Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What's in the Box? (A Silent Hill Appreciation)

I read a gaming article recently that made me incredibly depressed: Silent Hills is cancelled.  The game had been surreptitiously announced through an anonymous game demo simply titled 'P.T.'.  And with the cancellation of the game, the demo was now due to be yanked from all distribution channels.

So I did what I suspect many other video game aficionados did as well: I ran downstairs, booted up my PS4, and downloaded the demo before it disappeared.  And now it sits on my console's hard drive, very likely to never be played.

Why?  Simply put: Silent Hill games are really f-cking scary.

We're not talking jump scares or zombie hordes; Silent Hill is nothing like Resident Evil.  Silent Hill is... well... check out the trailer for Silent Hill 4.

The other day I found myself trying to explain to my daughter what makes Silent Hill so scary (in very, very vague terms).  "Okay," I said.  "Silent Hill is a game where there's two worlds.  One is the normal world, just covered in fog.  Lots and lots of fog.  And the other world is this kind of ruined hellscape, where the ground is replaced by rusted grates and everything is broken and falling apart."

"Now, your character goes from one world to the other throughout the game.  And at one point, he comes to a locker which starts rattling from the inside.  And when you get open it... a cat jumps out.  It's just a cat."

"Then you return to the same place in the other world.  The locker starts rattling.  You get close, you open it, and this time..."

"... there's nothing."  (And yes, I left out any and all additional details about the trail of blood, etc.)

I'm not sure my daughter quite understood what I was getting at, but here it is: there's a lot of different ways to scare a person.  One way is a cheap jump scare: a zombie lurching out of the bushes or a killer bursting out of the closet.  It can be effective, but it can also be forgettable: it's a temporary moment of surprise.

Another way is to build tension: say, a long walk through a dark forest infested with beasts unknown.  The 'unknown' is pretty key here: put in such a moment, the mind will naturally assume that there's something bad lurking out there.  And with each passing moment, as the rustles quicken and the shadows grow longer, the mind will betray you and imagine something worse and worse.

At that point, the moment of revelation becomes a relief: you see the monster, and it's terrible, but at least you know what it is and what you have to deal with.  At least now you know you have to run.

But what happens if you take away that reveal?  What happens if you leave the audience with suspended dread?

Let me tell you.  I played the very first Silent Hill at a friend's dorm room while he was at class.  When he came back, all the lights were on, all the doors were wide open, and I was in a state of desperate terror.  I was scared of continuing on in the game, but I was more scared of not finishing it and leaving the story forever unresolved.  I was clutching the controller, huddled into myself as I fought to complete the game, and when my friend spoke to me I screamed.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII-2: 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 rolled my eyes when Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced.  Final Fantasy XIII had disappointed any desire to play another game in the series right out of me.  I was done with Final Fantasy.

Every incidental tidbit I learned about Final Fantasy XIII-2 confirmed my judgement.  The game featured Serah, Lightning's annoying and underdeveloped sister.  A moogle with a cartoon design and an annoyingly squeaky voice played an important role.  And the story had very little to do with Final Fantasy XIII, which probably meant that the writers were pulling strands of plot out of their... well, you know.

The release date for Final Fantasy XIII-2 came and went.  I ignored it.  Life continued on, and...

... and a year or two later, I quit World of Warcraft and was immediately bored.  Looking for something to do, I checked out the review for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and discovered that... they were not terrible.  Cautiously interested, I went to the local video game store and learned that the game was now heavily discounted.

All right then!  Why not.  Why not...

The Opening

The opening cinematic did not reassure me that my purchase was a good one.


The biggest issue with this opening?  We're supposedly continuing the story of Final Fantasy XIII, and yet this cinematic appears to take us completely away from that plot and throw us in media res into a new one.  That mismatch of expectations is disorienting, to say the least.

On the flip side?  This opening does an admirable job of focusing attention on the primary antagonist of the game, Caius Ballad.  His recognizable humanity, shown by the contrast between his tenderness as he lets Yeul go and his fury as he battles Lightning, is intriguing.  It hints at a story that is very personal in nature, and I think those are the stories that audiences respond to the strongest.

The Rest of the Story


Here's two ways to describe the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2:
  • All of existence is threatened by a megalomaniacal villain who seeks to crack time itself by traveling back into the past and creating paradoxes.
  • Inadvertently punished with immortality, our villain is forced to watch his love continually die and be reborn with no hope for her to find peace.  Driven nearly mad over eons of this cycle, he seeks to end this curse the only way he knows how.
Both are apt descriptions of the game, but I'm willing to bet that you find the second one more involving.  I certainly did.  And fortunately Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't make the mistake of losing focus of the latter in pursuit of the former.

What results is - simply put - incredible, a grand tale with epic sweep that never loses sight of the personal stakes involved.  It begins when Noel journeys back from the far future when he and Caius are the only humans left alive.  Foregoing his friendship with Caius, Noel joins Serah in a mad pursuit through time in an effort to fix the paradoxes that Caius has been instigating.

This quest device is interesting, as it essentially turns the game into a linked collection of short stories.  These smaller stories vary in tone, from saving a city from an invasion of demons to finding an extinct flower to place on the grave of a grieving father's child.  Each feels properly sized, with none overstaying their welcome.  And as Serah and Noel travel from time to time, they learn a bit more about the doomed history of Caius and Yeul.

