I like you anyway, let's get married." Teenage me loved this. (Actual dialogue was much cheesier, but that was the take home message.)

Xander (Fire Emblem Fates)

Depending on which version of the game the player is playing, Xander might never take on a real command role, but along the Birthright storyline, Xander is very much a commander and unfortunately he becomes the enemy one.

I played Conquest first where I totally fell in love with Xander for being my favorite type of knight character, who is stuck between his principals and his duty. As the eldest of the Nohrian royal siblings, he is heir to the throne of Nohr and shoulders the burden of a temperamental, maniacal father as well as the future of his nation. Though not blood-related to the player's avatar, he is adamant that they are a welcome part of his family.

The worst part of starting down the Birthright storyline was turning away from Xander and fighting against him, because I knew that I would have to kill him eventually. When the battle finally happens, Nohr is practically finished and he actually has lower stats than a boss should at that level, because he doesn't actually have the heart to kill the player.

Erwin Smith (Attack on Titan)

Last, but certainly not least, is Commander Erwin Smith from Attack on Titan, who inspired this post. I won't mention anything exclusive from the manga, but Erwin hits all the right respect buttons. He's saddled with the unenviable job of leading the least popular branch of the military into gut-wrenching odds, and yet he throws himself completely into his work.

Nothing gets in Erwin's way. If the best chance to capture an enemy spy involves endangering civilians, he will take it. He might not be happy about it, but if you want a person willing to do anything to ensure the survival of humanity, Erwin's a good pick for the job and his soldiers know that. Erwin can ask the impossible of them and they'll do their best to deliver.

And particularly in the anime, when Erwin bellows for his soldiers to "Dedicate your hearts!" you want to follow the guy into battle, even though you know there's going to be a body count. The opening song for the second season is taken specifically from his words.

Shinzou o sasageyo!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Attack on Titan: Mining Story Bits from the Future

I watched the latest Attack on Titan episode (Episode 35: Children if you're avoiding spoilers), which had some really surprising material that I didn't expect they would include. I know a certain amount of changes are made in adaptations, and Attack on Titan has been no different. Though it follows the manga closely in most respects, the series has had to pad on occasion to make sure that the TV run time is fulfilled.

In most cases, one chapter is equivalent to one episode, but sometimes it does not directly translate because one chapter might be very action heavy or it might be very plot heavy. A plot heavy chapter tends to fill an episode. An action one does not, because while two-page spreads are impressive in manga form, they are generally only a few seconds of animation. The series also had to contend with the fact that it needs this particular story arc to last exactly 12 episodes to comprise Season 2. No one wants to start the next story arc and abruptly end when it's just getting started.

As I watched Season 2 I could see the new bits and bobs tucked in. What had been a bubble of dialogue talking about a past event became a full blown flashback in one episode, and that was fine. Season 1 had similarly added anime-only scenes to fill out the run time and the added scenes have been pretty seamless.

Last week's Episode 34 signaled a bit of change though. It added some stuff that's from two story arcs ahead in the manga, but that was mostly okay, because even though the information was first revealed later in the story, the anime presented it as a flashback in one character's mind. It didn't change anyone else's perception of the past event. It does change the audience's perception, but in a small, abbreviated way. In the manga the scene is a fairly extended flashback, but in the anime it's a few seconds to make it clear that someone's death was not the accident it had appeared to be.

I was surprised to see it, but because it changed very little and showed what was going on in the mind of the character who was remembering, I felt that the payoff for using it was warranted.

Episode 35 does something strange though. And this is where the manga spoilers come in. They'll be discussed past this point.

Ymir gets an extended flashback in the middle of Episode 35. A really extended flashback. Episode 35 animates Chapter 47 of the manga. This flashback gives us her history from Chapter 89 of the manga, which is after the reader's awareness of the world has been expanded.

The reason I found her flashback strange is that it gives us our first glimpse of the world outside the walls. We knew that people existed outside of them because that's where Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie came from, and we'd seen flashbacks of Annie's childhood, but we had no reason to think it was much different from the world inside the walls.

But the flashback raises a lot of questions the anime is not set up to answer. By the time we get Ymir's history in the manga, we already know about the truth of the outside world. We know that humanity flourishes out there and that the people of the walls are essentially backwater hicks that have been left alone for the past hundred years while being surrounded by their own people, who have been transformed into human-eating titans.

Because of this, learning that Ymir was a figurehead of a cult that worshiped her as the original Ymir reborn, was very easy to swallow. We already know who the original Ymir is and the significance she had to the Eldian people. We already know about the treatment of the Eldians as a minority ethnic group in the country of Marley.

The anime doesn't explain the significant of Ymir's name, but does show the cult, Ymir's capture by Marleyan authorities, and even her being taken to the seawall around Paradis. It stops short of showing the injection that transforms her into a titan, but it's clear that she and the others were transformed as punishment for their religious gathering, which opens up a whole can of worms that the anime is not going to address without getting to the truth that's hiding in Eren's basement, which isn't going to happen for another two story arcs after the current one ends.

My problem with including this, aside from the fact none of it will be addressed for another 20 episodes or more, is that we see far too much. While the cultists and Ymir are dressed shabbily and can pass for the same tech as inside the walls, the Marleyans are very distinct in their uniforms. The flashback shows that there are people outside the walls with the power to turn others into titans, and these people are more modern than the ones inside the walls.

And they're organized. We're not talking about small scattered villages as implied when Reiner and Bertholdt talk about returning to their "hometown." Those uniforms are things the soldiers of a nation wear.

When the series finally gets to the basement I don't think it's going to be a surprise for anime-only viewers that humanity is thriving outside the walls because they'll already be able extrapolate that from the Ymir flashback.

While the flashback does give some payoff by providing insight into Ymir's personality that wasn't there before, it does so at the cost of one of the series biggest reveals, and I don't think that's worth it. The worst part is that it feels they pulled the material in for run time, since there are only a few chapters left in the current story arc and the remainder are action-heavy so they need all the filler they can get.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mini-Reading Binge

I don't normally read nearly as many books as I'd like. A part of me wonders if it's just that I've gotten more critical as I've become a writer, or it's just that it's harder for me to sit down since there are so many ways to spend my time.

But, I did finish three books so far this month, which is unusual for me, and I'm in the middle of two others (one is an anthology, so it's very easy to pause in the middle for another novel).

I particularly like the two novels I finished. One is The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, which hits all my southern Chinese buttons. I might have told the author over Twitter that reading the dialogue with its older style of romanizing Chinese words made me think of my grandmother and great aunt, because my family never learned to use pinyin. It just wasn't a thing with the Hoisan who came over to the US early in the 20th century, and given the book's late 1800s setting (though in Malaysia), it makes sense.

There's a lot to like about The Ghost Bride. Though the details sometime feel a little much for someone who grew up with similar traditions, they should be enough to bring non-Chinese up to speed, and I really liked the details about Malaysia, which I'm largely unfamiliar with.

The other novel I finished is Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, which is set in 1919 Boston, just before Prohibition. It starts a little slow, though I was pretty hooked by the second half. I liked the diverse cast, and the author doesn't let the reader forget that main character Ava is a second class citizen in her own city by virtue of the color of her skin. I also liked the addition of Gabriel, a Russian immigrant who Americanized his name because though he is white by our modern day standards, he would not have been back then.

I'm a complete sucker for something involving magic and period gangsters, but I have to admit I was surprised this ended up being a YA book. I didn't pick this up in the store so I don't know where they shelve it and unlike most contemporary YA it's not written in first person, so I was a bit thrown off when my brain had to age everyone down by about ten years.

The third book I finished is the second Spice and Wolf short story volume, Volume 11 in the series overall. Usually the stories are told from Lawrence's point of view, more rarely Holo's, but Volume 11 has a real gem in the novella "The Black Wolf's Cradle," which is a prequel telling the origin of Eve Bolan. If you've watched the second season of the anime, you may remember Eve as the backstabbing merchant in the second half.

