Monday, September 25, 2017

RPG Talk: Persona 5

In which I talk (write) about RPGs from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS4 (also PS3)
Release: 2017

Persona 5 is my one sprawling JRPG for the year. There aren't many where I can go 100+ hours anymore, and even if I cut out some of the side stuff I was doing, How Long to Beat places the average main story only playthrough at 95 hours. Even by JRPG standards that's incredibly long, so what's taking up all that space?

I know this game is less than a year old at this point, so be aware there are late game spoilers below!

The story is structured to take place over eight elaborate heists that involve invading a Palace, a sort of mental construct that appears in the minds of those whose desires have been distorted. The Phantom Thieves steal the Palace treasures that represent the source of those distorted desires and thus return the target to the more compassionate human being they were before their desires took over their lives.

The bulk of the game takes place from April to December and with few exceptions, the player plays through each day on the calendar. The heists are spread out so there's typically a month or so in between each of them.

The payoff is that each Palace is a major event and they're so large that they're best broken up over multiple play sessions (or plan for your whole afternoon or evening to be spent clearing one). Seriously, a couple of them are so long that it might take five or six hours to push through. The cruise ship alone makes me wonder if I'll ever play this again. And each Palace prior to the penultimate dungeon brings a new party member, and as a result attempts to advance the story around them.

But the pacing suffers because of it. While new members are constantly joining it feels like the end is a far-off intangible thing. I remember being at the 70 hour mark and still wondering how much more I had to go, whereas with most other RPGs, I'd be done or tying off my last few side quests by now.

Both Persona 3 and 4 have all their playable characters in the party by September. In contrast, Akechi doesn't join until October, with his story dungeon taking place as late as early November depending on how much the player pushes the deadline, at which point it feels very late to be getting used to any new party members.

Akechi is introduced a lot earlier than when he joins, so he's not an unfamiliar face when it happens, but by the time he does it completely looks like final dungeon territory. I felt I barely had an opportunity to settle Akechi into my team dynamics (which turned out to not be a great idea) before it was confrontation time.

Though I realize there needs to be room to showcase all the characters from a main storyline perspective, there didn't need to be eight Palaces. Even allowing that each of the Palaces is thematically based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the designs double up on one, since they split Pride and Vanity into two different dungeons.

The thing is, the game settles into a routine. The Phantom Thieves decide on a target to reform, they infiltrate to figure out where in the target's Palace the treasure is located, they send a calling card which buys them real world notoriety as well as causing the treasure to manifest in a stealable form, and then steal the treasure so the person owns up to their crimes.

There's obviously a larger story going on, and there is a conspiracy involved that is happy to take the emergence of the Phantom Thieves as another pawn in its scheme, but the secrets are doled out so slowly that it doesn't really get going until the end of fifth Palace, when we see the black masked Persona-user kill someone for the first time and the Phantom Thieves take the fall.

This really needed to happen at the halfway point once all the setup was done, because it felt like the meat of the story was being held too far back. It's not that the earlier portion wasn't fun, because it was, but it was so long in getting to where it needed to be that my enthusiasm was waning in the final quarter even though I was finally getting the answers I wanted so much. That final leg was crazy good. It just needed to come sooner.

(From a gameplay perspective I might have been less critical about the pacing if the Palaces were shorter and Mementos did not exist. I'm fairly certain if the Palaces were half the size and the 67 floors of Mementos proper was removed, that would shave off a minimum of 30 hours. That's a lot of dungeon running.)

Once past the pacing issue, there's a lot to enjoy here.

The Persona games are a work of urban fantasy and typically tackle modern day concerns about apathy, alienation, and the effect of media on people's lives. Persona 5 is not any different, though initially it tackles it from the perspective of corruption.

The Phantom Thieves are "ordinary" high school students who, for one reason or another, are social outcasts. It could be because of a criminal record (in the protagonist's case), ethnic heritage (Ann's), poor social skills (Yuusuke's), etc. When they're pulled into the Metaverse, they recognize the unfairness of their situations and their decision to fight awakens their Personas. With the catlike Morgana as a guide to the Metaverse and how to use their powers, they become the Phantom Thieves to reform criminals and expose the corruption in society (becoming famous isn't a bad side effect either).

Persona 5 builds the methodology of the Phantom Thieves remarkable well as I've already written about, and lays out the possible ways their heists could go wrong early enough that it's less of a surprise when things finally do go belly up. It also makes the characters question whether or not what they are doing is right, though they typically talk themselves into it.

The thing is, the targets have no choice in the matter of their reformation. In fact, in most cases they don't want their hearts (treasures) stolen. Doing so causes their world to fall apart around them in an incredibly public fashion as they confess everything in front of as large an audience as possible while demanding that they be charged for their crimes.

