Saturday, August 12, 2017

Update: New Exclusive Fiction Coming Soon!

Itching for more stories and excerpts? Then I've got good news for you.

Starting next week, I'll be posting brand-new serial fiction stories!


Interested to know a little more about the world of The Victor's Blade? Want to read more of my takes on various fandoms? Thirsting for some collaborations between me and some of my fellow writers?

You'll be able to enjoy all of these in the upcoming fiction posts!

Or, if you're short on time, you can check out even smaller flash fiction versions of the same stories exclusively on the TaleHunt mobile app. Follow me @Rynfyre for all your flash fiction needs!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Popularity and Art Quality

You're driving in your car listening to the radio, and that new pop song sensation comes on... for the five-hundredth time this week. And while everyone else seems to start tapping their feet to the beat, this song makes you want to rip off your ears. Awful.

You get to class and your teacher tells you to read "the great American novel," but you can only stand the first two sentences before you drop all pretenses of doing this homework. Boring.

Then you get dragged to an art museum by your gung-ho art major friends. As they're gawking at a wall full of splatter paintings that look like the work of a two-year-old, you wonder what anyone could see in this stuff. Unoriginal and uninspiring, you think as you stare at what could have been a combination of fingerpaints and yesterday's lunch.

Nothing against the abstract, but I draw the line at plastic toys on canvas counting as "art..."

Two months ago, I started a discussion about "good art": whether it exists and, if so, what might separate it from "bad art."

But art quality--or at least enjoyment of that art--has objective and subjective elements. How do we know what's bad art and what's just something you don't like? If you don't like something, does that make it "bad art" for you? Does it mean you have no artistic taste if you don't like something that's been hailed as a masterpiece?

I've got a couple hypotheses to get this week's discussion rolling.


Popularity Doesn't Make Art Objectively Good

As my friend Curtis pointed out on my "good art" post, popularity doesn't make a piece objectively "good."

I think this is a pretty commonly-held belief: that just because something is eaten up by the mass populace doesn't mean it's "good." It's this very philosophy that birthed the term "Hipsters": people who allegedly avoid any sort of trend because its sheer popularity has rendered it "un-trendy." But you don't need to be a Hipster to think this kind of way. There are video gamers who bash the Call of Duty games. There are musicians who loathe the samey pop songs that flood the radio. There are film buffs who groan at the latest explosion-littered summer thrill flick.

So just because something has a large fan base or sells well doesn't mean that art is objectively good art. Subjectively good, however, is a whole different discussion...

...because they operate independently of one another.


There's no direct relation; something isn't necessarily subjectively good just because it's objectively good or vice versa. Objectively and subjectively good aren't mutually exclusive, either.

This is where that philosophy of mine on "good art" comes in--that art quality is both objective and subjective. Objectively "good" art is well-crafted, art that stands the test of time; for example, these are the art pieces that artists study in order to improve their craft. Subjectively "good" art, however, is art that at least one person enjoys or thinks is good. But that means that the term "subjectively good art" can be even further divided: is it subjectively good art in general or just for you personally? Is it something that has mass appeal, or are you just commenting on your own personal tastes?

Wow, this is getting confusing fast. Let me throw down an example to help explain. We'll take a look at the anime Sword Art Online. (Wow, I use a lot of anime examples. Can you tell what I've been watching lately?)

Many viewers immediately fell in love with Sword Art Online's attractive visuals and dark premise (being trapped inside a virtual reality video game that kills you in real life if you die in the game). During its first arc, the show exploded in popularity.
However, shortly after the show's impressive popularity spike, vocal anime fans began to release scathing reviews of the show. They rightly pointed out the show's numerous pacing and characterization flaws.

Whether sparked by these reviews or not, public opinion of the show noticeably shifted. Whereas viewers had once praised Sword Art Online, they now critically massacred it (The Pendantic Romantic, "Sword Art Online - How Digibro Killed An Anime").

So, was this show objectively "good" art? Will it become a timeless classic? It's hard to say at this point, but I'd argue probably not. The reviewers weren't needlessly bashing a show they didn't like: Sword Art Online does possess glaring writing flaws. While the visuals and music are excellent, the storytelling is certainly not great, especially when compared to other anime of the same genre (Thew, "Why Do So Many People Love SAO? - The Art of Mass Appeal").

But was this show subjectively good? In a general sense, absolutely. Sword Art Online wouldn't have enjoyed such a burst of popularity without capturing the attention and imagination of a vast audience. And in a specific sense, there is still a sizeable enough Sword Art Online fan base to warrant the release of a new movie and upcoming season 3 to the anime; clearly there's at least one person who thinks Sword Art Online is subjectively good (Schley, "Sword Art Online Season 3 Reportedly Announced").

So we can see that a piece of art can still be objectively bad while remaining subjectively good to a select audience--even if that audience is an audience of one.

However...


Popularity Doesn't Make Art Bad

Just because something is wildly popular doesn't mean it's objectively bad art, either.

This is something I've actually struggled with personally. If something suddenly becomes wildly popular and I can't immediately identify why, I'll dismiss it as a stupid flash fad and ignore it (you know the ones--fidget spinners, bottle flipping, or for you 90's kids like me, Furbies).

But passing up art just because it's popular can lead to you missing out on some great gems. For instance...

Disney

When Disney XD began to run teasers for then-upcoming show Gravity Falls, I rolled my eyes at what I thought was going to be another slice-of-life kids-at-summercamp episodic bore. At worst, I was expecting Camp Lazlo, a show I'd despised.

Mayyybe I just wasn't the targeted demographic...?

But when the Gravity Falls pilot aired, I sat down and watched it out of sheer curiosity. As it turned out, my first impression had been totally wrong, and Gravity Falls remains one of my favorite TV shows to date. I'm hardly alone in that opinion; the show has a large, adoring fan base.

If you assume something is going to be bad just because it's popular, you might miss out on something you would have loved.

I probably would have never watched Gravity Falls if I'd heard of it after it had gained a following. And I hate to think what would have happened if I'd shied away from seeing The Lord of the Rings film trilogy just because it was becoming popular. I would have never gotten into high fantasy fiction, for one. And high fantasy fiction is my life now.

If popularity doesn't make something objectively good art, it doesn't make it bad, either. So don't let other people's opinions dictate your own. Sample art for yourself; then judge that art on your terms.


Unpopularity Doesn't Make Art Good or Bad

If popularity doesn't dictate art quality, then unpopularity doesn't, either. An art piece can be unpopular, wildly disliked, or totally unknown, but none of that means the art is bad or good, objectively or subjectively.

After all, unknown art happens all the time in our media-saturated age. That doesn't mean a book that never makes it big isn't as good as or better than the ones on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

An art piece isn't objectively bad if it has a small following or even if a large number of people hate it. Just because a mass number of people dislike something doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't well-made; it just means lots of people disliked something about the art. Even a piece that's almost universally-hated might still have one person who enjoys it and finds it subjectively good.


Popularity Doesn't Mean You Have to Like It

I wish every college art professor would open their class with this sentence. It would've freed me from a lot of angst throughout my education experience.

Just because something is popular--even if it's popular among professionals or famous artists or academics with credentials up the wazoo--that doesn't mean you have to like it.

Something can be considered good art objectively or subjectively--doesn't matter which--and you still don't have to like it!

Your personal tastes--what you like and dislike--are completely your own. Don't let someone tell you that you HAVE to like this band or that movie. Don't let a professor make you feel like you have to enjoy a short story you actually hated, no matter how "well-written" it might have been.

The truth is that your personal tastes aren't based on the objective quality of art; it's based on your own preferences, your own interests, your own experiences, your own outlooks... a million things that are your own--unique to YOU. You never have to justify liking something nobody else does; it's just something you like. You don't even need a reason! You just do. That's good enough. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Same goes for things you dislike, by the way. Though it's awesome to have specific reasons for why you don't like something so you can discuss it with others, you don't need to have a reason beyond "I just didn't like it."

Just remember to learn from my mistakes: don't dislike something you haven't even tried just because it's popular and it therefore "probably won't be good." :P

Speaking of trying things out, if you enjoyed this post and want to check out more on the subject of art popularity and art quality, I'd recommend checking out The Nostalgia Critic's Top 10 Films I Hate But Everyone Else Loves and Top 10 Films I Like But Everyone Else Hates mini series. If you've seen these videos before, did you agree or disagree with his picks?

Whether you check out the vids or not, are there any pieces of art that you've enjoyed that other people hated or vice versa?

And as always, are there any points you'd add to this article, or is there something you disagree with?

I want to hear it all in the comment section below.