A brief word about our heroes: they were nowhere near as annoying as I feared they might be.  Why not?  Simply put: because they're not whiners.  Serah and Noel and Caius all have clear purposes from which they do not deviate (which two exceptions, but these are presented as self-contained mini-stories with clear boundaries from the greater tale), and this clarity is extremely welcome.  If an audience is waiting for a climax where two trains to crash together, why slow their velocity with swerves that question whether the collision will happen at all?  Isn't it better to constantly increase their momentum?

And that final collision is grand indeed.  Here's the video; it spans the entire fight, so I'll talk about individual sections below.

00:00 - 13:30: Caius comes to destroy mankind's final hope in stabilizing time.  There's much here that will make no sense unless you've played the game, but what's neat is how various supporting characters are brought back to play a role in the finale.  It's always neat to have individual threads from the long story woven back together in the end.

13:31 - 15:49: A final confrontation between Noel and Caius.  Here Caius's controlled and calculating demeanor finally breaks, revealing the eons of pent up rage that drives his actions.  And here is when I realized the most incredible thing: I actually sympathized with Caius.  If I felt like the person I loved the most was cursed to suffer for a literal eternity, I think I might do everything in my power to free that person too.

The moment when Noel turns Caius's assumptions around is also chilling.

15:50 - 17:05: Lightning brings Noel and Serah back from the dead or something.  Okay, this part still makes no sense to me, but oddly enough - I don't mind.  Why?  Because I wanted Noel and Serah to come back and face Caius one final time.  If a story responds to the audience's desires, I think the audience will be more than willing to overlook any plot holes or other bits of nonsense.

17:06 - 25:35: The final boss fight against not one not two but three dragons!  This is a flippant comment, but in truth I was intimidated like hell when I realized what I'd have to face.  And the music that plays when the fight starts in earnest is still my favorite boss theme - dark, discordant, and full of rising power.

Note the little details as well: the red dragon fights with physical attacks, and when he appears he slams his claws against the platform.  The yellow dragons fights with magic, and he crosses his hands over his chest.  Minor details, sure, but I have much respect for the thought process that goes behind making everything just right.

25:36 - 29:25: The finale, where assumptions are turned on their heads as Caius begs Noel to kill him, and Noel refuses.  The words spoken are (generally) lean and to the point, without the overwrought excess that can sometimes haunt a story.  And Caius's final act... wow.

29:26 - 33:53: And I usually pretend the rest of the ending doesn't exist, as it goes full circle back to the opening cinematic - but only in the sense that it's disconnected from the rest of the story.  Oh well, nothing's perfect.

So, just in case you can't tell, let me say this unequivocally: I loved Final Fantasy XIII-2.  In some ways I think the game was helped by the negative reaction to Final Fantasy XIII, as it allowed the creators to forge something new for the series.  Its biggest flaw?  The cliffhanger ending that clearly indicates another sequel.  But that doesn't detract from the essentially self-contained story of the game.

And with my exceedingly positive reaction to Final Fantasy XIII-2, I found myself thinking: maybe a third game wouldn't be so bad after all...

Friday, April 24, 2015

TMoH #10: The Other World

And yet another edition of thirty minutes of hell!  Anyway 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: Think up an unusual addiction and give it to your character. Write about how they go through each day, week, and month with this addiction.

The Other World

The problem with Harold was that he read too many damn books.  Even when we were kids and I went over to his house to play, I'd have to sit in his room, fiddling with his action figures while I waited for him to finish a page or two or ten.  Did I mind?  Maybe sometimes, but not really.  It's cool to see someone love something so much.  And if I ever got annoyed on the outside, maybe it was just because I was jealous on the inside.

All of this was fine when we we still walked together to the small elementary school, but once we started taking the bus to the larger middle school, things changed.  When you're little, you're so physically sheltered from so much of the world that your mind has to fill the rest with wild guesses and extrapolations.  That's okay.  But if you want to become a functional adult, then those childhood flights of fancies have to go away, replaced by what's real.  That's what growing up is.

That's what Harold couldn't do.  Fifth grade was a feral delight for me; a chance to learn truths you can't learn in books: truths about girls and friendships and the way things work.  The things that really matter in life, I mean.  I tore into this new world with ravenous hunger.

But Harold?  His face would smooth and he'd just put on a painfully fixed smile.  His expression was just like a mask, and like a mask it couldn't hide his eyes: shiny and frantic.  I tried to help him, I really did, but instead of coming with me, he'd just retreat into another one of his damn books.  He was happy in them, you see.  He understood them.  It was where he wanted to live.

We stopped being friends eventually.  I was never mean to him, but by the end I was never precisely nice to him either.  It was hard to be around him.  He watched us like we were animals in a zoo, objects of wonder and pity and envy.  Did he ever realize we watched him like he was the one in a cage?  I don't know.

All of this is to say: I'm not surprised that he ran away.  This world, the one in this town, was one he didn't understand or want, so why wouldn't you leave to find the world that you want?  In a weird way, I suppose I'm proud of him for that.  Or... maybe not.

But no, I don't know where he is now.  I guess I could imagine it, but what would be the point?


This story may have lost its way.  It's supposed to be about how addicting imagination can be.  At its worst, a strong imagination can contort the truths of the world into the shapes you want them to be, and when things don't work out, what are you going to do?  Accept reality?  Or retreat back into the warm embrace of your mind?

