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