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