---
Works Cited:

  • The Pedantic Romantic, director. "Sword Art Online - How Digibro Killed An Anime." YouTube, LLC, 20 Jan. 2017. 
  • Thew, Geoff, director. "Why Do So Many People Love SAO? - The Art of Mass Appeal." YouTube, LLC, 25 June 2017.
  • Schley, Matt. “Sword Art Online Season 3 Reportedly Announced.” OTAKU USA Magazine, OTAKU USA, 30 Jan. 2017. 
    Photos (in order of appearance):
    • Peacock in Space by Aelita Andre, who--despite my cheeky caption--has done some pretty incredible pieces. Check out her story here and her online art gallery here.
    • Gravity Falls screenshot by Walt Disney Studios; originally posted on UnderScoopFire.com.
    • Camp Lazlo screenshot by Cartoon Network; originally posted on DailyMotion.com (which kind of looks like a sketchy site. Learn from my mistakes and don't go on there)
    All photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

    From Him, To Him

    Friday, August 4, 2017

    Anime Review: World Trigger

    Toei Animation

    Genre: Shounen/Coming-of-Age
    Year Released: 2014 - 2016
    Distributor:  Toei Animation
    Directors: Mitsuru Hongo (episodes 1−48), Kouji Ogawa (episodes 49-73)
    Seasons: 2 Seasons; 73 episodes total

    The Premise

    In a near-future Japan, Earth has come under attack by bestial, bio-mechanical aliens known as "Neighbors." The only force that's been able to go toe-to-toe with Neighbors is the Border Defense Agency. They've developed a way to draw Neighbor attacks into fenced-off evacuated areas, keeping civilians away from the fight. It's a solid strategy... but not foolproof. Young Osamu Mikumo finds himself in one of these "forbidden zones" in the middle of an attack. When he's rescued by a Border Agent, Osamu vows to join Border. He's determined to rise through their ranks so he can one day take the fight to the Neighbor home-planet as part of Border's rare but elite invasion forces.

    But Osamu must overcome plenty of obstacles along the way.

    For starters, Border's Neighbor-killing weapons (called "Triggers") rely on Trion, a natural energy produced by the human body. Because Osamu's Trion output is pitifully low, using Border's basic weaponry is almost unsustainable for him.

    And that's not even mentioning the fact that Osamu has unwittingly befriended a Neighbor.


    The Visuals

    Computer-generated graphics (CG) are a relatively small presence in World Trigger, allowing the 2D-animated characters to shine with their bright and colorful but still natural-looking character designs. CG is mostly used for the lighting/particle effects of Triggers and for setpiece "bosses" such as particularly large Neighbor creatures. The Triggers in particular are often very pretty to look at, with their various glowing fluorescent colors and sparks that shower upon impact. My personal favorite effect is when a person is KO'd in combat, which results in their Trion-generated body (which functions as a shell to protect their true physical body) disintegrating in a burst of green-blue cubes.

    Despite the flashy Trigger effects, none of World Trigger's CG sticks out like a sore thumb against the 2D animation: an issue that has plagued many other modern anime. It's refreshing to see Japanese studios properly blending the two animation styles.


    The Story and the Fights

    I'll admit that this is a show you will be watching more for the tension in its fights than the draw of the overall plot.

    I'm not trying to say there isn't an overarching tale; there's enough story there to keep snobs like me entertained. It's just...

    The fight scenes are so interesting.

    World Trigger has flashy fighting moves in spades. And, to their credit, while they could easily rest on that alone to carry their combat, they don't. They also offer strategy and natural tension, which is great since a good chunk of the show is characters fighting each other in mock combat.

    By far, the best thing about World Trigger's fights are the strategies.

    Characters are constantly reassessing their opponents' moves based on their knowledge of the rapidly-unfolding situation. New Trigger abilities enter the mix, forcing the defenders to rethink their strategies. Characters hide with cloaking technology, only to appear and pop off a vital sniper shot and then leap from a building as the opponent's countering shot destroys the sniper's perch.

    It's well-paced, and it's interesting to watch the entire cast strategize and counter-strategize--whether they're in combat with Neighbors or practicing against each other.

    The overarching plot isn't quite as well paced, however. Long arcs of combat will yield only a few episodes that further the plot, which can either reveal more information about the Neighbors or delve into character backstory, but not often both.

    There's also a filler arc shortly near the end of season 2; and while filler arcs are hardly uncommon for anime, the fact that it's fifteen episodes long (out of World Trigger's total 73 episodes; that's about 5% of the whole show!) is almost an unforgivable sin in and of itself. Add to that the fact that it's set right in the middle of Osamu's march to become a top-tiered Border agent and this particular filler arc feels especially maddening.


    The Characters

    This show has an enormous cast.

    And you know what? I did not mind one single bit.

    That's shocking for someone who can barely keep two characters straight if their names both start with the same letter, and it shows just how well World Trigger handles their cast. In my opinion, the character designs and development are so good, they earn the story's pacing issues a pass.

    World Trigger does an excellent job introducing its vast cast gradually and making sure to remind you about characters at just the right time. How they do it so effortlessly, I have no idea. But the fact is, despite the cast of good guys alone exceeding 70 characters, I recognized each and every one when they came across the screen--even if I couldn't necessarily remember their names right away (foreign names, like names that start with the same letter, are particularly hard for me. I'm just really bad at remembering names, guys).

    The main cast are all very likeable if gentle-hearted souls, which means you're not going to get a whole lot of group tension due to differing worldviews. But this choice of a main cast makes sense; this is a show about teamwork, in which one ace combatant is not going to be able to carry his whole group, no matter how talented; the team, therefore, needs to actually work.

    In fact, some of the important characters actually feel like an extended family, and it's always fun when they return to their home base. Whether they're teasing each other, helping each other train, or just enjoying each other's home-cooked meals, it's always a welcome change in pace after the combat's over.

    But one of my favorite parts about the main cast is how Osamu's teammates all look up to him despite his shortcomings...


    The Theme

    I'm always a fan of a coming-of-age story, and the shounen genre is literally built on tales of unlikely heroes training to become stronger. Still, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how relatable this theme continues to be, particularly for me.

    To me, Osamu's consistent failures and his lacking natural prowess only make me love this theme even more. It doesn't hurt that Osamu is out of the ordinary for a shounen protagonist, who are more often "chosen ones" who merely have to learn to control their inborn abilities.

    World Trigger makes it clear over and over again how perfectly ordinary--or worse, how below average--Osamu really is. Other characters, mostly those who should be his allies in fighting the Neighbors, often make fun of him or outright bully him for his lacking natural abilities. He regularly gets his butt handed to him in fights, even when he's trying his hardest.

    But Osamu is still an inspiring character, not because he learns some secret or gains some incredible power... but because despite how many times he loses, despite his lack of power or talent... he keeps trying every single time. He's a kid who pushes aside how many times he gets knocked down, not out of some pride or ferocity of spirit, but just because he wants to do the right thing.

    In fact, one character outright asks Osamu why he's constantly running into harm's way if he knows he can't be as much help as others. Osamu replies,

    "I'm not that noble. It's just, for me... If I run away from what I think I should do even once, then surely, I'll end up running when I really need to stay and fight. I know that, [sic] that's the kind of person I am." ("Each One's Determination," 00:20:10 - 00:20:29)

    As someone who regularly struggles with feelings of cowardice, I love having Osamu as a reminder that courage means facing fears to use my strength when someone else needs me most.


    The Conclusion

    Other than removing the filler arc, I'm not sure there's much I'd change about World Trigger. It's a great show with lovable characters, an impressively large cast that works, and excellent chess-like strategic fights.

    That's why I was so sad to hear the World Trigger anime was no longer airing after its second season (Green, "'World Trigger' Anime Wraps Up In March"). That's no guarantee that the anime is canceled, but at the very least it'll be a long few years' wait to hear if the anime is going to continue.

    I guess for those of us who are dying to see where the story goes, we'll always have the manga. I'll be sure to let you know how that holds up if I ever do get a chance to read it!

    ---
    Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

    Works Cited:
    • Hongo, Mitsuru, dir. "Each One's Determination." World Trigger. 20 Dec. 2014. Crunchyroll.com. Web. 20 July 2017.
    • Green, Scott. ""World Trigger" Anime Wraps Up In March." Blog post. Crunchyroll.com. N.p., 07 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.
    Review format adapted from Curtis Bell's Iridium Eye. Interested in seeing something you've never seen before? Check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you've never heard of.

    From Him, To Him

    Friday, July 28, 2017

    Excerpt - Titans Together: "Retreat"


    Marcus leaned back in his black leather seat. His palms rested gently but firmly on the steering wheel as he guided the beautiful silver Porsche Carrera around a curve. They were a few hundred feet above the ocean. One glance out the passenger window showcased a gorgeous view of the sunset and a sheer cliff that dropped right into the ocean waves. The pounding of the surf was just a little quieter than the revving engine as Marcus put on the gas as he exited the turn.

    He let a sigh of pleasure escape. Inside this car, nothing else mattered but him and the road. The formidable Seris Foraza couldn’t faze him. It was just him and the Porshe, taming the road.

    Marcus eased into another turn.

    “You didn’t completely ruin that last mission,” Seris murmured as she gazed out her window.

