Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Inspirational Video Games I Have Known

Writers need to read.  Professionals in every field learn from their peers, and writers are no exception.  There's no other way to understand what others can accomplish with language and voice, and if you don't gain that understanding, you run the risk of having your own words molder.

Reading is great, but it's not the only avenue to learn more about the possibilities of storytelling.  I have had my mind broadened by more than a few movies; somewhat more controversially (for my parents at least - HI MOM AND DAD), I can say that the same is true of more than a few video games.

I'll list a few here without going into detail about any of them; hopefully I'll get a chance to do that in a future blog post:
  • Silent Hill 2
  • Shadow of the Colossus
  • Final Fantasy Tactics
  • Final Fantasy XIII-2 (seriously guys, it's really good)
And the latest video game whose release inspired me to start my Final Fantasy story retrospectives: Final Fantasy Type-0.  I finished this game at the lively hour of 4am last night (I guess technically  that should be "this morning") and then spent the next hour unable to sleep as I marveled at what the game accomplished with its story.  Sure, objectively speaking the larger-scale story was both convoluted and nonsensical; but the personal journeys of the twelve cadets was...

... I'll stop there before I write out my retrospective two months ahead of schedule.  It's not the point of this rambling anyway.  My point is this: I finished Final Fantasy Type-0 and was immediately inspired to try and put some of the emotions I felt into a story of my own.  I won't go into details as to how, but suffice it to say that the story I'm working on about my daughter's stuffed animals now has a much needed injection of drama and stakes.

I'll end this by saying that movies and video games cannot be substituted wholesale for books; things like style and pacing and imagery and a host of other writerly considerations can only be learned through the written word.  But I will say that a story is a story no matter how it is told.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Final Fantasy X: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

I should have been more excited about Final Fantasy X.  The first Final Fantasy introduced for the PlayStation 2, it promised to be a technical showcase for the power of the console.

And yet... in the months and weeks and days leading up to FFX's release, I felt curiously flat about the game.  Two years removed from my college graduation, I was now living on my own for the first time in my life.  I had outgrown roommates, outgrown the overwrought dramas of FFVII and FFVIII, and no longer appreciated the nostalgic adorability of FFIX.  Had I outgrown the Final Fantasy series as a whole?

"Yes" might have been a legitimate answer, but at that time I was not yet ready to let go of the relics of my younger days.


The Opening

The opening is a bit schizophrenic.

 

On the one hand you have a peaceful moment around a campfire set to the strains of a beautiful piano melody.  It's quiet and sedate and wistful, and it feels like the setup to an intriguingly introspective game.  On the other hand, you have what comes after: a frenetic and confusingly busy cutscene accompanied to metal rock, movie seemingly designed to appeal to a targeted demographic looking for a hardcore game experience.  After watching the opening, the question became - which hand would win out?

A quick note: FFX was also the first Final Fantasy game to feature voice acting, and boy, was I nervous (and if you've watched dubbed anime, you know why).  I'm glad to say that my fears were unjustified; the voice acting in this series has ranged from surprisingly bearable to excellent.


The Rest of the Story


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SPOILER WARNING
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The gist of the plot is this: Tidus, a star blitzball player, is transported to another time where a monstrous entity known as Sin threatens to destroy the world.  Yuna is a summoner whose father - along with Tidus's father - turned back Sin ten years ago.  She and Tidus and others embark on a journey to prevent this destruction, only to learn that the the situation is not as simple as it seems.

This is a fairly generic summary, and in all honesty I found much of the game to be similarly generic.  Other than Tidus and Yuna, the characters are not all that interesting to me - not even Auron, the "cool" laconic wandering samurai - so I'll skip the bulk of the story and just mention the parts that stood out.

Before talking about what's really going on in the story, let me talk about two relationships.

The first is the romance between Tidus and Yuna.  At the time I found it lacking in both drama and passion.  Now when I think about it, it feels honest and surprisingly subtle.  Again, I don't know whether my mind is playing tricks on me; but I will say that my views on love fifteen years ago could be charitably described as "naive".  Now I'm... well, perhaps I am still a bit willfully naive, but I also appreciate that a good relationship requires steadiness and a thousand quiet moments that build into something strong and lasting.  And I think FFX does an excellent job depicting that.

The second relationship is that between Tidus and his father, Jecht.  Abandoned as a child (it's not revealed until later that Jecht left to join Yuna's father in a quest to turn back Sin), Tidus harbors a deep-seated resentment towards his father.  It's an intriguing bit of darkness within an otherwise sunny personality.

Although Jecht is presumed dead, the truth is far more complicated.  Although Sin is presumed to be turned back every ten years through the trials of a summoner and a guardian, it turns out that this cycle is what actually allows Sin to renew itself.  Each journey to defeat Sin merely destroys a form, one that is almost immediately renewed through the body of either the summoner and the guardian.  And so when Tidus and Yuna and the others embark on their quest to turn back Sin, they are unknowingly also seeking to destroy Tidus's father once and for all.

Twining together two threads of the plot - the world-spanning one and the highly personal one - is a neat device that adds weight and consequence to both.  It all comes together in one final battle that is preceded by an emotional meeting (1:39 - 7:00).



Okay, the animation is stilted and the voice acting is excessive, but I still find the dialogue effective: beneath the spoken words you can infer everything that the characters are leaving unspoken.  There is subtlety in the scene, and it's hard not to appreciate that.

Then, of course, we get another heavy metal ballad.  To further belabor my point, I'll mention the tragedy of the ending where Tidus and Yuna are pulled apart, and praise the emotional maturity of both characters upon realizing their fates.  Then I'll mention that there's a sequel - Final Fantasy X-2 - that completely undoes this ending.  I only know this because I read the plot of the sequel on Wikipedia; the game itself I found to be honestly abhorrent.

That's the FFX experience  It's a haunting tale covered in layers and layers of unfortunate excess.  When I played it I was unable to separate the two, but now I find myself feeling far more charitable towards the game.  Was I overly judgmental back then, or is my memory kinder now?  I'm not sure.

Friday, March 27, 2015

TMoH #6: Heartbreak

Yes, it's time for another thirty minutes of hell!.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, my introductory post on this topic provides a quick summary.

The writing prompt from NANO fiction is: Write about a character with a tradition. This can be a ritual that involves superstitions, something surrounding religion, or any other kind of thing you can think of.


Heartbreak

By the time he reached a certain age he knew exactly what to do when his heart broke.  He would take a firm grip upon his right arm with his left; then he would guide his right arm - ever so slowly and ever so carefully! - down his throat, using his limb like a precision surgical tool.

You might think that it would be difficult to do something like this without doing severe damage to your internals; but by the time he reached a certain age he could do it almost without thinking.  His right arm would slide down his esophagus and brush behind the aveoli of his lungs and then it would be at its destination: his heart, beating oddly and insistently - or insistently oddly? - within the cage of his ribs.

It was simple from that point on; remember, by the time he reached a certain age he had performed this procedure upon himself tens of times.  He would simply use his fingers to feel along the raw surface of his wounded heart until he located the break; then he would massage the break closed, gently pressing and folding the sad material of his heart until the break was sealed.

And then he would use his left arm to retract his arm, smiling all the while; for by the time he reached a certain age he knew that his self-operation would lead to health and success.  His heart would be healed, beating steadily and in time once more, and he would be free to go back into the world and have his heart broken all over again.


beep-beep-beep...

I'm aping the style of a classmate of mine from a writing course; she wrote beautifully strange pieces that used grotesque metaphors to heighten inner turmoil and conflict.  I'm nowhere near as good at this technique as she is; my stories tend towards the literal rather than the metaphorical, and I don't have a good enough grasp of imagery to heighten the surrealness of the tale to memorable levels.

Still, it's fun to try once in a while.  And yes, I do honestly feel that a broken heart mended is simply one that is ready to be broken once more (but it's better than having a heart turn to stone).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Committing to a Story; or, Why I Talk To Myself In Public

Last Sunday my daughter was in a foul mood, overtired after an exhausting day.  It was the early evening, and after finishing her work she slammed her butt down in a chair and slumped over to play a computer game.  I was a bit concerned.  I tried talking with her, I tried teasing her, I tried making her laugh - but everything I did resulted in a grunt or an annoyed stare.

It's possible that I should have just waited her mood out; sometimes that's all you can really do with a person.  But I had to leave for a week-long business trip in a few minutes, and it hurt my heart to see her like this.  So I decided to try one more thing.  After seeing that her game involved guiding a polar bear through arctic waters, I went to her room and fetched her stuffed polar bear.  Then I sat next to my daughter and slowly guided the polar bear next to her hand.

She looked down.  "Oh," she said.  "Hi polar bear."

The polar bear jumped up and down excitedly and nosed at the polar bear on the computer screen.  Then he backed up slowly, confused, and looked up at her with a questioning sound.

