Monday, April 23, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 3: √Current

As mentioned last week, this will be a short post. √Current covers the √After route from Natsuhiko's perspective so it mostly exists to give us new perspectives on previous scenes. It explains why Natsuhiko only spoke to Watase intermittently and clears up Watase's memory gaps (such as when he passes out) and some (but not all) of his hallucinations.

At the end of √Before, Natsuhiko accidentally links his mind with Watase's and "goes along for the ride" following the the destruction of Watase's memory, but the anti-radiation medicine is actually a psychic dampener, so every time Watase injects himself during √After Natsuhiko loses contact and goes to sleep.

This makes √Current fairly short since it's recap and Natsuhiko is unconscious for a lot of it, but it's also funny because Natsuhiko can't directly converse with anyone, other than sending the occasional telepathic thought to Watase, and he's not happy about being stuck in the mind of the terrorist who tried to kill him. One of the best lines in √After is when the voice in Watase's head starts protesting about what the hell he's doing and Watase starts talking back to it, thinking he's probably going crazy, and the scene is no less entertaining the second time around in √Current now that we know Natsuhiko's circumstances.

Because of the psychic link, Natsuhiko has a vested interest in keeping Watase alive, but Watase can't help being suspicious to everyone because of his unaccountable memory loss. To combat this, Natsuhiko "gifts" him with some plausible, but fake memories to make him seem more like an honest person. These end up being the memories that reveal Watase is not telling the 'truth" about what he was really doing when he went down to the basement or when he supposedly found Yuuri's body, because Natsuhiko doesn't consider how much other people might have known or would have been able to figure out.

Natsuhiko also ends up destroying new memories when Watase chases after his friends (Watase fully believes himself a rescue worker and wants to save them) and Natsuhiko doesn't want him to catch up to them, especially when it becomes apparent that Watase may begin recovering his original memories. The only thing that stops Natsuhiko from doing even more damage is that he eventually realizes that erasing memories physically harms the brain (rewriting does not) so he holds off on memory destruction after that.

It's good stuff, and when the duo finally end up back in Area N, Watase collapses and Natsuhiko begins to piece together everything he knows about the day's events thus far. √Before had mentioned seven urban legends about telepathy and its users, and over the course of the story all of them have been proven true, save for the last, which is that "monster-fied" telepaths, who have become that way through overuse of their powers, are stored in a secret location beneath this facility.

I was a little irritated that an urban legend (that I largely ignored during the √Before route) becomes the pivot on which the story turns to its final leg, but there you go. Natsuhiko realizes if that last legend is also true, they have one more thing to worry about and he's going to need Watase's help to end all this, though of course this is when Watase passed out at the end of √After.

Next week is √Double, and the conclusion to this mess!

Monday, April 16, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 2: √Before

Welcome to Part 2 of my Root Double: Before Crime * After Days discussion. I'll be writing about √Before with the assumption that √After has already been played, and it really should be the player's second route even though chronologically it takes place earlier. I covered √After two weeks ago.

The ending of √Before spoils several of the unanswered mysteries in √After, and I think playing them in reverse would make √After significantly less interesting, since the mysteries contribute significantly to the story's tension. However, there doesn't seem to be anything in √After that has the same impact on √Before.

I didn't really know what to expect for this route, other than Natsuhiko and his friends Mashiro and Salyu would eventually end up on some kind of mission that would take them to the nuclear facility while on the verge of a crisis.

The idea of following the day to day life of a high school student over the course of a week just didn't feel that appealing on the heels of having my characters figure out how to survive hour by measly hour in a facility that is slowly filling up with radiation and has a killer on the loose.

Fortunately, the game chooses to handle this by starting in media res with Natsuhiko and friends already at the facility just as the first explosions start. When the normally security-locked doors open to facilitate evacuation, Natsuhiko and his friends, who are already in the lobby, dive into restricted territory and meet up with another of his childhood friends, Yuuri, who is mysteriously inside the facility when she's a shut-in who never leaves home.

From there each chapter of the story follows a particular structure. We relive a day of Natsuhiko's life in the week leading up to what we now know is a terrorist attack by a group that hates telepaths and the specially built city that shelters them. At the end of each day, Natsuhiko has a conversation with Yuuri (in the past), which gets really weird as she asks Natsuhiko about his friendships, tells him how he is no longer the person he was, and lets him know that his peaceful days are ending. After each Yuuri conversation, he jumps back to the present at the nuclear facility and tries to progress through the bombs and the fires to stop the nuclear meltdown that he expects will happen.

Whenever Natsuhiko hits a crisis, the cycle repeats, until eventually the past catches up with the present. Interestingly enough, the bad endings only happen in the present, and are generally the result of Natsuhiko not listening to Yuuri, which causes him to lose focus in the face of danger. While Natsuhiko ends up on death's door in every bad end, he always hears Yuuri ask why he didn't do something or why he had forgotten something, and a watch ticks as he's fading away. The implication is that every time he fails he goes back in time and relives where he went wrong so he can fix it.

While the tension is not a constant presence as in √After, the present day segments help remind the player that there is something urgent happening. Meanwhile, the idyllic days in the past flesh out the characters in ways the √After cast never gets to experience, making them as a whole, more rounded personalities.

I enjoyed √Before overall more than √After, despite the lesser amount of tension, though it's not going to be for everyone. If you like the first half of the anime Charlotte, involving people with powers going to school, you'll probably like √Before as well, as a good chunk of it is slice of life with Natsuhiko going to school with his friends. And there are definitely shenanigans that happen in a school intended for telepaths.

√Before also has moments where it gets incredibly info-dumpy, to the point that my eyes were glazing over at one particularly dense section, because the story really wants you to understand its pseudoscience. While it's arguably necessary to fully understand the inner workings of the plot, it's not terribly well presented. The explanations read like a textbook and are about as dry as one too.

The worst parts are probably the flashbacks within a flashback. We already have Natsuhiko in the present reliving his previous week, but on top of that we have Natsuhiko in the previous week remembering events from ten years ago and nine years ago; which are basically the formation of his friendships with Mashiro and Yuuri, as well as some terrible memory from nine years ago that prevents Yuuri from ever leaving the house she shares with Natsuhiko and his mother.

I didn't mind some of it, since Natsuhiko's previous trauma is critical to the story, but there's so much of it that it's distracting and while Natsuhiko's adult-voicing-a-child voice is not horrible, it grates after hearing for the umpteenth time.

All of this culminates in a tear-jerking moment when Natsuhiko in the present finds himself inside his mother's office, inside the now burning facility, looking for a keycard so he can escape. In that moment he finds a report on the incident from nine years ago, the day that he and Yuuri had snuck into the facility to find his mother and got caught up in an arson attack.

Thanks to those documents Natsuhiko remembers the truth of what happened back then, and that Yuuri actually died from smoke inhalation. The Yuuri who has been with him is a delusion, one that his mother and friends indulged him with because he would have painful PTSD episodes without it. Since he viewed the incident with Yuuri as his fault, he's pulled back from taking risks and kept people at arm's length because he didn't want a repeat of before. Now that he finally knows the truth, he has to face reality and say good-bye.

Writing this, it actually sounds cheesy, but the game plays fair. When Yuuri meets up with the three kids in the present day nuclear facility, she's not in the security camera shot in √After. Mashiro and Salyu do not see her when Natsuhiko brings her over to them (since Yuuri supposedly never leaves home, they have no reason to expect he will see her). Also, when they meet a couple rescue workers, Natsuhiko says he and his friends are a group of four. Yuuri is visibly standing with them, but the workers are confused about the number, because in actuality there are only three.

It's harder to tell in the past segments since Yuuri never leaves home. Salyu is a little unsociable so it's not surprising that she ignores Yuuri unless prompted, and Mashiro is a high level telepath who has been using her power to "hear" Yuuri in Natsuhiko's mind, so Mashiro has been able to fully mask that she's interacting with someone who isn't actually there.