    Marcus sighed again, though this time in exasperation rather than delight. Maybe the formidable Seris Foraza could ruin the moment, after all. “I was wondering how long it was going to be until we started to talk business.”

    Seris turned in her seat to look forward once more, and she lightly gestured to his left. There was a turnoff just ahead, angling back toward town. Marcus guided the Porsche that way.

    “Was it really that obvious?”

    “Please,” Marcus rolled his eyes, slowing down to match the speed the new outcropping of speed limit signs yelled at him to obey. “You don’t let me take a joyride for no reason.” He switched into the oncoming traffic lane to slide past a family in an Escalade. “Either I did something very right, or you wanted to get away.”

    To his surprise, Seris was silent as he resumed his lane and slowed the car further. They were being funneled into a park of some sort, from the look of it. There was only one other car sitting in the gravel parking lot, inhabited by a pair of rabid teenagers. He parked the Porsche as far away from their clunker as possible.

    The salt-laden sea breeze was threatening to take Marcus’s straw fedora off his head, so he popped it off and tossed it on the front seat of the Porsche. He turned to find his mother was already strolling away from the car.

    Without a word, Marcus followed.


    “…I suppose I did need a retreat, if only for a moment.”

    Palm trees swayed in the breeze as the air turned a few degrees cooler. The sky was tinged with orange and purple and pinks, tinting further the Forazas’ tanned skin.

    Marcus jammed his hands in his shorts pockets and leaned his back against a palm tree.

    “This kind of job isn’t for everyone,” Seris began softly.

    Marcus smirked as he squinted toward the sunset. “Real profound there, Mother.”

    Seris glanced at him, but to his surprise, it wasn’t disapprovingly. She must not have been in one of her “moods” tonight. “You have to find the right ways to deal with the pressures. The stress.”

    Marcus sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “So we drove out in the middle of nowhere for life lessons?” He stood up straight and turned to fully face her. “Look, I don’t really want to drag this out for another couple of hours, so can we just cut to the chase now? What did you really bring me out here to say?”

    Her face was, as usual, unreadable. “For one, you’ve been doing much better since our prior talk about your behavior. And for that, I want to thank you.”

    Marcus scoffed and shook his head, staring back out at the sunset. “Yeah, anything to make you look good, Mom…”

    Seris cast him a look, but she continued, “And, contrary to what I said in the office, I am proud of you. You are becoming a powerful young man… and an intriguing tactician. Your more recent missions are evidence of that. You chose a well-rounded team of agents, you analyzed the situation before leaping into action, and although you weren’t physically present for much of the battle, had Bellifonte not arrived, I would have been eager to see how you performed in battle.”

    “Right. Thanks.”

    Seris pursed her lips. Apparently he’d cut her monologue short, and she didn’t look pleased about it. She rubbed her forehead, grimaced, and finally, then came the snap. “I’m not an idiot, Marcus. I know when you’re upset with me. So are you going to continue this immature tirade, or are you going to tell me what on Earth is going on?”

    Marcus looked back up. His mother was glaring at him. He laughed and threw his arms open wide. “Am I going to tell you what’s going on?” He shot her a sarcastic smile in response. “Right. Cute.”

    The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. Marcus scowled right back at his mother. “When exactly were you planning on telling me about her?”

    Seris’s voice softened, but her face was now a mixture of confusion and worry. “What are you talking about?”

    “You know what I’m talking about! Don’t you dare make me spell it out for you!” Marcus shouted. He took a breath to calm his voice. “What, you thought I wouldn't find out? Oh, sure, I’ll overlook that Titan running around who happens to have the same powers as me. The same. Exact. Powers. She’s even got Uncle Ozida’s eyes—oh, yeah, trust me, I got plenty of those as a kid to recognize them when I see them. And, as if that weren’t enough, she looks just like you!”

    Seris was silent and deathly still. Her face had even grown a little pale.

    “Oh, don’t sit there pulling the innocent act. Did you get lost in all your scheming? Just so happened to forget that I’m half Orodenian too? You know, just because you hate where you came from doesn’t erase the fact that I feel your emotions just as strongly as you feel mine. You can’t just ignore me. You can’t just pretend I’m not your son!”

    She still had nothing to say. Seris glanced away.

    “No, look at me when I’m talking to you! The least you can do is acknowledge me when no one else is around!” Marcus yelled. “I could hear you! I could feel you were thinking about her, for weeks now! How did you find out that I knew? It was your pet snake, wasn’t it? You’ve been sending her to spy on me twenty-four seven. ‘Been doing much better’? You still don’t trust me! We’re part of a villain organization. Parricide comes with the territory; I can’t fault you for that. But not telling me that I have a sister?

    “Stop.”

    Marcus was panting. Seris was pale as a sheet. She clenched her fists at her side.

    “Just stop.”

    Marcus shook his head and glanced away. “...Why?”

    “Because I thought your sister was dead.”

    He turned back to her. Seris was staring at him, tears filling her eyes. He had never, ever heard her voice crack like it had just now, with that admission.

    “You were twins. She was born sixty-two minutes before you.”

    Marcus closed his eyes and leaned back against the palm tree. He rubbed his temple and sighed heavily.

    “You were both beautiful. Perfect. Your father and I were so happy…” She was whispering now, covering her mouth with one hand so he could barely hear her. The tears started to trickle down her face. “Thalia. Thalia Rose and Marcus Damon.”

    “We’re twins?”

    Seris looked up at Marcus and shook her head. “You were. I… I don’t know now.”

    “How did she end up here, before we even came back?”

    Seris shook her head again. “I don’t know.” She gazed back out across the ocean. He could see her chin trembling. “You were only seven months old. It was August fourteenth. We’d put you both down for bed for the night. We were living in the Brotherhood tower. I still don’t know how they…” Her voice faltered for a moment, but she closed her eyes, took a deep breath to stay in control. “We heard you fussing. It was my turn to check on you. But I walked into the room, and…” Seris swallowed, as she barely managed to whisper, “She was gone.

    “We used every resource we could to find her, to locate the man who had taken her. But he left no trace. He had just… vanished.

    “We waited in agony. I kept waiting for the blackmail, the ransom notes, the announcement she was dead. But we didn’t hear anything. There was nothing, nothing. And… and you were growing up. Years were going by. And I thought… we would have found something. Would have heard something. I couldn’t live with the hope any more. It was too painful. So I stopped hoping. We held a ceremony for her, and we tried not to talk about it. It would have… upset you as a child.”

    Marcus just stared at her. “Because it’s not upsetting now.”

    “I just wanted you to live a normal childhood. Not wandering the halls haunted by your sister.”

    He shook his head, incredulous. “There was nothing normal about my childhood…”

    Seris turned and looked up at Marcus, her brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

    Marcus rolled his eyes. “Mom, I was a Brotherhood brat who was groomed to be an international superspy and human weapon to be used in taking down meta-human organizations. You can’t get much less ‘normal’ than that.”

    Shaking her head, she chuckled grimly. “If you’re going to complain about that, you’re not going to gain much sympathy. That was the best of any agents’ childhood.”

    Marcus shook his head and shrugged. “Yeah, of course you’re going there.” He spat and shook his head, standing up straight and marching back toward the car. “I don’t need to listen to this…”

    “Marcus.”

    He paused mid-stride. He glanced up at the sky, sighing. “What?”

    He could hear her approaching from behind. One step. Then another, crunching the grass and gravel underfoot. “If you have more to say to me, you need to say it now.” Her voice was soft, low and even.

    Marcus shrugged in exasperation. “What could I possibly say to you?” He spun around, his arms open wide. “What? Every word I say gets thrown back in my face anyway.” Marcus strolled back toward his mother, his tone thick with more sarcasm than even he usually used. “Why should I bother any more? Hm? What could I possibly have to contribute that would be worthy of the great Seris Foraza’s approval?”

    Seris watched as he approached her, her arms passively at her sides, even as he could see her eyes burning, feel her emotions raging like the waves smashing against the cliff below them.

    By the time he stopped, he was a foot away from his mother. He towered over her, seven inches taller and with a good thirty pounds’ worth more muscle. She just stared up at him, frowning.

    No fear. She would never fear him.

    “You know what my real problem with you is, mother dear?” He finally found the words to growl. He clenched his fist to contain its trembling in anger. “You married him.

    It broke the dam of emotions, and the whole mixture spilled. Elation. Infatuation. Hope. And pain. Lots of pain.

    Marcus turned away, disgusted.

    To his surprise, Seris actually took her time in phrasing her response. She was silent for a long stretch of time, before replying in a softer voice than he’d heard in the past ten years. “He did love you, Marcus.”

    “Don’t talk to me about love. That worthless drunk didn’t know the meaning of the word.”

    “But he did. You just choose not to remember.”

    No, that was too much. “Remember?” he hissed. He shook his head, but wasn’t sure where to turn. He just had to look somewhere else, or he was going to hit her. Marcus shoved his hands into his pockets. “No, I suppose I don’t remember…” It was like arsenic laced his voice.

