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!