"It's not real," my daughter said.  "It's a computer game.  I'm controlling the polar bear.  See?"  She demonstrated the keyboard and mouse controls to the fascinated polar bear, and as she did so her body quickly filled with the liveliness and energy that I'm used to seeing and that I love so much.  And right before I left for the airport I was rewarded with three hugs and eight kisses (yes, I counted).

My daughter and I share many similar traits, and I'm telling this story because it made me realize that we share one more: we both fall easily and naturally into the stories that we see around us.  Whether it's a curious polar bear or a head pig or a cabal of small stuffed animals planning on getting rid of the mean dragon that keeps punting them off the bed ("CHARIZARD! We talked about this!"), I can count on my daughter to perk up and join the tale with much enthusiasm and delight.  She is a storyteller's dream.

It's something that I do as well, except I can't always control the stories that pop up inside my head; put another way, the problem with having an imagination is that you imagine things.  This scenario has happened to me more than few times: I'll be walking by myself down the sidewalk when some odd environmental detail suddenly catches my eye.  A story ravels itself together, and the next thing I know I'll be audible actor in the theater of my mind, and there'll be a person half-a-block in front of me quickening his pace and glaring back at me.

It's something that I've learned to control to a certain extent; experience has taught me the dangers of falling too deeply into the fictions that my mind can create.  And yet I don't think it's the worst quirk a person can have.  For example, I suspect it's the reason that I can read other people's moods so quickly.  Plus, a credulous imagination can certainly liven up a boring day!

This trait that my daughter and I share is probably neither good nor bad in and of itself, but merely something else that needs to be moderated within.  Here's hoping that we succeed!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Libraries

I remember being raised by the library for large chunks of my childhood.  This is not a criticism of my parents in any way - they both did (and do) wonderful things for their children, and in all honesty?  The library was my preferred babysitter, one that I would pout about not getting to see.

Around first grade or so I snuck out of the children's area and started trawling the far more imposing shelves of the adult sections.  It's a bit of a laughable cliche to say that 'books are worlds', one used to try (and usually fail) to persuade a recalcitrant child into reading.  At the same time, what I learned growing up is that those three words are completely true: books are worlds.  Brushing my fingers along the spines of shelved books was like spotting a new planet through a telescope.  Pulling one down and reading the cover flaps was like sending a probe into the upper atmosphere.  And when I finally worked up the courage to read one...

... well, I remember telling my first grade speech therapist that I had just read my very first Stephen King book.  "Oh Mainn," I remember her saying, "please don't read those."  I readily agreed, and if I noticed her shock through my childish self-absorption, it's only because I was pretty shocked myself.  'The Long Walk' (review) is one of King's more existential horror novels, and it more than broadened my horizons; it shattered them.  Through that book I glimpsed hazy vistas of mortality and pain and sacrifice and the implacably uncaring nature of life.  After reading 'The Long Walk', I wanted nothing more than to return to my safe and comfortable world of fairy tales and easy adventures.

Except a) I couldn't, and b) I didn't really want to.

I'll spare you the rest of my childhood, except to mention that whenever I was particularly disobedient as a child (this usually involved really not wanting to practice a musical instrument), my mother would threaten to take the library away from me, and I would throw a tantrum for a few minutes before giving in.

Fast forward 15 years or so.  As a freshly employed college graduate I was overcome by the high of having an income of my own for the first time in my life.  How did I waste my money?  I bought a laptop and a Playstation to play the newest Final Fantasy.  I bought a few DVDs.  And then I went to the bookstore and purchased whatever book I damned well felt like.

I marched out of that bookstore supremely self-satisfied.  I returned home to my new apartment, plopped down on my sleeping bag (did I mention that I didn't think it necessary to buy a bed?), started reading... and made a terrible discovery: the books I had picked were terrible.

What I hadn't realized is that although the library had taught me to love books, it hadn't taught me to be discerning about choosing them.  Taking a book home from a library is cost-free; if you make a mistake, just exchange the book the next time you're at the library.  The return policy at a bookstore is not always so forgiving.

And you know what?  I think that lack of discernment is great!  Books are worlds, and while it is easy and safe to visit and explore worlds that are all the same - and there's nothing wrong with wanting a comfort book - we don't broaden our horizons that way.  We don't grow, we don't change, we don't challenge ourselves.  And I think that's a bit of a shame.

I don't have a grand point here (just a desire to force myself to write a bit every single day), so I'll end somewhat anti-climatically with a few numbers.  In the past year I've checked out 89 items for myself from the library.  Assuming an average cost of $10, that's a savings of $890.  And the psychic savings for not having paid for the five or so books that I thought were terrible and did not finish?  Well, as they say in that old credit card commercial, that's priceless.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Final Fantasy IX: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

If I remember my gaming news articles correctly, Final Fantasy IX was consciously developed as a course correction.  The previous Final Fantasies had lost the fantastical feel of the early games in favor of technological dystopias, and the series was growing increasingly somber and dark.  So Square decided that Final Fantasy IX would be set in a medieval world and created a story with a lighter heart (although with some serious themes).

I was disappointed.  In some odd way the Final Fantasy games and I had grown up together.  But now I was a fresh college graduate with his first real job, and it was like my 'friend' had retreated back to the safety of elementary school.

Still, Final Fantasy was Final Fantasy, and so I bought FFIX on release day, hoping to quiet the skeptical voices in my head.


The Opening

The opening did not reassure me.

 

The first three minutes are frankly bizarre - sedate rural county fair music and visages of characters that we don't know overlaid with ponderous quotes that are meaningless without context.

The opening cinematic proper starts three minutes in, and it begins a bit more promisingly with three hooded figures stranded in a tiny boat fighting against the raging ocean.  But that's just a half-remembered memory; the cinematic cuts to the present where Princess Garnet is alone, preparing for a kingdom-wide birthday celebration.  She's distracted by the sight of an airship flying against the rosy skies, and then we see glimpses of Zidane, the monkey-tailed thief, and Vivi, the wandering black mage with wide spotlight eyes.  And then the cinematic is over.

This opening does a few things well.  Show, not tell is the classroom maxim, and I think the cinematic performs well in detailing two characters.  First, there's Garnet's loneliness and desire to experience the larger world.  And then there's Vivi childish confusion, innocence, and wonder.  Square's cinematic department does an excellent job with subtle motions and facial expression.

However, for me the opening falls short in another area.  FFIX is the only Final Fantasy game I played whose opening I could not recall from memory.  Why?  I think it's because it fails to provide the tension and conflict needed for viewers to quickly invest themselves in the story.  Start off with a bang!

The Rest of the Story


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SPOILER WARNING
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The rest of the story is also similarly unmemorable to me, so I'll just list the general arcs of the characters that I do remember:

Zidane: the archetypal good-hearted thief and main protagonist of the game.  Has a secret connection with Kuja, the main villain of the game.  He and Garnet become romantically involved.  And then...

... honestly Zidane's just not that interesting; he feels like a character that could have been spit out by an extremely simple plot-generator program.

Vivi: one of many artificially created black mages constructed to be weapons of war with limited lifespans.  But his 'programming' cannot overcome his essentially kind nature, and his creators try to hunt him down as a defective.  This is a 'can-robots-become-real-people' story in a fantasy setting!

Vivi's arc is well-told and moving, and I can't quite explain why it didn't connect with me more.  Thinking about it, I suspect it's because I played FFIX when I had just graduated from college and was trying to assert myself as a non-clueless adult who possessed complete mastery over the ways of the world (spoiler alert: I was pretty clueless).  I think people are often most embarrassed by the things that they secretly identify with.

Garnet and Eiko: although Garnet is a princess, she is actually the adopted daughter of the evil queen who once destroyed a village of summoner mages and stole away the baby who would grow up to be Garnet.  The only other survivor from the village is Eiko, who is an extremely temperamental young girl.

Although initially in conflict over a shared affection for Zidane, they each gradually realize that the other provides a missing piece of their lives: for Garnet, knowledge of her forgotten origins; and for Eiko, a sense of family that she never knew that she needed.  And in FFIX's most dramatic cutscene, their shared understanding allows them to unleash a great power.




For me, the image of Garnet and Eiko with palms pressed against palms, sharing acceptance of themselves and each other, is the enduring image of the game.  In my opinion it is their story that forms the emotional heart of Final Fantasy IX, not Zidane's.  They should have been the central protagonists.

Friday, March 20, 2015

TMoH #5: The Dragon's Wish

Once again: thirty minutes of hell!.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, my introductory post on this topic provides a quick summary.

The writing prompt from NANO fiction is: Write about someone going into a witness relocation program.