    With a roar, he flung out one hand. Shadows erupted from his fist, slashing through the palm trees at Seris’s side and tearing through a good mile of forest behind them.

    “I don’t remember how he spent every other night in someone else’s bed because you told him not to come home inebriated. I don’t remember how the other nights he was out late riding that big black Harley, picking fights. I don’t remember the smell on his breath, or his bloodshot eyes, or the way his voice distorted every time he got angry and was about to start beating on me again to take out his anger.”

    He paused, taking a shaky breath. Shadows were warping and wrapping around his body, crackling from the ground and distorting the air like the haze of a fire. He flicked his wrist, and the shadows snapped back into the ground.

    “No, I don’t remember the day he finally snapped and let the demon consume him…”

    “Don’t,” Seris said again, but this time, her voice quavered. “Don’t… That wasn’t him. That was not him...”

    “Enough of him left to tear apart his own son.” The fist-clenching hadn’t helped. He was now shaking from head to foot. “Do you remember what my broken body looked like when they brought me back? All the burn marks from his powers. Broken nose. Broken arm. Broken ribs from when he kicked me while I was lying on the ground, bleeding. And the scars.” He rolled up his left sleeve and right pant leg. A large scar bubbled across his leg, and two thick white scars crossed his arm. “I don’t remember those, either.”

    Somewhere in the back of his consciousness, it registered that his mother was now crying. But what did he care? She was the one who married the monster. She was the one who refused to leave him, even after everything he’d done to them…

    “He—” Marcus swallowed, grinding his teeth as tears sprang into his eyes. “He said he wanted to drink my blood. His own son.”

    He looked up to Seris. Tears had smeared her makeup down her cheeks. Marcus was shaking. Why couldn’t he stop the shaking?! “You knew who he was! And you still married him! You had kids! Why did you have to have me? Us? Why didn’t you get rid of him? Why did I have to be born?!”

    She shook her head, biting her bottom lip. “Marcus—”

    And that’s when he realized it. He was breaking her heart.

    But he couldn’t stop. Hot tears were pouring down his face, too, now. “You have no idea what it was like being me growing up, Mom! I… Every time he got angry, for anything, Uncle Panic took over him. And he—” His voice cracked. “He was even worse than Dad!

    She was sobbing. “Marcus, baby…”

    “He… do you know how many nights I spent strapped to a gurney with beaming lights pouring down on me, getting my insides cut open and needles stabbed into my eyes and Dad and Uncle Panic laughing? Laughing at me! Those… I still get those nightmares sometimes. Trapped in your own fears! That’s… that is not a normal kid’s life!

    His vision blurred from the tears then, so he didn’t see when his mother rushed over to him to wrap her arms around him. He was barely conscious of the fact that he then collapsed to his knees, and she crushed his face against her shoulder as she cradled his head. All he knew was that they were both sobbing.

    “Marcus, my baby, my baby…” Seris whispered as she pressed a kiss into his hair. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so, so sorry…” She ran her fingers through his hair and rocked back and forth. “I’m so sorry.”

    He hated it. He hated this. He hated her, hated his father, hated everything in this world. But all he could do was sit there and cry like that frightened little child he’d been, when there was nothing he could do to fight back.

    ---
    Originally posted on Titans Together, founded by Hufflepuff Moonshoes.

    Teen Titans and all related terms are the property of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Photo: Fort Lauderdale, United States by Karina Carvalho; originally posted on Unsplash.com.


    From Him, To Him

    Friday, July 21, 2017

    How (NOT) to Kill Off Characters

    You've seen it coming a mile away.

    They've hinted at it for the past thirteen episodes. Your favorite character has kept throwing themselves into the heat of the fray. He's gotten some bumps and bruises, but he's always come out okay. He tries to hide how badly the injuries are affecting him, but you know.

    You know if he keeps this up, his days are numbered. And you know he'll keep it up, because that's the kind of person he is.

    And then the moment comes: the sky boils with black clouds. Lightning tears across the screen. He steps into a fight you know he just can't win.

    Someone tries to come to his aid, screaming his name--but he has to buy them time. He has to help them all escape.

    He puts up a fight. It's valiant, it's bloody, it's brutal--

    He smiles. And blood seeps across his shirt. And he falls to the ground.

    The rain starts to fall, just as your heart finally shatters.


    Or maybe you haven't seen it coming. She's the perky love interest. She's kept the protagonist on his toes the whole time. You literally watch this show just to see them.

    And then suddenly, the villain finds out who she is and shows up in her kitchen late one night as she gets home from work. One cut frame later, and she's in a pool of her own blood, and those left behind are taking it all in with the same wide-eyed horror as your own.

    Killing That Character

    Killing off characters can be the bane or blessing of any story. It's powerful. It shifts the entire tale by sacrificing one single person. It grabs the audience's attention, makes a fictional world feel real and believable, and can even make the audience feel dramatically satiated (especially in the case of a villain dying). BUT...

    Only if you do it right.

    I've seen plenty examples of killing characters done right and done wrong in my time as an audience member. And if I could reach through the screen and grab the writers by their collars, these are a few things I'd beg them not to do.

    Because they never end well.


    Killing Them Off for No Reason

    Sometimes you have a show that gratuitously murders its cast. It's like the writers come in with a butcher knife and go, "Hey, it's been a whole episode and a half, and only two people have died so far! Better fix that..."

    Please, writers, if you're going to kill off a character--or any number of characters--please have a reason for doing so.

    Ask yourself, what is killing off that character, or that group of characters, going to result in? Will it set up what kind of a world the audience is entering? Will it cause the main cast to feel despair and to nearly give up their quest? Will murdering little Susie cause Shane to swear revenge and take the first steps down a dangerous road that will transform him forever?

    Killing a character should always be purposeful--even if it's killing a million unnamed characters who, for purposes of the plot, don't matter. There should still be a reason behind each character's death, even if it's a crowd-killer moment and the reason is as simple as "Show how horrifying and deadly this situation is by killing all these people."

    If killing a character doesn't have any reason other than "shock the viewers," then writers, you've failed as storytellers. Nothing--NOTHING--should happen in your plot that doesn't cause something else to happen later down the road. Surprising your viewers may get you a spike in popularity, but it's not going to tell a great story long-term. That's because plots need to move forward, and they can't if you keep peppering your story with dead-end plots like pointlessly killing off characters.

    I mean, really, killing that character didn't affect their family at all? What about their friends? Loved ones? That death didn't result in an investigation into the killer and anyone connected to the crime? It didn't cause the audience (or the remaining cast) to feel differently about the situation or to reassess something about the world, each other, themselves?

    Then that character death was pointless, and we the people are gonna get tired of your shock-value shenanigans real quick.


    Killing Them Off Even Though They're Important

    Killing anyone in the core cast should affect at least one other core character. Or heck, the entire plot. Anything less than that will like a theft. Your viewers are going to feel like you just robbed them of someone important for no good reason. And writers, trust me, you don't want to make us viewers feel that way.

    Easy way to let the shockwaves of that loss reverberate through your story? Make sure to have characters reference that person's death later on, however briefly. Let the surviving cast mourn. Show the family in a scene, struggling to move on. That alone lends a lot of credibility to your world and makes the audience happy that neither the world nor you forgot about our dearly departed core character.


    Killing Them Off Because Life is Hopeless

    Killing characters should never leave the audience feeling hopeless.

    Leaving the audience worried about how things will probably turn out good? That's suspense, and we're totally cool with that.

    But leaving us hopeless because we realize this entire story we wasted hours of our lives to enjoy is not going to have a good ending? No. Please don't do that.

    I'm so tired of seeing stories kill off a character just to espouse the "Life is hard; no one cares" worldview. Maybe that's your cup of tea. Maybe that's what you believe. But it doesn't make a great story, because you could've just said that and not wasted our time getting us invested in a character you were just going to brutally kill off because you're angry at the world.

    Now, can you kill a character and leave the cast feeling hopeless? Oh, absolutely. Please do that. Well, not all the time. Not every time someone dies. But you can give a suckerpunch to the survivors, leave them wondering how they'll make it through... as long as they don't remain hopeless. A moment of weakness is one thing. A moment that leads to everyone giving up isn't interesting.


    Killing Them Off Even Though They Barely Got to Do Anything

    ...but they could have, if you hadn't killed them off so soon.

    Oh, this is one of my ultimate story pet peeves: that one character who's been relegated to the background, but you've seen enough of them to go "You know, I really like So-and-So. I really hope they get more story time."

    And then they die in the very next episode.

    Wit Studio and Production I.G, via GIPHY This is just... it's wasteful. Writers, please, don't put a character in the story at all if they're not going to do anything while they're alive! It's mean to tease the audience with this character they barely got to know, a character who doesn't get to fill their potential, only to kill them off.

    All right, I admit: Attack on Titan totally does this exact thing, but I don't give them flak for it. Why? What makes the difference?