Do they deserve it? Probably. Is it right? That's the harder question.

Ironically it's the traitor Akechi who voices the most reasonable argument against the Phantom Thieves. Regardless of their intentions, what they're doing is circumventing the law and administering justice on their own terms. Not only that, but going into the Palace is potentially dangerous to the target, since if their shadow is killed, they die in the real world as well.

I wish there had been a little more introspection on the part of the Phantom Thieves. While they don't have many options available to them (which is why they become the Phantom Thieves to begin with), they don't spend much time thinking about the morality of what they're doing. It does comes up, especially in the beginning, but pretty much drops off by the end, to the point where if they didn't destroy the Metaverse in order to defeat Yaldabaoth they probably would have continued being Phantom Thieves past the conclusion of the game.

Since the agreement between the team is that they only undertake an operation if all of them agree, it's a shame this wasn't exploited since it would have made for some interest teammate conflict if someone started to have second thoughts about their methods.

I feel like I'm mostly talking about bad things, even though I did enjoy the game, so there is one late game twist I want to discuss, because I think its execution was fabulous.

The Velvet Room has always been a safe haven in the Persona games. In fact, in more recent iterations, it even feels a world apart from the rest of the story since the protagonist is the only character who interacts with it and Philemon, Igor's master, no longer plays an active role in the series.

So when the protagonist landed in the Velvet Room for the first time, I had no reason to doubt the Igor I found in front of me. I was surprised that his voice had been recasted in the English version, but supposed that it had been done to match the Japanese recast, which similarly featured a deeper-voiced Igor. (Igor's original Japanese VA passed away after Persona 4.)

Igor's purpose is typically as a game mechanic. He fuses Personas for the player and provides some atmosphere regarding the protagonist's potential growth. Sometimes he alludes to events yet to come, but he's not an active player. Outside of the Persona fusion, he's very much on the sidelines. I did find it strange though that I could forge a Confidant link with him, seeing as he's less of a character than an idea.

In retrospect there are other clues that Persona 5's "Igor" is not who he seems. He does not fuse Personas like he normally does. Instead the Personas are "executed" by guillotines managed by the twin wardens Caroline and Justine. This initially seems like a thematic change due to the protagonist's Velvet Room looking like a prison (the Velvet Room takes on a different appearance depending on its visitor) and serves as an excellent way to hide that things are not business as usual.

Chances are "Igor" does not have the ability to fuse Personas at all, because the twist is that the Velvet Room has been taken over by another entity. I can't imagine that anyone saw it coming since it took advantage of a real world necessity (recasting Igor) and furthered covered it up with some clever misdirection in the game itself. Series newcomers would have been surprised regardless, but fooling the long time fans was well played indeed.

Sadly, Yaldabaoth himself is not a terribly interesting character, since as a supernatural entity he's more a force of nature than a complex personality. He masquerades as Igor for most of the game and is responsible for the protagonist's awakening as a Persona user, but it's more because he has a grand game in mind and he wanted to see which pawn (Goro Akechi or the protagonist) would win. And everything in the game stems from that.

It's not the shiniest bit of writing, but allows for a Seven Deadly Sins-themed boss fight at the end and some feel-good rallying around the Phantom Thieves as the rest of Tokyo cheers for them.

Really, the most appealing part of the later Persona games is the journey, the friends made along the way, and the stuff right up until the final boss. It's still too long for my tastes, but for the most part Persona 5 does this well and I'm looking forward to spending another bout of time with these characters when the anime comes out next year.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Persona 5: Logistics of a Female Protagonist

Having finished Persona 5 this past week, I starting thinking about what it would take to include a female protagonist in the inevitable re-release with bonus material.

I was disappointed that Persona 4: Golden didn't have an option where you could play as a female protagonist, considering that Persona 3 Portable did, but when I look at what was involved with making Persona 3's female main character (FeMC), I can see why they'd be reluctant to do it again.

Unlike a game like Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls where the character's gender rarely comes into play aside from romance options, the Persona games are heavily gendered even outside of romance. I'm not sure if it's a Japanese cultural issue or just that life as a teenage girl often is different from that of a teenage boy. For instance, in Persona 3 one of the male MC's friends is a high school boy crushing on his teacher and he wants to start a romantic relationship with her. It's not terribly likely that he would confide this kind of crush to a female friend.

That Social Link was completely replaced in the FeMC's version of the game. (The student himself still exists, but he's not one of the FeMC's friends.) And it wasn't the only Social Link that was either replaced or rewritten. All existing female party member Social Links were redone to bond as girls rather than romance a guy, and all the male party members, who didn't even have Social Links in the original (!), had to be written from scratch and added to the game.