"The Black Wolf's Cradle" gives us an early version of Eve, when she has recently become a young widow of a destitute noble family. It's painful watching her fumble her way through her first transactions, because she needs a trade in order to earn money, but she is so trusting that even when things begin to look promising for her, we're waiting for the sword to fall. When it does, we see how she becomes the person that we know in the main series. This is easily the best of Isuna Hasekura's shorts in this series, and better than a few of the novels.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Writing “Between Earth and Exile”

When I was fifteen, I rented an animated movie that for the first time made me wonder "What would I do?" if I was in that situation, and not in a good way. Vengeance of the Space Pirate was the censored and dubbed version of the 1981 anime movie Arcadia of My Youth, and it was not a heroic adventure. Though I hadn't realized it at the time, about half of the most objectionable scenes (usually of people getting shot/killed, or scenes of dead people) were removed or shortened, but the dialogue was left surprisingly intact.

For the first time I experienced a story where the good guys didn't save the world. The movie starts out with humanity having been subjugated by an alien race, and that doesn't change by the end. Harlock, the lead character, finds his own freedom, but he's not a freedom fighter. He doesn't try to save or inspire a people who have essentially given up.

At the end of the movie he is declared an enemy of Earth and told to leave the planet. He agrees to do so, but before he goes, he asks if anyone would go with him, knowing that they could never return.

I had never been challenged with a future this bleak in anything I’d seen or read up until this point, and as I watched Harlock leave with the people who would follow him, I couldn’t help wondering, "Would I have the guts to go? Could I have left my family? Could I leave knowing that my life on Earth would amount to nothing, but only hardship and exile would lie with Harlock?"

"Between Earth and Exile" is about a young woman who made the choice to follow her captain into exile, but after six years of fighting and scrabbling to get by, proposes a way to return to Earth and rescue her family.

This story spent years on the drawing board and went through a number of titles, from "Exile's Sorrow" to "Adolescence in Exile" to the final "Between Earth and Exile" which I think is the strongest. It was originally a much shorter story, the second half as it currently exists was not in the original draft, and I wasn't happy with the ending. I changed it twice before the final version. Alexa was always intended to lose in order to draw a parallel between her and Captain Mercer, but the circumstances of the loss changed over time.

The first ending had her in one of the Bloodborne's shuttles (the frigate didn't even exist) with three other people rather than a crew. They flew all the way to Earth to rendezvous with the transport and Alexa actually used her piloting skills during the skirmish against some Alcaltan fighters to try to save her family. But Alcaltan reinforcements arrived, including a cruiser, so our space pirates were forced to pull back back from a battle they wouldn't be able to survive.

I didn't like this ending because Alexa speny a lot of it an emotional wreck and in denial. She had to be convinced to withdraw rather than making the call on her own. This was also the only ending where Mercer offered to let her know what happened to her family after they were apprehended. Alexa refused, because if she doesn't hear they're dead she still has hope. Mercer's line "I would not have wasted the schematics on a fool’s errand" existed even back then, but because of the way things played out, it came off like he was chewing her out rather than expressing support for her initiative.

It didn't help that the fight scene was pretty limp and not well thought out. I knew I didn't want Alexa to go by herself, but there was no clear chain of command and fighting came down to "Everybody do stuff!"

The second draft is really where the story took shape. This introduced the death of Kellen, gravity technology, and the capture of the frigate that would be used what was now the second half of the story. Substituting in the frigate battle over the one with the shuttle almost doubled the length of the story, but it was worth it.

Now the battle took place in the outer edges of the solar system and used larger ships instead of smaller fighter craft. There was a chain of command and everyone on board (or at least on the bridge) had a clear role.

But… but… there was a problem when they turned around to withdraw. They were heavily damaged, being chased by a lone corvette, as they are in the final version, and I needed some way to save them. And at the time I thought, well, if I want Alexa to really feel like she isn't cut out for leadership, the worst thing would be to have Mercer show up and save her. Because then it would look like he never had confidence in her at all.

I admit I'm a little sad that I had to take out the Space Battleship Yamato-inspired Implosion Cannon, but having the Bloodborne show up to pull the frigate's butt out of the fire and annihilate the corvette didn't feel very satisfying. Even though I wanted Alexa to feel less competent than she actually is, I also wanted her to escape on her own.

Still, I sat on that ending for two years before I landed on the missile pod orbiting around Varuna idea, which is a tactic I cribbed from Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a futuristic submarine series. I had to make some changes due to being in space rather than underwater, but I liked the idea of a separate launch platform that an enemy would not expect, and this allows Alexa to make her final attack and save her crew while they're on their last legs.

There were other nips and tucks along the way. Alexa's engineer, Caleb, had a larger role at one point as her surrogate big brother, but most of the changes were along the lines of her interactions with Mercer, who I had to write a fine line around. Since the story is told in first person, we see him through Alexa's hero-worshipping eyes, so bringing out his humanity and the fact he is fallible as well, was harder. If I ever write another story set in this universe I'll probably choose a different POV character.

Between Earth and Exile can be read on Kindle in the April 2017 issue of Deep Magic.

Music listened to while writing: Soundtracks from Arcadia of My Youth and Skies of Arcadia (the latter not related) and "Ichiban no Takaramono (Yui version)" sung by LiSA. "Ichiban no Takaramono" (Most Precious Treasure) was not an entirely appropriate choice, because the lyrics don’t match the situation of the story, but the vocalist does such a great job of portraying the pain expressed in the lyrics that I couldn’t help but think of Alexa.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fantastic Stories' People of Color Anthology is Out

I received a little tip that the Fantastic Stories of the Imagination People of Color Flash Anthology is now out!

You can pick it up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It's available both as an ebook and in paperback.

This project was successfully Kickstarted back in December/early January and contains my flash story "The White Snake" in its first anthology appearance.

"The White Snake" is a take on the old Chinese story about a snake who falls in love with a human, but this time it is in modern day and the human does not care for Chinese myth at all.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Psycho-Pass 2 vs. Mandatory Happiness

I watched the second season of the Psycho-Pass anime last week and while it had its moments, it didn't hit the height of the first series, and I was trying to figure out why. Though Gen Urobuchi was no longer the writer in the second season, I had enjoyed the Mandatory Happiness visual novel, which was not written by him either, so I knew it was possible for someone else to write an engaging, fulfilling story in the Psycho-Pass setting who is not Urobuchi.

The funny thing is that Mandatory Happiness and Psycho-Pass 2 actually do a lot of the same things, and I don't think it's because I'm aware of the same tricks that I enjoyed Psycho-Pass 2 less. I think they were just better done, and I'm not sure if that's because the visual novel came later or that the writers (of which there were several) were just more conscious of the implications.

Spoilers for both the anime series and the visual novel follow!

The key ground that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness want to avoid is having the same type of villain as the original Psycho-Pass. Makishima was unusual because his Crime Coefficient reading was always incredibly low, even in the middle of committing a criminal act. This created complications because the Dominator weapon used by the police only unlocks when a target is psychologically deemed criminal enough (even if latently so) to be enforced. How do you take down a criminal when the system you rely on doesn't recognize him as such?

After the original series, the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is no longer a surprise, so both the spin-off and the sequel can't entertain the audience by introducing yet another character with the same ability to foil the Sybil System. But the series is always about the flaws in Sybil, so each new villain needs to have a way to challenge it.

Mandatory Happiness chooses to handle this with an AI. When a genuinely sentient AI goes rogue and behaves according to its own definition of happiness it is unsurprising that Sybil is unable to get a psychological read on it. This allows for the same drama where an inspector or enforcer character is pointing their Dominator weapon at Alpha's android body and is unable to fire. Somehow, the protagonists need to take out Alpha before any additional people are hurt or killed, but Sybil is not set up to protect people from this kind of situation. It's fascinating stuff.

Psycho-Pass 2 similarly offers a villain that cannot be read at all by Sybil. I suppose that's the natural next step up from Makishima, going from a villain who is incorrectly read to one who isn't read at all, but the reason for that doesn't make much sense. Kamui is essentially Frankenstein's monster. For some reason that is never explained, he is the subject of an experiment where the broken body of a young plane crash survivor was repaired using parts of 184 of his deceased classmates. Kamui is now regarded as a "collective" of all 185 people and that is the reason he cannot be read by Sibyl.