The story doesn't really delve into that issue, however.  If I were to re-write it, Harold would need to be far more prominent, and there'd have to be additional details and specific scenes.  Oh well, I can always imagine that it's more complete than it is! (lol me)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fiction: The Samurai

The Samurai

The girl slumbers as the samurai whispers into her dreams.  One of her fingers brushes the crest on his helmet that arcs up like a golden moon.  She clutches her toy and does not sleep well.

Earlier that afternoon, the girl pranced up the museum steps, action figure in one hand, invisible lightning bolts in the other; for she was, of course, a samurai who knew magic.  A large banner draped above the entrance depicted an imposing warrior charging forward, cherry blossoms floating over his head.  "For the shogunate!" her father said, grinning.  "For the choco-nut!" the girl shouted.  They laughed together.

The first display held a collection of katanas.  "What does that say?" the girl asked, pointing at a plaque.  Her father squinted.  "Carbon steel. . . polished and glazed. . . cut through armor and. . ."

"No," the girl declared.  "That's wrong.  Swords don't hit armor, they hit other swords."  She frowned as she swung her arm to demonstrate.

"Let's look at other things," her father said.

The girl asked no more questions, and spoke only with the tightening grip of her hand.  But as they wandered deeper through the dim and hushed corridors of the exhibit, she heard glimmers of whispered conversations, saw glimpses of meaning.  And the samurai, of course, understood everything.

A red battle mask, carved with empty eyes and a mouth turned down in an immortal scowl.  A stained banner depicting two birds, one ripped in two.  A wakizashi, used first to stab through a fallen foe's neck, then to saw through it completely.

And then the dioramas: the boy-Emperor Antoku held aloft by his grandmother, the eternal moment before she jumped with him into the sea.  A samurai stumbling backwards, two arrow shafts protruding from his chest.  A kneeling man clothed all in white holding a knife with its tip pointing towards his own abdomen; his second behind him, ready to deliver the decapitating stroke.

The girl ignored her father's increasingly insistent pull.  She studied each object, each display, before looking away.

As soon as they exited, her father picked her up.  She dropped her head on his shoulder in a way he thought she had forgotten.  Her samurai dangled loosely from her hand.

He murmured a comfort:  "You're still my samurai with lightning powers."  They both knew it was false.  The girl said nothing and fell asleep in the car.

And now the samurai whispers, and what he says, no one knows.  Does he speak of blood and mortality, transience and the void?  Are those half-formed concepts infecting her even now, a patient contagion that will manifest itself over time as thoughtful outbursts, contemplative sulks, honest silences?

Or perhaps he is planting a different kind of seed.  The samurai knows that no day is without shadow, no year without storm.  And someday, when the woman who was once a girl reaches a moment of darkness, perhaps the samurai wishes her to remember this: she once believed that she could call to the clouds, and the heavens would answer.

This feels less like a story than a meditation.

I've always told stories to my daughter that some might argue are a bit too mature for her.  No, not in the sex-and-violence sense; but in the thematic sense, most often with the idea that the world can be unkind, uncaring, and simply unfair.  Why?  Because I think it's true, and because I think it's a realization that many people eventually come to without having the proper emotional support.  Better to have my daughter learn now when she's still young enough to come to her father with her sadness and concerns.

All that being said, it's not like I keep my daughter in a Box of Tragedy.  People who know us know that we're both pretty... I'll be kind and say 'whimsical'.  We both like making people laugh, and I think we both have genuine hope for the future.

I think this story is my attempt to bring these two seemingly contradictory viewpoints together.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII: 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 had my doubts about Final Fantasy XIIIFinal Fantasy XII had appealed to me tremendously with its realistically-motivated characters and politics-driven storyline.  From what I read about Final Fantasy XIII, the game was a deliberate step away from all of that.

Early trailers deepened my concerns.  The main character, Lightning, felt like she was created to reflect Cloud and Squall, the moody and angst-ridden protagonists of Final Fantasy VII and VIII.  Combat was overly frenetic and busy, spectacle for the sake of being spectacle.  Environments looked like they were designed to show off the power of the PlayStation 3, and not for the sake of supporting the game itself.

Still, my enjoyment of Final Fantasy XII made me want to give the series the benefit of the doubt.  And that's just what I did.

The Opening

It's easiest for me to talk about Final Fantasy XIII's opening by contrasting it with other Final Fantasy openings (skip to 2:45 to bypass the introductory credits).


  • Final Fantasy VIII's opening had its own flaws, but one thing it did capture well was the notion that the conflicts had highly personal elements: Squall against Seifer, Rinoa against Edea.  Without that personalization, the story has as much drama as a little kid kicking over action figures - which is what the fighting in Final Fantasy XIII's opening feels like.
  • Final Fantasy IV's opening had Cecil troubled by his actions in forcibly taking the Crystal from the Mysidians.  This inner conflict gave Cecil dimensionality, something noticeably absent from the cinematic above.
  • Final Fantasy XII's opening managed to neatly tell a complete story of its own, efficiently parceling out details both great and small without overwhelming the viewer.  By its end there's a firm grasp of who the major characters are and what their motivations might be.  This clarity is distinctly missing from Final Fantasy XIII's opening.
If it's not obvious by now, I'll state it straight out: I do not like the way FFXIII's story begins.  And I remember thinking that its flaws did not bode well for the rest of the game.