Persona 5 as it stands has nine female characters who are romance options, and because this is Persona the player will be getting to know them regardless for gameplay bonuses (though romance at the end is still optional). Looking at the list of Confidants, and likely male targets of affection, we have the player's fellow party members, Yusuke and Ryuji, classmate Mishima, and that's pretty much it.

It's possible a tortured romance could be managed with Goro Akechi (they did manage one with Ryoji in P3), which would bring the number up to four, but most of the male characters in the game aren't suitable. Shinya's too young, Iwai's too old (though if my character was 10-20 years older sure), and Sojiro's the player's surrogate dad. So if they wanted to do a female route, it would require an extensive reworking of the Confidants.

Kawakami would probably go, since hiring a cosplay maid to clean your room on a dare from your guy friends is less probable for a FeMC. A few other female links would probably have to be replaced without anything inherently being wrong with them to allow enough romance options.

While I wouldn't mind female love interests for a FeMC, the game would still be short of male options, and a lot of dialogue would still need to be changed. For instance, someone seeing two teenage girls hanging out together probably won't jump to the conclusion that they're dating in the same way they would if it's a boy and a girl, unless there's some other context involved.

Also worth noting is that three, possibly four, of the current romance options are adult women. (Chihaya seems out be out of high school, but she might still be a teenager and in Japan the legal age of adulthood is 20.) While dating your teacher or a twenty-something woman is a teenage male fantasy, the situation becomes a lot creepier when playing a teenage girl with her adult male love interests.

It might not be fair, since teenage girls crush on adults just as much as teenage boys, but I think the potential squick factor and the chances of the adult being viewed as a predator is higher. (Granted, the consensual male teacher, female student relationship is not unheard of in shoujo manga so it's possible the Japanese player base might not bat an eye at it.)

I remember a relatively obscure visual novel, Sweet Fuse, came out to the US a few years ago which originally had a seventeen-year-old female protagonist. Half her potential love interests were in their 20s and one was even in his 30s. When it came out in the US, her age was bumped up to 18 so she was at least legal. This wouldn't work for Persona 5 though, considering that much of the game takes place in school and the player is pretty obviously not a senior since they have upperclassmen.

Also an issue, especially for the English localization since our language is more pronoun dependant, is that all the spoken dialogue that refers to the main character's gender would have to be re-recorded. Considering that there was not enough room to hold dual audio Japanese and English audio (Japanese was a free DLC), adding a gender might take up enough space that the audio wouldn't fit (and hitting download to get your gender VO DLC just sounds terrible).

Considering the work involved (and this is assuming no other new content), is there enough reason to go through all this trouble for a game that's already out in the wild? I'd like to say yes, but I don't know what the sales figures were for P3P. It's possible that for a re-release it wasn't worth the money spent and that's why Persona 4 Golden didn't off a gender option.

Financially I'd like to hope that Persona 5 knocked it out of the park. The series has been getting increasingly better recognition ever since Persona 3 and P5 has been the fastest selling installment in the series. It's far too soon for Atlus to announce a re-release, but give it a couple more years and something will likely come down the line.

And I really hope there's a female protagonist. I want to be a female Phantom Thief next time around.

Monday, September 11, 2017

In Memoriam: Jerry Pournelle

We lost Jerry Pournelle last Friday, and like a lot of senior authors in my field, I only happened to meet him because I had won the Writers of the Future contest. While he had been in declining health these past few years, that didn't discourage him from traveling or attending conventions, even as recently as a couple weeks ago when he went to DragonCon.

Jerry was the kind of man who embodied the word "cantankerous" more than any other person I've ever met. It was difficult to argue with him, because not only was he sharp and opinionated, but he was also hard of hearing.

As a newbie in the field I was afraid to approach him, because I figured getting away with a light burn would be a best case scenario. I probably would not have talked to him at all if Brennan Harvey hadn't approached him first at our local Loscon convention, where Jerry was a regular. Brennan waved me over and introduced me to Jerry as a former WotF winner.

I figured Jerry had forgotten all about me, and even though I introduced myself again, he still didn't recall my name. That was all right. There are a dozen winners every year and after a while I'd be surprised if anyone could remember all the names. By then it had been a few years, so forgetting me wouldn't be unusual. But then Jerry asked me to tell him what my winning story was.

I explained that my story was called "Living Rooms" and it was about the daughter of a magician who had come home to discover her father had passed away, leaving her with a magical house, if only she can stave off a rival magician who wishes to claim it.

Jerry did not remember my name, but he remembered my story.

Each quarter of Writers of the Future has four judges. I had known who three of mine were, but the fourth had remained a mystery. It turned out that Jerry was the fourth. I was surprised, because he's a hard science fiction author, and my piece was clearly fantasy, but as Larry Niven told me, it's not that Jerry disliked fantasy. He just didn't write it himself.