Unlike Watase, who spends most of his route trying to figure out his memories (and never getting there), Natsuhiko actually has a personal character arc that transforms him from someone who doesn't want to get involved to risking his life to stop an act of terrorism. We get his backstory and he overcomes it.

The rest of √Before from that point on is a fun lead up to the opening of √After. We finally learn why we didn't see Mashiro in √After (because she got shot and Natsuhiko sent her up the cargo lift to escape), we know who destroyed the controls to the cargo lift (Natushiko, so the terrorists couldn't chase after her), and we see Natsuhiko get shot multiple times by Watase, giving him the injuries he has when he finally appears in √After. The game does not even bother to hide Watase behind a silhouette like it did with Natsuhiko.

Watase pre-memory loss has a major beef with telepaths, attributing the death of over a hundred people to them, including someone who is implied to be his sister. His hatred is so great that when Natsuhiko reads his mind he gets a litany of "kill, kill, kill" on repeat.

They face off in Area N, where Natsuhiko desperately tries to stop Watase from ever getting to Mashiro and as a result shatters his mind, setting up the start of √After. Thus we know why nobody was able to find the three kids; Natsuhiko was in the reactor room that was supposedly flooded with radiation, Mashiro was sent up the cargo lift, and Salyu is canny enough to stay hidden or run away.

On a brighter note, the weird ogling of the female cast is also less prevalent and Natsuhiko is significantly less sexist. He does worry about his companions, but at least it seems like a reasonable worry over a friend, especially since Salyu is only thirteen.

Unlike √After, I was pretty happy at the end of this route, though I still had a lot of questions, particularly involving Yuuri, who is also one of the civilians in √After. √Before ends on an ominous note with Yuuri "waking" even though she's supposed to be dead. And though Watase is confirmed to be a terrorist in √Before, we still don't know how much he knew before he went into the facility, including whether he'd known that it does not actually have a nuclear reactor.

Next week I'm going to cover √Current, which is going to be a short post. √Double is the real final route, but because it's so long I don't think I can comfortably cover that and √Current without getting too wordy.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Listen to "The Ancestors" on Toasted Cake

Last week "The Ancestors" went up on the Toasted Cake podcast. It was originally published in Crossed Genres" and this is the first time "The Ancestors" has appeared in audio.

Ching Ming (or Qingming, depending on dialect and where you grew up) is what my parents called Chinese Memorial Day. We go out to the graves of our ancestors and drop off flowers and offer food. Sort of like how people in the west will visit cemeteries on Easter, except I don't think setting out food is as common on Easter.

One of the things I noticed growing up is that my family didn't do things the same way as other families we'd see at the cemetery, or the way that it would be discussed in class (if it came up at all, being that I went to American schools). My family never picnicked in the cemetery, and we didn't burn proper paper money. On the other hand, we had a bowing and wine pouring ceremony for the male members of the family that I didn't see others doing.

When I asked my dad about it, he said that every family celebrates differently, and the memory of that answer is what formed the nucleus of my story "The Ancestors."

For those reading my Root Double: Before Crime * After Days VN Talk series, it will resume next week!

Monday, April 2, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 1: √After

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

Platform: PC (also on PS Vita)
Release: 2016

I first heard about Root Double: Before Crime * After Days during its translation Kickstarter two years ago. It had an interesting premise. In 2030 a nuclear research facility experiences a meltdown under mysterious circumstances, and there are two POVs to be played through; one from the perspective of a firefighter after the incident begins, and the one from the perspective of a high school student before the incident. Naturally, the expectation is that the player will uncover the full story after playing through both.

It's the kind of narrative trickery I love in a game. Though the player can start with either the √After or √Before storyline, √After is featured as the default and is clearly the route more heavily showcased in promotional materials, so that's the route I played first as well as the one I'll talk about first.

√After opens with explosions in a near future nuclear facility and follows an elite firefighting rescue squad that dives into the basement levels to find survivors as the entire place goes on lockdown. You'd think that wouldn't be such a slow burn, but it is.

The opening minutes are all right, setting up protagonist Watase Kasasagi as the leader of his rescue squad and that he had privileged knowledge of the facility that the rest of his team did not. But once he runs into the "monster" (which from the silhouette is pretty obviously the √Before protagonist), he suffers from a splitting headache that seals off his memories and runs away in abject fear.

We're then left with memoryless Watase, and the mysteries are largely put on hold while two of his team members find him and learn to deal with his amnesia. It oddly feels like we're just following a crew of firefighters around on the job, because from their perspective, even though this is a high octane assignment, it's still a job they were trained for and not out of the realm of possibility.

I'd say the story takes about two hours to really get going and it's two and a half hours until the primary stakes are on the table, which is too bad, because I really needed the adrenaline kick a lot sooner.

What happens at those junctures, is that about two hours in we've formed our core group of six survivors and also discover that three high school students (the √Before route protagonist and his friends) have mysteriously managed to enter the facility and that they're also trapped within the lockdown. This gives us our full cast of nine.

At two and a half hours, Watase discovers that all routes to the surface have been cut off by bulkheads in preparation for a nuclear meltdown. Brief, interrupted radio contact with the rescue team on the surface lets them know that lockdown cannot be lifted for at least nine hours, but the facility is slowly filling up with radiation and the group doesn't have enough of the hourly medication to keep everyone alive for all nine hours.

These two events provide the impetus for the rest of the √After storyline: Find and rescue the kids while also securing an escape route before everyone dies of radiation poisoning.

The discovery of the bulkhead was the end of Chapter 1 out of 6, but it feels like everything up until this point really needed to be a prologue. That the game plays the opening movie at the end of the first chapter shows that the design team was aware that this is the real start of the story.

After this point, the game keeps up its sense of urgency in multiple ways. The six survivors (Watase, his two squad members, and three civilians) scour the facility looking for AD, the nanomachine anti-radiation medication that was stored on site as well as given to the rescue workers before they entered, and they're constantly trying to make progress to where the kids were last seen, which is deep in restricted territory that requires appropriate keycard access.

They're constantly set back by fires, blocked hallways and destroyed staircases from the explosions, and running on near empty reserves of AD. On top of that, they find five bodies; two of other researchers, the two remaining members of Watase's squad, and an unidentified girl. It's clear that all five were murdered, and at least three of them were killed by gunshot wounds.

Tensions run high at the thought of a killer being on the loose while they're trapped, and there are only nine people are known to be alive down here, which means that the murderer ought to be one of them.

Suspicions naturally turn to Watase and his "convenient" amnesia, and the fun thing is that they might not be wrong. He doesn't actually know what he was doing in the basement or why he abandoned his command post (he broke up his squad into two teams of two and sent them ahead while he remained behind to coordinate).

What memories come back to him don't entirely line up with the truth his lieutenant remembers and he himself feels that there is something off about one of them. Moreover, his squad members feel like he's become a different person since his lost his memory, as his previous self was a very private man, who didn't share details about his personal life, and the current Watase wears his heart on his sleeve. He begins to wonder just "who" the Watase that currently exists is, and if he could just be a puppet of the mysterious voice that periodically speaks in his head.

Watase's memory loss also allows the game to explain one of the near future "advances" which is the discovery of telepathy among children born in the past couple decades, and while most telepaths are senders, a smaller group of them can also read minds, which strikes a primal fear in Watase, though he doesn't know why. But he eventually realizes that if the missing high school kids can read minds, then it's entirely possible that the reason the rescuers have searched every block of this facility and not found the kids yet is because they don't want to be found. It could be that they know one of the adults is their enemy, or worse, that they are playing a sick game of their own.

Tensions finally come to a head when someone steals the group's supply of AD and Watase finds himself an excellent scapegoat with his professed amnesia. While on the run from the less mentally stable members of his group, Watase tries to end the lockdown by sacrificing himself to physically put out the fire around the nuclear reactor at the center of the facility, only to find there's nothing inside the nuclear block save for a strange machine and an unconscious high school boy who is slowly bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds. That's when he's attacked by one of the other high school kids, who blames him for attacking the boy.

