Monday, February 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, we look at Nadeshiko!

Monday, February 20, 2017

RPG/VN Talk Index

Since I've written quite a few RPG and VN Talk entries I decided to set up an index at the top of the page so it's easy to find them all.

My series is basically me discussing the plot of a particular RPG or visual novel irrespective of the game's non-story related qualities, so I talk about foreshadowing, motivation, pacing, etc. Why did this work? What were the writers trying for? What was attractive/unattractive about the characters?

In theory, it could be a terrible game and I'll still talk glowingly about the story, because the purpose of the talk isn't to discuss the mechanics. In most cases I won't even mention them.

But I'll only discuss games I finished, so if the mechanics are so bad I don't, then it'll never be posted here.

My talks deal with the entire plot, including the ending, so there are spoilers abound, though I usually will not flag that unless I'm discussing a game that's been released within a few months of my post. Because I'm a game hoarder it's not uncommon that I buy more than I can play and unless it's a part of one of my favorites series it's unlikely I'll play close to release day.

Monday, February 13, 2017

VN Talk: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Ace Attorney has always revolved around crazy cases, outlandish witnesses, and other things that would never stand up in a real court where often the player protagonist comes off as the only sane person in an insane asylum. Spirit of Justice continues this irreverence as the sixth entry in the main series, but it took me a while to get into it.

Usually the Ace Attorney games are structured so there is an intro case (short, one trial session, no investigation segment), somewhere in the middle there is a throw-away case that has little to do with the main storyline, and then the remaining cases build on each other so the finale is a culmination of everything that led up to this point.

Spirit of Justice actually has two throwaway cases that are largely skippable except for minor details that could have been introduced at another point in story. It's not that they aren't fun. I loved the magic show trial, and the rakugo trial was fascinating since it covers an art form we don't have in the west, while still making it easy to understand.

But they have no context in the greater story. Their only contribution is the introduction of Nahyuta Sahdmadhi as the prosecutor for the magic show trial and we don't know why he's really suddenly back in the US (story-wise) for the rakugo trial since he just finished the previous trial with Phoenix back in Khura'in. It's a lot of jet-setting and while I know the LA of Ace Attorney is now short on prosecutors thanks to the events of the last game, it seems strange for the characters to not at least comment on that.

The result is that the storytelling feels uneven. I'm used to having one breather case, but two was a bit much (and the rakugo one didn't even have an investigation phase).

Part of the problem is the Ace Attorney series' burgeoning cast. Capcom put Phoenix back in the saddle with the start of Dual Destinies, resulting in at least two active lawyer protagonists, since Apollo Justice had taken the protagonist's seat in the fourth game while Phoenix was disbarred.

But Dual Destinies also added Athena Cykes, who is a fantastic character, but brings the number of lawyers at the agency up to three. It worked in Dual Destinies because the central story that ran through all cases encompassed Athena and Apollo's personal stakes in different ways as well as integrating how Phoenix became a lawyer again with the meta-plot.

Spirit of Justice doesn't have that, but it still (by narrative necessity) has these three protagonists that it has to deal with. The player base isn't going to be happy if the three don't get a turn at the wheel, and the result is that Phoenix gets two cases, Apollo gets two, and Athena gets one.

Unsurprisingly, being the junior lawyers at the agency, Apollo and Athena get the two standalones that don't have much context.

And given the number of game installments, there are so many beloved characters that the plot bends over backwards to accommodate them. Though Maya returns in a way that completely makes sense, Edgeworth feels shoehorned in because the player base would be hugely disappointed without him. Dual Destinies' antihero Simon Blackquill makes a guest appearance as well, and while I really like the character, he's in Athena's throwaway case that has no bearing on the rest of the story.

Spirit of Justice unfolds with Phoenix meeting his friend Maya Fey in the fictional country of Khura'in, which has a screwed up legal system which makes the lawyers share the fates of their clients, which means that if the client is guilty, the lawyer is as well. This is naturally a deterrent since failing to prove an accused murderer not guilty means that the lawyer may also be executed. Thus, the country is largely devote of defense attorneys.