The Dragon's Wish

There came a time when the dragon grew tired of fighting the knights that came to him weekly.  Although 'fighting' was too kind, as each encounter consisted of an idiot knight marching up to the mouth of his cave and shouting imprecations - rude ones! - until the dragon could no longer ignore the buzzing in his ears, whereupon he would stick his neck out and fry the knight with one quarter-powered blast of flame.

Dragons live long lives, and after a hundred years this dragon realize that this situation was unlikely to change unless he did something about it.  So he took wing and visited Merlin.  The wizard quickly acceded to his request, merely asking for a small donation of dragon scales which the dragon gave.  Then Merlin waved his wand, mumbled some nonsense words, and poof!  The dragon turned into a young human man.

A person might think that it is difficult for a dragon to live his years out as a human; if so, then that person clearly does not know what a dragon's daily life entails.  Although the dragon-turned-man no longer had many of his former skills - flight or fire-breathing among them - his draconic spirit and can-do attitude carried him a long way.  He quickly amassed a fortune - no mean feat within the strict social castes of the Dark Ages - and lived a life of safety and comfort and hard, hard work.

And yet - there came a day when the dragon-turned-man woke up and realized that his tasks and difficulties of the coming week were much the same as those of the week before and the week before that.  And what of the next week and the week after that?  An unending parade of drudgery, no better than when he had been a dragon.

So he bought a fine suit of armor and a fine longsword and rode away on a fine horse.  As he approached a local dragon's lair, he wondered briefly: did he hope to defeat the dragon, or to be consumed by it?  And that was when he realized that the answer didn't matter one whit to him, and that understanding gave him a freedom that he had never felt in all his years as a dragon or as a man.



beep-beep-beep...

Sometimes you really want to write about dragons.  What can I say?

I didn't get the beats or consistency of this fable right, but I think this is a reasonable start.  Small note: I originally gave the dragon a name, but after shuffling through hundreds of choices and settling on 'Drason', I gave up and made him anonymous.  Hey, it made me happy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fiction: The Girl with the Pink Balloon

The Girl with the Pink Balloon

On the first Saturday of his unemployment, Mark left his apartment and took his usual early morning walk.  Four blocks away, he stopped with his hand on the open door of the coffee shop and reconsidered his routine.  He stood there for a while, people giving him strange looks as they pushed on by.  Thoughts danced and whirled and died in his brain, and after a while, he moved on.

There was nothing for him back at home, so he kept walking.  The early fall weather was pleasant and cool.  He walked by shuttered banks and empty restaurants, passed darkened stores that sold clothes and toys and shoes, and when he came to a playground, he stopped.

He leaned against the chest-high fence and watched as the dim light and breeze rippled shadows across the abandoned bars and swings and slides.  The emptiness felt like a broken promise, a bruise on the heart that he knew he deserved.  Mark smiled and lifted the latch on the gate, careful to close it behind him.  He sat on the far bench and watched as dry leaves spun through the open spaces.  And because he had nowhere to go, he stayed there.

As the morning trickled onwards, the playground filled before him.  Mothers and fathers came in with strollers in front and bundled kids in tow.  Children ran and played, filling the air with shouts and screams, laughter and cries.  A few parents pointed fingers and directed whispers his way, and those who did not still gave him a wide berth.  This was all fine. The trees were lightly dressed in red and brown, with small birds hopping from branch to branch.  The sun ascended higher into the sky; people came and people left.  He felt light, untethered, a feather in the wind.  Mark leaned back, closed his eyes, and drifted away.

His return was sudden and unpleasant.  A small hand was shaking his knee insistently.
Mark's head swung from side to side, and he fought queasiness as he slowly opened his eyes.  He was still in the playground; by the shift in the shadows, some time had passed.  A little girl stood before him, looking up.  She held a large pink balloon, fingers pressing dimples into its surface.  "I said hi, Daddy," she said.  Her face was tight; a small wrinkle creased her forehead.

A moment of vertigo, a touch of nausea in the brain.  Dark hair, dark eyes, that frown on her face. . .  “Claire?”  He reached out his hand, the start of a smile on his face.

“I'm not Claire, I'm Sylvia.  And you're my new Daddy.”

Mark pressed his lips together as reality flooded back.  It had been three and a half years.  Claire was eight now, this girl no more than four or five.  And Claire lived very far away.  "I'm not your dad," he said, voice flat.  He craned his neck and looked for the girl's real father, dropping an arm down onto the bench to steady himself.

Sylvia wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and for a moment, the pink balloon covered her entire face.  Mark caught himself before he could stop her.  The girl's tattered jacket was far too small for her, and she wore thin pants that left her legs exposed.  “You weren't yesterday.  I didn't have a Daddy yesterday.  But I made a wish, see?"  She held out her balloon, squeezing it in the middle so that it puffed up at the top and the bottom, looking like an animal trying to wriggle free.  Confused, Mark reached out to take it, only to have the girl snatch the balloon back, clutching it as if it was her only friend.  "You don't have any kids, right?" she asked.

"I. . ."  Mark paused, then picked the most honest answer.  "I don't."

"See?  My wish worked.  You can be my Daddy."  She stuck out her hand.  "I want to go home now."

Talking to small children was like riding a bike; you could never forget how.  "How can I take you home?  I don't know where you live.  And what would your mom think?"

Sylvia shrugged.  "She doesn't care.  You talk to me more than she does.  All she does is talk to her boyfriends on her phone.  And yell."  She pointed across the playground.  Mark followed her finger and saw a young woman in her mid-twenties leaning against the chain-link fence.  She wore a tight white blouse and jeans.  Unlike the other parents waiting there, she held a cell phone to her ear.  Her other hand rubbed her forehead, back and forth and back again, and by her expression, she was lost somewhere very far away.

"Besides, part of my wish is that she's not my mommy anymore,” Sylvia said.  “Are you married?”

The answer came quick this time.  "Nope," he replied, and was relieved to find that, unlike the previous question, this one did not hurt.

"That's okay.  Before I didn't have a Daddy, now I don't have a Mommy.  Come on, let's go."

"Look, I'm sure that your mom cares about you.  And even if something's wrong, can't you use your magic balloon to fix things?"

"It can't do that.  It can't make all wishes come true.  Just one for each person, and just some of them.  That's the rules."

Mark laughed despite himself.  He stood up, and for the first time since waking, he noticed that the playground was full of shouts and happy cries, children running and sliding and swinging.  He raised his arms and stretched.  "Well, let's go check with your mom - your old mom - and if she says it's okay, we can go home.  Okay?"

Sylvia said nothing.  Then she nodded, slowly, as if she had turned to stone.  Even though he knew better, Mark reached out, and the little girl took his hand without hesitation.  When her fingers squirmed to find a grip he smiled, remembering the way another small hand had once moved against
his.

But that was all gone, he remembered.  His smile faded.  All gone, and by his own choice.

They walked together across the playground in a small bubble of silence.  Mark took small, slow steps, and his stomach cramped when he realized why.  He stole a glance at Sylvia, and was startled to see a shine in the corner of her eye.  He thought desperately, trying to remember something he had once told Claire. . .

"Why was six afraid of seven?" Mark asked suddenly.

Sylvia blinked.  "What?"

"It's a joke.  Why was six afraid of seven?"   

She thought for a moment.  "I don't know, why?"

"Because seven ate nine!"

Sylvia frowned.  "I know seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-thirteen-fourteen. . ."

"No, it's a joke.  Seven ate nine.  You know, like how people eat spaghetti or Cheerios."

"Like. . ."  Sylvia screwed up her face, thinking.  "Oh, I get it!  That's funny!"  She laughed, once and then twice, and in that instant Mark knew his life, each past mistake a demon with sharp teeth, each new day a fresh wound that would never heal.  He turned away and let go of her hand.  They had reached Sylvia's mother.

"Excuse me?  Ma'am?"

The woman glanced up at him, then at the little girl, then back.  She raised one finger, continuing to listen intently into her phone, and now Mark could see that the mother's eyes were puffy and red rimmed; in them he saw – recognized - withdrawal and a kind of desperate refusal.

He came to a decision.

“Hey,” Mark whispered.  Sylvia looked at him.  “One wish, right?”

Sylvia nodded and held up the pink balloon.  He took it from her and felt his fingers sink into the thin latex.  The balloon's air was leaking out; in another day or two, it would be nothing but a shriveled skin.  He hesitated for a moment.  There was a sudden light in Sylvia's face.  He closed his eyes, then looked at her and forced a smile.  I'm sorry, but this can't be for you.

Mark rubbed his right palm over the balloon, and made his wish.



This was the first story I wrote after a long hiatus, and the first one I wrote after my daughter was born.  It may be lacking in subtlety and missing a certain amount of grace - but it feels honest enough, and I like it for that!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ninjas My Daughter Has Known

Ninjas are a big thing in second grade right now.  My daughter plays ninjas with her friends at recess, and we have an ongoing 'Ninja Story' that we relate to each other during trips in the car.