But we don't get a whole lot of answers past this point. We know the facility is not actually a nuclear one, since there is no reactor (but a different machine) in the center of Area N. That in turn means that the reason for the lockdown not being lifted is not because there is an uncontained fire inside the reactor. This calls into question whether or not there is any radiation to begin with, even though the rescue squad's equipment assures them it's there (and something makes them sick and pass out when they enter highly contaminated areas).

Eventually everyone except for the unconscious Natsuhiko (the √Before protagonist) turns against Watase and he has to lock himself inside Area N to avoid being killed. That's when Natsuhiko finally wakes and tells Watase to get up, because they have work to do, and it becomes obvious (if it wasn't before) that Natsuhiko is the one who has been telepathically speaking to him throughout the story. Unfortunately Watase is at his limit and passes out.

The rest of the story going forward is covered in the route unlocked after completion of both the √After and √Before routes.

The tension and the build up (once the plot gets going) is pretty good, but there's a lot that Root Double falls on its face for when it comes to the other stuff. Aside from the pacing, its characters aren't that memorable.

Watase, if not for the mystery of his previous actions, is largely a potato. You know he's a tough, manly guy because he uses "ore" to refer to himself in Japanese, but he doesn't have much to his personality other than "being a man." His manly attitude towards the women in the game is also patronizing, though it's usually framed out of concern for the women in his group. This extends even towards his surviving squad members, who are both women.

Any woman capable of joining an elite rescue squad is probably as tough as they come, but he still feels like this is work they wouldn't be doing if not for the tragicness of their pasts. It makes me want to punch him, especially when they're often more capable then him due to his memory loss. There are tons of early game overs Watase can get for ignoring their instructions, and yet the game eventually frames it like he knows what he's doing. (Basically, early game Watase following his instincts is dumb. Late game Watase is probably right, presumably because he's gotten some of his memory back.)

While this chauvinism is mostly just Watase (it's reduced on other routes), the way the camera is positioned in the √After CG stills is designed to show the viewer as much of the girls and women as possible while ignoring Watase, even if he's physically in contact with them. This makes it clear which demographic this game's aimed at.

Four of the six characters in Watase's group are female, but they spend a lot of time being helpless and comforted in various scenes by him. Even his squad members seem pretty happy to be taken care of by him, at least right before all hell breaks loose. The game seems content to ship him with every woman or teenage girl in his group, with each potentially getting a heart-to-heart scene with him (the teenager's heart-to-heart is thankfully platonic though).

I probably would care less if Watase himself actually showed up in the CG images so seems like he's participating, but the fact he doesn't make it pretty clear he's just meant to be an insert character for the male player who wants to see cute girls.

And that's too bad, because the opening movie otherwise sells this game as a sort of confrontation between Watase and Natsuhiko. It features a dramatic face-off between them with Watase is pointing a gun at the unarmed Natsuhiko. We know their meeting at the start of the game is what triggers his memory loss, and we know that Watase had ulterior motives to his rescue mission. Though he's not a terribly good shot, we also know that he has had some unarmed combat training that comes back to him in his confrontation with Natsuhiko's classmate, Salyu, and even Watase recognizes it as something he shouldn't have learned as a rescue worker.

Potentially Watase could be a compelling leading man, between his past and present identity crisis, and his deep-seated fear of telepathy that not even his memory loss can erase, but so much of it falls flat and he doesn't even get his memory back to resolve it.

I expected a bit more from √After, but the parts it did well were enough for me to want to continue, and fortunately the chauvinism gets dialed back in the next route. √Before is next!

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Even the Mountains Are Not Forever" is Story of the Week at Curious Fictions

In case you missed the Twitter announcement, my short story "Even the Mountains Are Not Forever" is currently the story of the week for March 21st at Curious Fictions.

Curious Fictions is a living short story collection where new pieces are always being added by authors and all of them have appeared in professional venues before, so you can assume a similar level of quality in all the writing. If you like a given story, there is the option to subscribe to an author and/or tip them for the read.

The collection consists of hundreds of stories across multiple genres, with an estimated read time for the busy reader. It's well worth checking out!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reading versus Watching Saga of Tanya the Evil

I started reading The Saga of Tanya the Evil by Carlo Zen this month, and this is one of the more unusual light novels I've dug into. Usually light novels are pretty fast-paced reads. But The Saga of Tanya the Evil is pretty dense.

Most English speakers who've heard of it probably did so because of the anime that aired in winter of last year. That was my introduction as well. We have a salaryman from modern day Japan who is pushed into the path of an oncoming train by a disgruntled employee, and in the moment before death the man is saved by a higher power of dubious intent, who decides to have our unnamed protagonist reborn in another world as a little girl.

But from there, reading the book is a much different experience from the anime.

There are some personality changes, such as Being X doesn't seem to be pissed off at our protagonist so much as it wants to run an experiment (if anything, Being X actually comes off as a bit whiny during their first meeting), but the most important change is that our protagonist has a voice.

When watching Saga of Tanya the evil, it's easy to forget that the protagonist is mentally a thirty-something-year-old man in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Most people when discussing the show refer to Tanya as a "she" relying on the character's visual gender, but mentally the book makes it clear that the person inside Tanya still considers himself a man.

We also get to know this man and what he was like prior to his rebirth. For instance, we know he played first person shooter games, that he's well educated, and that he's something of a history/psychology enthusiast. We also know that he's incredibly cynical and that he lives the life that he does to get ahead, because he believes that is what a person should do to be successful in life.

A lot of this is implied in the anime, but the book calls it out, and there are quite a few segments where the book intentionally has a disconnect between the protagonist and his identity as Tanya. He will refer to his little girl self in the third person while saving the "I" part of the first person narration for his own thoughts.

It's a little confusing sometimes, especially when the first person disappears for a stretch, but it's an interesting consideration that never comes out in the anime. Who Tanya was hovers over the protagonist in the anime, but that same disconnect, where the protagonist recognizes that Tanya isn't really him, isn't there.

It might be fun if the anime had brought in more of that, particularly for Tanya's inner thoughts, much like the Detective Conan series uses one voice actor for Conan's physical child voice and a different one for the mental inner thoughts of his teenage self, to reflect that the body and the mind are not the same.

Also of note is that the opening to the anime is a lot different, though I'm not surprised they changed it. Being a visual medium, the anime needed some spectacle to launch the series, so they drop Tanya in the middle of trench warfare in a scene I haven't gotten to yet (assuming it wasn't made up). The book itself runs in chronological order so our beginning is actually episode 2 of the anime.

As I mentioned, the book is also unbelievably dense for a light novel. Carlo Zen is quite happy to drop infodumps and comparisons to real world history since Saga of Tanya the Evil is largely modeled off of World War I-era Europe. This makes the book pretty tough to read, even for someone who likes this particular period of military history.

Normally I could breeze through a light novel in a few hours, but I think I needed a few hours just for the first chapter. The anime removes a lot of the grand strategy from the equation, so it's friendlier to casual fans of history, but the book will probably bore people who don't care about the details as much as wanting to watch Tanya wreck havoc.

I'm still pushing through it, but it's a book I'm digesting in slow doses, which isn't what I expected going in.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Danganronpa V3: Kaede, Shuichi, and the First Major Plot Twist

I couldn't fit everything into the post I wrote last week about Danganronpa V3 since I was focusing on the main storyline, and there just wasn't room to talk about Kaede, Shuichi, and the first plot twist.

As before, there are spoilers beyond this point, including ending and post-game material.

When I first bought DRV3 I was really looking forward to playing as Kaede, who would be the series' first female protagonist. I was curious about how they were going to handle it since generally Japanese popular media tends to write their female protagonists differently from the male ones. (Look at Persona 3 and the sheer volume of content that was rewritten to accommodate the female protagonist.)