    Well, besides my own obvious bias (because I love the snot out of that show), at least they give me enough of who Marco is in the short time I know him. The show clearly paints a portrait of this kid: a devoted guy who feels a little lost when he encounters how intimidating the Titans are, but who still chooses to be brave and see the best in people. It's not a lot, and I would have loved more, but it was enough that it lets me accept his death--even though I still mourn his loss because I know it means I'll never know any more about him.

    You know what exacerbates this killing-off-characters-early issue though? If the character in question has been nothing but a flat character with little backstory and only 1-2 defining characteristics, yet who's supposed to be close to the protagonist and/or a pretty important piece of the plot. This is the problem I ran into with the Books of Mortals series.

    Triphon is a muscle-head jock sort of character, but he's got a bit of a soft side and loyalty in spades. He's one of the protagonist, Rom's, best friends, so of course he helps Rom with whatever crazy scheme Rom has in mind. Triphon helps save Rom's life on more than one occasion in the first book.

    But Triphon gets little development beyond that. I have no idea what kind of a person Triphon is. Does he like cats? Does he laugh a lot? What's his taste in women? What was his family like?

    Not a clue. And too bad I wanted to know more, because he dies. Twice, actually. Which brings up another point...


    Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back... Repeatedly

    Don't keep bringing characters back to life only to kill them off again, writers. This ruins our trust in you. Plus it's emotionally draining for us to get yanked back and forth like that. We don't care quite as much during the death scene when your character dies a second time; that's because we've already been through this song and dance. And let me tell you, by the third time or more, we're too busy rolling our eyes or making memes out of your story to care about your ridiculously blessed regenerating hero.


    Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back... Once?

    Okay, I'm split 50/50 on this one, because sometimes a resurrection plot can be incredibly satisfying and entertaining.

    And sometimes it only happens because a character feels sad and cries some magic resurrection tears.



    Sigh.

    Side note: I adore Tangled, but this is the one mole on this beautiful face that I wish I could photoshop over every time I watch this film. Disney, you're better than this cliche!

    Okay, writers--if you're gonna bring a character back from the dead, you'd better have a dang good pre-established way for how it happens, why it happens, and when it happens. Establishing ways of bringing characters back from the dead keeps resurrections from feeling like a deus ex straight out of your butt.

    But the "when" is especially important if the resurrection relies on another character actively reviving the dead. If there's any time in-between the death and the resurrection, the audience is going to want to know why they'd bother waiting to resurrect the guy at all. Wouldn't that epic battle two scenes ago have been a ton simpler if we'd had Fighter McGuns alive to begin with? Why did they wait until the smoke cleared to bring him back?

    Also, if you're going to bring a character back from the dead, you'd better have a good reason why they died in the first place. And, again, "to shock the viewers" is not a good enough reason. Remember, we viewers don't like getting our chain yanked.

    Don't kill off a character if they're just going to get brought back to life and their death didn't mean anything.

    Now, as I said, I'm pretty split on resurrection stories. Sometimes having a character dying and being brought back to life can be thrilling for the audience. Buuuut, again, it has to have a purpose.

    Again, look at character-killing phenomenon Attack on Titan. In the first season, the protagonist Eren has spent five years of his life boasting he'll kill all the giant man-eating Titans that have destroyed his home and killed his mother and otherwise ruined life. And when he's finally about to become a certified soldier, he eagerly dives into battle with Titans only to watch the brutes devour his friends one by one. And then Eren's next.

    It's a particularly horrifying moment in a pretty horrifying show. But then he came back.

    And his death had a purpose.

    Eren's death (or near-death? It's a little ambiguous) experience awakens a power he was otherwise completely oblivious to. The shock of the situation triggers his life-saving ability, which he then uses to rescue not only his adopted sister but also all of his remaining friends. And it also helps humanity not get totally annihilated in one battle.

    So writers, if you've got a good reason for your character dying and coming back once--then your viewers are far more likely to give you a pass.

    Just don't do it again, you dirty feels-manipulators.

    ---
    Photos (in order of appearance):
      All other photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

      From Him, To Him 

      Friday, July 14, 2017

      Why Do Things Suffer from "Sequelitis"?

      I recently finished reading The Books of Mortals series by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee. The series grabbed me right away with its fascinating premise: far in our future, humanity discovers the genes that control human emotions. In the name of creating world peace, one group bio-engineers a virus that infects the entire human race. The virus removes all emotions except fear. Now, five hundred years later, people live obliviously empty lives without any of the emotions that made them human in the first place.

      And what a ride it was. The first book (Forbidden) had all the earmarks of a typical Dekker novel: thrills, romance, pounding pace, edge-of-my-seat page-turning power.

      But when I finally got around to reading book two (Mortal), I found it wanting. The book began with characters I didn't know and didn't really get attached to. The plot seemed to drag until halfway through its 450-some pages.


      The experience with this sequel reminded me of something a friend of mine says about his future game company. He claims he'll never create a third entry in any of his series unless the fans desperately cry out for it. His reason?

      "Sequels are never as good."

      Ah, the curse of sequelitis: the theory that the subsequent books, movies, or any other entertainment medium--are never quite as good. Some people, like my friend, believe this affects the final entry in a trilogy. Others assert that the middle story always gets the short end of the stick.

      While I've never been an adherent to the "sequelitis" theory (for example, I thought The Two Towers was superior to The Fellowship of the Ring, in both book and film form), it did get me wondering what got me so irked about this particular sequel, Mortal--and what could contribute to other sub-par sequels.

      So today, I want to start a discussion on why stories seem to suffer from sequelitis. I've got a few theories. Check 'em out and see what you think.

      For starters...

      Sequels Aren't Originals

      In a TED presentation, Author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses how terrified she was after receiving so much praise and attention for her worldwide best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love. She feared that no matter how hard she worked on a new project, she'd encounter the same problem: her second work would not be her first (Gilbert, "Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating").

      And I think this is the key issue causing "sequelitis." No matter how similar the first and subsequent entries are, any sequel is going to be different from the original. If the next work were the same, people would complain that it's just a copy. They'd get bored.

      In addition, the harder the original takes the world by storm, the more people fall in love with that first work. And the more people love the first work, the bigger the shoes to fill for any sequels, which means the harder sequels have to fall. In this case, the original sets up expectations so high that no sequel can possibly surpass it (Hyatt, "The How of WOW").


      Sequels Come with Prerequisites

      It's another problem unique to sequels versus originals: sequels usually require at least some understanding of previous content to fully enjoy them. Sure, there are series that are designed to allow the audience to jump in at any point, but those are rare, and they only work for stories that aren't particularly linear.

      And most stories are linear. You can't tell a sweeping epic without starting at A, which causes B, which results in C.

      But if you're enjoying a sequel, you're essentially picking up the story at point B. If you didn't experience the previous entries, you missed the key things that brought the story to this point. At best, you might not pick up on some of the story's nuances. At worst, you might end up completely lost because you missed vital information.

      It's hard to consider a story a "good one" if it can't stand on its own merit. But the problem with most sequels is that, by definition, they can't stand on their own merit by definition. Sequels require you to have experienced the previous entries to fully enjoy these ones.


      Sequels Have to Work Hard

      Sequels have a lot of work to do! Let's take Mortal, for example. As the second book in a trilogy, Mortal had not one but three jobs to do. It wasn't enough for Mortal to just "be a good book." Nope. It needs to be a standalone good book in and of itself. It needs to carry on the story from where the last book left off. And it needs to set up the overarching story for the inevitable third entry because this is the era of trilogies. No wonder it was 450 pages! That's a lot of stuff to fit into one single novel.

      A single project--whether it's a book, film, game, or whatever--might not be long enough to both expand an overarching story and set up for the next entry in the series... all while being a good story in and of itself.

      Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not going to start protesting for sequels' rights. And I'm certainly not anti-trilogy. Done right, a trilogy can be a powerful narrative form; each individual entry builds off one another until the spectacular conclusion ties up all the loose ends. It's incredibly satisfying.

      But trilogies also require a ton of planning to pull off such an extended build-up. Writers of trilogies often run into issues with a form of "spectacle creep," (a term coined by Extra Credits, who did an excellent video on this issue), where the levels of action, suspense, plot elements, and character abilities all keep escalating until they explode into the realm of the ridiculous. That's the last thing a writer wants.


      What Do You Think?

      So, are sequels inevitably doomed to failure just because they're not the same as the original source material? Does sequelitis really exist? Have you seen examples of it? Or are bad sequels just individual cases of a writer choking on their own success?

      Eesh.

      What sequels have you seen that you found lacking? What didn't you like about them? Or, have you experienced a sequel that was way better than the original? What made it better?

      Let me know in the comments below. Looking forward to discussing sequelitis with you!