The Rest of the Story


In the interests of saving the Internet from yet another rant, I'm going to summarize my overall impression of Final Fantasy XIII: a muddled over-produced mess whose characters feel like they were individually designed to be 'cool' rather than relatable. 

That being said, there are some positive aspects to the story.  I'll describe two of them.

The first is the character of Sazh.

Before the game was released many people thought of Sazh as an unfortunately stereotyped joke character, inserted for loose comic relief and nothing more (note: there is a chocobo chick living in his afro).  I shared this same dread, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found him to be the most fully-formed character in the game.

My daughter was four years old when Final Fantasy XIII was released.  The other protagonists in the game fight for freedom, or vengeance, or some simplified notion of justice.  Sazh fights to save his young son (please don't ask me "from what?") and I found his single-mindedness and desperation and self-loathing at the prospect that he might fail to be emotions that I innately understood.  He expresses this all while still being the comic relief of the group, and that jagged mess of feelings, both light and dark, is something that is very real.

The other thing that impressed me about FFXIII?  The sheer weirdness of the villains.  Check out the boss fight at the midpoint of the game, when the curtain is drawn back on the full scope of the story.

It is here that it is revealed that the antagonists of the game are not a powerful and corrupt human Empire, but the gods themselves.  And it is here that the over-designed nature of FFXIII really works in its favor, producing a divinity that is horrific in its ineffable strangeness: I remember starting when Barthandelus's true form was revealed (2:00 in the above video), and again when he revealed his strongest attack (5:50).  True gods would not be like us; they would be foreign and alien and awe-inspiring and terrible, and Final Fantasy XIII captures that well.

But overall?  The game was a tremendous slog to get through.  And I remember thinking: this is it.  This is the last Final Fantasy I'll ever play.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

TMoH #9: The Daisy

It's Friday, so... wait, it's Saturday.  Whoops, looks like I slipped a day for this edition of thirty minutes of hell!  Anyway 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 piece about something that you can only learn outside a classroom setting. Forget Math, Science, History, and English—what are some subjects that aren’t taught in school, but that you think make important lessons?

The Daisy

The little girl picked the white petals off the daisy, one by one by one.  With each petal she alternated between: my wish will and my wish won't.  It was her seventh daisy and by now she had learned to begin each flower with my wish won't.  As she picked the last petal off her current daisy, she smiled.  It was her third my wish will in a row.

Her mother came to her.  "We should have been home already," her mother said.  The little girl didn't look up.  She didn't like seeing how tight her mother was these days, as if her skin were a tense balloon on the verge of popping.

"Just one more," she said to her mother and picked another daisy.

"What are you doing?  Making wishes?"  Her mother's laugh was like a dull knife.  "What's that going to do?  How's that going to fix anything?"

"Maybe it won't," the little girl said, unconcerned.  "But there's nothing else I can do, is there?"

 There was no reply.  And after a moment her mother picked a daisy of her own.


The little girl sounds waaaay too old, and there's not enough setting here.  I also need to explain how the "s/he loves me" daisy game got transformed into a general wish game.  Oh, and if you're curious, a typical field daisy has 34 petals.

But I kinda like this story and actually it's fixable.  I think it has the potential to be a little bit sweet.  Perhaps bitterly so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Horrible Lesson

Stories are an avenue into worlds unknown.  Sometimes these worlds are magical and wondrous.  And sometimes they are dreary and frightening.  Sadly, I recently (and accidentally) introduced my daughter to one of these latter worlds.

Here's how that happened.  As I've mentioned before, my daughter and I play through story-adventures in the car.  Our current one involves being members of Final Fantasy Type-0's "Class Zero" - battle-trained cadets asked to go on secret missions for the sake of their country.  I am "Diamond", who wields a giant axe and a fiery temper.  My daughter is "Spade", a quiet and thoughtful ninja with "shurikens attacked to ropes".  Sure, why not!

On this particular day we were embarking on a mission to infiltrate the capital city of the belligerent Milites empire.  They were on the verge of creating a supremely powerful mech, you see, and the prototype just had to be destroyed before the Milites could start mass producing the new model.  Otherwise, all... would be lost.

Since this was a "sneaky mission", we couldn't simply fight our way through the city and into the research laboratory; we had to go through the sewers.  And of course (since I'm the way I am) we emerged from the sewers... into a bathroom.

There was a Milites soldier peeing as Spade cautiously lifted the floor grate and peeked his head through.  "I'll go up quickly and wait then," my daughter said.

"Are you sure?  He can just turn his head and see you."

"Really?  How?"

"He just has to turn his head," I explained, confused by my daughter's confusion.  She hesitated, shrugged, and jumped out from the floor and knocked the soldier out with a single punch.

"Oh no!" I exclaimed.  "There's a flush from the stall with the closed door!  You didn't realize that -"

"Wait," my daughter interrupted with dawning horror.  "Wait.  Wait.  Does this mean that... boys can see each other when they pee?"

"Oh.  Uh, yes.  I mean, you're not supposed to look - and most don't - but in theory it's -"

"GROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!" she shrieked as I instinctively hit the brakes.  "OH.  MY.  GOSH.  I am so glad I am not a boy!"

And that's how a story taught my daughter a fundamental truth of the world: boys are definitely gross.

(Later, after a few minutes of stunned reflection: "Wait.  Daddy, you're a boy, aren't you.")