Phoenix, being who he is, can't let someone face a trial undefended, and jumps in protect those he believes in. But because Phoenix's trip was intended as a visit, Apollo and Athena aren't with him, and half the game takes place in the US with the two of them holding down the fort while the boss is gone. I assume this was done because there's no reason for all three of them to go to Khura'in (until the last case makes it so) since their relationship is a professional one. People don't usually go on vacation with their boss and coworkers after all.

It would have been fantastic if somehow the cases in the US turned out to be connected to the cases in Khu'rain but with the exception of the two-part final case Turnabout Revolution they're not.

Fortunately, Spirit of Justice ends on a high note, with what is probably the longest case I've ever seen in an Ace Attorney game, and I can only assume that the rakugo case Turnabout Storyteller was intentionally so short because of all the effort being piled into Turnabout Revolution.

There is still that unevenness over the game as a whole though, because Turnabout Revolution makes it clear that Spirit of Justice is really Apollo's story, not Phoenix's. Yes, even though the game starts with Phoenix and even brings back fan favorite Maya Fey, they aren't the ones who have the greatest reason to fight. In a way, Spirit of Justice is the culmination of all the character growth Apollo has had since his debut in the fourth game.

I actually didn't like Apollo very much when he was introduced, because I had come off the first three games wanting more Phoenix, and not only did I have to deal with a time skip that made Phoenix look like a wino, but I had this new guy who was wound up way too tight and he just didn't feel as compelling to me.

But Dual Destinies gave Apollo's personality some meat, and he had a few badass moments that built out his backstory, which was further elaborated on in Spirit of Justice (to the point I think he now has the most detailed and convoluted past out of the entire cast). Phoenix doesn't have a personal story arc in Spirit of Justice, but Apollo does, so I was really glad when he's the one who takes the reins in the final case.

It's a pretty heady one that brings the legal system of Khura'in crashing down and beginning a revolution while also solving a twenty-three year old assassination attempt (only in Ace Attorney would that happen through a court trial). And it worked, because not only was it pretty convoluted, building on the prior cases in Khura'in, but it integrated Apollo's personal story into the revolution. He's not defending his client just because it's his job or he's a nice guy, but because the outcome has a personal meaning for him as well.

I can't help wondering if the game's staff is aware of the too many protagonists problem though, because the ending features Apollo choosing to remain in Khura'in to help rebuild the legal system (now that he's the only practicing lawyer in a country that had just about eliminated them). For future games it'll make it easier to find things to do for the lawyers of the Wright Anything Agency if designers only have to worry about two of them instead of three.

But I feel bad about losing Apollo now that he's finally come into his own.

The final scene does tease that he'll come back again though, in an exchange between Phoenix and an off-screen speaker who is his mother. The only known part of Apollo's past that hasn't been brought to light at this point is a leftover plot thread from Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice.

Tangential to the final AA:AJ case, it's revealed to the player (but not to Apollo) that Thalassa Gramarye is his mother, which makes Apollo the half-brother of Phoenix's adopted daughter Trucy. This doesn't come up in Dual Destinies and the two of them are still clueless in Spirit of Justice, which we know because when Dhurke teases Apollo about Trucy being wife material neither of them react with disgust.

At this point, since they've gone on two games without knowing better, I imagine that it'll only come up in a court trial, and it would have to be a plot point.

The exchange between Phoenix and Thalassa make it sound like she's finally ready to reveal her existence to both her children, since Trucy thinks she's dead and Apollo just doesn't know who she is, and I'd really like that. Spirit of Justice brought his family into the picture in a big way with both the his biological father and his adoptive father, so it would be an easy segway into him wanting to discover the fate of his mother.