      ---
      Photos (in order of appearance):

      Works Cited:
        • Gilbert, Elizabeth. "Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating." TED2014. Mar. 2014. TED. Web. 11 July 2017.
        • Hyatt, Michael. "The How of WOW." Blog post. Michael Hyatt. WordPress, 5 June 2008. Web. 11 July 2017.

          From Him, To Him

          Friday, July 7, 2017

          Video Game Review - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

          Photo courtesy of NintendoEverything.com

          Genre: Action-Adventure RPG (open-world)
          Year Released: 2017
          Publisher: Nintendo
          Director: Hidemaro Fujibayashi
          Platform(s): Wii U, Nintendo Switch
          Rating: Everyone 10+; for Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes (cleavage), alcohol references and a drunken character (via ESRB)

          This review contains mild story spoilers.

          You have been warned. 

          The Premise

          The hero Link awakens in a mysterious cave with no memories of where he is or how he got here. He discovers he's been in stasis for 100 years, all while Princess Zelda has been single-handedly holding back the ancient evil Calamity Ganon. But Zelda's seal on Ganon can only hold for so long; it's up to Link to help the princess and defeat Calamity Ganon for good.

          The Visuals

          Breath of the Wild takes place in a gorgeous, varied landscape. My in-game camera (yes, there's an in-game camera) is full of beautiful vista photos, from frozen icy cliffs to sunset-tinged forests. These aren't mere "key points" you'll only see once for three seconds during a certain cutscene; you can find any of these gorgeous views while simply wandering the world. This makes the world feel just as alive as it is beautiful.

          This game shines not only through the lovely vistas but also in the little touches. There are just as many details for players to squeal over as there are wide, expansive shots to gape at. Animations, especially Link's, are attractive and functional, offering both detail and character building. I found myself spending at least ten minutes on the inventory menu just watching Link eat different types of food. His reactions ranged from delightedly scarfing down a meal and patting his happy belly to grimacing before swallowing a bad meal whole. Animations generally run smoothly... except when the game lags, which will happen--especially when things catch fire. However, I never experienced so much lag that it affected how well I could play the game.

          There are also a couple wonky visual issues (like the fact the bushes stretch around you when you're crouched inside), but overall, the game tends to be too lovely for you to notice these little quirks.

          The Music

          Zelda games are known for their memorable and often sweepingly beautiful tunes. Heck, the series has its own five-movement symphony that tours to showcase the franchise's most memorable soundtracks. Naturally, after gawking at the visuals, I couldn't wait to hear Breath of the Wild's take on some of the classic Legend of Zelda tunes.

          I have to say, while I appreciate the skill of Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata's work, Breath of the Wild's soundtrack has left me less than wowed. Many of the tracks are incredibly subtle. Now, that works just fine for riding around the game's vast, open world where almost anything can happen at random; after all, you wouldn't want a stirring, memorable theme to start playing only for the combat theme to abruptly cut it off. Buuuut...

          Many of the songs are too subtle for my taste. I'd love to have the classic theme burst into high gear as I'm fighting a particularly hard enemy, only to softly fade as I complete my victory. Needless to say, this has yet to happen in my playthrough. And while I have yet to complete the game, I haven't even heard the iconic "Zelda's Lullaby" at all. I can only hope it'll show up once I encounter the princess herself.

          I can't imagine the skill it must take to compose music for a game, but the lack of noticeable Legend of Zelda classic tunes has left me wanting.

          The Writing

          As Breath of the Wild is an open-world game (meaning the player is free to do whatever they want in whichever order they want, at whatever pace they want), there's much less story here than in some of the more recent Legend of Zelda games. A game with this much freedom means the players may miss out on almost all of your narrative content, so I can see why they would opt for a more bare-bones story.

          The basic plot is the classic "boy saves princess and defeats evil" trope. While I personally will never tire of that plot line, I could see some people yawning at the premise. That said, this story does have a nice twist on the classic trope: in Breath of the Wild, the hero has been unsuccessful before. In fact, the player discovers that Link's hundred-year sleep is because he failed to defeat Ganon in the past. This creates an interesting tension. Will Link be able to do things differently this time, or is his quest simply doomed to fail a second time?

          As for the cast, most of the main characters' development is fleshed out through flashback moments the player can activate by finding and traveling to certain locations. These flashbacks usually consist of Link interacting with Zelda and her other "champions." These cutscenes make the player feel like they are Link, trying to sort through broken memories and remember what happened in which order. They're short but sweet, standing on their own while also building up the overarching plot. They're also a sufficient length to showcase who each of these characters are (or were).

          My only complaint is that some of the characters come across as sadly one-dimensional. The main offender in my opinion is Mipha, the fish-like Zora champion whose sole traits seem to boil down to 1) her people love her and 2) she loves Link.

          And what of the protagonist? Well, Link is, as always, a silent character that the player can project themselves onto. However, while he has no dialogue, Link isn't a totally blank slate; he does still seem to have some personality all his own. His animations give you a taste of what this hero is like, and that impression is complemented by NPCs occasionally commenting on his body language--for instance, on faces he's making in response to something they said. However, the player doesn't get to see these reactions; this means that much of Link's disposition and mannerisms are left up to the player's interpretation. That can be somewhat disappointing if you're not as interested in blank slate characters, especially if you compare it to other iterations of Link, such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's incredibly expressive (and sometimes downright sassy) green-garbed protagonist.

          The Mechanics

          And now we get to the meat of the game.

          Open-World


          Breath of the Wild is one of the best open-world games I've played; certainly on par with Final Fantasy XV. The world is populated and varied. I don't get bored riding through areas, but there are also plenty of fast-travel points on the map in case you don't want to (literally) hoof it. There's plenty to do (with enough incentive to do it all) in every area in between, leaving no room for boredom.

          "Oh look! There's a monster! I can kill it and get more weapons!"

          "Oh look! There's a tree full of fruit! Now I can make that dish I wanted to try!"

          "Oh look! There's a korok! Now I can increase the size of my inventory!"

          Finishing quests and goals feels fun, but letting yourself get sidetracked is just as fun.

          All that said, I will admit that I'm a bit nervous hearing open-world will probably become the standard for future Zelda games, for two reasons. Firstly, it's very difficult to pull off a satisfying open-world experience. And secondly, the Zelda franchise has had a history of getting stuck in a rut once they hit on a popular template--and boy has Breath of the Wild been popular. I'm glad to hear that Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma knows that Zelda concepts have gotten stale before (Hulfish, "Future Zelda Games Will Have an Open-world Design"). Let's just hope they don't repeat the mistake with the open-world concept.

          Difficulty Spikes


          One of the issues with open-world games is also one of its strong points: the player can go wherever they want... which means the player can run into some areas that are definitely too hard for them at that time. However, usually these areas are well-marked: designers will plant warning signs (sometimes literal signs) to inform the player that they may be wading into deep waters.

          But Breath of the Wild often lacks these warning signs. There are only a few obvious difficult areas (Hard enemies right around the castle, the focal point of the end-game? Makes sense). However, most of the difficult areas look the same as all the others. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the difficult enemy placement. Maybe if I follow through with my threat to plot out the enemy difficulties by hand, I'll be able to find a pattern; but if there is a pattern, it's invisible to players in-game.

          Needless to say, this enemy placement results in some very irritating difficulty spikes. And that only exacerbates my number-one complaint with Breath of the Wild...

          Breaking Weapons


          The weapon system in this game sucks.

          I have no issue with weapons that eventually break; Dark Cloud 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and it revolves around this mechanic. But the thing with Dark Cloud 2 is... you can actually fix your weapons before they break. And even if you forget and your weapons do break, you still have the broken weapon in your inventory until you get to the store for repairs. And even in the brutally difficult first Dark Cloud (where your weapons were gone for good if you let them break), you could still buy new weapons if you needed to. Sure, it sucked to accidentally break a high-level weapon and then have to rebuild it from scratch, but at least it was possible to re-acquire weaponry appropriate to your level.

          But Breath of the Wild has no weapon shops, no "repair powder" (as in the Dark Cloud series), no blacksmiths to fix any of your regular equipment. Repair services are only available for a grand total four weapons in the game: the "champion weapons" you acquire by defeating each of the four dungeons in the game. This means that when all your other "regular" weapons break, they're essentially gone forever.

          "So why use regular weapons at all? Why not exclusively use the champion weapons?"

          Because these repairs are relatively costly. And with the absurdly rapid rate at which some of these weapons break, you're going to need more than four weapons in your arsenal to do any amount of fighting in this game.

          Breath of the Wild tries to compensate for this by regularly reviving all enemies throughout the game. This allows you to, in theory, take and re-take their gear ad nauseam; but come on, how am I supposed to remember exactly where I got that high-damage Spiked Dragonbone Club? Not to mention, a vast majority of the higher-level weapons are only available from treasure chests... and therefore do not respawn. Once they're gone, they're gone for good.

