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.