Male Dangaronpa protagonists tend to be a little bit wimpy. They're never the loudest voice in the room, which fits their role as one of the few sane people in a room full of eccentrics, but having an even more passive female protagonist was probably not going to be fun.

Though Kaede is a bit too "genki" for my tastes, always wanting to thinking positively and brute force any obstacle through optimism, she also takes zero crap from other students and she is wonderfully assertive through the first trial.

Which makes it a shame that she's not the real protagonist.

The game handles the transition well. Shuichi is constantly with her throughout the first chapter of the game, and I thought the two of them made an adorable pair. I had Kaede hang out with Shuichi at every opportunity and even the other students made comments about how they seemed to be a couple even though they had just met.

Unlike Kaede's talent as the Ultimate Pianist, Shuichi's talent as the Ultimate Detective is immediately relevant to their situation. We've had an Ultimate Detective in Danganronpa before in Kyoko, so I was curious how DRV3 would handle Shuichi differently.

Given his relatively passive personality (one character even refers to Shuichi as Kaede's "beta boy toy") I figured that in a different game he could have been the protagonist. Little did I know...

In a bid to help everyone escape the killing game, Kaede tries to kill the mastermind first, only she screws up, and the victim is someone else entirely. (That's not the entire truth, but that's all that matters for what I'm discussing here.) She enters the trial knowing the truth has to come out, though the player does not, and she warns Shuichi that he has to be ready to expose the truth no matter how terrible it may be.

Initially it looks like Shuichi just freezes up during the trial, even when it looks like people are ready to pin him as the culprit, but Kaede pushes him and once the player correctly concludes that Kaede is the killer, control is handed over to Shuichi, making him the new protagonist and he finishes the trial in revealing how Kaede committed the whole thing.

While I like Shuichi, it was really rough giving up Kaede. Not only was she a fun character, but there are already so many female characters dying to motivate male ones, and make no mistake that Kaede's death fuels Shuichi throughout most of this game. He might have only known her for a few days, but I don't think a single chapter goes by without some reminder that he misses her.

As for the twist itself, I both loved and hated it.

Aside from the fact that Kaede was a decoy protagonist, she essentially commits the crime while the player is in control of her. Some of it you can see. When she rearranges the books in the library to form a ramp for her Rube Goldberg machine, the player gets to see that. We don't know the specifics of why she is doing that, other than the explanation she gives Shuichi, but we at least see it, so that's fair enough.

But we don't see her grabbing the shot put ball and wrapping it in her vest, nor do we see her roll the ball to start the whole deathtrap. Even if it was partially covered from the player, there should have been some indication that she had done something.

Instead, when she mentioned during the trial that she already knew who the culprit was, I stupidly went around pointing out every single member of the cast (and getting it wrong) until Kaede was the only one left. That part of the trial shouldn't have played out that uncomfortably, with me constantly restarting because I hadn't a clue what I was supposed to do.

Hiding things from the player aside, I liked the twist, because the game had built up the bond between Kaede and Shuichi so well in the opening portion of the game that it was easy to see how hard he struggled with outing her has the culprit, even though she had warned him he was about to face an unpleasant truth.

Shuichi as a protagonist differs a bit from what we're used to. Though he's similarly on the passive side, and prone to being run over by more vocal personalities, when he does choose to throw down, he has the most aggressive posture out of the three mainline protagonists. Shuichi is also more cynical than Makoto or Hajime. He's the protagonist who ends the game discarding the entire hope vs. despair conflict, expecting to die and for no one to escape alive. In fact, he essentially asks his friends to die with him, because only by refusing to play can they stop the killing game.

He's definitely my favorite Danganronpa protagonist. And while his personality is part of it, there's something else that I want to bring up. It's not core to the game, but that's also why I think it's important.

Shuichi is one of the few bisexual male characters I've seen in Japanese media, and it's even more surprising since he's the protagonist. He's a bit in the closet about it, since he tells himself that he really shouldn't be thinking about another boy like that, but it's pretty clear he's attracted to Kaito in the main game (he actually blushes when Kaito compliments him) and in the post-game alternate universe material he has additional scenes that show he's potentially open to relationships with Kokichi and K1-B0 (the latter being a male-presenting robot).

Kaede might be the closest thing to his official love interest, but it's nice to see other dimensions to him that just happen to be part of his character rather than front and center with the plot.

Monday, March 5, 2018

VN Talk: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony

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

Platform: PS Vita (also on PS4 and PC)
Release: 2017

Danganronpa is one of my favorite series, which is funny because it's incredibly crass and vulgar, which is generally not what I prefer in my entertainment. But the plot twists... Oh the plot twists! It's not an easy series to predict as the mainline games are known for their 11th hour revelations that turn everything else on its head.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony just came out in fall of last year, so I'm going to put a fair warning that there are spoilers beyond this point! It's really a series that should be enjoyed blind.
Killing Harmony is no different and I'm going to discuss all the plot twists and how/why they work.


Danganronpa V3 features the usual cast of sixteen "Ultimate" students who are known as the Ultimate Pianist, Ultimate Detective, etc. in recognition of their talents. They find themselves trapped inside a school and forced to play a killing game at the behest of a black and white robotic bear called Monokuma. Whenever someone is murdered, a class trial is held to find the culprit. If the guilty party is correctly voted on, they are executed. If the guilty party escapes discovery, everyone else is executed and the culprit is allowed to "graduate" and leave the school.

This is a standard Danganronpa scenario, though the game itself is billed as a break from the previous continuity (since the Hope's Peak storyline was wrapped up with Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School).

And there are clues that this is a different continuity. Though the students are dealing with memory loss at the start of the game, barely remembering how they were kidnapped, when they get their memories as Ultimates they mention how it is a nationwide program to cultivate talent. This is different from the first two games where Ultimates only attended Hope's Peak Academy.

Initially this seems straightforward enough to not be considered a clue at all. It's part of the worldbuilding. But it happens in the first chapter, so it's not surprising that the player would eventually forget it or place less importance on that information by the time they get to Chapter 5 and the "big revelation" happens.

Every mainline Danganronpa game has a surprise reveal about their situation. Danganronpa 1 revealed that the world outside had become a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the school was originally a sanctuary to preserve the best and brightest teenagers to emerge once the crisis was over. The kids were killing each other to escape to a world that no longer existed.

Danganronpa 2 had the kids stuck on an island and revealed that not only was the world destroyed, but they had been among the people who destroyed it. Their "school life" on the island was a virtual reality designed to rehabilitate them to who they had been prior to meeting Junko Enoshima, the mastermind of DR1.

So it was with some surprise that Danganronpa V3 chose Chapter 5 to reveal that the students were on a spaceship, an ark, that had been sent away from Earth to escape a rain of meteors that had rendered the planet uninhabitable. (Because if that's what's in Chapter 5, what's going to be the real reveal in Chapter 6?)

Realizing that they're the last hope of humanity and that they've been killing each other, the remaining students more or less fall into despair and it looks like the killing game has ended. Kokichi has told everyone the "truth" and revealed that he is the mastermind. Kaito, the group's ringleader and inspiration, is imprisoned, and everyone else is barely going through the motions.

But at this point a Flashback Light mysteriously appears in the dining room and Maki convinces the rest of the group to use it. The Flashback Lights are how everyone recovers selected portions of their memories, and this one is a doozy, especially following the whole ark scenario.

This memory brings the previous Danganronpa games into continuity. They remember how the modern world ended thanks to Junko Enoshima. They remember how Hope's Peak Academy was rebuilt in the aftermath. Then they remember attending Hope's Peak Academy themselves and that all of them had been students there even if they had been in different classes.

Astute players will have noticed that the existence of Hope's Peak Academy and the Ultimates being nurtured throughout the country should be incompatible with each other, but it completely flies by the characters (and with good reason). It's not the first mistake DRV3's mastermind make either. And to be fair, a lot of players will be happy to roll with the new "fact" because Hope's Peak Academy! That's what Danganronpa is all about.