          This results in the very real possibility that by the time you've got enough armor to reasonably take on the harder enemies in the game, you might have also destroyed all your high-level weapons... And this results in hours spent running around trying to find those illogically-located high-level enemies to try to whittle one's health down with enough low-level weapons until you get that new Spiked Dragonbone Club. Oh, and you'll probably break every one of those low-level weapons along the way.

          I would have loved to see a system that allowed players to repair all weapons before they broke. Set the cost for enough in-game currency to encourage players to explore the world more as they run around picking up rupees and the necessary resources to restore their damaged equipment. And if the cost is high enough, it'll prove to be a great money sink, thereby preserving the in-game economy.

          Another major complaint is this game has no storage system whatsoever. There is no bank. There is no armory. There is no treasure chest at home where you can store the good weapons you want to save for harder fights while you carry around lower-level gear for your run-of-the-mill battles. The closest equivalent I could find was when I stored three of my high-level weapons in display cases at my house. And no three weapons will get you far in this game, not when used on high-level enemies.

          All of these complaints converged when I had to fight one particular boss. This boss required certain kinds of gear in order to defeat: during one phase of the battle, the player must deflect the boss's lightning-fast attacks with a shield in order to progress to the next phase. Now, you can't use a shield with a two-handed weapon. Makes sense. The only problem was, I didn't have any single-handed weapons. Oh, I had plenty of high-level two-handed weapons I'd been hoarding for such a time as this... which were all temporarily useless. So, just to open up space in my inventory, I was forced to sacrifice some of my two-handed weapons (the kinds that you can only find in treasure chests; ergo, the ones that don't respawn) and store my three best weapons at home. After that, I had to spend hours tracking down any and every single-handed weapon I could find. Despite an inventory full of single-handed weapons, I still barely made it through the boss fight with any weapons intact. It was one of the most frustrating and unenjoyable experiences I have had with the game.

          Dungeons


          Despite my frustration with abovementioned dungeon due to the weapon issue, I do enjoy the "dungeons" (that is, the four Divine Beasts) in Breath of the Wild. They're not too long to get frustrating or boring, but they're long enough to take 1-2 typical sessions of play to complete. The puzzles are varied enough to remain interesting, but they all have a shared element of utilizing rotating maps to get where you want to go. It's an interesting mechanic and one I haven't seen used to this degree ever before.

          That's not to say the dungeons are without flaws. Sometimes the dungeons don't make it clear how to open some doors to access some areas. This, coupled with the fact that at a certain point you cannot reenter the dungeon, can be pretty frustrating, especially if you're looking to get every piece of loot you can.

          Overall, however, I think the Divine Beasts are very fun, and well worthy of seats beside other classic Zelda dungeons. The only downside is that once you're done with the Four Divine Beasts, you're done with "dungeons" for the rest of the game. The much smaller and far more numerous shrines will keep you entertained to a certain point, but most of these are single-room puzzles that can be solved relatively quickly; I certainly wouldn't put them on the same level as Zelda dungeons.

          The Conclusion

          Breath of the Wild has its flaws and frustrations. There were some points I honestly put the game down for days because I was stuck or irritated.

          But at the end of the day, I still can't deny how purely addictive this game is. It's little wonder it gained so much praise virtually overnight. From the dazzling variety of fun things to do to the gorgeous landscape to roam through, this game successfully encapsulates the sense of adventure that older Legend of Zelda embodied. Breath of the Wild is a great back-to-basics game that has revitalized the series for a modern audience.

          ---
          Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

          Works Cited:
          • Hulfish, Garrett. "Future Zelda Games Will Have an Open-world Design, Says Producer Eiji Aonuma." Digital Trends. Designtechnica Corporation, 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

          Review format adapted from Curtis Bell's Iridium Eye. Bored of the usual flicks on Redbox or Netflix? Check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you've never heard of.

          From Him, To Him

          Friday, June 30, 2017

          Excerpt - Titans Together: "Seris's Office"

          Another excerpt from Titans Together comin' atcha! This one was co-written by my friend Kitsune Ninetails, who played both his original character Shissar and HK-47, a robot from the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video game series. Fantasic series if you're interested in Star Wars and enjoy a good RPG.

          Hope you enjoy!

          ---


          Marcus took his customary seat facing Seris's desk.

          Seris took her seat behind the desk, taking off a pair of earrings and placing them in one of her drawers as she nodded to Marcus and HK. "Turn on the recording." She locked the drawer and glanced over her shoulder. "Not that I don't trust your report, Shissar."

          The snake-woman appeared mid-stretch, coiling up off to the side and flicking her tongue before she spoke. "I undersstand. Besst to have a recording anyway. Even the besst eyess miss thingss."

          "Acknowledgement: Very well." HK's eyes lit up a brighter shade of red before the hologram projected onto Seris' desk, using the surface as an impromptu stage upon which the entire battle played out. Of course it was from HK's perspective, but no detail went unmissed by his photoreceptors. It continued up until the order to run was given when Zeke appeared, cutting out once the team had evac'd.

          Seris stroked her chin as she watched the full recording without comment. She then sat up straight and tapped the desktop. "And where were you the whole fight, Marcus?"

          No sign of a smirk on Marcus's face this time as he replied calmly. "In the ship. Sabateuring."

          "I take it the enemy escaped on said ship."

          "They did."

          "Then you did not only an abysmal job 'sabateuring,' but also leading. You were the highest-ranking officer in that group next to Shissar. A team requires a leader to function. You failed your duties as such."

          Marcus nodded, taking the criticism silently.

          Seris stared at the hologram figures for another moment. "The rest of you performed admirably. I'm particularly impressed at how well you functioned as a group. Give Fireclaw my regards next time you see her. I'll have to remember to release some prisoners to her as a thank you for her work here."

          Seris tapped her fingertips on the arm of her chair as she leaned back in it. "Your designation is HK, is that correct?" she inquired of the droid.

          "Clarifying Statement: My full designation is HK-47." It wasn't being disrespectful, simply stating a fact. And it kept its answers brief; after all, Marcus hadn't given too much for it to work with in terms of addressing his mother. The fully intelligent droid just figured being short was best.

          Shissar meanwhile made an idle note about the prisoner release.

          Seris nodded. No offense taken, apparently. "HK-47, rewind the holorecording back to beginning of tape. Specifically the point immediately after you and the other agents revealed yourselves."

          Marcus just sat back in his chair, tapping his chin and wondering what else his mother was going to bust him for next.

          The droid did as requested silently, the hologram flickering for a moment before it was back to that point. "Query: Shall I play it again?"

          "Unnecessary, at least for the moment." She tapped the hologram, specifically the figures of three of the initial enemies--Keera, Kale, and Ophelia. "Have any of you seen any of these targets before?"

          Marcus initially shook his head before responding, "Well... I actually have files on the brunette. She's a Titan, or at least was. Initial reports dubbed her missing in action. Obviously that's not the case. Codename Night Hawk."

          "Anyone else?" Seris glanced to HK and Shissar.

          Shissar uncoiled enough to get a better view of the hologram, so she could pinpoint which ones she'd seen standing where. "I have not sseen either of them before."

          The droid meanwhile pulled up another hologram, a scrolling list of newspaper articles about Kale. "Statement: Kale Snipes. Human. Martial Arts Master. Philanthropist. Chinese national. Reportedly responsible for stopping numerous crimes. Current address: building seven one nine, Georgetown Street, Metro City. Addendum: It should be noted that an intelligent person, by now, would have relocated due to the fact our battle with him was nearby. Current location: unknown. Current Occupation Martial Artist. Apology: I am sorry I can not provide additional information on this subject. Addendum: I am also unable to locate any relevant data on the other subject."

          Seris nodded, but maintained her poker face. However, Marcus knew from experience she was impressed. "HK-47, search for information regarding Night Hawk. Marcus, while he's running the search, enlighten us. Who is this young woman?"

          "Around twenty years or so, five-foot-four, something like one hundred thirty pounds. She's a shadowmancer..." He started to add information a bit more slowly, "Which was actually what caught my attention when I began studying her. It struck me as strange how similar her powers were to mine," He cast a glance at Seris, but if she noticed his look, she didn't show it. He continued. "Shadow manipulation, but only on objects she's created herself. She's been known to use it to shield her body from attacks. Two-dimensional shadow form she can switch into at will. Allows her to get into small areas. They've used her on a few stealth missions before. Additional powers of flight. Weird thing is, swords are her weapon of choice. I've never seen that gun before."

          As Marcus came to a close, Seris turned to HK. "Anything to add, HK-47?"

          "Statement: Nighthawk is most noted on your world wide web for two instances of valor. She is reported to have almost single-handedly defended the city of Conark from a cult of metahumans calling hemselves the Immortal Legion. She is also noted as being the diplomat responsible for attempting to establish a Titan Tower in Luster City. Finally, through my own analysis, I believe her to be one of the Phantoms of Shoan."

          Seris raised an eyebrow at that. "You believe? We don't operate on faith in this establishment, HK-47. Elaborate on your line of reasoning to arrive at this conclusion."