This breaks so much science that my brain hurts. Even allowing for the fact that somehow all 185 children were biologically compatible for transplant purposes, why would someone even do this? We know who did it, but not why, and without a why, there's no reason for Kamui's existence except for the express purpose of being a collective that cannot be identified by Sybil.

And even then, Kamui makes it clear that after his operation Sybil recognized him for a while before he faded off the grid. He originally had only one mind and what he currently experiences could possible be a case of dissociative identity disorder and not truly a collective hive mind. After all, it's unlikely that he got 184 bits of brain matter from his classmates.

The original Psycho-Pass and Mandatory Happiness test the Sybil System in unexpected, but realistic ways. It is unsurprising that there are people who cannot be correctly read, because in the real world there are always outliers. Similarly, the rise of AI is something likely to happen in our future, and dealing with a criminally negligent AI is a fascinating topic.

But a Frankenstein collective human being challenging the judgment of the Sybil System isn't that compelling or very likely. It feels like the only reason Kamui exists the way he does, is to hold up a mirror to Sybil, since we know that Sybil is a hive mind composed of criminally asymptomatic people. In order to be able to judge Kamui, Sybil would need to be able to judge itself.

Psycho-Pass 2 wants to pose the question of the omnipotence paradox to Sybil, which I disagree with on account of the fact that Sybil is known to be a flawed system, at least by those who know it best. That is the reason Sybil keeps taking in any criminally asymptomatic people it finds, because it seeks to improve itself. It is understandable that Kamui, being an outsider to the system, would ask this question, but it doesn't do anything for the audience, who is already informed of Sibyl's true state. (And oddly enough, Kamui doesn't seem to bat an eye when he learns that Sibyl isn't just a computer system, but a computer system augmented by human brains.)

That Kamui and Sybil eventually identify a few criminally asymptomatic brains in the collective is not surprising, because over time Sybil's processing has been refined. It is expected that some of the early brains that could not be properly read at the time of their integration would become readable later on. Kamui doesn't feel that Sybil passes the test, but Sybil was never in a position where it could, because the system is built on constantly improving itself, which it does when it throws out the criminally read brains.

The other thing that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness do is disguise a person's Criminal Coefficient through drug use. And I suspect that Mandatory Happiness, having come later, took some lessons from the execution in Psycho-Pass 2.

Psycho-Pass 2 has followers of Kamui who cannot be read by the Dominators, but it does not appear to be their natural state as they cannot maintain their low Criminal Coefficients without drug use. This is not too much different from the helmets used to disguise Criminal Coefficients in the first series, but has the added advantage in that the user does not need to be disguised. However, Psycho-Pass 2 doesn't dwell much on the existence of these drugs, which is a little odd since one would think the police would take a high amount of interest in figuring out what is enabling these people.

Mandatory Happiness similarly has a drug workaround, but we see the work that goes into creating this drug cocktail and how it's synthesized through commercially available products so anyone can get a hold of it if they know what they're doing. There are also side effects with heavy users eventually succumbing to Eustress Syndrome (which was introduced in a passing reference in Psycho-Pass 2). The Division 1 team puts a priority on figuring out how the drugs work, and it makes their existence more believable than being a handy plot device.

I think that's why Psycho-Pass 2 didn't work as well for me as the original and the spin-off visual novel. It's not that there isn't room to tell new stories in the Psycho-Pass universe so much as it doesn't feel like it was well thought out. There other parts of Psycho-Pass 2 that didn't make sense to me, but comparing the similarities in execution between that and Mandatory Happiness make it clearer where Psycho-Pass 2 came up short.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Yay, Code:Realize Anime is Coming

I was a bit worried, seeing as the Code:Realize anime had been announced back in August of 2015, and since then news has been sparse, but now we have a trailer and it looks gorgeous, though I'm a little disappointed that most of the footage is of the men around Cardia rather than Cardia herself. It's a bit expected given the romance-oriented source material, but Cardia is rare among otome heroines in that she has her own character arc independent of the men in her life and she doesn't always need to be rescued by them.

When I originally wrote about Code:Realize as part of my VN Talk series, I pegged the story was one that has a lot of crossover potential to those who wouldn't otherwise play a romance game. It has plenty of action, tension, and humor that I think will let it appeal to a wider audience, especially since the game itself doesn't go heavy on the romance until over halfway through the story. Until that point, it's a fun tale about Cardia learning how to live with other people and figuring out how to avoid capture by the Queen's soldiers with the help of her ragtag band of heroes.

The trailer plays up the romance angle though, showcasing each of the love interests, and I suppose that's necessary to buy in the existing fans, but I'm hoping that Cardia stands on her own in the series itself as the self-determining protagonist that she is, and that the romance is fairly downplayed early on, as it is in the game.

My biggest concern is that the story will likely be following Lupin's route because his story is the only one that closes off everyone else's storyline and also provides the best outcome for Cardia. With a few extra scenes from the other routes just to make sure the stories of the other love interests are dealt with, Lupin's has the potential to be quite satisfying. Despite misgivings I have about his route, in particular that it's Cardia's weakest route as a protagonist, he's a lot of fun and I still have a sore spot from when the Magic Kaito 1412 anime series ended. If you like dashing gentlemen thieves with top hats and nice coats, Code:Realize has that covered.

And now we have a date. It's coming out in October of this year, so it'll be part of the fall season.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Between Earth and Exile" now out in Deep Magic

In case you missed it, the April issue of Deep Magic is now out on Amazon, containing my novelette "Between Earth and Exile."

In a far future, humanity has been pushed back from their colonies and forced to live on an overcrowded Earth by the alien Alcaltans, who now dominate the galaxy. There's no place for humans anywhere else, except for those who chose to go into exile on the Bloodborne, a stolen dreadnought turned pirate ship by Captain Mercer and his crew.

"Between Earth and Exile" follows Alexa, one of the junior crew members, who was still a teenager when she made the decision to flee Earth on the Bloodborne. Now six years later she is a young adult and wants to return to rescue whatever remains of her family.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Attack on Titan: When is it fair for a series to change genres?

Attack on Titan has been on my mind a fair bit lately, and I've been thinking: When is it fair for a series to change genres? I've been following the manga for quite a while, and as people on my mailing list know, I recently rewatched the first season of the anime and starting playing the console game a couple months ago.

I'm not normally a super-fan, but there's something about Attack on Titan that really grabs me, and has done so with a great many other people such that the manga is one of the bestselling series in the country. The second season of the anime is like a tornado diving into fandom. People can't avoid it. It's even being broadcast on Cartoon Network less than a month from its Japanese broadcast, which is pretty crazy considering the logistics involved, which includes redubbing the audio into English.

Now, I'm going to get into spoilers. If you don't care, keep reading. If you do, know that I'll be covering up to chapter 92 of the manga, which is what just came out this month.

Seriously. Spoilers. Stay out if you don't want.

Now then...

Attack on Titan begins with a relatively simple setup. The last of humanity has been forced into a small country-sized space surrounded by three concentric walls that are high enough to keep out the titular titans, who are unintelligent and whose only drive seems to be to eat people. The weapon tech is perhaps early 1800s with cannons and shotguns being known quantities, but there are no gatling guns yet. Both are inefficient against titans which can only be killed by removing a meter long section of the nape.

Most people are happy to live within the walls where the titans can't snack on them, and humanity has lived this way for just over a century. But some people want to venture back into the outside world, and they are the members of the Survey Corps. (I will be using Kodansha's manga translation names here, not Funimation's anime translations, because I'll mostly be talking about the manga.)

The Survey Corps is generally regarded as a bunch of madmen who waste taxpayer money because their typical mission involves going out beyond the walls, lots of them getting killed, and then not really learning anything about what the world beyond the walls is like. Still, they fight, which is why people think they're crazy.

Attack on Titan kicks off with the breach of the outermost Wall Maria, which causes humanity to once again know the fear of the titans and flee for their lives. The human population is drastically reduced because even though many people escape to the next innermost wall, Wall Rose, it's a much smaller territory and there's not enough food to feed everyone, so the excess are thrown out to be eaten by titans, for the good of everyone else.

This is not a nice series and this is where the main body of the story begins.