For the next two Loscons, whenever I ran into him and had to introduce myself again, I always told him my story, because otherwise he wouldn't remember.

But once he did, it was easy to talk to him again, and he was an entertaining man to listen to. He was one of the first established authors I told the premise of my upcoming novel to. At the time I was nervous, because speaking about it was like jinxing it, but Jerry liked the idea. He laughed, with a big smile on his face, and said it sounded good.

It was incredibly encouraging, and I hope when it finally comes out, other people will smile and laugh as well.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Otome Has Grown in the US

When I was a kid, things that were considered girl games were more like Strawberry Shortcake. Take a popular girl toy property, slap it on a video game, and that made it a game for girls.

When I think of the female-oriented games I play now, I usually think of otome visual novels, which have surprisingly caught on in the US. When Hakuoki first landed a few years ago I picked it up as a novelty, not realizing that it was the opening of a floodgate. Sweet Fuse landed shortly after from the same US publisher, Aksys, and though it was fun, most of the character designs weren't very appealing and some of the age differences between the teenage protagonist and her potential adult love interests were pretty skeevy.

I thought Sweet Fuse was likely a miscalculation and dampened unethusiasm for anything that wasn't more Hakuoki, seeing that Aksys ended up releasing the latter over and over again on just about every platform available (and is still re-releasing more Hakuoki with new, bonus content).

But then more stuff landed. Otomate released Amnesia on Steam via its own international branch and the indie scene developed. Re:Alistair, Seduce Me, and The Blind Griffin are all free or name your price English-language originals that serve as introductions to the developers' commercial works, but even at the price of free, they're all good, though much shorter than the average Otomate title. (I particularly like The Blind Griffin for letting me play a Chinese protag in Roaring 20's San Francisco.) And they're just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick scan through Steam will uncover dozens more, mostly indie, though there are a few from more established publishers, particularly from Japan, Korea, and China, and though I'm not a mobile gamer it seems like iOS and Android has tons of them, of which Mystic Messenger is probably the most prominent. The Vita is still the flagship for most of the non-mobile otome produced by Japan.

Otome is common enough now that we have Hatoful Boyfriend (in which the player romances pigeons) which wouldn't work as a parody of the genre without some level of genre knowledge to begin with. I mean sure, it can be passed off as a dating sim just to get the point across that the goal is romance, but what the player is doing isn't really dating. Usually an otome is like playing through a choose your own adventure romance novel with fewer choices and more novel. (And lots of lovely pictures!)

Now there are more coming out than I can reasonably expect to play, even if I limit it just to Otomate translations (which is admittedly my favorite publisher, because they usually have a very engaging story beyond the romance and they don't use stat-raising mechanics). I'm currently sitting with Norn9: Var Commons in my backlog. I bought it last year because Aksys had a sale at Anime Expo and I probably won't get around to it this year either.

I'm mildly curious about Period: Cube, but I don't have time to add it right now, and supposedly Bad Apple Wars is coming later this fall. Aksys has already announced three more otome titles for next year, and Otomate, which makes the bulk of otome that Aksys localizes, just announced eight new titles at their Otomate Party event this past weekend, not counting fandiscs and new installments of existing series.

It's a way to look at what we might see down the line in 2019, and I figure Aksys will pick up the cream of the crop.

I have no idea how the writing's going to be, because that's what really decides whether it's a good game, but my personal hope is that Variable Barricade makes the cut.


Otome heroines are often sweet, compassionate characters without rough edges for the guys to fall in love with. At most she might be "spunky" but never too assertive. Variable Barricade's protagonist looks like she's ready to kick the asses of all her over the top suitors. While I'm sure romance works out in the end, having a combative protagonist could be a lot of fun.

At this point I think otome is here to stay. Even if all the Asian publishers pulled out, the indie scene is strong enough to keep going, and it's better to have too much fluffy romance gaming than not enough!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Thoughts on Netflix's Death Note

I'm in a month where I'm currently subscribing to Netflix, which is not my usual state of being. I don't watch much aside from anime (maybe one live action series and a movie two or three times a year). But Netflix's rendition of Death Note landed last Friday, so I'm actually in a position where I could watch it.

And there was a part of me that was morbidly curious about it.

The thing is, Death Note has been adapted multiple times already, so I'm not concerned about fidelity to the original. The anime exists for that. (When I mean original, I mean the manga.) Japan has already made live action movies and a live action TV drama, the latter of which I enjoyed and reviewed for Diabolical Plots last year.

You can deviate and still tell a good story. The TV drama Light was a softer, more sympathetic character than the original and his father actually confronts him over being Kira. It added a nice tension that didn't exist before. As someone who was already familiar with the story, it was a nice alternate take on the series.

