Friday, December 30, 2016

The Long-Awaited Games Have Come - First Impressions of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian

...Also I totally missed last time's update. I am so sorry! I'll try to post for the next three Fridays in a row to make up for it.

Christmas came with a bang this year, and if any of you have read my Confessions of an Excited Gamer, you may recognize the titles of a couple games I got to play:

Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian.

I just sat staring at the game covers for a while before I could even bring myself to pop them into the console. Illnesses and obligations have kept me from completing either one so far, but I've played more than enough to gather a few first impressions...

Final Fantasy XV

I've tried to steer clear of the spoilers online as long as possible, but I'd gathered enough hearsay to know lots of people praised the game for its characters and complained about its confusing story and poorer pacing during the latter portion of the campaign. I haven't gotten far enough to comment on the story or pacing, but I can say that the very beginning of the game hooks you in with its well-written, entertaining characters--and it hasn't let go after my first five hours of wandering around its gorgeous landscapes.

These characters feel real. They feel meaningful. And they feel like they're buddies who would give you the shirt off their backs--not because you're a prince, but because you're their friend.

The side characters make it just as fun to run off on hunting sidequests and random fights as it is to watch the main story's drama unfold--and this coming from me, the gamer who plays for the stories, not the gameplay.

I'm not saying this game is perfect. There are elements of the story I have yet to see that still have me a little worried. The combat was tricky for me to get at first, and it throws a lot at you at once. But my biggest fear was that this game wouldn't live up to its ten-year-long hype.

In some ways, it's clear this is not the same game that was teased back in 2006, but it has maintained a lot more of its 2006 elements than I expected--a lot of the really good elements. In addition, right from the start this game proves it was a labor of love. Frankly, I'll wait another ten years for a game this hand-crafted good.

The Last Guardian

This is yet another Team ICO game. If you loved ICO and/or Shadow of the Colossus (like I did), you will love this one too. The Last Guardian feels like a crossbreed between its predecessors: you and your companion must maneuver through wreckage shrouded in mist and mystery.

Oh, and your companion is a giant beast with mystical powers. No big.

This is not a puzzle GAME. It's a story-driven puzzle EXPERIENCE. I feel like I'm actually there, running with this monster-pet-partner-friend at my heels. It's true that he won't always do exactly what I want, but far more often he's steered me in the right direction without outright telling me where to go. That's an invaluable asset to the puzzle-solving and to the immersion. Trico, your companion critter, feels like an actual animal rather than an AI.

Again, no, I won't say this is a flawless game; but the depth and magic of the experience are many and the frustrations are very, very few.

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Interested in more juicy details of my gaming experiences? Tune in the next two Fridays for an in-depth review of both these games.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Flash-Post: Jeannette Out of Context 2

"Hm... Guess I'll prolly warm up more of that bear meat for dinner
Probably among the top 5 weirdest things I've ever said"
 

Today at 5:26 PM

Friday, December 2, 2016

Follow-Up to "Character Issues" Post

One of my readers was kind enough to give me some tips on my previous post. As I was replying, I realized that I actually had some new angles to examine while looking at this character (and that I kind of did a poor job explaining myself last time), so I'm going to revisit the topic of this particularly troublesome TVB character.

This particular character (who I'll codename "Roxanne") was originally created to be an insert of one of my best friends. Of course, as is often the case with the characters I create, the character took on a life of her own. This ends up being a good thing; it gives me freedom to let these characters make choices my friends not be flattered about. It lets them be their own people: characters rather than real-life people.

So sometime around the early drafts of the book (in the early 2000's, I'd say), once "Roxanne" started to become her own person, I took a look at her role. It boiled down to one goal: Roxanne was there to get Emarella, one of the core characters of the story, to open up.

Now, in earlier versions of the draft, this was a perfect role. Roxanne also took on a secondary role of protecting Jaranin (the protagonist) and thus completing her own small character arc. Whereas originally she had one relatively short-sighted, self-promoting goal, she was beginning to look beyond the needs of herself (or even just her race) and look to the whole world's wellbeing by rescuing Jaranin. It was simple. It worked.

The problem now (other than the fact it's fifteen-some years later) is that the book itself has become far more complex. And Roxanne now serves an additional goal that I just noticed is crystallizing. She's there to advance a plot point that will span the first two books in the trilogy.

Well, problem one solved. Now I know that yes, I actually do still need this character--at least as of this current draft. Just knowing that actually takes a weight off my shoulders.

For a while now, I've been wondering if a lot of my cast is extraneous. Honestly, just today I found myself wondering, "Is Emarella even that important to the narrative?" Emarella, who's my self-insert character (sort of) and has been part of the story since basically the beginning. Yes, even way back at the start of The Victor's Blade, back when it was "The Golden Sword" beginning.

So to figure out that yes, Roxanne actually is important to the plot right now--that she's not just some extra appendage of a character I slapped on as a kid--is really reassuring in some ways. I guess it's me reassuring myself that I [at least kind of] know what I'm doing.

So now the question becomes how do I distinguish Roxanne from the currently-existing cast?

This is going to be easy for those of you who are familiar with Enneagram personality typing, but I'll try to boil down my main cast as quickly as possible for those who don't:

Currently, I have...
  • Jaranin, the 9-type protagonist with 6 tendencies. He's a follower and laid-back to a fault until it comes to protecting his loved ones.
  • Elun, the 7-type goofball best-friend and wingman who will pretty much talk Jaranin into doing any number of dangerous activities when they're bored. He seems like a doofus sometimes, but he's got a good heart, he's more loyal than your Golden Retriever, and he's a great friend to have in a pinch.
  • Isalaina, the 6-type soft-spoken but spunky, introverted but fiesty, rebellious and sweet gal who is Jaranin's childhood friend and only fully opens up to him.
  • Zaelor, the 8-type mentor archetype who is full of street smarts and hard life-lessons and mystery. He's got wit, but he's a bit lacking in the charm department as he's used to a life of getting things done the hard way and saying what he thinks to people's faces.
  • and Emarella, the 4-type motherly one of the group. Both a mentor and a comforter, Emarella serves as a foil to Zaelor as the fellow instructor who uses the somewhat less brazen methods. Although she seems perky and fun-loving and even a bit innocent at times, she also bears the heavy weight of a dark past she'd prefer to keep in the dark.
Now, Roxanne won't be a whole-series companion of the group, but she needs to fit in long enough to, well, fit. And I wonder what would be a good fit, both for the group as a whole, but also as a companion of Emarella's.

I could potentially just spin the Enneagram wheel and look to fill the group in with one of the numbers I don't have. The Enneagram goes up to 9 numbers, so I still have a variety of options to pick from:

She could be a 1, a by-the-book, detail- and goal-oriented worker who strives to bring order and good to the world but who can be rigid and unflexible, even perfectionistic and demanding.

She could be a 2, a warm-hearted and giving person though with an undercurrent of jealousy for attention and a proclivity for manipulation.

She could be a 3, an ambitious go-getter who is flexible in a variety of settings, but who struggles to understand who she truly is on the inside with how much she adapts to things on the outside.

Or she could be a 5, a deep-thinking and logical knowledge-seeker who can be extremely introverted even to the point of eccentricity.