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fiction: Closing Eyes is Magic

I've published exactly one piece of fiction, ever: Closing Eyes is Magic in the online journal Monkeybicycle.  I'm quite proud of it; it feels both sparse and honest.  And I'm even more proud of the magic trick described, especially because I came up with it all by myself.

I hope you like the story too!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Final Fantasy XII: 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.]

Despite my tepid reaction to recent entries in the series, Final Fantasy XII excited me beyond all reason as soon as it was announced.  Why?  Because that's when I learned that the Final Fantasy XII development team was led by the same people who had created two of my favorite games of the PlayStation generation: Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.

In the years that followed between the game's announcement and its release, I fed on every interview, screenshot, and trailer that Square released.  I was delighted when it was declared that FFXII's story would have a more adult tone.  The series I had grown up with was finally growing up with me.

I got the game a minute after midnight on release day and popped it into my PlayStation 2 shortly thereafter.  I remember bouncing up and down on my butt impatiently as I waited for the loading screens to clear.  Did I have any trepidation that my expectations would not be met?  I did not.

The Opening

Here's how Final Fantasy XII opens.


Watching it now makes me think that that good storytelling requires contrast.  Without contrast, action and emotion and size all feel flat; there's no sense of grandeur because each beat of a story is the same as the others.

That's why Final Fantasy XII's opening cinematic works for me.  You have the large scale celebrations and battles that contrast with intimate moments featuring major characters; this allows us to understand the enormous scope of the world in which these people try and survive.  You have the love and joy present at Princess Ashe's and Prince Rasler's wedding, and then the sorrow that follows as Basch fails to protect the prince from his death; this allows us to understand the stakes and consequences.

All of this invests the viewer in the story that unfolds, and also makes it easier to drop in some needed exposition without running the risk of having the viewer's eyes glaze over: the Empire is on the warpath and conquers Rasler's homeland.  Ashe's homeland is next.  It would have been easy to delivering this information through a text crawl.  But FFXII chooses a better option in order to draw in the audience: it presents the information naturally in the characters' actions and speech.

The Rest of the Story


The central point-of-view characters of Final Fantasy XII are Vaan and Penelo, two orphaned children who fall into a grand adventure to free the kingdom of Dalmalsca from the clutches of the Empire.  There's a rumor that they were shoe-horned into the game by executives that were worried that the intended focal characters would not be marketable draws.  I don't know if this rumor is true or not... but I do know that the original direction of FFXII stepped down for "health" reasons.  And I also know that the opening cinematic does not feature Vaan and Penelo; it features Basch and Ashe.

I will say that if the rumor is true, Vaan and Penelo are remarkable for not feeling completely out of place.  Having said that, I do agree that they don't really fit into the politically-realistic storyline that follows the opening.  So I'm going to pretend they don't exist.

Shortly after the events of the opening cinematic, the king of Dalmalsca begins peace talks with the Empire.  During those talks he is assassinated, and the assassin is identified by all to be Basch.  Dalmalsca is declared a protectorate of the Empire, to be governed by Lord Vayne Solidor, eldest surviving son of the Emperor.  Princess Ashe is nowhere to be found.

What follows is a highly complex series of events.  We learn that Basch was framed by his twin brother Gabranth, now a highly-ranked Judge in service of the Empire.  He is freed by Ashe, who has started a movement to free her kingdom from the clutches of the Empire; they are eventually joined by the charming mercenary Balthier and his partner Fran.  In the meantime Vayne has arranged for the death of his father and ascended to the throne.  From there he is free to pursue his real goals, which are far greater than they appear.

There's far too much plot to summarize, so I'll just hit upon some points that interested me.
Unlike other Final Fantasy games, the characters in Final Fantasy XII never sit and whine about whether they really want to do whatever it is that they're doing.  Ashe and Basch know exactly what they want, and never deviate from their goal; Balthier and Fran stay loyal to who they are.  Some people mistake this constancy for lack of character development.  I disagree, as the characters do change; however it is their journey that directs their growth, and not the other way around.  I think this is entirely appropriate for a sweeping historical epic.

Some of this growth is apparent.  Ashe evolves from a resistance fighter bent only on destroying the Empire's hold on her kingdom to a stateswoman who - especially after meeting Lord Larsa, Vayne's kind and intelligent younger brother - understands that a compromise may be the only way to secure her people's future.  The story of Basch and Gabranth is different, showing how the weight of events led two brothers onto opposing paths.  And Balthier...

... well, Balthier's story is one of the most subtle.  He's a Han Solo-like rogue, quick of wit and ever-ready with a quip ("Spare me your quiddities" is my favorite), and he remains a constant even after his backstory is revealed.  It's a bit complex and requires an understanding of the greater plot; just try to hang in there with me...

Balthier's father, Cid, is a high-ranking Imperial researcher who is close friends with Vayne.  It is Cid who is contacted by Venat, a rogue being of a god-like race of immortal beings called the Occuria.  He learns that the Occuria have been manipulating the mortal realm throughout history by tempting them with powerful Crystals.  Venat wants to break mankind free of the Occuria's grasp, and that is what Vayne and Cid ultimately hope to achieve as well.

His father's preoccupation with this task drives Balthier away from the Empire and into a vagrant life.  The party eventually confronts Cid and defeats him, and father and son have one final conversation.

This is the one time when Balthier is left with nothing to say.  And there is a payoff at the very end of the game.