I hoped, in my better moments, that the Netflix version would be the same, but the more I saw of it, the less I liked it, and ultimately I decided to pass. I don't need to add a view to the tracker that Netflix uses to see who's watching want. I don't want to give it that kind of recognition.

But on the other hand, I think it's worth talking about why I'm not watching, because it might be of use.

1) The best thing about Death Note is the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L

Apparently, this is not a thing in the Netflix version.

Particularly, in the early volumes of the manga, how Light manages to track and trick his enemies so he could kill them was freaking amazing, especially when he manages to murder a bunch of FBI agents without seeing their faces or even knowing where they are.

The Death Note is the supernatural device that allows the story to happen, but how people use the Death Note is what makes interesting. It's all about discovering the limits of the rules and then bending them in a creative fashion. Light's tests of his power are what attract L's attention.

L knows that Light requires certain information to use his power, because of his behavior, but he has no way of knowing about the Death Note's existence, so there's a lot of the two feeling each other out to find out how much their opponent knows.

2) The series follows Light becoming an irredeemable psychopath

One of things I really disliked from one of the Netflix trailers was that Light looks like he's pushed into using the Death Note by Ryuk, which implies that he's a victim of some kind and it's not entirely his fault.

Whereas in the original, Light tries the Death Note and murders dozens of people before Ryuk ever shows up. Ryuk is more of a witness, who is there neither to help nor hinder Light, so much as to have a good time observing the chaos unfold. Light's fall is entirely due to his own hubris.

If he had been a less arrogant criminal, he probably would have continued long past the point the manga ended, but Light's character flaw is that winning is not enough. He has to rub the win into the face of his enemies. That's why he falls.

3) How the whitewashing concern was handled

I am not as bothered by the accusation of whitewashing for this one, because I don't think it's a uniquely Japanese story aside from the concept of shinigami (though I could be wrong, I'm certainly not Japanese), and I think this could have been adapted without Ryuk if it came down to it.

But the way the criticism was handled was lame. Saying that the roles had already been cast before Ghost in the Shell blew up isn't an excuse, because whitewashing has been concern since long before Ghost in the Shell. It's more of an admission that they didn't think they would get bitten in the butt over it. I've written about how Asian Americans who can find careers overseas often do, because there aren't the opportunities for them here.

I find it incredibly ironic that the one Asian cast member in Netflix's Death Note is for a character who likely wasn't Asian at all in the original. (Watari's real name is Quillsh Wammy and he hails from England.) Considering that the original cast was mostly Japanese, it would have been nice to have someone in the main cast who wasn't the assistant played by an Asian actor.

My Netflix sub is still good for a few weeks so I'll probably watch something to make use of it while I can, but it's not going to be Death Note.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Baen Fantasy Adventure Award

I've been sitting on this news for about a month and a half now, but I finally can say that my short story "And Not Go Hungry" placed third in the annual Baen Fantasy Adventure Award contest. The award ceremony was at GenCon this past weekend.

Unfortunately I was unable to go, so editor Jim Minz read a speech I had sent him and accepted on my behalf. I was pleasantly surprised when "And Not Go Hungry" was announced as a finalist, as I hadn't expected a story about Chinese laborers in World War I to have done well, even if involves guardians of the underworld and jiangshi. It's an unorthodox setting for fantasy adventure, though the judges seem to have been open to that and for that I'm grateful.

It's also an excellent example of why writers should not self-reject. If it looks like it could work, let the editors decide.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Persona 5 - Flashback's Over, Caught Up With the Present

I'm a bit slow compared to other people, so I'm still winding my way through Persona 5, and this weekend I finally caught up to where the story starts.

When the game begins, it's in media res. The Phantom Thieves are in the middle of a heist gone wrong and the protagonist, code-named Joker, is captured by the police. He's told that there was a traitor among his teammates and he's been sold out. That's not a spoiler. That all happens before the player even gets to enter his name.

As he's being interrogated by the prosecutor in charge of his case, the game flashes back to the chronological start of his story, when he first arrives in Tokyo, and then proceeds forward from there, in the day by day fashion of the Persona series since the third entry.

Spoilers from here on!

The real reason I wanted to write this post is because of Goro Akechi. He is the last party member to join the team and the one I was looking forward to the most, because I knew from early promotional material that he was a teen detective and I liked the idea of hauling a detective around with my band of phantom thieves after he became convinced that what we were doing was actually for the greater good.

I knew he had a Persona, so it seemed like a done deal that he would be part of the party. And he was portrayed on my lovely Steelbook disc case, just like all the other thieves. He's also shown with the gang on the title screen, towards the back of the line-up along with other late comers. His Persona, once we see it, is Robin Hood, and considering that the Persona is a manifestation of what's in one's heart, it's easy to read him as an honorable sort of thief. One's outfit in the Metaverse is supposed to be a sign of how a person rebels against society, and his a white, princely set of attire. Akechi sees himself as a good person.