Of course, these aren't just ordinary ninjas.  No, these are ninjas with Powers!  And our ninja clan is often forced to fight against another enemy ninja clan, only discovering too late that both clans are being manipulated by a cruel and uncaring shogunate (I may have told her a heavily edited version of the manga Basilisk).

Here are some ninjas that she has created (I've forgotten all their names - but that's okay because she forgets them too):

  • A ninja with the power to cut himself and shape his blood into different forms.  Oddly enough, this form is almost always 'dragon'.
  • A ninja with hair that grows - and I quote - "six inches every two minutes".  This ninja can control her hair like a whip, and also cut it off with sharpened finger-claws.  When the hair is off her head, the ninja can mold it into different shapes, like a sword or, uh, a sword.  I pointed out that this power would invariably leave the village completely buried under hair, so she decided that the ninja can also set the hair on fire with her mind.  Except it's not hot fire, because "then the world would, you know, burn up".
  • A ninja covered with eyeballs.  He can pop his eyes, creating a sort of eye-goop that is impervious to slashing cuts.  His eyes grow back at an unbelievable rate (actually, any positive rate of 'regrowing your eyeball' is pretty unbelievable).
  • A ninja that can blow his breath at you and cause your head to explode.  Oh, ouch.
  • A ninja that could turn into a cloud.  Mostly used by others to disguise their movements.  Defeated by, uh, a giant fan.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Final Fantasy Tactics: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

I think I was desperate for something to do the day that I picked up Final Fantasy Tactics.  I had heard good things about the game, and it was certainly intriguing that Square had almost decided against releasing it in the West due to controversial religious content - but the graphics were a step backwards from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, and as a tactical RPG the gameplay was not what I was used to.

And so I delayed, and delayed, and delayed some more.  I might still be delaying to this day if not for the most powerful force known to man: boredom.


The Opening

Sadly, Final Fantasy Tactic's opening movie is not the most thrilling.

 

The music is great, and the idea of turning chocobos - the cute yellow birds omnipresent in Final Fantasy games - into war steeds is really cool, but the movie itself is dated and doesn't reveal much about the story.

I do find its restraint admirable, though; better too little than too much.  And it segues nicely into the introductory level.  The player controls Ramza and his party - the chocobo riders - riding to the church to protect Princess Ovelia.  But they are too late; they fight off a wave of attackers, only to see another kidnapper ride away with the unconscious Ovelia.  And Ramza is shocked when he realizes that the kidnapper is his former friend, Delita.

The game is split up into four chapters, and I'm going to detail most of Chapter One now (stopping right before the shocking moment neat its end) to add some context to the rest of the game.  Chapter One flashes back to a time before the introduction.  Ramza Beoulve is the third son of a noble house, training to become a knight.  Delita Hyral is the son of a servant, but despite their class differences, they are the best of friends.

But trouble is brewing: a group of disaffected peasants-turned-bandits led by a man named Wiegraf threatens local stability.  Wiegraf and his band kidnap Delita's younger sister, Teta, believing her to be a Beoulve.  Ramza, Delita, and various Beoulve retainers chase after the bandits.  Along the way they rescue Algus, a noble fallen upon hard times.

Algus shows great respect towards Ramza and his name.  However he is far less respectful towards those he considers his inferiors and constantly belittles Delita.  They fight battle after battle against the bandits, but arguments eventually come to a boiling point.  Ramza siding with Delita, and Algus leads the party in disgust.

Matters come to a head when the bandits are cornered at their mountain hideout.  Ramza and Delita arrive at the scene at the same time Algus does.  Algus has joined up with Ramza's elder brother, Zalbag.  Without hope of escape a bandit holds a knife up to Teta's throat, screaming at them all to leave, and...


The Rest of the Story


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Up until this point in Final Fantasy Tactics, I had been playing on auto-pilot - concentrating on the game mechanics, fast forwarding through the text scrolls.  I had already marked the plot as uninteresting.  Bandits?  Who cared about the bandits?  Where were the dragons and sorceresses and world-ending threats?

And then I watched as Zalbag commands Algus to shoot both the bandit... and Teta (0:35 - 1:55).




Only now do I realize that my shock was pretty much the same as the bandit's: "What's this?"

It was a transformative moment, and readers of epic fantasy who have been punched in the brain by George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" will know how I felt.  It was the moment when I realized that games could tell dark and moving stories on a human level, ones that moved you and pained you and made you look at the world in a new way.

The rest of Final Fantasy Tactic's story is extremely complex.  There's the tale of Delita's wrath and vengeance against the Beoulves; how his morals fall away as he intrigues his way ever upwards, eventually marrying Ovelia and becoming king.

That's the background story of the game.  In the foreground Ramza and his growing party learn about secrets and deceptions and plots within plots.  There are nefarious noblemen and sly clergymen (in fact the entire church hierarchy is revealed to be evil, if you're wondering about the potentially 'objectionable religious content') and awakening demonic forces.

Ramza defeats the truly inhuman evil, of course.  But in doing so he is branded a heretic by the church.  His story is suppressed by King Delita, with the one surviving historian with knowledge of the truth burnt at the stake.

After the ending credits, there is an epilogue.



A story that ends with an ellipsis, the final weight of a man's ambition crushing within that silence.  The contrast between the dry sweep of foregone history and the truth of all the blood and tears needed to fulfill that outcome.  It was Final Fantasy Tactics that made me understand those things, and that's really not bad for a game I picked up because I had nothing else better to do that day.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Fable of the Circle and the Rectangle

This is the first story I ever wrote for my daughter.  Note the extreme artistry.








For some reason I always crack up whenever I read the last line of this story - maybe because after a certain point blatant moralizing becomes funny rather than annoying.

I am also extremely proud of the expressions on the characters' faces.  Well done, me!

Friday, March 13, 2015

TMoH #4: Not Yet Six

Here's another thirty minutes of hell!.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, my introductory post on this topic provides a quick summary.

The writing prompt from NANO fiction is: Write a prose poem, flash piece, or micro essay about a five-year-old.


Not Yet Six

Marilyn thought that a trip to Moo Moos, the ice cream parlor a few blocks away, would cheer her son up.  But they had barely stepped outside their apartment building when Billy began to fuss, whining while trying to climb up her damn leg like a persistent monkey.  "I'm tired," he said, over and over and over again, as if she wasn't completed exhausted from her long day.  "I'm tired."

"I'm tired too, Billy," Marilyn said, fighting to keep her voice calm.  "And it's a nice afternoon, and we're going to get ice cream.  Can't you just walk by yourself for a little bit?"

"No!" Billy shrieked and plopped down in the middle of the sidewalk, his butt barely missing the evaporating puddle that was the remnant of last weekend's rains.  A passerby in a suit glanced at him quickly, winced, and strode on by.  For a moment Marilyn wished she could do the same.

"Besides you're the one who wanted to get ice cream.  It's not fair if I have to walk to get the ice cream you wanted!"

Marilyn stared at her son (who had his eyes locked on the ground), truly flabbergasted by what he had just said.  Did he - could he - really believe that they were getting ice cream for her?  She wanted to scream at him, she wanted to break down in tears, but in the end she settled for the easiest thing to do: she laughed.

"Okay, fine," she said, and held out her arms.  Billy brightened immediately and jumped up.  Marilyn stumbled for a moment - sometimes it seemed as if Billy were gaining pounds by the second - and then found her balance.  Still she staggered a few steps before adjusting his weight properly.  This isn't so bad, she scolded herself.  He's still very young and the past year hasn't been easy for him.  Plus, you could use the exercise!

Two blocks later she had had all the exercise she could stand.  His small tousled head was no longer resting on her shoulder; instead he was swinging his head about in little jerks, looking from side to side with great interest while kicking his feet, and now he was starting to slip.  "Okay," Marilyn huffed, "that's enough.  Time to walk, big boy."

Far more compliant now that he had gotten his way, Billy slid down her body, landed on his feet, and soon they were walking hand-in-hand.  "Look around," she said, able to look around herself now that she didn't have to concentrate on holding up a five year old in the 80th percentile of the weight chart.  "Look at all the kids walking with their Mommies and... and their Daddies.  Do you see anyone else being carried?"

To his credit Billy did look around.  "But they're all big kids," he said.  "They're all six years old, or maybe seven or even eight.  I'm not even six years old yet!"

Marilyn looked down at him, eyes gleaming.  "Does that mean I don't have to carry you when you're six years old?"

Caught, Billy squirmed.  "Maybe," he mumbled.  "Maybe."  Then he brightened.  "There it is Mommy!  Let's race!"  And he let go of her hand and ran to the hideously colored cow in front of Moo Moos.

