Monday, November 20, 2017

Loscon 44 Schedule

I will be at Loscon again this weekend, and I'll be on a number of panels. If you happen to be at the convention, feel free to say "Hi!" I'll be there all three days, though I'm only on panels for two of them.

And an early Happy Thanksgiving to those in the US!

Panel Schedule

Science Fiction Slash Blank
25 Nov 2017, Saturday 10:00 - 11:15

Writers and Illustrators of the Future
25 Nov 2017, Saturday 16:00 - 17:15

Going From Fan To Pro
26 Nov 2017, Sunday 11:30 - 12:45

Writing & Intuition: What Happens Next?
26 Nov 2017, Sunday 14:30 - 15:45

Monday, November 13, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 5: Kageyuki Shiraishi

Hey, after a couple weeks away from it, I'm coming back to my discussions on various routes of Collar x Malice for the PS Vita. You can find my VN Talks for the other routes using the Collar x Malice label on my blog. So far I've covered all the default love interests available; Okazaki, Sasazuka, and Enomoto.

Shiraishi unlocks after completing the game at least once. Because that likely meant his route delves deeper into Adonis, and because Shiraishi didn't really appeal to me, I decided to place him second to last for my playthroughs. Though his route can be played any time after Okazaki, Sasazuka, or Enomoto, it is really best played after Okazaki and a lesser degree Sasazuka's. Part of this is because they both bring up the possibility of a mole in the police, but also Okazaki's route covers a lot of the setup that makes Shiraishi's plan later in the route understandable. Otherwise the player just gets the cliff notes version.

Though Shiraishi can be a jerk like Sasazuka, Sasazuka usually has a layer of consideration beneath his prickliness and because of his direct personality, he doesn't hide much. With Shiraishi, it's not that he's rude so much as he likes to play head games. And his persona likely works in his favor since we find out during his route that he's actually an agent of Adonis.

Outwardly he views the X-Day events and Hoshino's collaring as curiosities that pique his interest, and he's the sort of person where if he's not interested, then he doesn't help. He is also the only member of Yanagi's team who is still working for the police force, and he serves as a leak for them, funneling information that Sasazuka can't easily get by hacking their systems. I figured his route would be entertaining, just not my cup of tea, but it really turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

There are multiple reasons I had a problem with this one, and though they tie into each other, I'll break them into two chunks; the September/October X-Day Incident plot and the Adonis/romance plot.

The two X-Day Incidents are handled weirdly, which is unfortunate since I was really looking forward to solving them. The September X-Day event involved a murder disguised as a suicide, and at the start of the game it was the only one with a confessed murderer. He had the Adonis coin and that was good enough for the police who closed the case. Then in October, an X-Day event was announced, and the following day the September suspect killed himself. No other bodies were found and any leads to catching Adonis died with him.

What really happened in these clearly paired events?

Shiraishi's storyline is essentially trying to juggle too many things, and as a result, the plot involving the executors is not handled well and even contradicts the methodology behind the other murders. And the fact the October murder happened, but no body was found, seems to run contrary to Adonis's needs. The whole point of the X-Day Incidents is to draw attention to the injustice in society and the law's inability to help people. If a death happens and nobody knows, then how does it further Adonis's agenda?

Even if the Uno siblings needed to have the murder happen in that abandoned apartment to satisfy their vengeance, Adonis the organization should have dropped some hints to the police about where to look afterwards to ensure the message got across. The October death was hardly the only one to happen in a secluded location.

The teenage siblings Shion and Suzume Uno are jointly the third and fourth executors whose vengeance was satisfied in September and October, and though they have a compelling and sympathetic story, the game doesn't handle them well. For instance, Hoshino just randomly bumps into them a couple times before they're suspects (clearly so they don't come out of nowhere), and then when it's time to bring them in, Shiraishi just casually drops a "Oh hey, and you've met them already," which shortcuts any detective work. It's by far the clumsiest way the game has introduced any of the executors.

Aside from that, though all three starter routes bring up the substitution murders, September and October are not substitutions and there's no explanation why. Shion and Suzume committed the October murder themselves, which breaks with the Adonis MO, and though they had a patsy for the September one (who was also a target of their vengeance), he wasn't a part of Adonis himself. This would be fine if there was an explanation, direct or implied, for why Adonis allowed the deviation in MO, but there isn't one. According to police analysis, the patsy really did kill and set up the fake suicide for September, so the twins didn't even directly handle the person most responsible for their mother's death.

Capping it off, the Uno siblings lose their memory shortly after arrest, and while this is expected given what happens on other routes (except for Ogata, who was arrested on purpose), it feels like an unsatisfying end to their story, especially since it happens right after they discover their surrogate mother figure loves them enough to be their mother in everything but name.

Then there's Shiraishi's connection with Adonis. Unlike the other love interests who deal with their pasts as part of the story, Shiraishi's past is also his present, which makes for some bifurcated storytelling. He has to deal with his past, which is flat out bonkers compared to anyone else since he's been brainwashed since childhood to serve Adonis, and he has to deal with a present day agenda, which is operating apart from his X-Day investigation. While they are ultimately related, it divides up the player's attention because we don't know how everything comes together.

Also, annoyingly, Shiraishi is the worst spy ever because Hoshino suspects him right off the bat before his route even starts. He runs with it until Yanagi tells him to knock it off, but since he actually is and Hoshino keyed in on that right away, it makes it rather stupid that nobody else thought about it. (I mean, Yanagi could be blind out of friendship, but Sasazuka didn't think anything?)