Which is really weird, because of the plot revelations that happen at the end of the sixth Palace.

Mind, I haven't played past those plot revelations yet, so there are possibly good explanations of everything. I'm only going to cover my thoughts up until the day after Joker's arrest, because I have thoughts on the handling of Akechi's betrayal.

We first meet him as a high school detective who's a bit of a media celebratory due to his age and capability, and he's one of the first to speak out against the Phantom Thieves, not because he thinks they are bad people so much as they are taking the law into their own hands. He's the Confidant representing the Justice arcana, so it makes sense that he would take such a stance.

He continues to appear throughout the story, gradually befriending Joker despite their opposing views on the Phantom Thieves. Though Akechi is against them, it never comes off as malicious, and when the Phantom Thieves are framed, he defends them because the crime doesn't fit their usual MO.

This culminates in the Phantom Thieves reaching out to Akechi to help clear their name at the same time that Akechi reaches out to them to bring the real criminal to justice. However, unlike my hope of Akechi joining the team because he has been persuaded, he actually blackmails the team into working with him. They help him with this job and he won't reveal their true identities to the police. Also, they will have to disband afterwards.

It's a pretty crappy deal, but I could see where he was coming from. The Phantom Thieves, despite their good intentions, are vigilantes and working outside the law.

Now, ever since Akechi was introduced, some odd things happened, some of which the player is likely to remember, others which might slip by unnoticed or forgotten (especially the early ones).

The first one that happens in the story is that Akechi unknowingly hears Morgana without knowing that it was a cat talking. Only people who have been to the Metaverse can hear Morgana's real voice instead of a cat meowing. So when Akechi comes around the corner he remarks on Morgana's suggestion to get pancakes, thinking it had been another member of the group speaking, but if he had been an ordinary person, he shouldn't have heard that at all.

He reacts a second time to hearing Morgana ahead of going into the Metaverse with the Phantom Thieves when they arrange a meeting with him at their school, though by this time the Phantom Thieves are aware of his prior screw-up.

Also, just from the player's perspective, when the president of Okumura Foods is killed, there is a silhouette who walks in after he is shot. The silhouette matches Akechi's distinctive mask when in his Phantom Thief outfit.

Finally, getting one's Persona in a Persona game is a big deal and generally involves overcoming a personal obstacle. We never see or hear from Akechi about how he awakened his.

So even though I was happy that he had finally joined my team and I used him throughout the sixth Palace, I had some suspicions about him, even before he figuratively stabbed the Phantom Thieves in the back. Knowing what I did, it felt incredibly obvious that Akechi would be the traitor in the opening segment of the game, and I was hoping for a twist where I would discover it was someone else.

But Akechi was the traitor, and when he walked into my protagonist's holding cell and "killed" him (not realizing that he'd actually off-ed a dummy), that pretty much ruined any chance of him having an alternate agenda.

So what bothered me about this, is that there was a plan underway, and I didn't know it was happening.

I knew that Akechi was likely the traitor, and most of the game up until now has been Joker telling the prosecutor his side of the story. But the problem was that Joker was now caught and there's a traitor on the loose. And just how was Joker going to avoid getting killed?

After a lot of story scenes, it comes out that the the Phantom Thieves have been planning this operation for the better part of the past month, though the player has been left in the dark. We see some of the scenes, but not all of them, so the characters have context, though we do not.

Considering that Akechi's betrayal was not entirely unexpected, I felt a little disappointed being left out of the planning process.

I assume this decision was made so the player would end up at the opening scene of the game with a feeling of dread, knowing that they were about to get caught, rather than an "All right! It's time to put this plan in action!"

It worked, but I can't help feeling a bit cheated. Joker is supposed to be the player surrogate so everything he knows I should know, and while the game waves it off as part of the drugs he got injected with at the start of his imprisonment, it still bothers me that a lot of other memories are crystal clear.

If the injection was messing with his memories, there should been other things that Joker ended up forgetting aside from details related to the plan to expose Akechi and his boss. Just a little blurring or not entirely remembering things in the days leading up to the heist would have gone a long way. Not only would it have tipped off the player, but it would probably do so in a way that increased the amount of dread because the player would know something was being lost.

And while Akechi being the traitor is a thing, I'm still puzzled by him. I assume the answers will come later, since I'm not done with his Confidant storyline. He has a Persona, and the representation of his inner self in the Metaverse is one of good, so even though he appears to have the capability of a cold-hearted killer, there's got to be more to his character than being a teenage assassin.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Blades in the Dark - First Session

This weekend I played Blades in the Dark for the first time. I'm not up on all the really trendy stuff anymore when it comes to tabletop gaming so this may come as old news to some people, but it was a unique system for me, and extremely flexible.