***

That night after Marilyn had read him his bedtime story, Billy went quiet almost at once, snuggled tightly in between Mr. Roar (a tattered blue teddy bear) and Patty (a green dinosaur that he always indignantly prevented her from calling a 'Brontosaurus', although she was pretty sure that it was one).  Standing up, she kissed him once on the forehead and went to the door.

"Mommy?"

She turned back.  "Yes, sweetheart?"  In the soft glow of his nightlight she saw that his eyes were still closed.

"How old are you?"

"Hm.  How old do you think I am?"

"I don't know.  Like... nineteen?"

"I'm thirty-four, sweetheart."  The correction didn't hurt; in fact it made her smile.

"Oh.  Okay."

Silence.

She was about to leave when he spoke once more.  "Mommy?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think you can be happy again when you're thirty-five?"

She stood absolutely still, suddenly paralyzed.  And while on the one hand she was regretful that her son had noticed how tired and lonely and, yes, sad she so often was now - on the other hand a secret part of her was glad that he knew.

So she said, "Maybe.  Anything can happen when we grow older."

Billy smiled, eyes still closed, and said, "Well, maybe I can help you.  When I'm older too, I mean.  When I'm six."

Quietly, she said, "Maybe you can."

Billy said nothing more.  And after a few more moments Marilyn left to face what was left of the night.



beep-beep-beep...

I like writing about children, having one of my own that I find endlessly fascinating.  Children are simple to read, but that doesn't make them simple; in their own innocent way they bubble up the true complexity of life that adults often fight so hard to keep hidden away, for better or for worse.

 Another fascinating thing about children is their almost mystical attitude about age.  Each turning of the year is magically transformative, enabling them to suddenly do things like walk on their own or sleep with the lights off.  I find that belief sweet and a little sad - not for them, but for us grownups that find change so hard to come by.

That's the attitude that I tried to capture in thirty minutes, and it's not all together there.  There needs to be more complexity in Marilyn's thought, more indications as to her backstory (a divorced single mom), and more genuine unhappiness.  And I think Billy needs to have a lot more volatility.

Still, I kinda like this for what it is: a very very early draft of an idea I don't hate.  Oh, and please don't tell my daughter this, but I still like carrying her once in a while.   It really is good exercise :P

Thursday, March 12, 2015

It's Called Hi-STORY

I've liked history since I was ten years old or so - I remember reading passages from a kid's book about Gettysburg out loud to my distinctly uninterested parents during a particularly long car trip - and it always perplexes me when other people who love stories show little to no interest in history.

I mean on one level I get it: as taught in school, history can be a dull procession of dates and names and trivial facts.  But on another level sometimes I want to scream, But history is a story, just like any other, except it really happened!  And if someone protests that it's a boring story because everything is already set in stone, I'd say, well, the same is true of any book you read (unless you believe that the words on unread pages only appear when you flip to them).

Another issue is that history books can be dry enough to be fire hazards.  I'll concede that point, and merely list two authors whose books are not so: Barbara Tuchman and John Julius Norwich.  There are many other history books and authors that I enjoy, and perhaps I'll write about them at a future date.

One last note for today, and that is that history lessons can come from the most unexpected places.  I've been playing Samurai Warriors 4 with my daughter.  The game is a (frankly ludicrous) beat-'em-up where you pick a general or samurai from the Sengoku Jidai period of Japanese history and fight your way through entire armies.  But although the action is in no way accurate, the history is a very close representation of what may have really happened.  More than once after playing the game, I've been struck by the ludicrousness of a particular event - only to discover on Wikipedia that that may have been how things truly went down.

I've long searched for a good (English) book about this period of Japanese history, only to be continually frustrated.  It's an oddity of our times that the solution came in the form of a video game and the Internet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Final Fantasy VIII: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

The difference between the way I approached Final Fantasy VII and  Final Fantasy VIII.was similar to the difference between FFIV and FFVI.  I stumbled into the former games and anticipated the latter.

Except in the time between FFVI and FFVIII, a revolution had started picking up steam: the Internet.  I no longer stared at print ads in torn gaming magazines.  Instead I downloaded grainy videos (no YouTube yet!) and stared at screenshots from Japanese websites searched up through Alta Vista.  Information was free but not yet easy to find, and that made every new tidbit all the more enticing.

And when release day finally came - oh, the excitement!

The Opening

As much as it pains me to admit, I have to be honest here: FFVIII's introductory movie has not aged well.

 

Start with overwrought choral music and continue with some meaningless blather in white text over a field of flowers.  Add in dramatic shots of characters we have no reason to care about (that woman in the blue dress, she sure does like to turn around a lot) rendered in badly dated CG.  At least the sword fight is cool.  Well, kind of cool.

I'll repeat: this introduction does not hold up well.  But it's important to put it into context, and the truth is that this opening was amazing for its time.  Compare this movie to FFVII's introduction, and the advances are stark: increased environmental detail, realistic human figures, naturalistic movement.  One might celebrate FFVIII for its graphical advances, if nothing else.

But the truth is technology progresses and is soon taken for granted, and whatever qualities are needed to make a lasting impression, well... FFVIII's opening doesn't have them.

The Rest of the Story


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The main plot of Final Fantasy VIII has something to do with sorceresses, 'time kompression', and, uh, flying gardening schools (I think I have that right).  Okay, sure, it's nonsensical, but that's not what the game is really about.  Check out the logo:


That's right, Final Fantasy VIII is really a love story!  Sure, roll your eyes all you want (and mine may half-roll in sympathy), but the shy and introverted twenty one year old version of me was still much enamored by notions of romance and true love, and perhaps present-day me wants to believe in those ideals more than he'd like to admit.

Ahem.  Anyway... given how badly the opening aged, it's surprising how well some of the romance between Squall (the moody hero) and Rinoa (the plucky heroine) holds up.  For example, here's their first meeting:


If you don't fall a little bit in love with Rinoa at 1:05, when she makes that face at the couple that they've bumped into, then you're... probably normal.   Still, it's amazing how well the game captures so much about Squall and Rinoa in such a short amount of time.  There's no voices, so all the viewer has to go on is body language and facial expressions, and that's more than enough.

From a purely storytelling perspective, that's where Final Fantasy VIII really succeeds.  In truth the characters are pretty forgettable... but while playing the game, one can't help but be drawn into their world because their mannerisms and movements and little tics all seem real and, well, human.

To emphasize my point, let me name the four other playable characters in the game and a few of their personality quirks:
  • Quistis: quiet, reserved
  • Zell: senseless, energetic
  • Irvine: extroverted, over-confident
  • Selphie: friendly, temperamental
Now watch the ending - no, not the whole thing, just the bit from 9:50 to 12:40 - and see if you can pick out who those four characters are.


It's not that hard, is it?

In the end, for all of the game's many, many, many flaws, I can't help but applaud it for being the first to be able to successfully communicate so much with so little.  Final Fantasy VIII paved the way for increasingly complex and subtle characterizations in future games in the series.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fiction: The Book Burner

This story came from a thought that might make a good flash fiction prompt: think of an action you can't imagine ever doing, then write a story where someone has a reason to do it.

 

The Book Burner

"Hey.  Hey mister, what are you doing?"

The old man didn't look up.  It was obvious what he was doing.  So he said nothing.

"Hey mister, can I help?"

The old man hesitated.  He knew the kid, a boy who had moved into the house next door earlier in the spring.  He had seen him riding a bicycle with training wheels up and down the driveway.  There was no harm in it, the old man decided, and handed a book to the boy, a paperback with a grim-looking cowboy on the cover.  "I'll leave home then," said Billy, strapping on his sleeping father's guns.  He turned away from the rising sun and smiled.  "I'll go West to find my fortune and my fame."

It was his own voice he heard reading the words.  The voice haunted him day and night, whispering words like falling snow.

The boy tossed the book onto the grill.  The flames quickly enveloped it, stabbing the cowboy through and through.  The boy laughed and clapped, and for the first time since hearing the news, the old man felt his heart lighten.

They watched until it was nothing but a blackened husk with pieces falling through the grate.  Then the old man reached down and threw another book on the fire.  Thurston hesitated. . . and then slammed his fist down on the hyperspace button.  It was true that the Slurvax outnumbered Earth's space fleet 10-to-1.  "But it only takes one man to make a difference," he said out loud.  "It only takes one man to be a -"

"Mister, can I do the next one?"

The old man handed the kid another book.  The boy started to throw it, then stopped.

"This one looks pretty cool.  A knight!"  The boy flipped through the pages, examining the illustrations.  "I bet he goes on a quest.  I bet he kills a dragon!"  The boy swung the book like a sword and then looked up at the old man, face bright with excitement.  The old man closed his eyes.  "Father, I have to go," Gerald said.  "There's no one else left to fight the beast."