For now, the only must-have qualities are:
  1. Roxanne must not be too similar to any of the existing characters.
  2. Roxanne must get along with the group.
  3. Roxanne's personality must mesh with Emarella's to the point that they would be best friends.
  4. Roxanne must be the kind of person who is independent and emotionally strong enough to be able to hold a military-esque position.
  5.  Roxanne must be physically strong (long story; it has to do with her race).
With that in mind, which of those four types would you like to see? Which do you think would fit best with the group? Which do you think just sounds the most interesting or the most likable? Are there any other personality types you can think of that you didn't see represented in some way from this list? Let me know!

Also, apologies on the late post. It's been a heck of a couple of weeks for me emotionally and it nearly slipped my mind that it was blog day.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Character Issues - Flash Post

I've been having a really hard time working on one of my characters in The Victor's Blade. Much of her purpose has been changed, and she's never been one of my favorite characters, although I wanted her to be one that the readers cared about deeply.

One of the biggest questions for me is "Do I still need her?" Can the plot work without her?

And one of the biggest problems with this character is that she acts way too much like Emarella. I can't have carbon-copy personalities.

From one writer to another, anybody got any tips on how to get some good inspiration for tweaking a character?

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If you're interested in seeing this discussion's progression, check out this week's post!

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Busy Little Writer's Update

So Blogger's autosave feature decided to bite me in the butt. Pressed some weird key combination on my keyboard on accident the other day, which somehow cleared the entire post I was working on. Then Blogger decided to autosave my blank page. With no recover feature, needless to say I will not be posting a review of The Heroic Legend of Arslan like I thought.

So you'll be getting a quick little glimpse into my current projects today instead. :P

I've been working on three major writing projects lately: The Victor's Blade (which you're probably all nauseatingly familiar with by now), a roleplay campaign based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a secret project for a friend of mine (sorry, no details on that. It's secret for a reason).

All three have been going slow but steady. Unfortunately, they've also been devouring most of my spare time.

The Roleplay

Good news is that three projects finally got knocked down to two: the roleplay is actually complete and ready to start. That's a pretty big deal since this has been undergoing on-again, off-again production for the past four years. To finally have all my planning done and see my carefully-crafted world set before me in a few neat documents is pretty incredible (especially since I'm horrible about starting projects and never finishing them).

I'm a little nervous since it'll be my first time actually GMing (leading) a pen and paper (Dungeons and Dragons-style) roleplay. But since I've served as an administrator and run missions on other narrative-based roleplays, I think I'll end up doing okay. I'll let you know what my players think later this year. I've slated the roleplay to start late this December.

The Victor's Blade

The Victor's Blade hasn't been getting quite the amount of love I devoted to it a few months ago, so the page count has been increasing almost painfully slowly. As of today, it's up to page 339. It's so large that I've been considering splitting it into separate Google Docs, since Drive seems to be having a harder and harder time loading the full document every time I open it.

You may have noticed there haven't been many excerpts lately. That's because I'm really getting into the meat of the story. I want some things to remain a delightful surprise, after all. ;)

But the honest truth is that in addition to wanting to keep things a surprise, I haven't been as confident about the quality of the story over the past several chapters. Only recently have I finally been getting into some more exciting stuff--including some of the oldest elements of the story that have somehow remained since about 2001, 2002. Maybe one of these days I'll post a snippet or two out of context and see what you think.

(Wow, it's almost been 16 years TVB has been in production... It's funny how the length of time this project has taken still doesn't cease to amaze me.)

Many people keep asking me how far I am in the book, but that's devilishly hard to nail down. One point on my outline could equal five pages or it could mean twenty; it all depends on how complex the scene(s) end up. So while I often just say how many points I have left in the outline, that isn't a very good judge of how far into the book I am, and I know it. For instance, one city the party visited was originally two major bullet points on my outline... but in this current draft, it somehow got stretched into multiple ten-page-long chapters (it won't be that long in the final draft, trust me. That's way too long to spend in such a boring locale).

At any rate, I can say with certainty that the beginning stages of Book 1 are over. It's into the middle, meaty portion of the book now, with all the juicy dramatic scenes beginning to unfold. And honestly, that's been a breath of fresh air for me. I think I was just getting bored of writing the beginning for so long. It's nice to see the characters actually going to different locations and doing things.

(Although I often wonder if my dear little protagonist Jaranin isn't quite doing enough...

But that's a topic for another day.)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Discipline: The Necessary Evil of Writing

Couldn't get the review I was working on done in time this week, so unfortunately, this'll need to be a quickie.

I think I, along with all other writers, start with this false idea of what a career in writing will entail. We have this vision of doing what we love all day long, of achieving our dreams.

Don't get me wrong. I love being a writer (remember my reasons why?), but it actually is a job. It's hard work.

One of the writing advice I kept hearing over and over again while I was in college was "Write regularly. Make it a discipline. Even if you're only writing 1,000 words a day--or less--take it seriously. Write every single day."

I can't tell you how long I spent blowing off this advice. I'd write when I had the inspiration. And oh, that worked for a couple years, but when The Victor's Blade hit a brick wall (or when real life got in the way), writing ground to a halt.

The only way to get over that hump is just to keep writing. That's what everybody said, and now I finally know from experience that it's true. Even if the writing you're churning out sucks (which it probably will since you're forcing yourself to write), at least you're getting stuff down on paper. For many writers, revision is a lot easier than rough drafts. At least with revision, you're working with something that's already there. A blank page is terrifying.

So keep writing every day. Keep working every day. Make it a priority. Set smaller goals at first (my first goal was "Write one page a day." Then it grew to "three to five pages"), then expand into larger goals as time goes. And don't sweat the days that you don't meet your goals. It happens. Don't let it make you feel like a failure. Give yourself license to be human.

I know, I know--easier said than done. I know because I've experienced both sides: before and after I sat down and got disciplined. But as hard as it is some days (or some weeks), I can't deny that it works.

Don't procrastinate. Persevere! And little by little, you'll see results.

Friday, October 7, 2016

When a Loved One Has Cancer

Just when I say nothing serious is going on, I get some of the worst news you can get:

My grandmother has cancer.

It's... odd going through the variety of emotions and stages that come from hearing news that big. It took me a good few hours to even digest the news enough to be sad. I just felt...

Honestly, those first few hours, I'm not sure what I felt. An eerie sense of peace? Peace really isn't the right word, though. I guess it was more like closure. My grandma had gone in for a biopsy, but I don't know if I believed it would end up being cancer or not. My dad and grandma were sure it was. I was on the fence.

Well, it was. And I guess part of me went, "Well, we know they were right."

After those first few hours of wondering whether my grandma was going to refuse treatment like my grandpa (who died of Stage 4 lung cancer about six years ago)... that's when the tears started coming.

You wonder why God's letting this happen. You wonder how everyone's going to make it through. You start to think about life without that person, and the things that highlights scares you to death.

I feel fortunate that I was at least here when my grandma got the news. When my grandpa was diagnosed, I was across the country in Washington state visiting my then-fiance. We were in a long-distance relationship, so this month-long stay was supposed to be the highlight of my year.

Not so much.

Now I know that being with a family member while they're going through medical nightmares can be a nightmare all on its own. But for me, being apart from my family when they're going through a challenge is torture. At least if I'm with them, I can offer my presence as the tiniest comfort and support. I wasn't able to do that for my grandpa when he first heard the news.

The night my grandma found out, I couldn't spend enough time with her, just sitting with her.

But every time I think of her now, I can't help but wonder how much time I'll have left to do that. Is that wrong? Is it morbid? Or can I use that to help me enjoy every last drop out of the time we've got left to love on each other this side of heaven?