The revelation kicks all the despairing students back into high gear so the story (and more ominously, the killing game) can continue for one more round. It brings the series' central theme of hope and despair to the forefront as the students conclude that Kokichi, as the mastermind behind the organization that hunted them down, must be a Remnant of Despair, a worshipper of Junko Enoshima.

Things don't quite go down as planned (for one thing, Kokichi turns out to not be the mastermind), but neither do they go the mastermind's way either, which results in the reveal of a different truth, and also a different theme.

After unmasking the mastermind and putting the evidence together, we learn that this reality is not part of the prior Danganronpa games at all. It's a reality show inspired by the video games, one where people really die, and the outside world is populated with tons of Danganronpa fans who are happy to watch.

Yeah, that took a moment to sink in.

All the students agreed to participate and had their memories wiped and replaced with fictional identities for the sake of the made-up story, which the mastermind had the freedom to adjust along the way, though she admits that she made a mistake tying their storyline to the one of Hope's Peak Academy. It was a desperation move on her part after Kokichi tried to end the game by making people stop wanting to leave (and thus no one would ever kill each other again).

Now that they know the truth, she offers them a choice very similar to the one at the end of DR1. They can vote for Hope, in which case two of their class can graduate, as per the rules (the game only allows for two survivors), or they can vote for Despair in which case they all remain trapped in the school.

The outside viewing audience pushes for Hope and at this point we only have four students left (not counting Tsumugi, the mastermind). Both Maki and Keebo agree to sacrifice themselves so Shuichi and Himiko can graduate, but Shuichi chooses to side with neither Hope nor Despair. In fact he rejects the central theme of the entire series and chooses not to vote, asking everyone else to abstain along with him. If they're going to end the killing games for good, they need to do it by refusing to give the audience what they want.

And they do.

Rather than having a face-off between hope and despair, Danganronpa V3 focuses on truth versus lies. Shuichi and his friends are all made-up, and nothing like their previous selves. Tsumugi even shows him a video clip from his audition, where he talks about how much he loves the series and how if he's chosen he would like to be an Ultimate Detective who kills someone.

But despite being fictional people, Shuichi recognizes that everything they felt over the course of the game was real, and for that reason the killing games have to end.

After everything is over, he, Maki, and Himiko are the only ones left standing in the shattered remains of the school, and Shuichi is still not entirely sure what is truth and is a lie. He has trouble believing that his previous self would have volunteered for a death game, no matter how big of a fan he was of it, and the prologue supports this (though it's unclear whether or not he remembers being kidnapped at the start of the game due to all the memory overwriting).

But happily, the three of them decide to find out the truth for themselves, and just like the first game, we see our survivors leave the school and head off into the unknown.

The climax of Danganronpa V3 feels very much like a critique of the Danganronpa player. Why do you like this series that does horrible things to the people in it? Why do you like seeing them killed?

The game knows its audience. All this happens for our entertainment. There are YouTube compilation videos of the series' over-the-top execution scenes. There are role-play groups where people play as new students in a killing game. I made a prediction list at the start of DRV3, placing odds on who I thought would make it to the end based on my first impressions of them and the types of characters who survived previous Dangaronpa games. I did it because it was fun.

Yes, we're always rooting for Hope to win over Despair. We like the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. We like seeing the students pushed to their limits and how the survivors make it through incredible odds. Sometimes we think about the cost, but mostly in the sense of how it propels the rest forward (unless a favorite of ours died).

The primary difference between our game and the outside world of Danganronpa V3 is that their characters are real people who really die. It is a important and humane difference, but the implication is that they lost that, as the previous Danganronpa games similarly exist in their universe.

Throughout the final trial, Tsumugi tells Shuichi that he has no power to change anything, because he himself is a work of fiction, and what I wanted Shuichi to tell her is that fiction matters. Of course I'm inclined to think that as a fiction writer, but one doesn't have to look far to see that stories inspire people. Kids want to grow up to be like their favorite characters all the time, even though they're not real. Even adults may reflect on what the hero of a book would do when taking an approach to their own lives. Fiction matters a lot, even if it's not reality.

Though Shuichi never gets to the point of shoving it in Tsumugi's face, he does get a feel for this by the end as he and his remaining friends head off into the unknown.

"I mean that... even if something is a lie, even if it's fiction... If it has the power to change the world, then it must contain some kind of truth." - Shuichi Saihara, Danganronpa V3: Killling Harmony

Monday, February 26, 2018

Darling in the FRANXX's Zero Two

I started watching Darling in the FRANXX this weekend, even though it's not usually a series I would get into. I had heard that it was rather fanservicey and that it took a lot of inspiration from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which had left a bad taste in my mouth back in its hey-day. But despite that, I also heard it was good so I decided to give it a chance.

The best part, for where I am now, is the character Zero Two. Though I don't know the specifics of her creation yet, we know that FRANXX pilots are orphans who were raised for the sole purpose of piloting the FRANXX mecha. Zero Two is different from the others though for having klaxosaur blood (klaxosaurs being the giant monsters the FRANXX are intended to fight). This gives her small horns for a slightly inhuman look, though the opening credits suggest she might ultimately have a more monstrous appearance.

All FRANXX are piloted by heterosexual pairs in very suggestive roles (seriously, most of the series seems to be a giant sexual metaphor), but what stands out about Zero Two is just how badly her own desires are treated.

Zero Two is an incredibly accomplished pilot (the women seem to be the one who bond with the mecha and the men are interchangeable), but we're introduced to her as the Partner Killer. No man can survive more than three rides with her without dying.

When she meets the protagonist, Hiro, for the first time, she takes a shine to him, because he doesn't shy away from her horns. But Hiro is quickly put out of the picture by her current partner, who tells Hiro that he can't "handle" her. Zero Two and her mecha are special, and require an equally special partner.

After Zero Two and Hiro successfully pilot her FRANXX during an emergency in the first episode, she repeatedly asks to be paired with him, and the interest is mutual. Despite the fact that Hiro came out of her mecha intact (unlike the dead body he replaced), she is always denied. Hiro is deemed beneath her, they're part of different units, etc. I was incredulous that Zero Two, despite being at the top of her game was not allowed to choose her own partner. And yet, it feels like a very familiar female problem.

I'm not surprised that she lashes out by taking her unwanted partners on a ride they're unlikely to survive, because for her it's been a string of supposedly "good" male pilots who see her as a tool. And the military system is fine with fact she grinds up her partners as long as she keeps getting wins on the front lines.

Hiro works for her, because he's not trying to force himself on her, and he sees her as another human being rather than a monster, which she is utterly delighted by. Zero Two is a bit of a loose cannon, but she can, reluctantly, be brought into line if she no longer sees any reason to fight. Her life appears to be a sad sack of constant battle partnered with a string of jerks so I'm not surprised that she jumps (literally) at the chance of staying with Hiro when he similarly goes out on a limb to declare how much he wants to ride with her.

Seriously, watching them escape her escort while doing a running tango through all the security barriers to get to her mecha was a delight. I wasn't expecting to see anything that close to a commitment as early as the fourth episode.

There's still a chance it could all go downhill from here, but I hope not. I want Zero Two to keep her spirit and for Hiro to continues treating her as an equal rather than a tool or a conquest.

Monday, February 19, 2018

VN Talk: Valentines Otome

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

Platform: PC/Mac
Release: 2018

I usually try to play an indie visual novel every year off ever since I discovered the number of indie games people have been making with Ren'Py. Ren'Py is a fairly easy to use, easy to learn visual novel engine that is free for use, and since its release it's enabled a number of small teams to make visual novels without having to get deep into programming.

One of the games I picked up a few years ago was called Halloween Otome. A two person job (one writer/programmer and one artist), it was clearly an amateur effect, but it had a lot of heart, and shortly afterwards the duo announced that they would do sequel, Valentines Otome (yes, there is no apostrophe). As per usual for a romance series, this would pair off the previous heroine's best friend.