Our protagonists join up with Survey Corps for various reasons, and begin their push to successfully fight back the titans.

There are revelations along the way. Main character Eren Yeager has the ability to turn into a 15-meter class titan himself, retaining his intelligence, and though he knows his father gave him the ability, he doesn't know how. We also learn that there is a traitor among Eren's classmates from the Training Corps, and she also can turn into a titan.

And in the middle of all this, there's lots and lots of people valiantly fending off and/or being killed by titans. The Survey Corps does have lot of casualties, but those who survive their first few missions often become genuine badasses, because they have to be if they want to live, and the anime does an amazing job showcasing how even ordinary Survey Corps members fight.

(I haven't mentioned it yet, but the way people kill titans is with gas-powered maneuvering gear that shoots grappling lines into trees and buildings so the soldiers can fling themselves up to the heights needed to circle around to the back of the titan and cut out the nape with their specially crafted swords.)

It really feels like this is the tone of the series. Push against titans, they push back, wall breaches, lots of people die, OMG. And though there's stuff about traitors, and we don't know the motivation of the traitors, everything fits in the box of what we know.

What's really interesting to me, is what happens after the current plot in Season 2 of the anime. Though I can understand that production issues are the cause for keeping it to 12 episodes this season, Attack on Titan also undergoes a shift in its later story arcs that could potentially annoy the anime's larger fanbase.

We've come to expect that this is a series about the last dregs of humanity making a desperate stand against the monsters that would devour them, but the next arc barely features any titans at all. Which is a shock considering the title. I'm sure the animators are going to be scratching their heads trying to figure out how to create all those dynamic action scenes for what is essentially a political intrigue arc, but political intrigue is the game. There's still fighting, there's also a number of people dying, but for very different reasons.

I followed the arc because I loved seeing the Survey Corps being put out of their element and Commander Erwin Smith's ballsy plan to wrest control away from the ruling family. (Seriously, he initiates a successful and relatively bloodless coup that wraps up in less than a week.)

But barring a surprise titan appearance at the end of the arc, the fighting is human against human and the Survey Corps members are naturally unhappy about this, because it's not what they signed up for. It's not what the audience originally signed up for either, so I'm curious how this arc will eventually go down.

We're at a point where the manga is probably 30-40 episodes' worth of material ahead of the anime (assuming 4 episodes per volume), which creates a gigantic disconnect from people who are manga readers versus anime-only viewers, and surprisingly makes it difficult for the two groups to talk.

The anime-only viewer is currently worried about the possible breach of Wall Rose, which once again puts humanity on the back foot, especially considering the intelligent new Beast Titan that has show up.

The manga reader knows what the real battle is (or at least knows more of why things are the way they are), and it's nothing like what we've been led to expect. It's ridiculously hard to talk about anything the current manga reader is enjoying without spoiling and spoiling a lot of catch-up material.

For instance, much of Season 1 of the anime is spent trying to get back to Eren's basement. That eventually happens in the manga, but when my friend asked what the secret of the basement was, I couldn't explain the significance of it without explaining a lot of other things, otherwise my answer would have no meaning.

Attack on Titan is now a war story. It was a post-apocalyptic grimdark fantasy, then it was political intrigue, it went back into grimdark people with swords, and now it's World War I with titans, and there's no getting around that.

The basement really did shatter everything, because the truth of the world is that humanity has not perished outside the walls, but is actually going about business as usual, and it's the people living within the walled country who are the hinterland hicks who don't know anything.

For some series, this kind of revelation would happen at the end because continuing would make it a very different story. Because at this point, we've learned so much, about where the titans came from, how they are actually victims who cannot help what they do, and the series ceases to revolve around killing the titans and taking back their world. Most of the world is remarkably titan free.

The only reason there are titans where the protagonists live, is because they're on an island and their ethnicity is persecuted on the mainland for their potential to be turned into monsters. Dissidents are rounded up in the country of Marley, shipped off to the island, and forcefully turned into titans, ostensibly to harass and punish those who've sealed themselves away from the rest of the world.

Most of the outside world hates and fears the people we now know as Eldians, because of their transformation abilities that allow any individual to become a mindless weapon of war, and the power of the Founding Titan, which now resides in a dormant fashion in Eren, allows one to control all the mindless titans. No one wants to end up fighting an army of man-eating giants.

But... technology marches on, and the world outside has advanced. It has trains. It has blimps. It has navies that can fire a fair distance inland at a fort. Anti-titan weaponry has been developed, and while it hasn't rendered titan warfare obsolete, that day is coming.

Where is the space for people flying on grappling lines with swords to attack the nape of titans?

At this point, Marley is using Eldians in its army, both willingly and not (the willing ones make me think of the Japanese Americans who fought for the US even as the rest of their families and friends were placed in camps--they want to prove their loyalty) and so they'll probably send some more titans at the island once the next story arc starts up, but really, if Marley takes the capture of the Founding Titan seriously this time, we're going to see people with artillery and machine guns landing on the island and I can't see our protagonists being prepared for that.

This is a totally different story than the one I signed up for, but I'm still game. I like World War I, and seeing a secondary world version of it is interesting, especially seeing this world's version of an air raid, where Eldians can be dropped from the sky and transformed into titans to attack the enemy. It's hugely intimidating, and assuming the anti-titan weaponry is taken out, incredibly effective as well.

But will we still see swords and maneuvering gear? Is the situation on the island still desperate now that they know they aren't the last of humanity, or do they feel it doesn't matter as they've traded one enemy for another? Is there still a reason for the Survey Corps?

I don't have those answers, or the one to my original question as to when it is fair for a series to change genres. I know I'm still in for the ride, but I don't know how many will be lost if and when the anime gets to these points, and how many may have been lost already.

It's still a good story, and according to Hajime Isayama we're not nearly at the end of it yet. There's a good chance it'll jump again.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Writers of the Future 33

Hey, all!

This is a pre-queued post written almost a week before the festivities so there won't be any specifics. But by the time this goes live the award ceremony for the 33rd Writers of the Future contest should have occurred, since it's very much a Sunday night gala.

Why is this pre-queued? Because I've spent my weekend at the workshop hanging out with the new winners and I'm pretty sure I'd be too tired to actually write any of this. The week is a complete energy drain even if you're not the guests of honor. It's like a mini-convention and all the travel and stuff that goes along with it.

If you're curious about the contest at all there's usually a stream of the awards ceremony up on the official website for several days after. I know because coworkers discovered it the year I won and I came back to find half the office had seen it. (So if you're shy and you don't want that to happen to you, don't mention that it's going to be streaming live to anyone you know...)

And I might not know who the new grand prize winners are as of this writing, but grats guys!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Flash Fiction Online Fantasy 2016 Anthology

Flash Fiction Online has released their annual anthology collecting all their 2016 fantasy stories, including my short "The Ancestors." If you like flash and would like to support the magazine it's worth checking out.

It's for sale on Amazon and Weightless Books.

In addition to my own piece of flash fiction, you can find shorts by Kelly Sandoval, Rachael K. Jones, and Marina J. Lostetter, all of whom have written work I've enjoyed.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Anime That Could Be Done in Hollywood Without Whitewashing

With Ghost in the Shell ramping up its PR engine in advance of release, and thinking about all the other attempts by westerners to do live action adaptations of anime, I started wondering, why do they love to choose the ones with a Japanese cast?

Because that's what sets off all the whitewashing problems.

Right now we have Ghost in the Shell coming to theaters, Death Note is in production for Netflix, and it's hard to forget early forerunner Dragon Ball.

But there's a lot of good anime out there that has a multi-national or even completely non-Japanese cast, and I'm not sure why Hollywood hasn't picked those up. Some of them have had or will have live action versions themselves, but Japan's own movie industry doesn't have the deep special effects pockets and expertise that Hollywood does.

So I thought about five series that could be great with a Hollywood budget and casting directors wouldn't have to jump through hoops for. I'm also primarily picking older properties (because Hollywood people with the clout and money probably favor things from their younger days, like James Cameron's persistence with Battle Angel Alita) and series with crossover potential since popularity in Japan alone doesn't carry much weight in the US.