I debated starting this post off by clarifying that my grandparents have both lived with my family since 2002. That we're all close. But what does that matter? You went into this knowing that this post was about people we care about battling cancer. Does it matter how far away our family lives? Isn't it just as painful no matter what?

It's like I'd say to any other couple when I was in a long-distance relationship: It doesn't matter how far away you are from them. It sucks just as much.

It doesn't matter whether it's a parent or grandparent or friend. They're dealing with this monster that brings all this fear and pain and misery. It doesn't matter whether they live in the same house or a country apart: it hurts just as much.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why Is Writing So Hard for Me?

I was browsing Pinterest (Yes, I've become a closet Pinterest browser. Yes, I am completely ashamed that I've joined the bandwagon and joined the bandwagon so flipping late), and I came across a picture. Now the picture itself was of little consequence, but the caption made me laugh because it basically encapsulates my life:

"Hello, I am a writer. My pastimes include not writing."

(And I'd post it and give credit for it, but now I can't find the stupid thing... Guh. So that was originally made by somebody somewhere.)

After I was done laughing and quoting it to myself a few times (Come on, other people must do that when they see something funny, right? Where else would we get those Youtube comments that are literally just one or two hilarious lines from the video?), it reminded me of something I'd been thinking about the other day.

One of my friends once pointed out that as soon as your writing turns into a job, the drive to write vanishes.

That's certainly been the case for me. Sure, writing more than three pages at a time has always been hard for me (three pages seemed to be the max I could write in one sitting for many years), but at least when I was younger, I just wanted to create stories. The sheer fun of it kept me going easily. I remember sitting down for hours writing early drafts of The Victor's Blade. Now I'm lucky if I can stay focused on it past forty-five minutes.

Writing just isn't quite as fun as it used to be. It still can be fun. I still get a thrill--maybe even a bit of a buzz of euphoria--when I feel like I've nailed a scene or a character, or when I've delivered a line of dialogue that just makes me laugh out loud. But it's way easier for me to write for fun (roleplaying, for instance) than it is to write in The Victor's Blade.

I wonder why that is.

Sure, it's partially the "work vs. fun" problem: The Victor's Blade is actually getting to a point where I have to start taking it seriously. By contrast, roleplays are usually just games to me. Of course I'm going to want to do something fun over something that seems like a job.

But how did The Victor's Blade end up in the "job" category at all? Is it just because I've started realizing "Oh crap, this is gonna be a real thing that's going to (hopefully) make me real money someday"? I don't think so.

I know part of my problem with TVB in particular is how long I've taken to write it. I kept taking breaks, and I've lost a lot of the passion for the characters. I've been trying to rekindle that passion and revamp the characters as necessary, but it still leaves me with this feeling that the characters are... stale. And I wonder if that's just me, because I've spent so much time with them, or if it's a red flag that something about these characters is dangerously lacking.

Wow. The cast of my magnum opus might have some severe issues? There's something to kill the fun in writing.

Another part of the problem is that TVB has gotten to a point where I have to work. It's not just a series of unrelated scenes that happen whenever I feel like writing. I have to tie things together with transitions and plan out pacing and figure out when and how to drop in key plot elements. It has transcended fun and games. Now it's into the nitty-gritty. And that's just plain ol' not as fun to write, because that takes more brainpower and revision.

Buuuut even so, just because something requires some rewrites and brain-flexing doesn't necessarily make it "not-fun" for me. Take one of my more recent time-devourers, a roleplay I've been working on for the better part of three years. That's finally getting down to the nitty-gritty, too, but working on it has actually been--gasp--fun, even though it's got its share of hard work. Heck, I just spent two hours late Wednesday night photoshopping a map for the campaign. Hours of strenuous, complex, hard work for a minuscule part of the roleplay as a whole. But I couldn't put it down, because I was having so much fun working on it.

What makes the difference?

I think a big part of my struggle to write is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of the criticism I'll receive. Fear it just isn't good or will never be as good as I envisioned it. I have a crippling fear of sharing a piece of myself and being misunderstood and rejected or shot down or ripped apart. I see it happen all the time to others--and it's happened to me before, too. A lot. To the point where I have to push myself to express my real feelings about a lot of things. To the point where I'm not sure I can count on one hand the number of people I've really opened up to recently.

And since I believe that what I write is a reflection of something I believe, or even a little piece of myself, it's terrifying to think that what I write might not be any good--or that it might be misunderstood so people say it's not any good (even if it is)!

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I need to separate myself from my work. I'm not my writing. It's not who I am at my core. And other peoples' opinions aren't me, either. They don't know the full picture of who I am. Heck, not even I know that. I think only God does.

Easier said than done, but it does make the thought of taking criticism a lot easier.

And maybe I can pull out that keyboard and pop out a few pages today, after all. Guess I won't know until I try.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Life Stuff, Slower Updates

Hi everyone. Unfortunately, not a sunshine and rainbows post today.

No need to worry, but I've taken on quite a few responsibilities that are taking up a good deal of my time. As such, I'm not going to be able to update weekly for the foreseeable future. For now, I'll be posting every other Friday, starting this week.

I will be sure to let you know when this changes. Thanks so much for all your support!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Movie Review: Kubo of the Two Strings

As soon as I saw advertisements for Kubo of the Two Strings, I knew it was either going to become my new favorite movie or it was going to become one of my most severe disappointments in film since Disney's The Princess and the Frog (more on that in a later blog post). So when August finally rolled around, I was nearly dying with anticipation. I'd been looking forward to Kubo for half a year. But with that anticipation came anxiety: I was already knee-deep in a stack of recent media (films and video games alike) that had failed to deliver on the expectations they'd built through their teasers and trailers.

What if Kubo just ended up as another film to add to the stack?

The Visuals

The movie's visuals held up to the trailer's promise, even sans 3D. The company behind Kubo, Laika studios, has been rather hit-or-miss story-wise for me, but you can't knock their attention to detail and devotion to stop-motion animation.

Although Kubo's characters do suffer from a few early frames of uncanny valley expression shifts, the animation overall is so good it took me a good 10-15 minutes to remember that this movie was stop-motion. This especially shined with the focus on Kubo's origami-based magic. Dozens to hundreds of pieces of origami paper danced across the screen, folding into birds or leaves or forming anything from usable boats to cute characters.

The origami figures were so detailed and lifelike. I've only dabbled in basic origami patterns, but even I recognized one pattern (a balloon/paper lantern) that Kubo folds together. Origami fans will also appreciate one of the movie's self-jabs when it asserts that one of Kubo's origami figures "Might not even be real origami," as it's suspected "scissors were involved." (Traditional origami asserts that the figures must only be folded--no cutting allowed.)

I still have no idea if the origami was stop-motion animation or computer-generated graphics. Or just straight-up magic. It was gorgeous, it was eye-catching, it was new and unique: everything I could have asked for in a movie and everything they advertised it would be.

But how would the story and characters hold up?

The Writing

Kubo is a storyteller, a trait we discover (through showing, not telling) that he learned from his mother. And he's good at it. I couldn't help but gape, gasp, and giggle along with Kubo's fictional audience as he weaves his first tale to the local villagers.