Valentines Otome is a pay-what-you-want visual novel/dating sim that just came out last week on the appropriate holiday. Prior knowledge of Halloween Otome is not necessary, though the player is asked to choose who Emma ended up with at the end of the first game and those who played HO will probably get more out of it.

Because this is a hot off the press release, seriously watch out for spoilers below. I will talk about endings.

Incorporating the player's previous choices from Halloween Otome was amazing, considering how much more work that must have been. There are three loves interests in Valentines and three in Halloween, making for a possible combination of nine different starting circumstances for the game and which eventually take the player to a total of eighteen endings (six for each VO love interest). I'm not sure even more professional endeavors would have done this, but the duo at Synokoria did, which is impressive.

Valentines start off with Mira, Emma's best friend, trying to drag Emma out to a bar on Valentine's Day. All Emma's boyfriend options are celebrity types who have work they can't get away from, so they've arranged for Mira to drag Emma out there where she can receive her special Valentine's Day gift. And Mira, being a party girl, is all up for going to a bar.

While there, Emma gets her very public present and celebration, and Mira gets drunk. Like really drunk.

She wakes and finds out that she's married one of the three men she had met in the bar (player's choice), and that is the proper start of the game!

This is a novel scenario for an otome. Usually it's all about the courtship, but in this case, we skip straight to a surprise marriage. For one reason or another, Mira and her new husband are advised not to immediately break up the marriage, usually because it would cause some irreparable harm to her husband's reputation (losing his job, losing face, etc.) and she agrees to put up with it in exchange for banking on his reputation to promote her business, since she's the owner/designer of a clothing boutique.

There is a lot of text in this game. It's substantial for an indie effort, though it doesn't quite feel like it's professional. As I mentioned, it has a lot of heart, so if you go in without expecting a certain layer of polish, you'll probably have a lot of fun. In fact, I'd go as far as to say if you're a heterosexual otome fan on a budget, you're probably not going to find anything better.

But it's also uneven. There is a stat-raising component of the game, and if you're not using the a guide chances are your first time through the game is not going to showcase its best side, which is too bad since first playthrough is so much a part of first impression. Fortunately Synokoria does have the walkthrough available for free, but using it also takes away the fun that comes with discovery. I would use suggest doing the first playthrough blind, expecting that you will not get the best ending, and use the walkthrough later.

In a way it's a shame that there are so many endings and the game is so walkthrough dependant, because chances are most of the player base is not going to view most of them. I imagine most players will get one or two bad or less than ideal endings before giving up and using the guide. It's usually what I do for games, and I didn't bother getting the other endings once I got the best for each love interest, which means that out of the sixteen I only viewed five.

Going back to the unevenness, since the game is reliant on stats to trigger things, story events can happen in a somewhat haphazard order. You might have weeks with lots of events due to a confluence of plot required stuff and stat triggered stuff, or you might have weeks of nothing due to a lull in both. Managing the stats properly makes for a fulfilling experience, but the game won't tell you inside the game itself what stats to focus on during a given playthrough. In an era when instruction manuals are a thing of the past that's a little annoying. I don't mind failing because it's my fault for making bad dialogue choices (and like most otome there are a number of them), but I don't like failing because I don't know how to allocate my stats.

That said, after using the walkthrough, the heart that I expected to be there is very much there, which is why I recommend using it, at least enough to know where to put your stats, and maybe which dialogue choices to make on later playthroughs.

There are three love interests in Valentines Otome, which is a good number for an indie game like this. It allows each of them to have a fairly deep storyline and each playthrough will probably take most of an afternoon and evening.

The three guys are named Zane, Daire, and Kiron, which I found rather amusing as they feel very much like names for romance leads rather than names found in the real world, which is odd because Halloween Otome had Erik, Landon, and Tyler, which are comparatively more normal.

Despite the developer's suggested play order, I would actually recommend Kiron, Zane, and then Daire, because Kiron has a substantial event that happens at the end of his route that appears in Zane and Daire's as well, but in a glossed over form. It's very odd having a kidnapping, which is obviously a major event, be a footnote in any given playthrough. It matters the most on Kiron's route, doesn't matter at all on Zane's (though it is mentioned), and sets the stage for the ending of Daire's.

If this had been an Otomate game, Daire most likely would have been route-locked, not because he's the golden route, but because his route relies on having played Kiron's and it'll be easier to understand if you do. Zane can be skipped entirely.

As far as the different routes go, I enjoyed Kiron and Daire very much, but I had trouble with Zane's largely because Zane is a writer, and knowing something about how authors, I found his route too riddled with errors to be believable. It's something it's true of Valentines Otome in general--it's an overdramatized version of the real world where 90% of the population has ridiculously fancy names and you can take on well-armed goons with a large dog--but I found it much harder to buy into Zane just because being an author hit too close to home.

I don't really want to catalog everything that bugged me about Zane's route, but it's pretty obvious that the developer either doesn't know or doesn't care to be realistic about the publishing industry. For the vast majority of the player base this is probably okay, Zane's storyline is good if you want to have a turbulent romance with make-up sex (not graphic), but if you're a writer who knows anything about the publishing industry, going through his route is a lot of constant wincing.

I will say though, that the conversation about not reading your own book reviews is a spot-on and hilarious.

Kiron's route turned out to be a highlight, because his story does something unusual. I've never played an otome before where my love interest was crushing on another woman.

Basically, Kiron got drunk and married Mira, and he totally freaks out when he wakes up because he's actually in love with another woman, who turns out to be incredibly happy to hear he's gotten married. (Seriously, Anabelle shipping Kiron and Mira, and constantly torpedoing Kiron's dream and Mira's hopes to hook the the two of them up, is a source of great amusement.) Because Kiron is a nice guy he and Mira get along during their sham marriage, with the plan being to divorce in six months where it doesn't look as bad (as annulling the day after). They live together, in separate rooms, no sex, but he's otherwise a fantastic roommate and genuinely a good person who becomes friends with and encourages Mira.

The problem is that gradually he gets used to Mira being his wife, which causes all kinds of inner conflict because he doesn't understand why or how he came be in love with two different people.

The climax of his story is a bit odd because it has nothing to do with him personally, or Mira for that matter. One of his students is the target of a kidnapping attempt that ends up grabbing her, Anabelle (also one of her teachers), and Mira since they happened to be together at the same time. But even though he's just a high school teacher, he has a rather dangerous friend who is able to get them weapons and stuff so they can storm the kidnappers and rescue everyone. A large dog factors into this. It's silly, but because the amazing size of the dog and ability for said dog to pin people beneath it is telegraphed ahead of time, it's at least moderately believable that the rescue could succeed.

Kiron's realization that he loves Mira is also well done here, as he stops thinking about Anabelle almost entirely when the three are kidnapped. Nearly all of his headspace is dedicated to Mira and he doesn't even stop to think about why. It's only in the epilogue bit that Kiron realizes that he was in love with an ideal rather than a person, and even though Mira is far from the kind of person he would have been interested in, she's become the one he loves.

Daire's route is lot weirder and I suspect Synokoria was trying to stretch their legs. It's a romance with a laconic CEO who doesn't use a sentence when a word would do, and no words at all if he can get away with it. (If you liked Hajime Saitou in Hakuoki I think you'll like Daire.) The reason I feel his route is a little weirder is that I can feel that Synokoria was trying to do something more than a romance.

While Zane and Kiron's routes have unexpectedly violent climaxes, Daire actually invites a lot of his danger, and Mira is unaware of most of it, which is annoying since she's the protagonist. Daire has the most complicated backstory of the three and in a nutshell, his dad was killed in a literally hostile attempt to take over the company and he has six months to prove himself as a CEO otherwise he will be ousted by the board. Because of these six months he can't annul his marriage to Mira because it would be a PR disaster for him to have drunk married someone.