#1 - Attack on Titan

Let's get the behemoth out of the way! Attack on Titan is a freaking juggernaut. It's the highest anticipated anime series for spring 2017 (when the long anticipated Season 2 begins). Volume 1 of the manga was on the New York Times bestseller's list for 81 weeks! You could buy Attack on Titan clothing at Hot Topic (maybe with the new season around the corner you still can). Anyone vaguely current on anime in the past 5 years will have heard of Attack on Titan.

It takes place in a world where humanity lives inside three gargantuan concentric walls that are all that protect people from the titans who would otherwise devour them. The only vulnerability titans have is a small space in the nape of the neck that must be cut out, otherwise the rest of the body will regenerate, so the soldiers who fight them zip around on vertical maneuvering gear that works like a pair of gas-powered grappling hooks.

The animation looks amazing and captures the feeling of what it's like zipping and flying through a cityscape to fight giants as tall as buildings, but getting that level of fidelity in live action would difficult to achieve without lots of special effects experience and budget. The live action Japanese version doesn't come close. Hollywood probably could do it though.

And for casting, the people inhabiting the world of Attack on Titan are fair-skinned with Germanic (occasionally English) names for the most part. Hollywood can have a cast largely populated by white people and no one would think anything of it. The only explicitly diverse character is the biracial Mikasa, whose father is from the majority ethnic group and whose mother is Asian.

#2 - Cowboy Bebop

To be honest Cowboy Bebop isn't my cup of tea, but I know it's a lot of other people's. It's one of the biggest series of the 90s, putting it in the zone of Hollywood's current nostalgia cup, and it's a series I still hear about from time to time. Usually in the form of "You haven't watched it yet?!" until I finally did.

Cowboy Bebop is a work of near future science fiction where tech has been discovered allowing people to jump around the solar system, though not to other stars yet. You have your badass crew of bounty hunters that's constantly low on funds and needs to take on more jobs to make a living. And that's without getting into Spike's backstory.

Cowboy Bebop is not too out there, it's not too anime. It's one of those series where if someone told me it was more popular in the west than the Japan I'd believe it, because you can see the influence, and there's not really any fanservice beyond Faye's outfit, which fits her character without being too ridiculous. I think people who enjoyed Firefly would find a lot to like about Cowboy Bebop as well.

We don't have canon ethnicities for any of the Bebop crew, though Faye is probably Asian. To be honest, I think a casting director could go wide with the Bebop crew and cast just about anyone regardless of ancestry into any role and it would work out just fine, because the Bebop crew visually doesn't look like they have to belong to any particular group. Ed especially with her brown skin and carrot colored hair (dyed?). It wouldn't be great if Hollywood cast this all white, but they could arguably have a leg to stand on.

#3 - Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist is set in an early 20th century style world in a European-inspired country, where alchemy is practiced and can be used as a form of magical combat based on the law of equivalent exchange. Something cannot be created from nothing, but it's possible for an alchemist to change one thing into another.

The story follows the titular Fullmetal Alchemist Ed and his brother Al, who are trying to find a way to restore their bodies after their badly botched attempt to resurrect their mother. (Something can't be pulled from nothing, so you can see how this was a bad idea.) But there's a lot more going on than their quest to fix themselves, since Ed is also a state alchemist and there is something very rotten going on in the government.

Like Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist is a series built for Hollywood special effects with all the different alchemical abilities. Though there is a live action Japanese movie in the works, it won't have the look and the budget that Hollywood would be able to pull off.

And again, most of the cast can safely be white. There are Chinese and Middle Eastern-inspired characters in supporting roles, which Hollywood is generally decent about filling without whitewashing (because they're not the protagonists), but all the major characters are of European equivalent descent.

#4 - Vision of Escaflowne

This was a 90s juggernaut and a crazy genre mash-up involving a girl with powers to influence the future, steampunk mecha, portal fantasy, and the lost civilization of Atlantis. You couldn't trip over a 90s anime fan without some knowledge of Vision of Escaflowne and this is one instance where a little something for everyone really worked.

Hitomi initially appears to be an ordinary schoolgirl who happens to like fortune telling with tarot cards, but when she gets transported to the world of Gaea, she learns that her powers can have a real influence on the world and she gets caught up in a crazy war.

The titular Escaflowne is a transforming mecha that can change from its humanoid shape to a dragon with its pilot riding on its back. Her travelling companion, Prince Van, can fly with feathery wings that sprout from his back when he needs them, and there are a multitude of fantastical non-human characters she meets along the way. This is stuff that would be great with the right budget and special effects crew. (Though the wings could still look terrible, since Hollywood has still put out some cheesy people with wings shots.)

Other than Hitomi and the people she leaves back home in Japan, the rest of the human cast is non-Japanese and most could safely be cast as white without much protest.

#5 - Bacanno

Okay, this last one is not that widely known, but I'm including it because it's one of those series where everyone who sees it likes it, but not enough people have seen it. Bacanno takes place in Prohibition America and involves three different plotlines in three different years that weave together to form a single story. It's really quite brilliant.

At the core of it, there were a bunch of alchemists who discovered the means to achieve immortality, and the only way they can be killed is if one of them "eats" the other. Thanks to shenanigans (Bacanno is a master at the domino effect, where one little thing sets everything else in motion), the immortality-bestowing brew ends up in the hands of a lot of people who haven't a clue what it is and well... there are more shenanigans. With three plotlines it's actually hard to say what the overall story is, save that it's what happens when people who really shouldn't become immortal end up doing so.

If you like gangsters, immortality, and crazy plot reveals (because the story is told in a non-linear fashion), Bacanno is pretty amazing and it should go over well with people who like puzzling out what everything means and what's really going on.

Since it's set in the US, most of the characters are white, though there are minor roles of other ethnic groups. If they include more of the books they could even bring in Maria Barcelito, a Mexican katana-wielding assassin.

Ideally, I'd prefer Hollywood movies to be more diverse, but if they're gonna do anime, at least choose something that would work well with the casting choices they're likely to make. We'll get Japanese Death Notes with an all Japanese cast out of Japan, but Hollywood offers the possibility of translating some material to live action that Japan actually can't do as well on its own.

Monday, March 13, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 3: Takuma

I held off playing Takuma's story until I finished all of Nadeshiko's endings in Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, which was pretty hard to do, but I wanted to drain every scrap of her story I could get before moving on. It probably wasn't necessary, but I would recommend getting at least one of the playthroughs where she regains her memories while an inspector before playing Takuma's storyline.

The reason for that is because Mandatory Happiness hinges around Alpha and Yukari's mutual memory loss and the problems that result. Takuma can unravel the truth for himself, but he doesn't experience it firsthand. And usually he finds out about her planned integration with Sibyl as a quickie info dump which is harder to take without context.

But Takuma's story answered a lot of questions I had leftover from Nadeshiko's playthroughs. We know from her flashbacks that he did not spend all his adult life as a enforcer, because he obviously spent a lot of time with her, which would have been impossible as a latent criminal. It turns out that he only became a latent criminal after Yukari went missing, and his Crime Coefficient increased because of his single-minded hunt for her.

Considering that he was meeting with some severely questionable people in his attempts to find her (even Makishima in Nadeshiko's playthroughs), it's not surprising that this was the turning point.

Takuma's story also fixes a lot (though not all) of what I found problematic about him in Nadeshiko's route. During the first case he's incredibly sympathetic towards the perpetrator, Haruto, the high school boy who blackmails his crush into hanging out with him after she was sent away to a different high school. I found the perpetrator's actions to be reprehensible and on Nadeshiko's playthrough, Takuma is upset by the case because he feels that at one point the two kids honestly liked each other. If Sibyl hadn't intervened they might have been happy together and none of this would have happened.

This is possibly true, as Shiori obviously did care about Haruto at one point, but the weird thing that stuck out at me was that Sibyl wasn't what came between Haruto and Shiori, but Shiori's mom, who thought Haruto was a bad influence on her.

Playing through Takuma's storyline it's clear that he's conflating his own backstory with Haruto's, because he and Yukari were similarly close and then Sibyl decided she'd be better educated in Tokyo than the outlying Sado Marine City. This caused them to be separated, and though they continued to meet each other from time to time as adults (which is clear from Nadeshiko's memories), they were living in different worlds in the different jobs Sibyl had assigned them.