As a storyteller myself, I found both the acting performances and the writing to be, well, honestly, inspirational. The characters felt round and endearing. The dialogue was realistic and never pandering. Adults could appreciate so many of the finer details, but these details wouldn't leave kids lost or confused. The choice to forego a traditional narrator added to this decision not to talk down to the audience, and it was the right choice for this movie. The lack of a constant narrator voiceover kept the audience's focus on Kubo, making it easy to relate to and root for him.

That said, I have to admit that some of the writing choices lead me to recommend this movie to older children (ten or so) rather than little tykes. Part of this is due to the beginning of the movie. After Kubo’s gripping voiceover intro (the one the trailers feature so prominently), the first 3-5 opening minutes of the movie are, in fact, completely silent. I adored this as an adult and writer (the creators conveyed more meaning through those silent minutes than I portrayed in 30 pages of my book). But I could see how younger children might see this beginning as boring, since technically not much is happening. But from then on, the pacing of the movie is friendly to all ages, with plenty of action and character development scenes to balance each other.

Spoilers ahead! Reader be warned!

Theme

Kubo's trailers showed no signs of the film's theme, so I was surprised while watching to realize it is a film about accepting loss. This is another reason why the movie best targets older kiddos, as the youngest ones may not be able to understand this kind of theme.

Although I appreciate the theme and think it's a very good message to share with kids who have experienced loss, the theme also directly or indirectly caused some of my biggest complaints about this movie, both of which reared their heads at the ending.

Selfishly, I wanted to spend more time with Kubo’s parents. They were clever and lovable characters. Although I think they had adequate screen time, I wanted to enjoy them even longer.

It didn't help that the movie seems to imply that Kubo's parents may survive or that there's a way to save them. For instance, in one scene the mother implores the father to take care of Kubo once she dies. I completely thought this scene was foreshadowing or at least a misdirect: that she would die but the father would live, or vice versa. In a later scene, when Kubo tries to speak to his parents’ (now deceased) spirits, he begins to choke up as he admits he isn't satisfied with this ending. He's desperate to know if there's any way to bring them back so he can have the family he's always wanted.

Although I appreciated the message that Kubo was now strong enough to take care of himself, the movie ends on a note that makes Kubo seem very alone. True, the parents’ response to Kubo's plea is to appear beside him as peaceful apparitions. This gives a calming “We will always be with you to guide you” feeling, but the movie does nothing to show they will be with Kubo through his everyday life or to help him make decisions. They only stand passively at his side at the edge of the graveyard. Since we don't see any signs of their colorful personalities and as this is the only place and position we see them, I felt this contradicted the message that they'd always be with him. These weren't the parents we and Kubo got to know and love; these were shallow, listless, lifeless shadows. That means that really, his parents wouldn't really "always be with him" at all!

Another issue I had with the ending was that the redemption of Kubo’s grandfather felt rushed. After Kubo helps his grandfather become human, there's an awkward exchange as the villagers try to help Kubo’s grandfather "recover" his memories. How do they accomplish this? By outright lying to him! ("You're a great person!" "You give regular alms to the poor!" "You give gifts to the children every day!") As these "memories" start to get more and more self-serving, I couldn't shake the impression that the villagers were really just taking advantage of him.

The whole scene unfortunately left a poor taste in my mouth. What were the creators trying to say? That if someone just turned over a new leaf, best to lie to them in order to make sure they don't become a monster again?

Instead, we get an uncomfortable string of lies that are supposed to be poignant. The grandfather seems overwhelmed and not sure what to do with all these memories that he obviously doesn't remember, but he seems more than happy to believe in his love for his grandson. And here's the final sin of this whole scene: this is the last we see of Kubo's grandfather! It's such an abrupt way to end Kubo's grandfather's arc, to the point where it left me wondering if his transformation has really done much at all.

In addition, this seems a very unfair ending to Kubo. After we've seen him admit that he's unsatisfied with this ending, we can't help but feel the same way. Kubo outright states that he wants a family he's never had and only briefly got to experience. But the movie ends without him having his parents' spirits walking through life with him and even without seeing him and his grandfather taking care of each other. Kubo ends without getting the family he wants and, quite frankly, deserves!

I would have loved to see an alternate ending in which, rather than the villagers lying to Kubo's grandfather, Kubo tells his grandfather the truth through one of his origami stories. When his story is complete, he offers his grandfather his hand, offering to instead make new memories together. His grandfather takes his hand, and then the movie cuts to show Kubo going through a new morning ritual--this one with his grandfather actively participating. They go down to the village together, and while Kubo and his grandfather interact with the villagers, we also see Kubo's parents' spirits tagging along behind him. They playfully pick on each other as they did throughout the film and watch their son with pride.

This would have made an excellent bookend to the beginning of the film and been a great way to wrap up both the grandfather's redemption, Kubo's new family dynamic, and Kubo's more active involvement in the village (signifying his growth and self-strength).

The Conclusion

Ordinarily, a bad ending kills whatever enjoyment I'd had with a movie. However, I can honestly say that even with these issues, I still found Kubo's ending satisfying. Even though it was far more tragic than I expected, it didn't affect my impression of the movie as a whole. Kubo was every bit the masterpiece I was hoping it would be when I first saw its trailers. It delivered on the stunning visuals, creative concept, and likeable characters it promised. In fact, the writing vastly exceeded my expectations.

The movie's pacing was well-balanced. The action scenes were suspenseful and gorgeous to watch. The character development scenes were well-placed and well-timed, a particular treat. In fact, I would argue that the characters and dialogue were the movie's strongest points. Kubo's parents are arguably the two most entertaining parts of the film. Their banter is snappy, completely in-character, moves the plot forward, and it's laugh-out-loud funny to boot. It's these memorable characters that make this movie so unforgettable.

Walking into the theater to see Kubo was both thrilling... and terrifying. But by the time I found myself watching the end-credits, I couldn't help but feel full. Kubo truly is a work of art, and I can easily see it becoming a classic animated feature. The visuals are stunning, the storytelling is some of the best I've seen in years, and the characters and dialogue are fantastic. Kubo of the Two Strings is definitely worthy of my five-star rating: a must-see movie if you like the snappy, funny dialogue of Avengers; if you're a lover of mythology or Japanese culture; or if you just plain love great storytelling.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Elemental Story Excerpt: Drawing



Here's an excerpt from a work-in-progress novel I've mentioned once before on the blog, my so-called "Elemental Story." Still haven't come up with a title, but hope you enjoy this sneak peek into some of the cast.

---

“Well, now what?”

I look up from drawing in the dirt as Saaron begins to complain again. He has such a hard, angry face. It’s tricky to get his frown just right; he has such a sharp-angled jaw. But everything about him seems sharp and angled. His nose is long and thin, with a sharp point to it. His eyebrows are neatly clipped. Even his black hair seems to jut at strange angles from his scalp.

I return to my drawing, dusting my hand over the earth to erase the pouting lip I had made on my version of Saaron. It wasn’t nearly angular enough. While I draw, part of me wonders if Eliasz is going to tell Saaron to stop. Normally, Eliasz would have said something by now, but Eliasz is tired. Maybe more tired than me, and I’m the weakest one.

Eliasz sighs while I’m thinking this. “Now, we set a watch and catch some rest.”

I look up from my drawing again to this other boy. I feel as though I should not call him a boy, though—he must be old enough to have been a Votary.

Eliasz is certainly not difficult to draw—or to look at. I’ve seen the other girls looking at him, too. I wonder if it was not only his skills, but also his height, his neat green velvet robes, and his lean but muscular body that has brought him to his place as our leader.