Like a lot of people, I started with Dungeons & Dragons and then branched out from there. But for most of my tabletop RPG history, D&D of some form or another has been the staple.

It's the easiest thing to get people into. Everyone has a rough idea of what it's like and what the basic character classes are, even if they are only tangentially familiar with the game.

As I mentioned last week, my favorite class in high school was the thief. I'm not sure what that says about me as a person, but I liked the thief conceptually because they could sneak around and do all the clever stuff without anyone being the wiser.

Unfortunately, the thief the pretty much sucked when they weren't being sneaky and clever. Later editions of D&D fixed a lot of their earlier failings (backstab damage got pretty damn good), but they're still in the position of being the party's Swiss army knife. Aside from some scouting ahead, they don't really get to do the fun that I wanted to do as a thief.

Things like delving into guilds, setting up a job, choosing a mark.

I really wanted that stuff and my high school friends never ran a thief-centric campaign. To be fair, D&D isn't really built for it either.

So this is where Blades in the Dark comes in.

It's a thief-centric game! The players are a crew of thieves and instead of going on an adventure, you're out to do a job. And unlike most games, the structure is very loose.

This is the part that my gaming group told me is starting to become trendy. Rather than having a set adventure ready to go, the idea is that the players come up with what they want to do and then the GM frames the play session accordingly. From the GM's perspective, there's surprisingly little prep work, because almost everything happens at the table.

It sounds pretty chaotic, but it actually didn't come off that way when we played. I'm sure we did some things wrong since it was the first time for everyone, but it was fun being prompted to explain how we were doing something, and then being specific about it, because the GM wasn't going to hand out solutions.

My only complaint of the night wasn't anything to do with the game specifically so much as I really wanted to play a Hound and shoot something, but the crew (the player characters) decided to crash the party through a deception plan rather than an infiltration one and I couldn't take my guns with me since the party-goers were being searched. At the end of the session someone had a flashback idea that could have gotten my guns inside the party, but by then it was too late.

It's definitely a game where it helps if everyone is engaged and alert. If no one has ideas then nothing happens. This is especially helpful for the flashbacks, which were a new mechanic for me.

The idea is that the game should be immediate, so rather than planning everything out in advance of the operation like we would in D&D, we start in the middle of the job when we hit our first obstacle. Then if we need something that should have been set up beforehand, we can call for a flashback. Sort of like in a movie, when a flashback shows the prep work that led up to a particular event.

The flashback might fail to provide anything useful, but maybe it worked and something was fortuitously arranged ahead of time. In our session, I called for a flashback that ended up giving us an alternate escape route. It's not what I originally asked for, probably because my roll was only so-so, but still could have been handy.

What was hardest to get used to, was calling for the flashback in the first place, because this mechanic doesn't exist in other games. I think I was the only player who actually used one and the rest relied on innovating on the spot.

We played intending for this to be a one-shot since we have an ongoing Hackmaster campaign for our main game, but everyone had a good time, so we might do this one again.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Tabletop Gaming as a Writer Among Non-Writers

I have a group of friends I like to game with. Our "usual" campaign is currently Hackmaster, but we've been having trouble getting everyone together. It's totally not like it was when we were fresh out of college and showing up every week was easy.

Nowadays, somebody often has a scheduling conflict.

But in a valiant attempt to still get in some gaming without a month going by, we decided we'd do a one-off without the one person who can't make it next Saturday. Hackmaster is on hold and one of our players offered a few possibilities for us to choose from.

I voted for Blades in the Dark, because he pitched the game as being like Dishonored, but everyone's part of a gang of thieves in a steampunk Victorian fantasy setting. It's probably also due to being deep in Persona 5, but I thought "Thieves! I want to do this!"

When I was in high school I loved the thief class in just about any game I could play it in, even though it usually sucked. And I know that's partially because games are generally set up around combat, but the fun part of playing a thief is all the sneaky out of combat stuff, and Blades in the Dark sounds really RP-heavy.

So our GM passed along the quick start guide and my brain went into overdrive.

I can't help it. When I'm creating a character I love building things out, whether it's for a book or a game, and the system looks promising. It might be what I've wanted for a thief campaign since high school.

The GM suggested waiting until Saturday so everyone can work on their thieves together and pick complimentary skills, but we talked a little bit about the playbooks (roughly equivalent to character classes) already via e-mail and I mentioned that I didn't want to fully develop my character until we got together.

By the time I mentioned this in conversation, I already had three possibilities. (I guess I have a lot of pent up thief ideas from high school D&D.)

Our GM said not to worry about picking my playbook too early, because it's really easy to get skills from other playbooks if needed, so I could pick whatever I wanted.