Takuma still, unfortunately, sports oddly outdated bits of masculinity. He's actually worse on Nadeshiko's route, but that doesn't eliminate his ideas of how a man should behave. One of the things I was hugely concerned about, given the wide latitude the player has in determining Nadeshiko's fate in her own story, was how much influence the player as Takuma would have over hers.

Takuma's entire motivation for joining the CID is to find Yukari, who we know is a person capable of making drastic, life altering decisions about her own fate, even knowing how Takuma cares about her. I was afraid that if the player as Takuma restored her memories, he could talk her out of her most drastic decisions.

Thankfully, my first ending with Takuma proved my worries wrong, as we end with a situation not possible in Nadeshiko's playthrough, where Takuma is aware of the truth about the Sibyl System and accepts that Yukari is going to become a part of it. He got to meet her again and he knows she's now leaving by her own choice, and he's okay with that. And that's the Takuma I love from Nadeshiko's playthrough. (There are other parts of this ending that came out clunky, but at least this part I liked.)

A lot of his choices throughout the game revolve around how obedient an enforcer he's going to be, and that shapes the way his endings branch. He's a impulsive character, who is currently constrained by the rules of his employment, so unlike Nadeshiko I actually feel like it's easier to play Takuma wildly in one direction or another. Maybe he understands the need to stay in his employer's good graces, maybe he can't help being a loose cannon.

Like Nadeshiko, Takuma essentially has four paths, but a total of six rather than eight True Ends; one where he raises his Psycho-Pass high enough that he's promoted from enforcer to inspector (which is hugely remarkable since that situation never happens in the anime), one where Nadeshiko recovers her memories on her own, one where Takuma goes rogue and teams up with Alpha, and one where he fails to recover Nadeshiko's memories while still remaining an enforcer.

Takuma can still be a bit bone-headed in his endings, the worst offender being the one where he decides not to restore Nadeshiko's memories because he equates that with murder (since Nadeshiko would disappear and Yukari return), to which I say "Wha…?" because Nadeshiko is just Yukari with missing memories.

It would have been better if he had made the choice because he didn't want Sibyl to get its hands on her, knowing that her missing memories and lost asymptomatic condition is all that's keeping her from being absorbed into the hive mind, but for some reason that's not really what he seems to be worried about.

Keeping Takuma's single-minded dedication to Yukari is a little rough sometimes when it comes to endings, since he has to respect anything she says in order to remain in character, so if the player recovers Yukari's memories, the game generally handles this by having her hesitate to suggest a plan. In which case Takuma can suggest something, even if it's just to prod her for what she really wants.

The strange thing about Takuma's storyline, as least from the scenes I got, is that how Yukari physically came to be Nadeshiko isn't really touched on. He notices over the course of the story that Nadeshiko behaves a lot like Yukari. She even thinks a lot like Yukari. Of course she doesn't look or sound like Yukari so they shouldn't be the same person, but he can't shake the feeling.

On multiple routes, Takuma becomes convinced that she's somehow Yukari even without it being spelled out for him (which is kind of funny because he doesn't have a clue in her storyline). He even correctly concludes that the reason he was chosen to be an enforcer in Division 1 was to trigger Nadeshiko's lost memories.

Which is nice, because it shows that he has the aptitude to be a detective and pulling him out of rehab wasn't a complete asspull on Sybil's part. Even on the route when he regains his standing as a free citizen and continues life as an inspector, it's not taken from him once his job is done and Yukari has become a part of Sybil. He remains at his position which he now believes is the best place for him, just like Sybil is the best place for a person like Yukari.

Like Nadeshiko, his True Ends are split between whether he stays in the system or leaves it, but one particular ending warrants a special look because it's the only one that goes so far off the rails that I have trouble seamlessly integrating it with the rest of the anime series.

That's the one where Takuma allies with Alpha and fittingly it seems to be really hard to get (I used a walkthrough). It looks like the player has to tank Takuma's Hue all the way to the bottom, get thrown on probation because of a bad counseling session, but take one supplement afterwards to raise his Hue before the final crisis is fully underway. This will allow Takuma just enough freedom to choose to be on the search team rather than the rescue team (he won't get a choice if he's really tanked). It's possible that it's also necessary for Alpha to voluntarily abandon his cyborg body earlier in the story rather than be forced out of it due to head damage.

This setup leaves Takuma rebellious enough that he's willing to do his own thing, which is going to Yukari's old apartment and hooking up with Alpha.

Once Takuma identifies himself to Alpha as his father, this changes everything and throws out two-thirds of how the final crisis would usually play out. When Takuma and Alpha agree to team up and recover Yukari, Alpha ceases to care about his happiness agenda (I guess Mother is the higher priority since she can't praise him for a good job if she doesn't know who he is) and makes for a wild ride.

It was a fun route, but only in a completely crazy off the rails way. Takuma ends up sneaks Alpha along for the ride to the team headquarters so they can get Yukari, but things go horribly wrong and they end up having to subdue most of Division 1 as they make their escape, which is why canonically this is a giant mess, even though it's incredibly funny seeing Alpha mess with the hospital holograms and turn the place into a virtual castle complete with monsters (which are actually the medical drones).

The thing is, there's no way that the remaining members of Division 1 are going to forget the time that Takuma Tsurugi went rogue, ran off with one of their inspectors and the prime suspect of one of the most disastrous cases they've ever had. Something like that leaves a mark.

While there are plenty of endings where the two of them disappear and Alpha survives, Alpha's survival is always hidden from anyone other Nadeshiko, Takuma, and possibly Sibyl. The disappearances happen after the case is closed, so as far as the CID is concerned Alpha is finished. An enforcer (and inspector) disappearing after that is a much smaller, unrelated incident.

Moreover, in this ending Akane discovers the existence of criminally asymptomatic people when she tries apprehending Nadeshiko after she gets her memory back, as well as being told the truth of the Sibyl System, which pretty much undermines all the secrets she eventually learns in the mid-to-late part of the anime's first season.

She also uncharacteristically runs off and lets them go. Takuma's narration presumes that she does this because she really can't do anything to stop them if her Dominator doesn't work, but it's not in character for Akane, who went after Makishima with an unloaded pistol even though it meant hanging off the side of a truck in the anime.

Aside from that, most of Division 1 was knocked out, almost permanently, and Alpha escapes, which is not something any of them are likely to forgive.

Since it's hard to naturally trigger and I really like the Takuma/Alpha team-up, I'm not too upset that this ending exists (and it was kind of funny), but I wish it had managed to stay more in the realm of believability.

Still, it was the final ending I played, and was an entertaining enough capstone to Mandatory Happiness.

Monday, March 6, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 2: Nadeshiko

I chose Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi for my first playthrough of Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness and I'd recommend her first since the crux of the game's conflict unravels more naturally through her. Fortunately, she is the default pick the cursor begins on, and the player has to actually make the choice to switch to Takuma.

Nadeshiko begins the game as an unemotional, even robotic, amnesiac. She remembers all her day-to-day knowledge and schooling, but events that affected her personally are all gone; the result of a training accident. Nonetheless, she's physically healthy and ready to be discharged, so she immediately decides she will go to her new job, because that is where she is supposed to be.

It sounds kind of silly that someone in that kind of condition would be allowed to go, but given the way this society is structured, if Sibyl thinks it's okay, it must be okay, and what's she going to do anyway? Just sit around waiting for her memory to come back?

I like Nadeshiko because even though she is considered unemotional and has trouble understanding the feelings of others, she has a healthy streak of common sense and calls it as she sees it. In the first case a would-be boyfriend blackmails the girl he likes into traveling back to their hometown with him. A couple of the enforcers in Division 1 think the situation could possibly resolve on its own without the CID's interference. The kids used to be friends before she moved and the boy clearly has feelings for the girl.

Nadeshiko rightfully says she can't make the connection between affection and blackmail.