I see Eliasz has glanced to me, and I quickly drop my gaze back to my drawing. I hope he cannot see me well in the dimming light, because I can feel the heat of blush in my cheeks.

“Li-Li,” Eliasz calls. His voice is sonorous, rich and deep, and this time, full of concern. “How are you faring?”

I set down my stick and find myself clasping my hands and setting them into my lap. It is a habit I hope I can break. “I am well, Eliasz,” I say as respectfully as possible.

He watches me a moment longer. I can see he does not believe my words. But unlike Saaron, he does not always speak what he is thinking. For that, I like Eliasz all the more. Because in that way, he is like me.

And now I begin to wonder, what do the others see when they look at me? I am the smallest of the group. Even Khisa, who is my age, is far taller than me and much stronger. Though I suppose I should not be surprised. He is a boy, and I am a girl. Still, there’s no hiding that I am tiny. Even my light hair and light blue eyes seem small, especially in comparison with Kereina. She is tall, with thick black hair and deep sapphire blue eyes that always seem to spark, even in the darkness.

As if she is summoned by my thoughts, Kereina bounds into the clearing where we are talking. She usually remains behind us as a scout, while Khisa usually scouts ahead. Eliasz came up with the idea of scouts, but Kereina always volunteers. I can tell Eliasz does not like her being the scout because his forehead always crinkles with worry when she says she will do it. He never looks worried when Khisa volunteers.

She is breathless from running, but her eyes are still sparkling. "No sign they followed us down the ravine. I think we'll be safe tonight, fearless leader." She pecks Eliasz's cheek with a kiss.

That makes almost all of us blush--except Kereina.

I think Saaron tries to cover up his surprise and embarrassment by behaving even more cross. "Right. As if we'll be able to sleep after all that. They nearly got us this time!" He turns to Eliasz. "I told you we were getting careless. No more heading that close to towns!"

Eliasz just sighs and nods. "We'll reevaluate in the morning."

Saaron only scoffs.

"Well, if you're too wide-awake to sleep, then you can take my first watch, Saar," Kereina volunteers him as she skips over and pats his shoulder. "I'm bushed!"

Then she dances over to me and laces her fingers between mine, tugging me up to my feet. "C'mon, Li-Li, let's get some shuteye!"

Kereina doesn't look sleepy, and I certainly do not feel tired, but I cannot protest because she is already tugging me toward a leafy place in the clearing for us to unroll our blankets and settle in for the night.

My picture will have to be left unfinished, only to be stamped out tomorrow. We can never leave traces we were ever here.

Khisa returns shortly after Kereina and I have lain down. I hear him speaking with Eliasz and Saaron in murmurs. The sound of murmurs in the cool darkness--it makes me feel as if I am back at the Temple, lying on the stone floor, listening to the Votaries' chants.

The night air is cold and wet on my face now, so I curl up against Kereina. She hugs me close and sighs. Then she begins to breathe evenly. I think she is already asleep.

But I am wide awake. If only I were more like Kereina. If only I were not a burden who slowed everyone down. If only everything were as easy for me as it was for her.

But all I can do is watch and draw.

I close my eyes and try to fall asleep.

----
Excerpt from work in progress novel, "Elemental Story" (name pending). Note that all content is subject to change!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Excerpt - TVB: "The Duel"

Zaelor broke into a dead sprint toward the intruder as they wrestled to free their shirt from the arrow. That wasn’t quite so easy, however, since it looked like they was wearing a leather breastplate beneath the shirt, which the arrow had penetrated easily at this range.
The intruder heard Zaelor's footfalls and spun. Zaelor could see the white of their eyes through the eye slits in their mask, wide with a moment of fear like a cornered beast. They knew. They weren’t going to free the leather armor in time.
Zaelor nocked another arrow as he ran, drew, annnnnnnnd--slid to a halt right before he crashed into the intruder. Zaelor held the arrow tip against their throat.
He couldn’t resist a grin. “Hello. How about we try this again?”
He didn’t keep his gaze off their mask, but his peripheral vision caught motion below. He shifted the bow ever so slightly, releasing the arrow just to the left of the intruder's neck while he knocked their hand aside with his bow. A knife fell from their hand to the forest floor.
“Now, no more kniv--” he began, reaching up to jam his bow against their throat this time--until he realized the intruder wasn’t there any more. Their armor and loose green shirt were hanging uselessly from the tree, pinned now by his two arrows. The armor had ripped just enough to--
A knife blade rested against his neck as an arm hooked from behind him, under his arm and behind his neck. The intruder held him rather securely. They knew their stuff.
But so did he.
“Come on now, we're both rational adul--” Mid-sentence, Zaelor kicked his heel up into his assailant. He heard them grunt, and the intruder's grip loosened just enough to give him an opening.
Zaelor reached up with his open right hand and grabbed the intruder's knife-hand. As he stepped forward and to the left, he held on and spun on his heel, twisting the wrist painfully. Now he faced them, and they were growling in pain and buckling naturally to take pressure off their wrist. Despite their best attempt, the knife fell out of the intruder's hand.
Now Zaelor could see that in addition to their plethora of knives, the intruder also had two shortswords in scabbards on their belt. My, my. You’re more of a walking armory than me.
Also, apparently he wasn’t applying enough pressure to their wrist, because they were reaching across their body to unsheath one of the shortswords with their free left hand.
Zaelor sighed as he tweaked the intruder's wrist a little further down, but he could see with his peripheral it was too little, too late. The intruder had already started the motion of loosening the blade. Zaelor was about to get sliced in the stomach if he didn’t move.
And considering all he had right now was a strung bow and no arrow in his other hand, he was going to be in trouble if that happened.

----
[Excerpt from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Experiment: Making a Modern Antihero, Pt. 2

WARNING: This post will include some scenes containing blood and violence. Reader discretion advised.


My antihero Cassius was a brutal and probably insane man--somebody nobody would want to be or be around.

"Quellus 'The Bone-Breaker' Karth" is how he introduces himself to the party, using an over-the-top fake name with an equally ridiculous backstory to match. Why? Just because he loves messing with people by mixing lies with truth, so they'd never know what's real and what's not.

One thing that's true is that he's not a nice guy. Before the roleplay's very first mission has ended, Cassius manages to carelessly insult every party member, threaten the life of a hapless passerby, and intimidate the planetary governor. When a man he's interrogating is sniped while hanging from his grip, Cassius doesn't even flinch.
Cassius coolly drops what few remains from the formerly-living body he’d had in his hand and then wipes the blood off his chin. He then flicks off his helmet, a sour look on his face as he rubs his finger in his ear. 
He's temporarily deafened, but hardly shaken by the murder that just happened right in front of him. This sort life of graphic violence is not only par for the course; he gets a sick sort of pleasure out of it.
"All right, laddos. I hate to waste time, so I'll forego the 'Surrender in the name of the Imperium' bit and just tell you to say your prayers, 'cause you're interfering with an official investigation. Looking forward to popping you fulla holes!"
Cassius falls into a maniacal fit of laughter.
Initially, I was thinking Cassius had always had violent tendencies that were only exacerbated by his pursuit of power. But a friend of mine and fellow player had other ideas.

What started as a harmless joke--"Cassius turns out to be Elias's father"--became fact for the two of us players. It seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up. So much of their stories perfectly aligned.