But you see, I'm a writer, most of my gaming group is not. So my problem wasn't that I didn't want to lock myself into an unsuitable playbook. I was afraid my character concept would be incompatible with the rest of the party!

Since I like to RP, character chemistry is important to me. My character needs a reason to be there.

For Blades, my favorite character concept is a former constable who got forced out for crossing the wrong people. He turned to thievery for issues that are more complicated than I'm going to get into here, but I liked the idea of a former cop who wasn't actually a criminal until after he was fired. Because he still has some sense of integrity, I wouldn't want to play this character in a crew of assassins. I'd use someone else.

His playbook isn't nearly as important as being able to play the character in an environment that works for him. Our gang of thieves still isn't decided yet, so if we roll as assassins or something similarly on the heavy side of scummy I have a different character in mind.

And nothing is wasted. I think my former constable might get reused in a story regardless of whether he shows up in game. I even know which universe he'd go in.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local

Baccano! was a rare find for me to stumble over in anime. I watched all 12 episodes (and the 3 bonus ones) in about three days in Japanese, and then I rewatched it immediately afterwards in English. While I often do my second viewing in English, usually the second viewing, if it happens at all, it's months or years down the line. Baccano! scratches a very particular itch I have though.

Namely, period piece mafia and magic. In this case, the magic part is centered around alchemists and immortals.

For a good long time I despaired of ever reading the rest of the Baccano! series. The anime only covered the four books, and the first one had been published in 2003, so it wasn't the hot new stuff anymore. But I loved the setting, the nutty characters, and especially the way the anime made everything happen at once. I was crazy jealous of the writers on that show. They managed to braid together three different time periods across four books so that revelations in one time had an impact on the viewer's understanding in another, even if chronologically they were taking place earlier.

Fortunately, though it took thirteen years, Yen Press picked up the Baccano! series for translation and I've slowly been grabbing the volumes. They haven't passed the threshold of the anime yet, but I'm hoping they're successful enough to do so. Amazon has at least volume 6 set up so far and they're very lovely hardbacks.

Author Ryohgo Narita's work is not quite as crazy as the anime. He does do incredibly short scenes from time to time so the reader knows everyone's positioning before all hell breaks loose, but each of the three main time periods in the anime is one book (with the exception of the Flying Pussyfoot storyline in 1931, which is two books) rather than jumping across time periods in the same book.

That's not to say everything is told linearly, he loves to jump around, but the jumps are more localized.

I'm currently in the middle of Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local, which is the second book and the start of the two-part journey of the Flying Pussyfoot train. In pure Ryohgo Narita fashion, it starts with the epilogue to give the reader a viewpoint of the two minor characters who have clean up the mess everyone else has left behind, and has five prologues to set up all the different factions that are about to get involved.

Some of it is over the top ridiculous, but that's part of the appeal. If the premise is that four different parties (five if you consider the hidden character in the fifth prologue) board the Flying Pussyfoot train, each with their own agenda, then from there it's just a matter of watching all the chaos play out. All the parties are miscreants of some kind or another and naturally fall into conflict.

But part of the fun is in the details that slip in.

The thing is, Ryohgo Narita is a Japanese author writing for a Japanese audience, so he does spend some time explaining things that probably come off as pretty obvious to an American reader, but then at the same time, it's clear that Narita has done his research and he likes the time period. One of the characters, while beating someone to a pulp, compares himself unfavorably to Jack Dempsey, who was popular boxer in the 1920s.

Narita isn't blind to the fact that there were minorities all over the place during the time either. Though there aren't any in the main cast, unless they show up after the anime, there are multiple Chinese supporting characters and Jacuzzi Splot's gang includes a Mexican member.

There a good line where two of the side characters (one Chinese, the other Irish, and totally on board with each other) take a minor character to task on the train for belittling them as immigrants. While manhandling him out of the dining car, they tell him that one half of the transcontinental railroad was built by the disenfranchised Irish and the other half by the disenfranchised Chinese, so between the two of them, they have a claim to everything on the railroad, including that guy's life. (And considering they're also gang members, that's not a point the guy really wants to be arguing about.)

I doubt Jon and Fang will ever be regulars in the series, but this totally made me laugh. It's a nice bit of history that not only educates the readers (because I expect the average Japanese person wouldn't know that), but also defines the characters. It's a pity this part never made it into the anime.

I'm about halfway through so far, and then I hope to move on to the next volume. The series isn't always realistic, but when it isn't, it's usually in the service of fun so I'm inclined to forgive. It's clear when Narita is doing his research so if he wants to start with off with a three way battle between cultists, a mafia gang, and a band of delinquents while throwing in a couple of delusional ne'er-do-wells, I'm not going to argue. It's half the fun.

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.