The boy was asking a question.  "- I?  Mister, can I have this one, please?"

"No, you can't have it."  The old man snatched the book away.  "It belonged to someone else."  It was true.  He had merely read the words aloud.  The stories, the damnable stories, had taken root in his son's heart.

The boy stared at him open-mouthed.  "Why are you burning it then?  If you don't want it, why can't I have it?"

The old man's chest grew tight.  "My duty means more to me than my death," Gerald said.  The young squire swung himself up onto the horse.  "Father, why won't you understand?"

He nearly screamed the words.  "You're a selfish brat."  The wind had changed, his eyes were watering, and he turned away from the smoke.  "Fuck off.  Fuck off, I said!"

The boy burst into tears.  He ran a short distance towards his house, only stopping to yell, "I'm telling my mom!"  Then he was gone.

The old man stared into the fire, watching the hypnotically flickering embers.  He caressed the book with his thumb.  He hadn't wanted to chase the boy away.  He had wanted him to stay. 

He took a deep, shuddering breath.  Then he threw the book onto the fire and watched as the words turned to ash.



I hate the idea of burning books.  But there are things that I dread more, and this story is about one of them (which it turns out I can't bring myself to explicitly name).

On a sidenote, I've never said "Hey mister" in my life.  I can't help but think that this opening comes from some other story, but I can't figure out which...

Monday, March 9, 2015

Magic Origins: Extended Edition

This summer's new Magic: the Gathering release is titled Magic Origins.  It details the beginnings of five Planeswalkers - powerful beings with the ability to travel from plane to plane in the Multiverse - and examines both their lives before they became Planeswalkers ("pre-spark"), and the traumatic event that caused their powers to flare into existence.

Here's a trailer:


But wait!  Why stop at only five Planeswalkers?  There are 31 active Planeswalkers represented in the card game, and the five in Magic Origins aren't even the coolest ones (according to my daughter).

So, well, here are the origins of two more Planeswalkers, as speculated upon by my daughter and me.

Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver

Would you like to bump into this - thing - in a dark alley late at night?


I surely would not!

Ashiok is a mage of unknown gender who harnesses the power of nightmare magic to bring the fears of others to life.  The use of this magic has had a toll on Ashiok, however; see if you can spot what it is...

(Sidenote: I like to imagine Ashiok as a human with a normal face who suffered a literal brainfart that blew off the top half of his/her face.  Come on, you know that'd be hilarious!)

Where did Ashiok come from?  After much meditation soul searching, my daughter decided that Ashiok was clearly once... Ashiok, Underwear Weaver.


And here Ashiok is in all, uh, its glory, scissors and thread in hand, ready to weave yet another piece of underwear on its loom.  What's the 'Wump'?  Why, it's the sound of a Planeswalker's spark igniting, of course!
Person 1: "And do you know what happens when he cuts your underwear?"
Person 2: "You die?"
Person 1: "Nope!  You poop your pants!"
I would dearly love to claim that my daughter was Person 1 in this conversation, with me being Person 2; but honesty compels me to admit that I was Person 1.  Hey, at least my daughter is popular with the boys at school.


Nicol Bolas

Nicol Bolas is perhaps the most powerful Planeswalker still living.


Ancient, devious, and possessed of immense power, Nicol Bolas has a mind full of plane-spanning corruptive schemes and the will and cleverness to see them through.  He engineered the release of the mana-devouring Eldrazi from their prison; he had a hand in the complete corruption of the plane of Mirrodin by the resurgent Phyrexians.  If Magic: the Gathering could be said to have a single archvillain, Nicol Bolas would be that being.

Sadly for my personal continued existence, there is a creature in my household that harbors similar ambitions.  Charizard has been a thorn in my side ever since my daughter liberated him from an import store.  He merrily punts other stuffed animals off my daughter's bed, hogs all my ice cream for himself, and burns my face whenever I protest.

My daughter does nothing to rein Charizard in (and may secretly encourage his depredations).  Because of this freedom of unconscionable behavior, he now has an ambition: to grow up to be a supervillain.  And what better villain than Nicol Bolas?



Yes, Charizard has decided that he is the younger time-shifted version of Nicol Bolas.

I... don't know what else there is to say.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Final Fantasy VII: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

There was a time when I thought I'd never play Final Fantasy VII.  The game was released back when I was a broke college student, and the thought of buying a fancy Playstation to play it was less than a dream; it was a laughable impossibility.

Fortunately I was stuck in the Boston area one long and boring summer, and a kind friend (thanks Charlie!) lent me his Playstation and his entire library of games.  Aww yeah!  This is how I felt:



The Opening

Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series for many people, and I'm sure that this opening is as memorable for them as it is for me.


Okay, that statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since I have a pretty good memory.

The opening does have its good points.  I like the way the camera starts out with a close-up on Aerith's face before zooming out to reveal the vastness of Midgard City, only to zoom back in to the train where the action starts.  It's a neat way to identify an important character that you don't meet until later in the game, while simultaneously giving a fine sense scale: things are happening all over the city, and the train ambush is just one small piece.

Other cool things?  The way the opening seamlessly melds the introductory movie into player-controlled action is neat, giving FFVII a propulsive start that immediately invests the player into the world.  Oh, and for some reason the kick the soldier gives at 2:08 in the video always cracks me up.

Interestingly, now that I've listed the positives of the opening, I find myself feeling far more favorable towards it than I did before.  I guess the problem is that the negatives are so overwhelming that they leak into the rest of the game and leave an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.  What are these negatives?  The establishment of Aerith and Cloud as the main protagonists.

The Rest of the Story


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If you'd like to know the plot of FFVII, I invite you to read the Wikipedia entry so I don't have to explain it to you.  The story is convoluted and tangled and frankly illogical; trying to make sense of it is like trying to brush my daughter's hair in the morning.  The general gist?  A bad guy - Sephiroth - wants to blow up the world.  The good guys want to stop him.  Hijinks ensue.

This is admittedly a glib explanation - after all, almost every Final Fantasy plot can be summarized in the same way - but I can't find myself caring too much.  Why?  Because, as I said above: I disliked the two main protagonists.

Cloud is a soldier - sorry, SOLDIER - with amnesia.   This gives him license to act like an asshole towards everyone else.  For some unknown reason, everyone else is okay with this.  Meanwhile, Aerith is a magical elf-like girl with magical Powers.  She is nice to everyone she meets.  Cloud likes her.

There's not much more to their characterizations, and as a result they feel less like characters than precisely calibrated gears carefully constructed to Make The Plot Go.  So when this moment - apparently a seminal one for thousands of gamers all over the world - happens halfway through the game...


... I found myself caring... kinda... well, not really.  It didn't feel particularly surprising or emotional.  It just felt like another piece of plot.

I think that issue is the heart of my problem with Final Fantasy VII.  It's a game built around a plot, and not its characters.  As I've learned, when it comes to story, the latter is almost always more important the former.

With all that said, FFVII does make one great choice, but I'll come to that after making one more complaint.

There's another female character, Tifa, present in the game.  Tifa is opinionated and temperamental, and she literally punches bad guys in the face.  She is awesome (although maybe I'm biased because I like opinionated and temperamental women), and sadly she has a crush on Cloud.  And so after Aerith's death, her role is reduced to pining after Cloud and hoping that he'll stop sulking and maybe notice her one day and... AHHHHHHHHH.  Tifa, you're better than he is.

 Okay - thanks for letting me get that out of my system.  Now I'll talk about this guy.



Sephiroth is one of the great villains in video game lore.  His look, his attitude, his actions, his final boss music - everything about him is so ominous and well-designed that it's easy to forget that the real reason he's so memorable is because he's so present in the story.  Unlike Zeromus and Kefka from FFIV and FFVI, Sephiroth is a visible character throughout the game.  Players witness his backstory and turn to evil; they see him actively thwart their plans; they are never allowed to forget that he is the key antagonist that they must defeat.  Sephiroth is like a wave that crests ever higher in a player's mind, and the satisfaction that you feel when you finally get to do this (skip to 1:00)...


... is both earned and very real.

One last note: I'm obviously extremely critical of Final Fantasy VII's story.  But I have to say, the game itself was a hell of a lot of fun to play!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Please Tell Me I Don't Have To Pay For Your Friends' Therapy

A week or so ago I picked my daughter up from school and asked her what she had played during recess.

"Just a game.  I was a doll."

"A doll?  Really?"  My daughter is not one to play with dolls.

"Yep.  And the boys were so surprised at what I could do!"

"Uh, what could you do?"

"Kill them."

My silence must have contained a species of audible shock, because she quickly reassured me that people pretend-died all the time in playground games. Still, I had to ask what kind of doll she was.  It turns out that she was talking about this one:


I wish I knew how she playacted it out.