Cassius had left behind his family years ago when he'd been carted off to prison. Elias had never known his father. They just so happened to be the perfect ages to be father and son (especially unusual since he happened to be my very first fifty-something roleplay character). Even the game itself seemed to want Cassius and Elias to be related: the Dark Heresy rules dictate that each character roll on a table for a randomly-selected useless item; some pointless trinket that's supposed to be of some personal worth to that character. Elias happened to get an empty book of matches. Cassius just so happened to be a smoker.

So we decided. Our characters were totally father and son--whether the Game Master agreed or not. But I had no idea how this would transform Cassius as we played.

Of course I knew that interacting with his own son was going to soften him a bit. He wasn't going to be constantly berating the only person left that he loved. But because of Elias and my friend's input, Cassius began to transform from a violent monster into a human being.

The first turning point is when Elias begins to open up to Cassius about his past.
Cassius just laughs as he slaps his palm against the roof structure of the truck. He slams the door shut with a firm tug. "By the God-Emperor, boy, I'd have avoided a galaxy's worth of trouble if I'd been as world-weary n' suspicion-fed as you. What'd your parents do, run cult-rings in between moonin' local enforcers?"
"...My lineage has nothing to do with it."
Elias Valkner whispers to Cassius, "Between you and I, my previous occupation would have to be the source for my strong sense of intuition."
"...I can only assume that if it were an ability stemming from my parents, it would certainly have come from my mother.
"Considering a strong sense of intuition like that might've kept my father out of prison."
Those simple words transform this mission for Cassius. This is no longer a mission that got Cassius out of prison. There could be so much more going on here, Cassius finally realizes. Could this possibly be the son he hasn't seen for nearly a decade? Whether it's true or not, in Cassius's mind, it changes everything.

Elias's presence opens Cassius up. It unlocks a long-forgotten ability to care for a world outside himself, which is something he hasn't experienced for many, many years. Suddenly, life isn't just about him any more. The entire center of his universe has been shifted. That's why later, when Elias confides in him and confesses that he's little more than a monster in the eyes of the government, Cassius doesn't just laugh and brush him off.
"Regardless of our actions, we Psykers are monsters at birth..."
Elias Valkner tries his best to hide his face from sight.
"I really appreciate that you're willing to help me, despite this fact.
"Best that monsters keep travel in packs, I suppose.
"Keeps us safer, yeah?"
Elias Valkner tries his hardest to hide the fact that he's tearing up slightly.
Cassius doesn't look at the boy, but his smile is gone. He stares at the opposite wall of the alley in silence for a while.
"Zed-eight-nine-three-two-zed-seven-four-four. Cassius Faustus Naevius," he begins in a gravely, low voice. "Former Adeptus Arbites. Tried, convicted, and sentenced to serve twelve life sentences on Ferroxian."
He glances at Elias. "I haven't had a pack to run with in some time..."
Elias is in sore need of protection, being not only a Psyker (a sort of magician looked down on by society), but one that has hidden from the government's required Psyker training; he's not only a fugitive, he's also a criminal and viewed as a threat to society. Cassius begins to go out of his way to provide that protection. He keeps Elias's secret. He shields Elias from one of their own party members (who would quickly kill Elias if she found out who she was). He's willing to subvert their commanding officer's own men if it means keeping Elias safe.

Elias also reminds Cassius that he wasn't always the man he is today. In a move that totally took me by surprise, my friend proceeded to paint a picture of who Cassius was long before his fall--before violence took over his life--before power allured him away--back when he was a hero. Back when he sought power not only for himself, but also for the other everyday people who their society took for granted.
"He did what he had to do, but he was a man of the people as much as he was a man of the Imperium.
"I heard all about this man, a true hero. Risking life and limb to protect those who needed it from those who intended to do them wrong.
"I couldn't believe it. But the more places I visited, the more I heard...
"[O]ne family had your picture in their home... They said this was a man who protected their daughter from some seedy men on her way home one evening. They were adamant that he didn't deserve his sentence."
Despite all this, Cassius hasn't mutated into a totally different character. He may have been considered a hero at one point, but he is and always has been a flawed and broken human being. Currently, he is still a brutal man, and he isn't about to change overnight. He hasn't hung up his harsh tongue, and he still bickers sullenly with Elias when the occasion arises. And even though there were mixed reasons for why he betrayed the Imperium, Cassius acknowledges that they were for the wrong reasons.

Elias tries to point out that one of the reasons Cassius received such a harsh prison sentence was because Cassius had tried to hide Elias from the Imperium. Cassius hadn't wanted his son to suffer the often deadly Imperial Psyker training program, so he'd sent his wife and son away before he'd finally been caught for his corruption and arrested. But Cassius isn't going to let himself off the hook.
[T]his whole place is nowhere a kid should grow up. Without his father. His bum father who was so obsessed with power he threw aside his wife and son... and then just let revenge burn him up to the core. Because he'd given up, was tired of trying, was sick of... playing their games under their thumb. Thought he'd take the pain to them for once. Lost himself, lost his soul in those pits...
"I wondered... what'd happened to you... I guess I was tryin' not to think about the pain. Maybe that was part of why the revenge, all the planning and plotting, felt so good. Anything to stop worrying about what'd happen to you both. I told myself you were safe. It was okay. You'd stay hunkered down and no one would know you were tied to one of the most wanted [men] in that sector. You'd be fine.
"Just my way of avoiding the grave I'd dug."
His motives weren't pure, as much as Elias wants to paint them to be. But Cassius has changed. Even this admission, this raw moment with Elias is enough to prove it.

I had designed Cassius to be a pathological liar--to mess with people, keep them from ever knowing what was true about him. He went by any number of fake names and constantly told obviously exaggerated stories of his exploits. But now he'd been forced to bare his soul, this man that I thought would never be truly frank with anyone.

And maybe it's these possibilities for redemption that draw so many people to antiheroes. Maybe this is the reason why so many readers love reading them, and why so many writers love writing them. Because even though they've fallen prey to their inner beasts... antiheroes also have the capacity to crawl back to a place where they're human again.

Sometimes it just takes one other person to nudge them in the right direction.

---
All Elias dialogue courtesy of Sir Fortune. Used with permission.

Warhammer 40K, Dark Heresy, and all related terms are the property of Games Workshop Limited. If you're at all interested in their roleplaying games or tabletop board games, I highly recommend giving their website a looksie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Experiment: Making a Modern Antihero, Pt. 1

Last week I talked about how I wanted to expand my writing abilities by dabbling in moral dilemmas and creating antihero characters. Although it was fun throwing tricky situations at my otherwise squeaky-clean heroes, I wanted to take it further. I wanted to go darker.

This was mostly due to the fact that my friends would tease me all the time about never being able to make a villain. I'd since proven them wrong with characters like Seris and Marcus Foraza (members of a supervillain organization and psychopaths if ever there were some), but I'd never really explored making a truly human character--someone just as much gray as black and white. Someone who was a mixed bag of good and bad traits.

As it turned out, the perfect opportunity strolled my way when one of my friends announced he'd be running a Warhammer 40K Dark Heresy roleplaying campaign.

For those of you unfamiliar, Warhammer 40K prides themselves on being as "grim-dark" as they come. It's a science fiction setting in which a human Empire lords over much of the known universe. The Empire is mired in millennia of bureaucracy and religious institutions to keep the populace in line. With the Dark Heresy roleplaying game, the mysterious Inquisition is front and center, ever on their quest to wipe out heresy and rebellion against the God-Emperor.

