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.