But before we get there, I'll talk about the final battle with Vayne.  This confrontation takes place when Vayne gathers an immensely powerful air-fleet with the intent of wiping out the last rebels.  The Crystals have already been destroyed, Ashe having refused the Occuria's offer of power in return for sparing the Crystals.  With no other hope left, the party steals aboard Vayne's flagship, the Bahamut... and defeat him.

Stumbling away and dying, Vayne calls out to Venat, and the last act of their friendship is darkly moving.

Venat's final sacrifice was one of pure altruism, and not born out of desperation or need.  Its goals had already been fulfilled, and it had no more need of its mortal allies.  The final battle is entirely unnecessary.

But that's how life works.  Life is messy and accidental and full of unnecessary events that ripple outwards in strange ways.  The truth is that people don't really influence the present so much as they react to the past.  Final Fantasy XII is a story that embraces that idea whole-heartedly, and it is pretty unique in doing so.

Let me wrap up Balthier's story now.  After Vayne's death, the Bahamut begins to fall out of the sky, threatening to crush the city of Rabanastre.  And in a moment of heroism, Balthier and Fran stay behind to massage the engines long enough to have the Bahamut fly over the city and crash just beyond.

His act is completely uncharacteristic - unless you remember Cid's final words to his son, the ones that Balthier had no answer to and which I imagine he could not dismiss.  It's a subtle resolution and easily missed.

And in the end Final Fantasy XII might be a bit too subtle.  Whether it's a fault of the storytelling or a consequence of the original director's departure, FFXII feels like an ambitious dream whose flaws are readily apparent under close scrutiny.

Still, I can marvel at the grandeur of the original vision; and I can appreciate the many points of execution that Final Fantasy XII did get right.

Friday, April 10, 2015

TMoH #8: The Birth

Another Friday, 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 story about something being born. It can be from the POV of the baby or of the parents or of the doctor. It can be about the birth of a human or an animal or even an idea. It can be set in the womb or the mind or the delivery room. It’s all up to you. One stipulation: no death, just birth.

The Birth

The birth happened five years after they met and three years after they got married.  That was how long it took for the tempestuous crests and valleys of their relationship to settle, for the extremes of their passion and joy and doubt to level off into a flat plateau of certainty.  He had wanted children from the start; she was less certain that she was ready for the sacrifices and compromises that would be needed.

Yet he was insistent, if likeably so.  He charmed her with promises and visions of the future.  He spoke with patience but also with certainty, and it was the latter that wore down her defenses until she could no longer hold back his calm constancy.  And so it was that one year after their wedding, they began to try for a child.

Even now she will admit that it was fun at first.  There were seduction and games and smiles derived from hope for the future.  Remember: the plateau had not yet been reached.  Remember: they still loved each other.

Weeks turned to months turned to a year and there was no sign of a pregnancy.  His laughter turned bewildered, and her uncertainty returned.  But it was not until his puzzlement turned to frustration that her uncertainty started changing into something new, something that came into focus with each sullen glare or petty word.  This thing that was new was 'certainty', and that certainty was this: having a child would be a mistake.  Especially with this man she had married.

The birth happened the year after that.  It happened like this: the man found a prescription left carelessly - or was it? - on her nightstand.  He picked it up with a curiosity that turned to confusion as he deciphered the doctor's scribbled note.  And when the confusion turned to an understanding that she had never wanted to have a baby at all - that was the moment when the birth happened.  It was that moment when he knew that he hated his wife.

But what he still did not know was this: her hatred for him had been born nine months ago.


To those that know anything about me, I feel obligated to make this statement: this story has zero autobiographical features.  With that out of the way...

Well, that was unpleasant to write.  It came about because I have a contrary mind: I saw the word "birth" in the writing prompt and immediately thought "death".  Sadly the prompt creators forestalled me with their qualification that the written story could absolutely not be about death.  So I went for the next best thing: a story about a failed birth.

How would I continue work on this story?  First I would add some texture and depth to their disintegrating feelings for each other.  Right now I'm just 'telling', and although that may be okay-ish for an intentionally short story, I think two or three added details would help pull the reader in more.

Second: I would carefully consider whether either party in the marriage seems more at fault.  Neither one is supposed to be; instead the true culprit - lack of communication - is supposed to be shared.  So I think I'd have to step back for some time and then re-examine the story to see if any balancing is needed.

Well, this has not been an uplifting thirty minutes.  Time to see if the Red Sox can survive extra innings against the Yankees!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"I Dodge Away From The Psychically Controlled Car And Have It Hit The Giant"

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games for the Playstation 2, mixing jaw-dropping battles against panoramic gargantuan beasts with a contemplative mood that adds a sense of disquiet to your actions.  I sneaked a review of the game's story into Goodreads; if you're curious, you can read it here.

For some reason the game popped back into my mind recently, and as is my tendency I immediately ran to my daughter and started babbling all about it (I'm lucky that she's of an age where she still listens).