The climax of Daire's route focuses on him building a case to throw out the backstabbing board members and solidify his grip on his company, which is trying to deal with a potential alliance with a second company and a potential takeover from a third. Yes, it is complicated, and he is not the protagonist, and thirdly, this is a romance game, not a thriller.

Dabbling in another genre isn't bad, and many otome have mixed action and romance in the past, but the climax of Daire's route and his desire to avenge his father is so patently different from tone from the other two that it really stands out. There's even an epilogue tease with a gray morality character that hints at a potential third game and he's the final character seen on the Daire/Mira romance, not the romantic couple or their happy ending.

I also don't think action scenes are really Synokoria's strength. They do heart and sweetness very well. The romance is excellent. But fight scenes, not so much, and they're hard to do well in a visual novel since there is no movement on the screen. It also did not help that the seventeen-year-old lawyer happens to be a superman who packs heat as well as he writes contracts. Seriously, the kidnappers on both Kiron's and Daire's route are only solved because somebody called a teenager.

(Which is retrospect is really weird, because I think the audience is intended to be composed primarily of adults. All the love interests are in their late twenties and presumably Mira is around that age too.)

As far as Mira goes, she's a fun protagonist with a lot of personality. She's very comfortable with who she is and the idea of hooking up with guys that she has no intentions of staying with, which makes her a much different character from the vast majority of otome heroines. Prior to finding out that she got drunk married, her reaction to waking up in bed with a stranger is that she got lucky!

But as I was writing this, I realized that though she is the protagonist in name, she's really isn't far as the story is concerned. All the plot lines revolve around the men, which is unfortunate, because it would have been nice if there something she had to deal with that needed resolution by the end of the story. She does have problems, her disapproving parents show every route, but even when they get involved in trying to disrupt her marriage, facing them is never the ultimate test of the relationship. Instead it's a stalker, or a kidnapper, and nothing to do with her personally.

One thing that I do want to bring up though, is that Mira's approach to relationships is never frowned on by any of her love interests. She's a woman who doesn't date so much as she has friends with benefits or one night stands. But Daire, Zane, and Kiron are completely fine with that and never try to slut shame her. Daire even publicly defends her when someone tries to cast aspirations on their marriage because of it.

Overall, this was a very good indie effort. It's not flawless, but for the price it can't be beat and I think perhaps with more exposure and experience Synokoria could make something really good for their next game. And if you like their work, they say any donations for the game will go towards backgrounds (they license their background art), music expenses, and further games.

And I will say their music is top notch. I wish they had a downloadable soundtrack available.

Valentines Otome can be downloaded here and it's definitely worth checking out.

Monday, February 12, 2018

RPG Talk: Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth

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

Platform: PS Vita (though it's also on PS4)
Release: 2016

I'd never played any of the Digimon RPGs before, because I'd come into the franchise through the anime rather than the Tamagotchi-like virtual pets and the first RPG I tried out made it clear that most of the gameplay was built around raising and collecting rather than having a plot.

But what sparked my interest in the franchise was the bond between human and Digimon partners and not the collecting, which has never been a feature of any of the anime series.

The anime had a strong Dragonriders of Pern feel to it, but for children, in how the partner bonds work. Partner Digimon are intelligent, capable of speech, and potentially powerful, but also childlike and unfailingly loyal to their humans. Your Digimon will always be your best friend, even if you're too caught up in yourself to realize it.

Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth nicely straddles the line between getting the feel of the anime while also allowing for collecting, and though Digimon is primarily thought of as a children's property, Cyber Sleuth is clearly meant as a nostalgia vehicle for older fans who are now adults. It has all the rookie and champion forms of the partner Digimon from the first three anime series and most of the other notables as well. It's possible to collect tons of Digimon, but the player isn't required to do so. A solid team of six to nine Digimon with a mix of types should be enough for the main playthrough (not necessarily optional bosses).

Unfortunately your Digimon won't talk to you in your party (the ones you leave at the farm like texting you though!), but aside from that, it feels like this could be the story of a new anime series.

You can choose your protagonist's gender, and by default they are named Takumi Aiba if male and Ami Aiba if female, though they can be renamed. Both of them sport goggles (because a Digimon lead protagonist has got to have goggles!) and are supposed to be in high school, not that we ever see them or any of their friends going to class. The player also gets to choose a Digimon from a set of three to start with. I chose Terriermon, who debuted in the Digimon Tamers anime.

For the rest of this post I'll refer to the protagonist as Ami, because I played through as female, and there are some things worth commenting on specifically because of the female playthrough.

The game takes place in a near future Tokyo where a virtual reality form of connectivity is popular in all walks of life. EDEN is probably closest to Slack and Discord in that people hang out in this virtual reality for both social and work-related reasons, but when people are logged in, their mind is 100% there and their bodies are left hooked up at home, work, etc.

While going to a shady part of EDEN where all the hackers are supposed to hang out, Ami and her friends Arata and Nokia are attacked by a mysterious entity called an Eater, and though Arata and Nokia escape, Ami seems to be caught just as she logs out. Rather than appearing safely at home, she's spat out in the middle of the city half-digitized and in a panic. In short order she's rescued and recruited to work for a private investigator, Kyoko, setting up the rest of the game.

Now a half-digital, half-physical being, Ami can go back in forth between any digital connection and the real world. Unlike her friends who have to log in, she can jump into a hospital's computer network from one terminal and hop out through another. If you ever wanted a slice of Tron as a mainstay in your JRPG, this is the place to look! Along with the mysterious Eater, other entities called Digimon have appeared in EDEN and hackers have taken to using them as tools, thinking that they are simply rogue programs.

Ami learns that her real body is lying unconscious in a hospital, thought to be a victim of EDEN Syndrome, which periodically affects people who have logged into EDEN. Its cause is initially unknown, but eventually she learns that those who suffer from it had been devoured by Eaters while logged in. Worse, Kamishiro Enterprises, which runs EDEN, seems to be aware of the issue, but is experimenting with EDEN nonetheless.

Like the anime series, things escalate as the digital and real worlds cross over and the Eaters aren't on anybody's side. Ami's friends have their own hidden histories as well as Ami herself, which she has forgotten.

The storytelling feels very much like an anime in that as new information unfolds, new questions arise. It does take a little while to get going, with a lot of time spent doing odd jobs for Kyoko, but thankfully most chapters are short. Even once danger becomes apparent, there are plenty of breather moments where Ami can, and sometimes must, do tangential tasks to continue the main story. Usually what appears tangential is not so much later on, but it really feels odd taking side jobs while rampaging Digimon are on the loose.

The result makes it feel more like an anime series though, the kind that goes 30-40+ episodes and has time for levity and side stories without hurting the main plot.

Though the game allows the player to pick a gender, it does have a few points where it feels like the female protagonist was written in at a later date as an afterthought. There's one point where the player is hired by a male classmate to help him figure out what kind of gift to get a girl he likes. Kyoko tells Ami that she's not like other girls so maybe she should go ask some of her friends what this girl might like. Aside from this comment being presumptuous, it feels like it was done mostly to force Ami to go through the quest in the exact same way as the player would if they were playing Takumi.

There's also a request later where the player needs to hunt down the origin of these incredibly lifelike female dolls. The guy selling them gives what is likely the same line of dialogue to Ami as he would to Takumi, noting how the protagonist has an eye for girls. While I'm fine with Ami being lesbian or bisexual, it's not hinted anywhere that she is prior to this point, so it feels like lazy writing, with the designers assuming that the player is playing as Takumi.

However, there are some incredibly cool parts of playing Cyber Sleuth as Ami. Ami and Arata get to be opposite gender best buds without any romance getting in the way, which results in a friendship that we rarely, if ever, see in a JRPG. Arata never sputters or says anything about Ami being a girl and his trust in her is tremendous.

Aside from that, the rest of the human cast has a female bias, leading to scenes like a trio of girls going on a rescue mission for another girl. It's shocking in a way, seeing critical story moments play out without a single dude on screen. Without a male protagonist, it happens more often than you'd think, especially in the later half of the game.