And if having an alternate agenda wasn't enough, Shiraishi is also a difficult person to get to know. While his grating personality is likely intentional, because it allows him to be eccentric without scrutiny, it doesn't do the player any favors. Hoshino spends a lot of time trying to get him to behave like a normal human being, which doesn't always work, like when he leaves her an expensive box of chocolates without the sincerity that comes with a real apology.

So while we're investigating the September/October events, we're repeatedly spliced in scenes with Shiraishi checking in with an unknown speaker (whose identity you can figure out if you've played Okazaki's route) and getting scenes from Shiraishi's point of view to reassure us that yes, he's feeling conflicted about his alternate agenda and yes, in his own way he is trying to be nice to Hoshino.

Because if we didn't have those, we wouldn't know what exactly is exactly is going on with him. His personality is intended to change as the situation calls for it, and the player knows from his phone conversations that his orders are intentionally to get close to Hoshino so she falls in love with him. (Thankfully it's made clear these orders only come down when they decide to work together, which is why he's not horning in on the romance in other routes.)

The problem is that Hoshino is entirely in the dark about this. While all the routes use secondary POVs besides Hoshino, Shiraishi's route is particularly egregious about it, and makes it clear that Hoshino has no idea what she's getting into. It's annoying watching her waltz around blindly about getting through to the real Shiraishi when it's a calculated part of his job to get close to her.

Even though it does end up being a case of falling in love with the mark, it takes so long for that to come out that it feels more like relief than payoff when it does. While it can be fantastic for the audience to know something protagonist does not in order to ratchet up the tension, it doesn't feel like Hoshino is in actual danger until the end, because all of Shiraishi's inner conflict is kept away from her until the climax of the story.

I felt there was so much time spent trying to figure out how to work with Shiraishi and hinting at his alternate agenda that the Uno siblings' story came together too late (hence the shortcuts to tracking them down), and even after it was resolved, the main story didn't feel like it was going anywhere.

Even Hoshino eventually gets ticked off about his waffling and she has way more patience than I do.

On the bright side though, because Shiraishi is so infuriating, Hoshino is unusually direct when interacting with him. There's no sweet hoping the guy notices something. She expects Shiraishi to be oblivious to social cues, and she does not expect him to change for her, so she's very blunt when she asks for things. If she doesn't tell him, he won't know, and it's a realistic touch to a relationship.

I was deep into Chapter 5 (Chapter 6 is the last on all routes but Yanagi's) and I still didn't know his alternate agenda. Barely any lip service was paid to the fact that his whole route started because Hoshino was concerned about a mole in the police. Even after I finished his route, I wasn't 100% sure it was him since he doesn't own up to that specifically. (Sasazuka suspects the mole is on the investigation team in his route, and Shiraishi is not part of that group.)

We do eventually see what his agenda was though, both from his own perspective and the plan that Zero, the leader of Adonis, laid out for him. It clumsily dovetails into why she was collared in the first place, though we don't really understand at this point since the full details don't come out until Yanagi's route.

My feelings about the ending are mixed as well. On the other hand, I think he has one of the best tragic endings (each love interest has one). It's incredibly messed up with a broken Hoshino joining Adonis and getting to keep a mute and even more messed up Shiraishi has her boy toy while Adonis takes over the world. (If you're going to go that dark, might as well go all the way?)

But his legit "good" ending still fires off all kinds of creepy vibes. Basically, regardless of whether Hoshino successfully shoots Zero in the final trigger mode in the game, she gets stabbed by the poison needle in her collar. The difference is that if she makes the shot, she kills Zero and Shiraishi is able find the antidote before she dies.

However, she's completely paralyzed and has amnesia when she wakes up in the underground room where Shiraishi is keeping her because he can't bear to take her to a proper doctor (though he gets an underground one for her). If denying her proper medical after a life and death incident is not enough, he then lies about who he is when she wakes up (he says he's her doctor) and keeps her underground for an entire year while she recovers!

I was horrified.

Unsurprisingly, her memory doesn't come back since she never gets any stimulus with which to remember things. Topping all this off, is that after the year is over and she's able to walk, Shiraishi takes her to the detective agency to hand her over to Yanagi and company, which means that everybody else was totally okay with this! Even her younger brother!

Who the hell says it's okay to keep their friend or loved one in an underground room for a year with no visitors or any proper medical care other than the lovestruck dude looking after her? Even if they forgave Shiraishi for being part of Adonis, I imagine they would have wanted to see her! But, then it wouldn't have been "romantic" with Shiraishi giving her a surprise and fulfilling his promise to spend Christmas with her and everyone else (since she got injected on Christmas Eve). And then he gets ready to turn himself into the police, because he's still got to own up to his crimes.

I guess this passes as romantic for some people, but for me, this ending was one final bump on an already bumpy ride. Fortunately, Yanagi's route was a good pick-up-me after this, and he's next.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Killing It Softly 2 Anthology

Digital Fiction Online has released the second in their horror anthology series Killing It Softly 2, and I'm in it! You can pick it up on Amazon and it's ridiculously big, with over 30 short stories.

And I'm sharing a ToC with Elaine Cunningham. Oh my! I read so much of her D&D stuff back in high school and she was one of the authors who regularly would hang out on the Wizards of the Coast forums where other aspiring fantasy writers were talking about submissions.

Killing It Softly 2 has a reprint of my story "Unfilial Child." If you'd like some dark urban fantasy set in LA's Chinatown, you may want to give it a look!