So I knew this was the perfect platform to launch my new antihero.

I really wanted to stretch myself, so as I said last Thursday, I wanted to make a character nobody would want to be--or be around. How far could I go before nobody in my party would like this character? Would I even be able to handle playing a character so corrupt?

I decided that Cassius was going to be a dirty cop, a corrupt official whose thirst for power had finally caught up with him. He was a product but not a victim of the oppressive government. He sought power to obtain freedom, yes... but he had no qualms about doing horrible things to get that freedom.

He was a violent man even long before the "fall" that would land him in prison. Though he didn't lay a hand on his wife or son, he gained a sick pleasure out of brutalizing the criminals he worked so hard to hunt down. Some would think he teetered on the edge of sadism.

But tracking criminals and bringing them to justice wasn't enough for him. Cassius was sick of his family being cogs in the endless Imperial machine. So he began pulling strings, offering bribes, making threats--anything he needed to make connections and rise through the ranks. He wasn't alone, of course; nothing this ambitious could be obtained by one man. He had a partner... but it was this one man he trusted the most who would prove to be his downfall.

At some point, his partner betrayed him. Cassius didn't care why; he didn't try to understand. All he cared about was making the man suffer for backstabbing him.

His partner sold him out, told the authorities all the things Cassius had convinced him to do and painted himself as the victim. Cassius naturally received the far harsher sentence. And while he toiled away on the toxic prison world, he bided his time.

He made more connections. He subdued himself to hear all the whispered secrets he'd need to eventually build a hidden empire of power even within prison, among the other inmates. The prison underworld had a king, but everyone knew who the real man with power was--Cassius. They called him "The Regent." And they knew it was only a matter of time before he took over.

But what he wanted more than a crown of refuse was his revenge. And with his newfound power, many years later, Cassius finally enacted his vengeance. He made his former partner suffer every kind of calamity imaginable... and then Cassius killed him.

When Cassius began the roleplay, he had already enacted his vengeance. There was no revenge plot to follow. He'd already gone through his arc. And now, when his life felt a strange vacuum of purpose, he was recruited by the Inquisition and taken out of the prison to become a new kind of hunting dog.

Cassius was loud and brazen and downright offensive to the rest of the party members. He was regularly talking down to the men and flirting with women (all except the cybernetic "Tech-Priest"; he wasn't into gadgets and actually had some respect for her calculated efficiency). He immediately took charge of the investigation, whether the others wanted him to or not.

He was the kind of person I can't stand. And yet I didn't get tired of him. I didn't hate him. I didn't throw my arms up in the air and go, "Nope, that's it. I can't play this character any more."

And while the other player's characters certainly didn't like him... they didn't despise him, either. They were actually more than willing to let him lead many of the missions, and one in fact actually found he could relate to Cassius--being branded an enemy of the Imperium and possessing power that the government considered dangerous.

Now admittedly, I'm not sure how much of a success this experiment has been; mostly because more recently, Cassius has been becoming more of a relatable character and less of a horrible person. But the really interesting thing is, that wasn't even my doing. It wasn't as if I started to make him more of a likable person because I couldn't stand him or because I was slipping into my old habits. What actually started altering Cassius's character... was another player.

---
Dying for answers? I know, right? I was dying to give them, too. Check out part two here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

What is an Antihero?

Well, time for me to rip up my English degree once more.

I've gotta admit it: I wasn't even aware there was a difference in definitions of an "antihero" until I researched for this blog post.

I thought all antiheroes were dark and deeply-flawed characters, "people you didn't want to be," as Extra Credits put it. But apparently the definition of antiheroes changes over time (Portnow and Floyd, "The Antihero - Can Games Create Antiheroes?"). That makes sense... if you realize what the core definition of an antihero is.

I discovered today that, quite simply, an antihero is a hero that doesn't have typical heroic traits (LiteraryDevices Editors, "Anti-Hero"). This means that the definition of antihero changes depending on whatever the current archetypical hero looks like.

In classical history (think wayyyy back, like to the ancient Greeks), a typical hero was "a dashing, confident, stoic, intelligent, highly capable fighter and commander with few, if any, flaws and even fewer real weaknesses." (Anybody else thinking of Odysseus at this point? Oh good. Not just me.) By contrast, "the antihero [was] plagued by self-doubt" or any number of other weaknesses ("Classical Anti-Hero").

The antihero had flaws. The classical hero did not.

I'm ashamed that even after all those years of literature classes, I didn't know better. (I probably forgot, because I'm sure they went over something like that...)

This all goes back to my discussion two weeks ago about protagonist morality and character flaws (or lack thereof). Morally-good characters like Captain America and Superman are remnants of a time that hearkened back to the classical period definition of a hero: someone morally good, a role-model, someone the audience could (and should) look up to (Portnow and Floyd, "The Antihero"). The fact that we have some people defending characters like this makes me wonder if in the near future we'll be seeing a reemergence of morally-good heroes to rebel against the current antihero model--but that's another topic for another day.

Obviously, the antihero has changed dramatically since the classical time period. In fact, the definition of the antihero has changed so much so soon (TV Tropes even claims the modern antihero has been called the "Nineties Anti-Hero" ["Classical Anti-Hero"]) that you can't find its current definition in places like the Encyclopædia Britannica or other high-brow sources. You need to go somewhere more modern, more "hip," more "in-touch" (I think "hip" was out of style even when I was growing up in the 90's...)--places like TV Tropes or Extra Credits. Extra Credits defines the modern antihero like I did: someone riddled with angst, angry, brooding, dangerous to be around, and probably self-destructive ("The Antihero").

Well, I gotta admit I've spent far more time writing "classical" antiheroes than modern ones. I like my characters with flaws, but they've more or less retained squeaky-clean records. They were the wide-eyed, innocent dreamers who would stand up for what was right simply because it was right.

But that has started to get a little stale for me to write. Not to mention, I worried that readers would find it hard to relate to characters that are still kind of... perfect. I worried my heroes' flaws weren't strong enough or their struggles not dark or "real" or relatable enough.

I've since started dipping my toes into some harsher issues to grow myself as a writer. After all, it's my job to depict reality--even through fiction, even by exploring reality's darker moments. I couldn't really do that well if I can only create two-dimensional protagonists and evil-for-evil's-sake villains.

I started a few years ago by toying with some moral dilemmas. The Titans Together roleplay was a great playroom for that. How did I edge my paragon good characters into the morally gray? Well, what would happen if a character fell in love with a long-time friend... who he knew was happy in a serious relationship? Or what would happen if a paragon good character--who had been taught by the Justice League not to kill--decided to take up a gun because she believed they were no longer fighting crime, but rather waging war in self-defense?

It sounds kind of sadistic, but... I did have a lot more fun with those scenarios than when I kept my protagonists squeaky-clean. More importantly, I felt that my stories really were better because of it. Go figure--I was improving as a writer just by letting my characters be a little more, well... human.

So, recently, I decided to take it a step further. I really wanted to challenge myself, so I was determined to make an "Extra Credits-type" antihero: a character nobody would want to be. I wanted to see if I could write a character who had done terrible things for the wrong reasons and see if anybody (including me) could stand him as a hero. In short, I wanted to take the antihero to its extreme.

That's how Cassius was born.