The character designs were clearly done with attention to the male gaze, so there's a lot of cheesecake to wade through (with the worst offender being Rina Shinomiya with her peek-a-boo jacket), but the female cast contains a large variety of personalities and none of them, not even the initially passive-looking Yuuko, is a shrinking violet who needs to be protected.

Nokia is particular behaves more like a protagonist in a shonen series than even the player character. She's headstrong, willing to charge into dangerous situations because it's the right thing to do, and while she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, she never gives up. Nokia is the one partnered with Agumon and Gabumon, who are the main Digimon of the very first Digimon Adventure anime. Personality-wise she's very much a hot-blooded shonen protagonist, but she's a girl, and that's cool.

Arata, by contrast, is a more measured personality. Along with Nokia, he's one of Ami's closest net friends, and he's usually played as a cool hacker sort of guy. He's the one with the computer knowledge, the badass Virus-type Digimon, and the guy most likely to help everyone out of a pinch. But despite his prowess, he's hilariously geeky in other ways, with one side quest that is all about helping him through a scavenger hunt fast enough that he can win a rare comic book.

This is also makes it harder when Arata goes rogue later in the game. Since we know he's not a one-dimensional power-hungry guy, we want to keep trusting him even when he's discovered a way to absorb the Eaters into his own body. Once everyone's past is uncovered too, we realize what a burden he's carrying as the one who made the decision to abandon their childhood friend so everyone else in their group would survive.

It turns out that eight years ago Ami, Arata, Nokia, Yuuko, and her brother Yuugo, were part of the EDEN beta test and something went horribly wrong and all five of them ended up crossing over into the digital world.

An Eater followed them there, beginning the corruption of the digital world as well as devouring Yuugo, who sacrificed himself so the others could escape. Arata was the one who prevented the others from going back to save Yuugo, realizing that they didn't have a chance against the Eater.

The memories of the surviving four were erased so they could grow up to lead normal lives, though over the course of Cyber Sleuth they get those back, and the reason Arata is going crazy is he is trying to get enough power to protect everyone now that the Royal Knights of the digital world are trying to eliminate the human one in retaliation for having introduced the Eaters.

After punching some sense into Arata, and either defeating or convincing individual Royal Knights to stand down, the reunited team head for the digital world to destroy the Mother Eater, the central nervous system of the Eater hive mind, and rescue Yuugo, who has been trapped inside the entire time. (Notice our three girls and one boy rescue team!)

It's a pretty good show with a lot of self-sacrifice and the power of friendship, with Ami even risking her life to try saving a human villain who merges with the Mother Eater to become the last boss.

After the digital world is freed, the main system begins a reboot to restore the world to its earlier, healthier state, even though it means that there is a good chance that all the Digimon will forget their adventures with their human companions since they'll be rebooted as well. The ending is rather bittersweet as the humans are sent back through the portal to the human world and all the Digimon that had emerged in the human world are similarly flying back to where they belong. Many familiar faces say farewell as the two worlds expect to be cut off once more. It's very reminiscent of the Digimon Tamers anime and is a similar kick in the feels.

Also, all the stress of Ami's digital jumping have been taking its toll on her half-digital body's stability, so she actually does not complete the journey back, but shatters and her friends later gather at the hospital to see her physical body hasn't woken up.

They also discover that the real world has been rewritten in the wake of the closure between the real and digital worlds, so they've effectively returned to a different timeline, where things that had happened in the world they remember are no longer true. Someone who was previously a villain (due to being possessed by a Digimon) is now a good person and other people who they had known, no longer exist.

Of course, all that would be a downer, so after the credits roll, there's a sappy sequence that I admit I was a bit teary-eyed over. Ami wakes in a limbo to be greeted by Alphamon, the Digimon that had disguised itself as the human Kyoko. Alphamon tried finding all the pieces to Ami to reassemble her, but couldn't do it by itself, but it had help, and then the camera pans to show all the Digimon in the player's party from the final battle, which quite likely includes the most beloved of the player's collection (mine sure did).

It was a pitch perfect ending, having the player's own Digimon finish the reassembly of their character, and Ami eventually wakes up in the real world, where she finally meets the real Kyoko, who had been in a coma as an EDEN Syndrome victim herself the entire time Alphamon had been masquerading as her. The final scene is Kyoko offering Ami a job, and so it looks like they'll be working together again, or for the first time, depending on how one looks at it.

Cyber Sleuth isn't the highest class story out there, but it does what it need to very well for the fanbase it's designed for.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Writing "Kite Dancer"

I was doing research for a different World War I story when I got a request to submit something to a steampunk anthology. I don't consider myself a steampunk writer, though I've been told sometimes that my stories resemble it, but World War I tends to be the later end of the steampunk period, so I figured I could probably write something appropriate with the research I was already doing. That's how "Kite Dancer" came about.

The book I was reading for research was Strangers on the Western Front by Guoqi Xu, which discusses the Chinese presence in Europe during World War I. It's a very obscure topic as most things taught about the western front focus on the conflict between the English, the French, and the Germans.

I hadn't gotten deep into the book yet, but one of the things that stood out to me, as a ethnic Chinese person raised in the United States, was how mistreated China was by the Entente, or Allied Powers (which included Japan and the UK), while China was still neutral. The British were actually surprised that when China entered the war, it chose the side of the Entente, precisely because they knew exactly how rotten they'd been. They thought that if China chose anyone, it would have been the Central Powers, because then China could reclaim all the territory that the British and the Japanese were holding.

The Chinese government at the time probably understood it was siding with its own abuser, but the prevailing thought was that if it was going to be on any side, it wanted to be the on winning one. This was a very weak period in Chinese history and the fledgling government wanted to make its debut on the world stage.

The thought that China could have sided with the Central Powers, and had a reasonable case to do so, stuck with me. So in my story, I made a justification in having Kaiser Wilhelm II going out of his way to woo China to join his side. It probably would not have taken a whole lot to push China a different direction. If the Germans had stood more of a chance, China might have gone with with the Central Powers in our world too.

This gave me a chance to write a World War I story told largely from the eyes of an outsider, Ke-feng, whose name is written in the old Wade-Giles romanization system to show the hold that colonization has had on her part of the country. Ke-feng is from Qingdao, then known as Tsingtau to the Germans and Tsingtao to the English speaking world, which was a German colony in the early part of the 20th century. If you ever wondered why there's a Chinese beer called Tsingtao you can thank/blame the Germans for that.

Because I like fantasy, I gave Ke-feng wind magic. It felt like something could have started as an art form and later weaponized with the advent of airships. If I was going to do steampunk and World War I, how could I not set a story on a zeppelin? This allowed the zeppelins to be the serious threat that they never were in real life. (Wind currents often carried them off target.)

And for fun I got to add in the airborne equivalent of an aircraft carrier. The larger naval ships were often named after German states, so I wanted to name my airborne carrier in the same fashion, only to find out that a lot of the good names were taken, so I looked at some of the former states that are no longer a part of Germany and found a couple potential ideas. Naming it the SMS Pomerania was vetoed on account of potentially reminding people of small dogs, so it became the SMS Silesia. The zeppelins themselves continued the numbering sequence from the real world under the assumption that the Germans made additional, more improved models in this alternate version of the war.

Ke-feng is a very angry individual thanks to having been reassigned on the opposite side of the globe from the part of the war she wanted to fight. She signed up to free her city from the Japanese, but because the Germans need kite dancers elsewhere, she finds herself all the way in western Europe in a battle between two countries that don't entirely matter to her.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the ending for this one, because I wanted to show the difference between individuals and the countries they belong to, so I hope that comes across.

Though I wrote "Kite Dancer" for an anthology, I ended up selling it to Galaxy's Edge instead, and you can currently read it there for free up until the end of February.

Music listened to while writing: "Brave Shine" by Aimer