Though the game doesn't give a psychological explanation for why Nadeshiko has trouble experiencing and understanding emotion, no one actually faults her for it. It's just part of who she is, and as someone who sometimes has trouble reading emotions in others, I appreciate that. Yes, she thinks differently from most people, but no one yells at her for not understanding. Even the Ms. Droid nickname feels more like it comes from a place of affection rather than malice. (It helps that the Japanese is Droid-chan, which adds a sense of endearment to it.)

Psycho-Pass as a series was heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick, but Mandatory Happiness chooses a different literary inspiration, even called out in game. Nadeshiko's favorite book is The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee (and I about screamed when the book cover was described in game, only to have the narration confirm the title on the next screen).

Rather than empathizing with Jane, the protagonist (who begins the story oddly like the average citizen in Psycho-Pass), Nadeshiko sees herself as Silver, the robot who isn't human at all but seems to become more and more like one after spending time with Jane.

Nadeshiko is highly unusual as a female protagonist because of her mentality, which probably places her somewhere on the autism spectrum though that terminology isn't used. She's the least emotional member of the team, but she's not entirely without empathy, and it's sweet when she pieces things together enough to realize how she can be a little kinder to someone while still being herself. Her emotional needs are low, but not nonexistent. Rather, the same inability to process other people's emotions leads to her not being able to process her own.

This most awkwardly comes out through Takuma Tsurugi, who has a shared past with her, though initially she's unaware of it. Takuma invades her personal space a lot, which annoys her and she calls him out on it (which is why I love her), but it's clear from the early memory flashes that Takuma is also someone special from her past, which is hard to buy when he's being annoying.

If the player gets most of her memories back, we learn that Nadeshiko Kugatachi used to be Yukari Himekawa, Takuma's lost girlfriend. She's had her unemotional state since she was a child and Takuma grew up with her, persistently trying to get her to understand why some things weren't right and why others things were okay even though they seemed outwardly harmful.

But chances are, the player will not unlock most of Nadeshiko's memories the first time through, as it's not obvious which choices will lead to a memory recovery scene and the player needs to trigger enough to them to get the avalanche unlock where nearly everything floods back.

This made it hard for me to like Takuma until I start getting into my later playthroughs using a walkthrough.

The thing is, it's possible to get to a True End of the game without necessarily getting the whole story. In fact, there are multiple endings that all could be considered legitimate, and this is only possible because of the fact the game chose to tell Nadeshiko and Takuma's stories rather than an established character's.

A True End results if the villain is stopped rather than the player discovering all the plot points. I played through on sheer RP mode first, making choices that made the best sense to me given Nadeshiko's personality, but this meant that I never found all her memories.

The result was a bit of a bumpy ride, and satisfying for Nadeshiko's sake if not mine. Lives were saved, but the game is pretty heavy-handed in pointing out that Nadeshiko has all these similarities to the missing Yukari Himekawa that it's bizarre that Nadeshiko herself never thinks that she might somehow be Yukari.

Given the world of Psycho-Pass and knowing what the Sibyl System is capable of, it was easy to believe that Nadeshiko's current identity was forged and she has access to no records of her previous life, but she never even checks, which seems like an obvious step for an amnesiac. Though, depending on how you choose to play her, Nadeshiko can also have absolutely zero interest in recovering her previous self.

Nadeshiko's full story, once it comes out, is that as Yukari Himekawa she was in charge of the Silver Project, which was to create a human-like AI that could be a companion to humans. One of the greatest sources of unhappiness remaining in Sibyl's mostly peaceful society, is that of loneliness. Without a friend to confide in, people's Hues can become clouded, and even though Yukari herself was not adept at recognizing why this happened, she understood that human contact was important, and the Silver Project was aimed to become a stopgap for those whose social circles had become so small they had no one left to turn to.

Yukari wanted people to be happy.

But, she also wasn't very good at determining what happiness was, and ended up murdering a bunch of comatose patients that were never expected to wake up because she thought that would free their families from having to worry about them. She was perplexed that this actually made things worse.

Yukari was apprehended pre-game, but at the same time was discovered to be criminally asymptomatic, which in Psycho-Pass means that they cannot be read by Sibyl and their Crime Coefficient remains low, like a law-abiding citizen. Because the Crime Coefficient is instrumental in identifying and apprehending criminals (the Dominator won't even unlock to allow a paralytic shot if the Crime Coefficient is under 100) the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is hushed up.

Those who are found, are encouraged to join the Sibyl System (a hive mind), by force if necessary, in order to better account for the variations in human behavior. Yukari did not need to be forced as she saw joining Sibyl as a positive, but Alpha, her Silver Project prototype, panicked and messed up the procedure as they were going to remove her brain.

The result was both of them getting their memories fried (though Alpha remembered enough to know that his purpose is to make people happy and that will please Mother). Since Yukari ended up losing her criminally asymptomatic condition along with her memories, Sibyl decided to put her on surveillance as part of Division 1 with a new name, new face, and new voice (presumably so she can't be recognized as the disgraced Yukari) and see if she recovers enough to join Sibyl.

Depending how the player proceeds through the game, Nadeshiko will react differently to being recruited into Sibyl after getting her memories back, and she might not agree with her former self at all.

Though there are eight True Ends for Nadeshiko, they're really broken in four different sets of circumstances; if Nadeshiko recovers her memories without any damage to her Hue, if Nadeshiko recovers her memories after having her Hue severely clouded, if Nadeshiko gets demoted to enforcer and recovers her memories after killing Alpha, and if she never learns the truth.

My favorite ending is probably one I would not have gotten without a walkthrough since it comes from recovering her memories after damaging her Hue, since I have trouble having Nadeshiko make stupid decisions. She is a logical and efficient character, so I don't think it's likely she would have gotten to that point on her own, even if detective work isn't the job that Sibyl initially foresaw for her when she was Yukari.

But she if does get to this state, she confides her true identity to Takuma shortly before their confrontation with Alpha, and once the big lug gets the story straight he is damn well 100% behind her. Even though he's been annoying and chauvinistic at times, one thing I really like about Takuma is when Yukari needs him, he listens to her, and no matter what, he's willing to abide by her decision. He doesn't talk back, he doesn't try to convince her she's wrong. Once her mind's made up, his entire attitude is "What do you need from me?"

And her ask is huge. But he still goes for it, even knowing that he'll probably never see her again.

That was the one ending path where the final choice is to join Sibyl or escape overseas with Takuma and Alpha. I chose to have Nadeshiko stay, for the greater good, and to have Takuma raise Alpha in her place in freedom outside of Japan. And he does it. He said he wanted to carry half her burden for her and by golly he sticks to his word without a hint of complaint.

I did want to slug him just a little bit though for his last sexist remark about needing to indulge a woman from time to time (he was telling Alpha why they had to let Nadeshiko/Yukari leave them), but if anything it's nice to see a flawed character executed so well that I like the guy despite his issues.

After finishing all of Nadeshiko's endings though, I realized I still didn't have a full picture of the story. I had most of it, but I was still missing a few things, mostly in regards to Takuma and his involvement with Division 1. So we'll cover him next week!

Monday, February 27, 2017

VN Talk: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness - Part 1

I enjoyed the dystopian world of the Psycho-Pass anime, and was surprised when I heard that a game, specifically a visual novel, based on it was being localized for the US. VNs are still a niche audience in the English speaking world and while Psycho-Pass is one of those series that comes with a high recommendation rate by fans, it doesn't have the same pop culture level awareness of say Naruto or Attack on Titan.

The first season of Psycho-Pass ran back in 2012-2013, wearing its Philip K. Dick inspiration on its sleeve. In the 22nd century Japan is an isolationist country governed by the omnipresent Sibyl System which predicts everything from the occupations a person is most suited for to their psychological well-being. The system is so efficient that it's developed a Crime Coefficient reading that labels the likelihood of a person committing a crime, with the number rising or falling based on the immediacy and severity of the person's psychological state.

People who have not actually committed a crime, but are predisposed to doing so, are called latent criminals, and sequestered in facilities for treatment, by force if necessary. Because of this, Japan is so incredibly safe that nobody has locks on their doors anymore.

