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 Itch.io 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