...But more on him here. ;)


---
Works Cited
 
"Anti-Hero." TV Tropes. N.p., 8 June 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

"Classical Anti-Hero." TV Tropes. N.p., 16 May 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Antihero." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Anti-Hero.” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Portnow, James, and Daniel Floyd. "The Antihero - Can Games Create Antiheroes?" YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Let's Play-by-Play: Umineko Opening - REPOST

[This was a post I originally wrote for Diving Deeper and, since I'm merging the blogs, I wanted to make sure it didn't get lost in the shuffle. I'll still be posting new content tomorrow. But if you haven't gotten a chance to read this one yet, hope you enjoy!]

Hey all! I'm still working on polishing my review and analysis formats, but I thought it'd be fun to start off Diving Deeper as informally and nerd...ily? as I could: by doing a play-by-play of my read-/playthrough of the visual novel Umineko.

For those of you unfamiliar, a visual novel is something like a cross between a graphic novel and a video game. It's mostly reading with visuals and some voice acting, but many have options to choose from throughout the game. Think of it as the modern rendition of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

Although a friend of mine has told me a little bit of the Umineko storyline, I'm walking into this almost completely blind. This is also going to be my first extended experience with a visual novel. The only other one I've ever started was Steins;Gate (and I didn't get far in it--didn't want to spoil the anime adaptation for my family if they happened to walk in while I was playing).

Well, this probably won't end horribly! Let's go.

Menu screen. The gentle lapping of water and call of seagulls. There's a blurry building of some sort in the background; I'm assuming that's our upcoming locale of interest. Let's find out.

A bell tolls, and the game begins. I'm introduced to some game mechanics, including a TIPS MODE, which looks like it'll keep updated biographies of the cast. Looking at the preview of the GUI, it looks like I might need the help. I'm notoriously bad at keeping large casts straight.

A portrait of a young lady in garb that looks 1800's and a disclaimer that this is a fictional story. Then I'm introduced to a portly old man with a mustache. Music is sad, tragic. I'm getting a bad feeling already...

Apparently it's my doc. I'm here because I'm struggling with alcohol. Again. There's two men in the room with us, but I can't see them. Another physician in the room is examining his own patient, and a servant surveys the whole scene. What kind of doctor has a servant in the examining room?

My mistake. Looks like I'm not the alcoholic, after all. A stately-dressed man with white hair--looks like as old as the doc--is the drinker in question. Apparently the two have known each other a while.  This patient is Kinzo. The drink is getting to Kinzo, and not even the medicine will be able to help soon.

The doc is Nanjo, and Genji is I assume Kinzo's servant as Kinzo requests another (watered-down) drink.

Yep. Genji is the servant, a butler. He serves his master a glass as requested, despite the doc's orders. Looks like this is a house-call.

The family doc's not too happy, but there's nothing Nanjo can do. Now the room fills with a sweet smell... They mentioned it before, but I didn't think it was important until now. When they add the word "poisonous" to the word "aroma," I start to take notice.

I've been told this is a murder mystery story.

Kinzo and Nanjo go back and forth. They're old pals and yet neither heeds the other's warnings--Kinzo continuing to drink, and Nanjo making foolish moves in their games of chess. It seems this drinking is justified as a little revenge in Kinzo's mind. Kinzo proclaims that he wouldn't die without medicine, but he would if his drink were taken away. Is he immortal or something? I think I heard there's something supernatural about this story...

The drink is green, like snake venom.

Kinzo asks how long he's got left. Nanjo only replies not long.

They're currently playing a game of chess. Nanjo uses it as a visual tool to explain himself. Kinzo's close to checkmate, but hasn't won yet. They'd make a few moves each time Nanjo came to visit, but Nanjo believes that Kinzo won't live to end the game.

Nanjo mentions a will, and Kinzo seems less than enthused. Sounds like he has family issues. Golddigger family issues.

A suggestion by Nanjo that a will isn't just for material possessions, but instructions on how the deceased's "will" should be carried out... interesting. A mention of regrets Kinzo might mention, or unfinished business. Now I'm intrigued.

But Ushiromiya Kinzo has nothing to say or leave to his family. Apparently he's a man of his own making. He has no intention of leaving his "foolish children" any of his money or prestige.

He doesn't care to be buried... "Those were the terms of the contract I made with the witch!" Supernatural, indeed. "When I die," Kinzo says, "everything will be lost!"

He suddenly slumps over. It looks like he'd been possessed by a demon and then exorcised. Weak. Dead?

Not dead. Not yet, anyway. He has a single regret. There's something he can't leave undone. Nanjo says he should write it down. That way, even his descendants can accomplish it if he couldn't.

But Kinzo angrily insists he has to do it while alive. He'll be devoured by demons when he dies, erased from existence. No afterlife for him. No RIP. Even if he could write it down, he wants to see Beatrice's smiling face. The witch, I believe.

She's resisted him, whatever that means. He wants to see her one more time.

OH NAW THAT'S TOO META STAHP GAME. He's calling out to her, saying she's invisible, but that she's here and she's listening to everything he's saying. I DUN WANNA BE NO WITCH BRUH.

Black screen. Opening credits!

Wow. That was interesting.

Fanciful music. Anime characters. Somebody's crying. It's gonna be a good game.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Big Update: Merging With Diving Deeper and Other News

Hey everyone! There's some big changes coming to the Fiction and Fantasy blog.

I know some of you have been to my offshoot blog, Diving Deeper, and have been asking about when I'll begin posting there in earnest. But since I haven't been advertising it much, I also know there may be many of you who aren't familiar with it.

Diving Deeper is the second blog I began to complement Fiction and Fantasy. While Fiction and Fantasy was created specifically as a platform for me to discuss my own stories or thoughts about life, Diving Deeper was going to be more of a review/analysis of other people's stories.

However, starting next week, I'm going to be merging these two blogs together.

What does that mean?

Fiction and Fantasy is going to still have posts about my writing projects, process, and philosophy. But you can also expect to see some brand-new kinds of content. Here's some of the new content you can expect to see:

Character Studies

Analyzing characters' good and bad points, why they work together with other members of the cast, what makes them interesting or entertaining--even typing their personalities!

Mixed Reviews

Discussing stories I've had mixed feelings about, exploring their strengths and weaknesses. Each will end with a discussion about additional options I would have loved to see the writers explore. (I've actually been exploring the possibility of posting these both as blog posts as well as audio/podcasts. Comment if you're interested in this idea!)

Why This Title Is Amazing

Okay, I admit. This is gonna be my gush time. Some of my favorite stories and what exactly I love most about them--and why you might enjoy them, too.

Top 10's/Bottom 10's

Flash-Posts listing some of my favorites (or not-so-favorites!)

In Addition...

Fiction and Fantasy is also going to be going through some major changes all on its own, apart from the merge.

I'll be temporarily going down to one blog post a week over the next few weeks as I adjust to my new schedule. While I'll be shooting for Wednesday updates, the day of the week may or may not change depending on my schedule.

I'd like to emphasize that as of right now, this is a temporary change. Especially with the new kinds of content I have planned, I want to return to twice-a-week updates as soon as I've adjusted to my new schedule. However, this job may or may not prove to be more stressful than I'm currently anticipating, so once-a-week updates may have to be the new norm.

Finally, you may also see more Flash-Posts over the weeks to come in addition to the weekly post to make up for having one fewer post throughout the week.

I sincerely apologize for the lack of content, but I'm hoping that the new variety of entertaining reviews, interesting character analyses, and fun Flash-posts will more than make up for it over the weeks to come!