Fast forward a few days, and my daughter decides that we are going to play a new game in the car: each of us will take turns creating a Colossus, and the other person has to try and defeat it.  Here are my daughter's creations:

  • A Colossus found in what I can only imagine is an abandoned multi-story parking lot (and nevermind the early medieval feel of "Shadow of the Colossus").  It's made of cars and can also control "loose"cars, using them to try and ram you.  Defeated by having those cars ram it instead.
  • A Colossus that is a giant turtle.  Lives in a giant swamp surrounded by ravenous alligators (I got close to one and... "GAME OVER DADDY!  It ate your head!").  Has three holes on its back, only one of which is a true weak point; the others are distractions.  Its final weak point is located on the top of its head.  The turtle doesn't attack you; instead it swims around in desperate circles.  I felt bad defeating it, which just proves that my daughter was actually listening to my description of the game ("And you should feel bad!").
  • Some sort of armored Colossus dragon that blots out the sun, yet is small enough for the hero to quickly shimmy up its legs (my daughter does not really have a sense of scale).  Defeated by having it try and eat you, at which point you have to stab at its tongue.
  • A humanoid Colossus riding a giant horse.  It attacks by summoning one of four ephemeral avatars: a phoenix made out of fire energy; a tiger made out of light energy; a turtle made out of earth energy; and a dragon made out of air energy.  Reveals a different weakness each time it summons an avatar.
"Wait," I said.  "That last one sounds like it was inspired by the four kingdoms in 'Final Fantasy Type-0'".

"Yeah!  It's really cool, isn't it?"

 "Yes, but... do you just want to play a Type-0 game instead?"


And that's why we each created our own cadets of Class Zero and are now running them through the plot of 'Final Fantasy Type-0'.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Single Spark

I finished Final Fantasy Type-0 at 4am in the morning and was immediately thrust into a state of near-panic at not having anyone around to share the experience with.  It was all I could do to stop myself from retrieving my daughter from school early the next (well, 'same') day, and once I did so (begrudgingly waiting until her normal pickup time), my excitement spilled out in the form of a promise that once we got home she'd be able to see something 'really cool'.

During the drive home I attempted to setup the final boss battle and ending she was about to see.  JRPGs do not necessarily have the most... lucid... plots, however, and I found myself regurgitating half-formed plot points.  To her credit my daughter can be extremely patient with me; she sat in the back seat with her brow furrowed, slowly trying to comprehend what I was saying.  And after a while she started to ask questions.

It immediately became obvious to me that I understood far less of the story of Final Fantasy Type-0 than I thought - and the fault was not mine.  The game's story is told in unequal fragments, some of which are possible to miss entirely.  Important characters wander in late and leave as mysteriously as they arrived.  Major unchoreographed plot twists turn the viewer's bewilderment into outright confusion.

These are not small issues.  And yet not only was I able to ignore them while playing the game, I found myself willing to remain blind to them afterwards.

Why?  Because Final Fantasy Type-0 did so many things right!  From the opening cinematic that introduces a conflict filled with both horror and glory, to the ending where... nevermind.  Suffice it to say that the positives of the game were more than enough to offset the negatives.

This has happened to me with books as well.  Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and even so I have to admit that "Insomnia" is far from a great book (my review).  And yet there are three scenes that have undeniable power, and once a year I find myself picking up "Insomnia" to re-read those three scenes.

It's easy to appreciate perfection.  It's much harder to take a flawed work of art and look past its obvious flaws in order to focus on its strange beauties.  I don't claim to be able to do this with any consistency.

But I do think that being able to do so is an incredibly useful ability.  After all, if you're trying to build something yourself, isn't it better to fill your mind with beautiful sparks instead of cold ashes?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Final Fantasy XI: 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 remember being disappointed when Final Fantasy XI was announced as an MMORPG - but not as disappointed as one might think.  Yes, turning an RPG into a social endeavor meant that playing the game successfully was beyond an introvert like me (or so I thought at the time).  But instead of gnashing my teeth and rending my garments, I gave a half-hearted shrug.

My "meh" reaction to FFIX and FFX had a lot to do with this change in attitude.  I felt like I had grown up while the Final Fantasy series remained stuck in my past.  FFXI being an MMO was simply an added incentive to put childish things away.

To make a long story short - I failed to do so.  All it took was one week of overwhelming boredom before I "accidentally" found myself in a game store and "accidentally" picked up FFXI off the shelves so I could "try it for an hour or two".  Whoops...

The Opening

Back in the ancient days of 2002 I didn't realize that an MMO could feature a story.  Thus Final Fantasy XI's opening surprised me quite a bit.


A castle town is overrun despite the heroic efforts of its defenders; a boy is thrust to safety by his older sister and left alone in the world.  Many years later he and others return, ready to reclaim the land that was taken from them.

It's a simple story, neither unexpected nor original.  Yet the presentation gives it a resonance beyond a simple two sentence summary, and despite finding the scene between the two siblings rather overdone, I found myself unexpectedly moved.

How this would translate to the rest of the game - I had no idea.  The opening presents a main character, but how could FFXI possibly expect millions of players playing different races and classes to relate to a single protagonist... ?

The Rest of the Story


The answer was so obvious that I missed it completely: players are not supposed to do so.  They're supposed to be swept up in the grandeur of the final shot of the opening movie, when the camera pulls back to reveal the massive army ready to go to war.  FFXI taught me something new about stories: every single character has complexity and history, and is a hero in his or her own eyes.

This was never more clear to me than when I explored around the world of Vana'diel, marveling at all the players running off to points unknown, embarking on their own goals and adventures.  The sense of stepping into truly foreign territory was heightened - in a good way - by the fact that servers were shared by both Japanese and American players, with communication handled by a system of complicated preset phrases and emotes.