          "Acknowledgement: Very well. Statement: After having reviewed numerous images and footage of operations the Phantoms of Shoan have released, the firearm Nighthawk is wielding on the beach is dentical to the one wielded by one of the Phantoms. Addendum: Also factored in are the height, weight and reported use of shadowmancer powers, specifically the two dimensional shadow form was reportedly used by one of the Phantoms assisting in the interruption of the strike team's efforts to capture one Jason Norrik, resident of Shoan and known Super."

          Seris smiled softly. "Impressive. Good work, HK-47." She waved her hand back at the table as she cleared her throat. The smile disappeared. "My main concern is the fact that we have no record connecting Kale or Ophelia with the Titans. My guess is that they are beginning to recruit again." She leaned out over the table, staring specifically at Marcus. "I don't believe I need to say that we cannot allow this to happen."

          Marcus nodded briskly.

          "Now. Do we have any information on the winged one with the ship? Other than the fact that he will burn for attacking my tower." Seris again glanced to her three reporters.

          Shissar shook her head. "I know only that it iss a sship I have sseen before, at leasst that ssame class of sship."

          HK-47 however went quiet for a moment. Only the quiet whir of his processors working escaped him before the hologram changes to a dossier. There, clearly visible, was Kaldra's face, name, and everything about him. "Statement: Identification Confirmed. Kaldra Sargt. Callsign: Foehammer. Species: Vulkrixian. Rank: Sentinel Agent. Captain of the ship Dawnbreaker, a Dynamic Class Freighter modified for the role of gunship. Last Known Assignment: Investigate Brotherhood of Evil operations on Earth. Last Contact: One year, two months, twelve days standard earth time prior to current date. Additional notes are available regarding this subject's training and history at further request."

          Seris raised a brow as she turned back toward the droid. "Consider it requested, HK-47. Tell us more."

          Marcus had sat up straight in his seat. "Yeah, and where are you getting this information from? I highly doubt he put it up on his Facebook page..."

          "Confirmation: Very well. Continuation: Agent Foehammer was trained in hacking, sabotage, and interception of intelligence. He is also a skilled melee fighter with access to his species' powers, the manipulation, creation, and absorption of light. In training he was noted as preferring to use a solid blade to make up for his weakness in darkness. He is noted as the only Vulkrixian within Sentinel Ranks as of last update of this file. He was chosen as a test subject by Sentinel Command, to judge the effectiveness of his species within Sentinel operations. During training he showed an excellent grasp of subterfuge tactics and the willingness to use them, and more direct means, when the situation requirements had changed."

          HK 47 paused, looking to Marcus at that point. "Statement: This unit was at one point property of The Sentinels. I still have a few of their files. Observation: It would appear my latest memory records indicate that I was to meet with Sentinel Agent Foehammer and assist him due to his lack of communication with Sentinel Command. How curious."

          Seris addressed Marcus while staring at HK. "How, exactly, did you 'boost' its performance?"

          Jackpot. "He wasn't running at full capacity, so I took him to Harroc to work on him more. She's still not finished, but it's gonna cost a bit to get him up to full throttle."

          "I'll wire the money directly. How much did you spend today? I know you don't have any funds to speak of."

          "Five hundred downpayment."

          Seris pressed a button on the phone pad on her desk. She issued some orders to whatever peon was on the other line and then nodded. "Done. I want him fully operational. As soon as he is, we're extracting every bit of information he contains about these Sentinels, Foehammer, and whatever else we can get. HK-47, you are dismissed. Feel free to wait outside until Agent Oblivion is finished here."

          "Confirmation: Affirmative." The droid turned, walking from the room.

          As soon as he'd gone, Shissar spoke up. "The ssentinelss... I didn't think they were real. Ghosstss. Nobody knowss who they are except for a few rumorss." She shook her head some, glancing at Marcus. For once, she had to admit, he'd come through. Even she couldn't argue with his results this time.

          Seris nodded slowly. Even with her stoic demeanor, one could see the wheels turning in her mind. "Where did you obtain him, Marcus?"

          "I overheard some of our engineers talking about some scrap robot they'd found among some wreckage shortly after we put up the shield. The idea of an alien robot piqued my curiosity, so I asked if I could take a look at it. Well, threw my weight around and took it off their hands, more like it. They weren't going to do anything with it except pretty it up, scan him down, and tell you anything they found anyway."

          Seris steepled her fingertips together. "Rumors that are unfortunately proving all too true. If he is here, I have to wonder how many more there are on Earth... or waiting outside it for the shields to fail." Seris closed her eyes, calculating.

          "So he's working with the Titans against a common enemy? He seemed pretty cozy with them, judging from the attack footage." He gestured to Shissar. "You've seen it, haven't you, Shissy? What he did as soon as they got your bitten girl out of the towers?"

          "He wass rather quick to come to her aid... and the sshotss at the tower came sshortly after I bit her. Thiss may alsso explain the sstrange lightss reported when one of our Titan prissonerss esscaped not long ago... Roxer, I think hiss name wass. The robot ssaid Foehammer'ss sspeciess can manipulate light..." Shissar nodded as she thought this over. Despite her scaled face hiding almost every facet of her emotions, it was clear she was more than a little unnerved about the fact a ghost story had just turned out to be real.

          Seris frowned. "Yes, and Foehammer and Roxer were working in conjunction during your mission, as well. The situation may be more serious than we initially anticipated. If the Sentinels were establishing contacts with the Titans before the shields went up..." Seris fell silent as she considered the possibilities. None of them looked good. "Not a word of this gets out to anyone. No one. Not any other agents, not to the other Overseers, not unless the head himself asks directly. Understood? Information of this magnitude could absolutely shatter our morale."

          "Understood." Marcus nodded, concealing an inward smile. Finally, they were starting to face an opponent worthy of throwing their full weight against!

          "I undersstand." Is all Shissar said. Seris could always trust the snake to keep her mouth shut when she had to. She did hiss though and glance at the painting at the wall, but Seris didn't seem too worried about it, so she left the gesture at that. "He wass alsso pressent when the Titanss picked up the antivenom... he wass the one that carried it..."

          "We were already aware of the fact they would be working on an antidote. I'm certain they are still far from doing that. Even with our technology and staff, it was difficult. But this is no less... troubling." Seris frowned. "Shissar, what specifically have you heard about the Sentinels? Rumors or otherwise."

          "Jusst that they are Ghosstss. They are very good at knowing everything about ssomeone or ssomething, and when they make a move it iss alwayss brutal, efficient and elegant all at once. They rarely leave any ssurvivorss of anybody they target, and they never leave data behind. They are ssaid to infiltrate organizationss, weaken them from the insside, and trick them into sspending ressourcess on useless thingss. Then when the resst of them sshow up, the organization iss already weakened, and crumbless. That iss one rumor. The other I have heard mosst commonly iss that they are ssimply sspiess, gathering intelligence to then give to people like the Jusstice League and the Green Lantern Corps. A freighter modified into a gunsship ssuggesstss that the firsst iss likely..."

          Seris nodded, the stoic mask back on her face. Only a mind-reader could tell what she was thinking most of the time. And even then, it would have to be a good one. A very, very good one. "Thank you, Shissar. We will have to factor this into our future endeavors. You've done some good work these past few days. Take the day off and relax. I have some things I must discuss with my son."

          Ah. Here it came. "So, should I go start my laps now, or do you have some new form of torture in mind?"

          Seris rose from her desk and brushed it off lightly. "Quite the opposite, actually." She opened another drawer and held out a set of keys, dangling them before Marcus. "I didn't say you've done badly enough to deserve torture... yet."

          Marcus's eyes widened. He knew those keys. Those were... those were the keys to the Porsche, weren't they?

          "I have some other business to attend to, Shissar. Do give my regards to Agent Fireclaw if you happen to see her while I'm out." Seris gestured for Marcus to follow as she headed out the door, keys still ringing as they swung around her fingertip.

          Marcus followed giddily.

          "Yess, Sseriss. I'll be in my quarterss if you have need of me." Shissar cloaked and slipped away.

          Marcus found HK-47 standing silently outside the door until the droid spotted its master. "Query: Is there anything further I can do for you Master, or shall I return to your quarters and shut down for the time being?"

          Marcus waved his hand, almost mesmerized by the keys in Seris's hand. "Yep. Yes. Go ahead and do that. Enjoy the nap, buddy." He was nearly salivating to get downstairs to the garage and take that baby for a run.

          ---
          Originally posted on Titans Together, founded by Hufflepuff Moonshoes. All Shissar and HK-47 dialogue courtesy of Kitsune Ninetails. Used with permission.

          Teen Titans and all related terms are the property of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Check out the original show for some great superhero action, memorable villains, and hilarious hi-jinks.

          HK-47, Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic, and all other related terms are the property of LucasFilm and Walt Disney Studios.

          Photo: Southbank, Australia by Arnaud Mesureur; originally posted on Unsplash.com.
          From Him, To Him