Friday, March 6, 2015

TMoH #3: A New Year

And here we are again, with another thirty minutes of hell.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, my introductory post on this topic provides a quick summary.

The writing prompt from NANO fiction is: Write a micro essay, flash fiction piece, or prose poem about a New Year’s Resolution. Be specific!


A New Year

On the first day of the new year, Oscar woke up and decided that he was done with pizza.  Finishing off the pie had seemed like a good idea at the time (what was the point in saving the last piece or two?  who really liked re-heated pizza?).  But his stomach was telling him now what his brain should have known last night: it had been a mistake.

He stretched, wincing, and forced himself out of bed and into his desk chair.  Then he wrote down the date and his new resolution ("FUCK PIZZA" was his elegant way of putting it), and filed it away with the others.  Then he started his painful preparations for the day ahead.

***

He had expected the walk to the bus stop to hurt, but to his surprise, it seemed to massage away his aches and cramps.  By the time he got to work in the call center, Oscar was in a fine mood, whistling cheerily and greeting his co-workers with a big smile.

Some of them came by his workspace and asked if he wanted to join them for lunch; they were going to the pizza joint a block away.  Oscar smiled regretfully and shook his head.  "I can't," he said, "I made a resolution."  His co-workers laughed.  "Another one?" they said, but left him alone to his own devices.  He ate a cold sandwich from the building's commissary instead.  It tasted disgusting.

Who knew that lunch was such a key component of the day?  Oscar only realized the truth of this as he stepped off the bus for the walk home in a bit of a cloud.  He was hungry, and no matter what he did, he couldn't get pizza out of his mind.  The weather in September had also turned chill faster than he expected, and the light jacket he wore wasn't much protection.  He scowled as he took step after step, shooting one furious glance into the pizza restaurant he sometimes ate at for dinner... and then stopped.

There was someone new working behind the register, someone new with lively eyes.  She was leaning against the counter looking off into space.  Then suddenly she turned and looked directly at him.  Oscar blushed, shame-faced.  To his surprise the woman laughed and beckoned him in.

Oscar's flush heightened.  His resolution flashed through his mind as he backed away with what he was sure was a ridiculous expression on his face.  He held his hands up as if to say Sorry, my bad, and hurried away.  The truth was that even without his resolution, he would have probably refused to go in.

He returned to his apartment in a confused state, a mix of disgust at himself and despair at his future... and an odd sort of hope.  She had waved him in, after all.  He glared at his resolution box... and the brightened.  Almost running to his desk, he sat down, tore his morning's resolution to shreds, and then wrote a new one, dating it for the next day.  "Every day a new year," he said.  "Every single day."



beep-beep-beep...

And this is what you get when you have a reasonable story idea and too little time to add minor things such as characterization, subtlety, or detail.  Ugh.  The whole thing clearly needs to be reworked to flesh out Oscar much, much more, with a greater sense of the twin optimism and pessimism that I imagine he has; and to make the events of the day read more organically, rather than as the clearly artificial constructs they are.

Still, I do like the central conceit of the story, so there is that.  Maybe I should make a resolution to finish it sometime (haha, I'm so funny)!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Fear of Tears

One Monday morning, I logged into work and greeted my co-workers online.  Talking a bit about our weekends, I listed my high point as making my daughter cry.  The amused shock that followed (my co-workers know me pretty well) was probably warranted by the way I made that statement - and yet I meant each and every word.

So how did I make my daughter cry?  Simple: I watched Return of the Jedi with her.  Say all you want about the Ewoks (my daughter loved them, by the way), but Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's story arc is gripping, emotional, and well-executed.  And as their story resolved, I found myself hugging a sniffling seven year old... and feeling strangely proud.

It's this pride that I don't think my co-workers understood, and in all likelihood I badly mangled the explanation for it.  But it comes down to this: what's wrong with being sad when something is sad?  Isn't it more dangerous to learn to brush aside or suppress your feelings?

There's a lot of things I want my daughter to grow up to be - happy, healthy, smart, funny, generous - and up there on that list is empathetic.  I've long believed that stories are a pathway towards that goal, but only if the audience is willing to truly put itself into a character's shoes.  Laugh when someone laughs, shiver when someone's scared... and cry when someone cries.

So maybe it's weird that I'm okay that my daughter is the only child I know that audibly sobbed during The Lego Movie.  But I guess I'd just rather she feel too much than feel too little.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fiction: The Biggest Number in the World

That 'infinity' sure is crazy, am I right?

 

The Biggest Number in the World

Sixty-two.  Sixty-three.  Martin lay on his back and breathed deeply, slowly, calmly.  His lips moved, barely, and the slightest of whispers slipped away into the dark.  His parents were talking downstairs.  Their voices were muffled, but if he tried, Martin thought he might be able to make out a word or two.  He didn't try.  He knew they were talking about him, their only child.  He knew that they didn't know what to do with him.

Sixty-eight.  Neither did his school.  He had always been a quiet student, and if he had been quieter than usual over the last week, well, at least he never caused trouble.  Until today.  A child had asked Mrs. McGregor a question, and the fourth-grade teacher had laughed.  Numbers go on forever, she had said.  There is no such thing as a 'biggest number'.  And then Martin had stood; startled, everyone looked at him.  Liar! he had screamed.  Liar!  Liar!

Seventy-two.  Because maybe there was no such thing as a 'biggest number', but there was the biggest number that mattered, and it was this: the number of breaths one took in a lifetime.  Beyond that, who cared?

Seventy-sev. . .  Martin rubbed his eyes, exhausted.  He hadn't slept well in days.

He imagined numbers streaming out into space, growing darker and darker as they stretched out into infinity.  He imagined himself clutching and clawing at them, flailing as they grew slick and lost shape.  He imagined himself slipping, falling, down and down into. . . what?

That was the question he feared, the one that suffocated his nights like a dull gray fog.  The answer was obvious, inevitable, and to live the rest of his life with that knowledge?  Unthinkable.

No, Martin thought.  That won't happen, not to me.  One more breath.  Always, just one more.  His face smoothed.  It was easy.

Seventy-seven.  Seventy-eight.  He felt warm, as if the numbers embraced him, as if they pulsed in time with his heart, his blood.  Seventy-nine.  He smiled.  He felt strong.  He felt like he could go on forever.



In some odd paradoxical way, I've always associated infinity with death.  Perhaps it's because infinity means that there'll always be a bigger number, one that you'll never know (in fact, since infinity is not a number, this means that there's a number beyond which no creature in this universe will ever conceive).  And really, that's the troubling thing about death, isn't it?  Not just that you'll be gone, but that the rest of the world will continue on?

As a kid, I was terrified of death, of the emptiness and blankness and the thought that your consciousness can simply be erased.  I lay awake at night pondering this idea, and although I didn't tie the concept together with infinity back then, it seems strangely logical now.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TMoH Special Magic Edition: Crux of Fate

Considering the constraints Magic: the Gathering operates under when telling a story - the largest being the need to express a linear plot through a non-linear set of cards - I'd say that the game's team has done a very credible job of creating an epic fantasy.

Take the latest block for example.  Tarkir is a world where dragons have long since been driven extinct.  In their place five warring clans scrabble for dominance in a land slowly being driven to ruin by the constant fighting.

Tormented by voices in his head, the dragon-loving Planeswalker Sarkhan Vol returns home to Tarkir.  Long suspected by others to be insane, he now learns that the voices are not a sign of madness, but murmurings from the past.  Centuries ago, two enormously powerful dragon Planeswalkers - Nicol Bolas and Ugin - battled for dominance.  It is Ugin's defeat and death that ultimately drives the dragons of Tarkir to extinction, and it is Ugin's ghost-whispers that Sarkhan hears today.  Sarkhan is now presented with an opportunity: to travel back in time and save Ugin - and the dragons of Tarkir - from their fates.

The key moment of this story is presented in a single card, titled Crux of Fate:



It's an epic moment, one that the Magic creative team presented in an online short story, The Reforged Chain.  This story tells not only of the battle between Nicol Bolas and Ugin, but also explores the immediate aftermath as Sarkhan races to save the dying Ugin.

The story isn't bad.  However it fails to evoke the grandeur and scale of the moment captured in Crux of Fate (perhaps due to space constraints), presenting the action in more matter-of-fact terms.  And after I was done reading, I couldn't help but wonder: could I do better... ?

Interesting question!  I'll give myself thirty minutes to find an answer.


Crux of Fate

Sarkhan opened his eyes to madness.

The sky was blighted, a roiling bruised pattern of gray and purple.  Lightning crackled through the clouds in whites and reds and blacks.  Thunder shook the world, and between the crashes of sound he could hear the wailing cries of thousands.