As for Phoenix, he's considered the main character of the series since he was the protagonist of the first three games, and since they brought him back for the fifth it seems impossible to lose him now. I just hope the next time around they give him his own plot.

It doesn't have to deal with his past since he's older now and I think those depths have been plumbed, but he can still have personal stakes through the people he knows and what compromises he is willing or unwilling to make for the sake of a trial. That would bring the focus back on him.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Writing "Poison Maiden, Open Skies"

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" came out in mid-December, and it's still the current issue for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show for a few more weeks, so I'd like to take a little time to talk about my inspiration and writing process for this one, since I think it's my strongest short story of 2016.

"Poison Maiden" was born out of multiple influences, the easiest one to guess being my playthrough of Code: Realize this past summer. There's a bad ending on Victor's route in Code: Realize where Cardia chooses to leave him behind because the queen says she can help her. Underlying that promise is the potential for Cardia and her growing poison to be used as a weapon, but since it's a bad ending, we never see that scenario never play out.

Now, Code: Realize is not the first media I've seen with a literally poisonous protagonist, there's a whole page dedicated to such characters on TV Tropes, but that ending got me thinking, how would you employ a such a person as a weapon in a war?

I write a fair bit of fiction set during World War I, and if you're going to write a war story involving someone emitting a cloud of poison gas, there's no better conflict to choose.

But in a first for me I decided to write from the side of the British.

I got into World War I from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school, so I tend to picture the conflict from the German side of the war. Airplane models, submarine models, strategies used, I have a decent pool of knowledge I can call on if I'm writing Germans. It's how I wrote "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart" and my upcoming "Kite Dancer" (which deals with zeppelins).

But because I was going be writing about chemical warfare I decided to flop sides. My pet peeve about WWI in media is that frequently people can't seem to tell it apart from World War II and portray the Germans as mustache twirling Nazis. Even the WWI game Valiant Hearts, which includes a sympathetic German protagonist, couldn't avoid having a cartoonishly evil German officer for the last boss.

So for my purposes it made better sense to have the British be the ones deploying a reluctant female soldier as a poisonous weapon. That way the reader could focus on my protagonist's personal predicament rather than the morality of her country's stance in the war.

This required more research though, because I realized I was a complete moron regarding the British situation, and I read up on the draft, the female labor force, among other things. I also studied up on chemical warfare in general since none of my previous stories had involved gas attacks.

"Poison Maiden" went through a lot of changes in its brainstorming/outlining phase. Originally Edith, my protagonist, was going to be the only Poison Maiden, but after some thought I decided it was more realistic for there to have been multiple survivors of the accident that changed her, and thus Harpy Squad was born; a whole band of women who could not help but emit poison wherever they went.

At one point I almost made them literally harpies with an accompanying airborne delivery system to shoot them over enemy lines, but I ended up tossing that out because such a flashy entrance would no doubt result in a lot of Poison Maidens getting killed and given that I wanted them to be a rare resource, I couldn't consider that as a viable strategy.

I also couldn't think of a good reason to give them wings.

Their poison traits are acquired in a highly superhero-ish fashion with the factory accident, but people generally don't connect poison with powers of flight. Still, I did try to keep some of the harpy imagery in through the name and some of my word choices when Charlotte finally cuts loose.

"Poison Maiden" was also written specifically for Intergalactic Medicine Show's Festivals on the Front issue, so I knew that the story was going to be Christmas-themed and I knew going in that I wanted the final scene to be set around an improvised Christmas tree in the middle of no man's land.

Like the characteristics of Harpy Squad itself, the ending went through several permutations of who was there and what condition they were in. Some of the brainstorm endings were incredibly dismal (including one where Thomas, Edith's love interest, ends up feral and insane) before I settled on the bittersweet one that still has hope for a brighter future.

"Poison Maiden" should be up until the end of February, so if you have a subscription to Intergalactic Medicine Show please check it out. There will likely be an ebook version as well on Amazon in the future.