But crimes still happen, and that's where the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) steps in. Psycho-Pass the anime follows the story of Division 1, a six person team consisting of two inspectors (who have clear Psycho-Passes from Sibyl) and four enforcers (who are latent criminals given special permission to operate as detectives and help apprehend other criminals by thinking like one).

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness takes place early in the first season of the series, most likely before episode 7, so it's not necessary to be deep into the anime to get a feel for things, though the most informative routes (i.e. the ones where you find out what's really going on) contain mid-to-late season 1 spoilers.

Mandatory Happiness offers two playable characters. Rather than build a story around an established operative, the game offers new characters Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi and Enforcer Takuma Tsurugi, who are assigned to the perpetually understaffed Division 1 at the start of the story.

This sounds like it could have been a poor move for a media-based game, but Nadeshiko and Takuma integrate surprisingly well with the existing cast without feeling redundant and play off other characters as if they're one of the team. And by using original characters, the game is able to build a high stakes, personal story without impacting TV show canon for everyone else.

It's not possible to jerk around the existing cast because we know they have to survive in a particular psychological state to maintain continuity, but Nadeshiko and Takuma are fair game, and Mandatory Happiness runs a pretty solid gamut of eventual fates for them as determined by the various choices of the player.

There are also things that we get out of Mandatory Happiness that the anime can't or is unable to do. For instance, Psycho-Pass the anime is largely romance free, and that makes sense considering the main cast interacts almost exclusively in a work environment. And yet Mandatory Happiness, in addition to being a sci-fi crime drama, has the potential to pull off one of the most touching romantic subplots I've seen in a visual novel (assuming the player manages to trigger it).

Seriously, one particular route in Mandatory Happiness got more tears out of me than the last otome game I played, and Code:Realize was amazing.

I was originally going to write this as a single entry, but because I had so much to say after playing Nadeshiko's half of the story, without having even gotten to Takuma's, I realized that it would be best to split this into three parts; the main story, Nadeshiko's, and then Takuma's.

The main story is the same for both with the same key events. It's how the player reacts to those events that changes the story and the ending. For instance, the first perpetrator Haruto will always be enforced at the end of the first case, but the player's choices will determine how long it takes the team to get there and in addition to how to handle the situation once they arrive. Some results are happier than others, both for Haruto and his victim.

These variables affect the player's Psycho-Pass, specifically the color Hue that serves as the shorthand reading of a person's psychological state. In turn, the player's Hue changes what choices are available and which paths through the game will be taken. In certain mental states the player might have options that the player character would not otherwise consider. Or, in other cases, options might even be taken away.

Frequently the player will hit Turning Points, notifying them that a previous decision is taking them down a particular path, but because of the nature of the Hue, it's not always possible to narrow down one particular choice as the cause.

And those choices add up. Even if the four major crises of the story are always there, the circumstances change. The villain might die or be redeemed at the end. Nadeshiko may or may not get her memories back. Takuma may or may not discover the fate of his missing girlfriend. And in different combination, resulting in vastly different endings that manage to work without introducing any complications to the anime timeline (with one exception, which I'll talk about in Takuma's post).

Considering that the series is a science fiction crime thriller, it's important to have a good villain and I wasn't sure what to expect that hadn't already been done in the anime, but Alpha is unique enough to sustain the plot, which probably would have been 7-8 episodes if done as a TV show.

Mandatory Happiness has no shortage of moral quandaries, just like its parent series. Division 1 exists as peacekeepers and law enforcers, but frequently puts the player in tense situations where there is no clear-cut best option to take and victims become latent criminals with just enough of a traumatic push.

Alpha cannot be judged by the Dominators either, because he's an AI, so even though he's a huge danger to society and behaves in many ways like a human, he can't be brought to justice in the traditional manner. This forces the team to be creative in new ways they never had to worry about in the TV series.

I found the first two cases to be particularly grippy, as Alpha was created to make people happy, but he lacks the emotional intelligence to realize that what makes one person happy can make another miserable, and he's confused by how no one stays happy once he gives them what they want.

Eventually Alpha comes to the conclusion that humanity has too many wants for him to ever make people perpetually happy, and he decides that part of the problem is that there are too many paths to happiness. People want so many things and different things, so his conclusion is to remove choice. He reasons that if there's only one way to be happy, then people will take it.

When they don't, he's even more distraught and upset that people would "choose" to be unhappy.

While I like the idea of a benevolent AI that interprets everything wrong, Alpha does make some odd logic jumps from the idea of drugging everyone into happiness (hence the Mandatory Happiness title) to deciding it was acceptable to kill everyone else who wasn't interested in being drugged into happiness.

His definition of happiness is also twisted. Instead of feeling joy, Alpha defines happiness as freedom of stress and hardship, so he drugs people into a coma from which there is no known recovery. His victims won't be feeling anything, including happiness as we would normally consider it.

I wouldn't say Alpha is a great villain, since he comes across as a overly emotional (even bratty) kid, but in all fairness, he was designed as a child and the reason for it is understandable. And a large part of why he works is because he's written to tie into Nadeshiko and Takuma's personal storylines. The game is really about two people and their wayward AI son, except neither of them know it at first, and in Nadeshiko's case she might never figure it out.

This is why this story could only have been told through this duo of original characters, as manufacturing Alpha's story into a pre-existing character's past would have risked breaking canon, and it's highly unlikely the character would come out of the experience unchanged.

NIS America did a fairly good localization job, since it's always a risk when two different translation teams work on different aspects of a multimedia franchise. But the NISA team did their homework and the terminology is almost identical to that used in the earlier anime translation by Funimation, with only one botch I noticed involving Toma Kuzaburo's name, which gets turned into something unrecognizable, likely due to an alternate kanji reading. (You can hear his name in the Japanese dialogue though, which is how I picked this out.)

Since Psycho-Pass runs heavy on the jargon, hearing consistent terms for things like Crime Coefficient, Criminal Investigation Department, etc. is much appreciated.

That said though, there were smaller issues with the storytelling, some of which is likely due to the game and others probably could have been cleaned up with another editing pass.

I suspect ending branches are generally locked in during the downtime in Tokyo between the middle school crisis and the final confrontation, because a lot of critical changes can happen at this point in the story. This is when the player may have a unique conversation with the character they've bonded with the most, when the Public Safety Bureau decides what to do with Alpha, when promotions/demotions happen, and (usually) when Nadeshiko gets her memories back, if they come back at all.

Everything up until that point though, can be a jumble of individual player decisions, meaning there are multiple ways to eventually arrive at a given piece of dialogue or narration. Usually the whole story comes together and the game has its chronology ducks in a row, but at least two times I had the game refer to events that didn't actually happen in that particular playthrough.

On the first playthrough where I got Nadeshiko's memories back, she mentions being demoted to Enforcer while she's looking at Alpha's abandoned cyborg body. Not only did this not happen, but I don't think it actually can happen because the scene replaces the one where Ginoza demotes her. It's not possible to get both. This might have been in the original Japanese as well, but if that was the case I think the localization team should have cleaned up the error.

On a later playthrough I got Nadeshiko's memories back late in the game and she recalls a memory that resurfaced during her second hypnotherapy session. Problem was, I decided to refuse my second session so this memory was never recovered, and this I'm sure was a flaw in the game design.

Then there are smaller issues, some of which are due to idiosyncrasies of the Japanese language, and another the persistent use of the incorrect past tense of "lie" (as in "lie down") which was driving me crazy. (It's "laid down" not "lied down.") The word comes up multiple times in the story on every playthrough, which shows that it wasn't a typo, but a systematic error where the translator or final proofreader did not know the correct past tense.

But that aside, Mandatory Happiness is a strong entry in the Psycho-Pass series and a welcome return to an earlier time with the original cast, especially poor Kagari who got wiped out partway through the first season. His levity really adds something to the team and it's good to have him back, at least for a while.

It makes me a little sad that new characters Nadeshiko and Takuma don't continue to exist in the anime (at least visibly), as they were fun to have with everyone else, but depending on the ending they might not even be in Japan anymore. I assume the endings where they remain with Division 1 eventually results in them leaving for one reason or another, voluntarily or not, but their fates on those paths aren't covered.

Next week, we look at Nadeshiko!