At first he thought that the voices that had been trapped inside of his head had somehow escaped.  He had been told that the complex enchantment that he wove using the dormant power trapped in Ugin's pristine bones would allow him to splinter the barrier of time, to reclaim the moment when the great Elder Dragon had fallen at the hands of Nicol Bolas and doomed the dragons of Tarkir for all time.  But what if it had all been a trick?  What if the spell had merely allowed his voices to escape, insanity given form?

Suddenly bone-weary, Sarkhan struggled to stand, clutching his worn staff with both hands.  His strength was nearly gone, his power spent.  Had his madness finally claimed victory over him?  Very well; he would resist to the end.  "To the end, do you hear me?" he shrieked, and could not hear his own challenge.  The wind tore the sound from his words even as another roar of thunder shook the earth, spilling him onto his knees.

He closed his eyes.  Gritting his teeth, Sarkhan forced himself back up.  I will not die on my back, he swore.  I will not!  He opened his eyes, ready to shout out his final defiance - and then his eyes widened.  He sank back down on his knees, trembling as holy wonder and terror consumed his soul.

In the distance, dwarfing the crumbling peaks of rock and stone over which they fought, two gods in dragon form battled.  One a tarnished gold, his body plated with stolen runed armor, his eyes a bilious green, his veined wings spread like that of a giant bat: Nicol Bolas.  The other an unearthly pale blue, his lithe body shimmering with ghostfire magic, his feathered wings flaring: Ugin.  The two Elder Dragons struggled in the midst of a chaotic whirl of blinding energies, reduced to striking with sharp tooth and brutal claw.  And surrounding them both, birthed from the tempestuous energies they had unleashed, the dragons of Tarkir came into being, screamed their defiance, and fell as chaotic powers shattered their bodies.



Okay: writing fantasy is hard.

I cheated a bit with this one.  I had an outline of the scene sketched out in my head before I started, and even with that advantage, I barely managed to make it halfway to my goal.  What's missing?
  • The sight of his beloved dragons re-energize Sarkhan; in the grip of a near-religious frenzy, he takes on dragon form and flies towards the Elder Dragons, uncaring of his own safety.
  • He starts getting torn apart in the maelstrom, but doesn't care.  It's like being called to rapture.
  • And then Ugin falls, the maelstrom dissipates, Sarkhan suddenly remembers himself.  As Nicol Bolas departs, Sarkhan lands by Ugin's side, suddenly remembering his purpose.
  • But how can he - a mere insect in comparison to the vastness of Ugin's presence - heal the Elder Dragon?  Moment of uncertainty, fear, etc.
  • He goes for it anyway.  Of course.
It seems so basic in outline form, so simple and direct.  But the difficulty - for me, at least - is that epic fantasy requires, well, a sense of epic-ness.  And it takes added time and work to imbue a story with that feeling.  It's something that doesn't come naturally for me.

Still!  This was a fun little exercise.  Maybe I'll try it again someday.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Head Pigs

What does every storyteller want?  Here's one possible answer: an audience that fully commits to a story.  But such a person is hard to find!  Unless you have a singularly captive audience, that is.

Some backstory: my daughter decided to dress up as the Horned King for Halloween.  The Horned King is the primary villain in The Book of Three, the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain.  In the beginning of the book, he kidnaps Hen Wen, the oracular pig.  Naturally, I insisted my daughter carry a stuffed pig around on Halloween.



That night, with my daughter stuffed full of candy and goodwill, I tossed the pig onto the bed.  It started jumping up and down frantically.

"What's its problem," my daughter asked, a little grumpily (her sugar high had long since crested and turned into a sugar crush).

"Hm," I said, studying the pig I was wildly flailing around with my right hand.  "I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's worried that it'll be put back into, you know."

"I don't know.  The what?"

I whispered the next two words.  "The Box."

The Box is a large cardboard box that resides in my daughter's closet.  It is filled to the brim with toys that she has outgrown.  The pig had come from there.

My daughter rolled her eyes.  "Okay, fine," she said, and opened her arms.  "Come here pig, you can sleep with me."

The pig continued to flail around in my hand.  "That's strange" I said, puzzled.  "It's still scared."

"Why?  What does it want?"

I cocked my head and brought the pig up to my ear.  "It... hm...  Really?  But...  Okay.  Okay."  Then I turned back to my daughter.  "It wants to sleep on top of your head."

My daughter stared at me, eyes narrowed.  Then she said a single word, one that I hear often: "Seriously?"

"Seriously."

And that is why for the past four months, my daughter has been sleeping like this.



Did I think my idea would work?  Well, honestly... yes.  My daughter has a long tradition of buying into the stories I create for her, and so I thought that maybe for a night or two...  But for four months?  To the point where my daughter places the pig on her head herself before falling asleep?  Nope, I didn't expect that!  And no, I'm not ashamed.  I'm damn proud of myself!

There's a lot of reasons why it would be hard for me not to love my daughter, and I can't deny that one of them is: she definitely buys into my stories.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Final Fantasy VI: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

Final Fantasy IV may have been the Final Fantasy that I played, but Final Fantasy VI (initially known as Final Fantasy III in the West) was the first Final Fantasy I anticipated.  I read (and re-read and re-re-read) previews in gaming magazines, studied the advertisements (featuring a moogle with attitude), and counted down the days until the game's release.  And then on October 11th, 1994, that day finally came...

The Opening

Final Fantasy IV was adventurous high fantasy, and I popped the Final Fantasy VI cartridge into my SNES expecting the same: brave knights, colorful spells, adventurous music.

This is the opening I saw instead.



From the opening narration with its dirge-like bells, to the beautiful and haunting credits music (skip to 2:30 in the video to hear it) - it was apparent that FFVI had a different, weightier substance to it compared to FFIV.  And truth be told, as a teenager I was both perplexed and a little disappointed in the change.

Still, games were hard to come by in the era before Steam.  And so I soldiered on.


The Rest of the Story


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SPOILER WARNING
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Another difference between FFIV and FFVI: the former is clearly the story of Cecil, the dark knight-turned-paladin.  FFVI has no main character, instead offering the player fourteen choices (some of which need to be discovered), including:
  • the half-Esper Terra, who starts the game under the control of the evil Empire
  • the twin royals Edgar and Sabin, who once flipped a coin to determine who would rule their kingdom
  • Celes, a disgraced former imperial general 
  • the mercenary ninja Shadow
  • the brooding knight Cyan, whose family and homeland were devastated by the Empire
  • Relm, an orphan girl with incredible artistic skills
  • a yeti named Umaro
 The first half of the game has fixed parties that explore the various histories of these characters and how they come to fight the Empire.  How does such a story play out?  Well, if FFIV is an epic novel, then FFVI is a short story collection, and that suited me just fine.  The "stories" have a fine balance of mood and characterization, ensuring that no one bit grows too tired or overstays its welcome.

Oh, and there's also a relatively famous opera scene (here's an orchestrated version with live voices - my favorite part starts around 4:55).



Naturally, the opera scene ends with a monster octopus falling from the rafters.

Eventually the stories all converge.  With Emperor Gestahl on the verge of gaining control of the three goddess-statues that are the source of all magic in the world, the player characters come up with a final desperate plan to stop him.  And they nearly succeed!  Except...

... in one of the greatest twists of FF lore, the Emperor's mad jester Kefka assassinates the Emperor and usurps the goddesses' abilities.  Wielding near-limitless power and unburdened by sanity, Kefka promptly raises oceans and crumbles mountains and wrecks the entire planet.

Fade to black...

When the game continues, the player's once magnificent cast of characters is reduced to one: Celes.  Lost on a remote island, Celes spends her days taking care of a sick friend.  Day after day the player scrambles around the beach catching fish, witness to both Celes's outer cheeriness in support of her friend, and her growing inner despair.  This balance tilts more and more as the friend's condition worsens.

One thing that video games do well as a medium is this: they force a sense of culpability upon the player.  Celes is not the only person failing to save her friend; the player is as well.  And so the impact is greater on the day that the friend finally and inevitably dies.

With nothing left to live for, Celes throws herself into the ocean to drown.

Instead she washes up on the mainland, a memento of Locke's miraculously appearing next to her.  With hope restored that she may yet find a reason to live, she resolves to find her missing friends.

And from that point on, the player is set upon a wildly open-ended quest to discover what has become of the missing party.  The analogy to a short story collection is once again appropriate, except now the stories all share a similar journey: that of learning what it means to live and be defiant in the face of heartbreak and despair.

This is FFVI's central theme, one exemplified by the party's ultimate fight against Kefka, who has become the embodiment of unreasoning chaos.  "Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed?" he asks.  "Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? ...Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?"


I don't have a grand and all-encompassing answer to these questions.  I don't think there is one.  But, like the characters in FFVI, I've discovered that there are millions of little things - a friend's greeting, a stranger's kindness, my daughter's laughter - that lighten my heart each and every day.  And so far that's enough.