I dipped my toe into the water; I waded in deeper; then I dove in whole-heartedly.  I partied with Japanese players who were alternately grudgingly patient and extremely accommodating with my lack of skill.  I joined a 'linkshell' of US-timezone players and made friendships of greater diversity - by far - than any I had made before.  I learned that while some individuals may be cruel, the majority are genuinely kind.

If the above sounds like I was an explorer traveling through a previously unknown continent, well, that's exactly what it was like.  I played previous Final Fantasy games in the role of an observer, but in Final Fantasy XI I lived as my own hero.

At this point I'd like to describe the plot of the game - except as much as I am loath to admit it, my understanding of the story was always weak, and it's a bit of a muddle in my mind.  There definitely is a story; however it's revealed in bits and pieces at a non-constant rhythm (since players set their own pace), and important details can be missed entirely if players skip certain quests or regions.

All I can say definitively is: the invasion of the Beastmen featured in the opening cinematic is triggered by the rise of the Shadow Lord.  Eventually you have an epic confrontation against him.

And then you win!  And... the game keeps going.

From a story perspective, one of the problems with MMOs is that they're designed not to have an ending; otherwise, all the precious subscribers with their precious monthly payments slip away.  And so the game keeps going, powered by players addicted to their routines, and eventually the game becomes a chore rather than a fun activity.

It was a relief to finally break away from Final Fantasy XI.  But it's still an experience I'm glad I had.

Friday, April 3, 2015

TMoH#7: No More Winter

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 story... where winter disappears forever.

No More Winter

There was once a man who hated winter - hated the ice and the snow and the naked black branches of the trees all around.  His story is a tragedy - but only because he was both motivated and wealthy, and thus unable to learn how to accept the things that he did not like.

This is what he did.  He bought two homes, one in the Northern hemisphere and one in the Southern hemisphere.  And he spent six months of each year in each home, carefully timing his travels so as to never feel the biting winds nor see the pale winter sun.  It was a simple solution, as the solutions for the rich often are, and it worked: the man never experienced winter ever again in his lifetime.

So why is this story a tragedy?  It is because once the man solved his problem, he never had to think about winter ever again in his lifetime.  It became neither a source of satisfaction nor dissatisfaction; instead it was simply gone as a concept, never to trouble his mind ever again.  And so perhaps the man was not unhappy; but neither was he happy.  He simply was, and what satisfaction there can be in that I cannot fathom.


Confession: this was originally going to be a story about a bunch of penguins driving the earth into the sun, and don't deny that you would have wanted to read it.

But alas!  I guess an entire day spent with my daughter has imposed a lecturing mood upon me, and that's why I wrote a dry - and frankly, illogical and nonsensical - fable instead.  Ah well, maybe I'll use this in a story where a confused little girl is forced to listen to one of her father's bizarre and rambling stories.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Cheering Up My Daughter with Insect People

I was away on a business trip during the past week, and one night I begged out of dinner with my co-workers in order to Skype with my daughter, whom I missed dearly.  I caught her during her own dinner, and after she made a few grudging remarks I realized she was a bit out of sorts.  So I fell back on one of my parenting techniques, one that begins with the question, "Did I ever tell you about this book I read?"

In this instance I started telling her about China Mieville's "New Crobuzon" novels, a loosely connected series of three books: "Perdido Street Station", "The Scar", and "Iron Council".  And boy, I knew these books had some crazy ideas, but I never quite appreciated how crazy until I tried to verbally explain various concepts to her, including:
  • Handlingers: Sentient hands that come in pairs - dextral, and sinstral.  Can parasitically control a person.
  • Scabmettlers: A humanoid race whose blood hardens immediately upon contact with air.  Will cut themselves pre-battle to compose intricate patterns of armor upon their own body.
  • The Possible Sword: A blade with an attached "possibility engine" that allows it to strike in multiple locations at once.
  • Remaking: A punishment imposed on criminals and dissidents in New Crobuzon where...  ("Wait, forget I said any of that," I said to my daughter.  "I don't want to give you nightmares.")
  • Slake Moths: Giant moths with hypnotically shimmering wings.  They entrance their sentient prey and suck their consciousness away.
  • Toro: A dissident who forged a helmet in the shape of a bull's head.  Its horns allow Toro to tear space itself, and the reason Toro... ("Nevermind, I can't go on without spoiling the book.  I guess you'll just have to read it some day."  "Daddy!")
  • Armada: A city on the ocean consisting of thousands of ships and boats linked together.  Split into several ridings, each governed by its own ruler.  Rulers include...
    • The Lovers: A man and a woman who "love each other so much" that they share thought and movement
    • The Brucolac: A "good" vampire who imposes a blood tax on his citizens so as to provide sustenance for himself and his fellow vampires without killing anyone in the process.
  • Khepri: A humanoid race with scarab heads.
  • The Malarial Queendom: A long-vanished empire of - mosquito people (I forget the name of their race).  The males appeared as normal humans, but the females suffered from blood hunger where they would rush towards other humanoids with their long proboscis fully extended and drain them completely.
  • The Golemancer (his name is Judah Low, but I couldn't remember it at the time): A man with the power to make golems, but not just out of earth and stone; he can create fire golems, moonlight golems, and in an extremely cool sequence near the end of "Iron Council" he... nevermind, spoilers.
 I'm lucky that my daughter's mother finally came to rip her away from Skype in order to go take a bath; by the end I was running out of child-appropriate things to tell her.  But I'm glad to say that she left far more cheerfully than she arrived.

Thanks, China Mieville!