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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 4 - Video Games

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how death plays a role in the interactive world of video games.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. Also, I'll be counting permanent deaths only.

Now I know this may be going way off topic for what I do, but bear with me. Video games as an effective storytelling medium are still little more than babes, but already they draw on lessons from books, movies and television when creating their narratives. And as with any dramatic narratives, there are deaths. Including yours. Yes, you - the player character - are probably going to die at some point in the vast majority of games that have ever or will ever be made. And in a large proportion of them, you're probably going to be killing as well. Some games and franchises, such as the Drakengard/Nier series or some very select shooters such as Spec Ops: The Line, use the mechanic of the player killing enemies to deconstruct the very nature of many video games; someone finds rewards in killing in the real world is considered insane, so why shouldn't game protagonists with that same mentality and motivation likewise be insane. While still in the minority, it's worth tracking down those few video games which criticise the player for the very act of playing such a violent experience for fun.

Choice is something that is typically associated with role-playing, with the role-playing books that offer different scenario paths being the origin of the famous branching narratives adopted by many prominent video game developers including CD Project Red, Ion Storm and later Eidos Montreal, and perhaps most notably Atlus. Choice plays into what deaths can take place. In the vast majority of Atlus' titles, an element of morally ambiguous dialogue and gameplay choices means that you will lose people, with their Megami Tensei series being the best example. There are very few games throughout the Megami Tensei franchise that do not involve a character dying because of differences in loyalty or goal directly generated by the player's choices. CD Project Red's seminal adaptation of The Witcher book series takes this to new heights, with none of the choices made by you as Geralt of Rivia being unilaterally good or evil, but a fusion of the two that is unsettlingly similar to real life. Ion Storm and Eidos Montreal's Dues Ex games put choice and consequence at their core, even extending to whether you sneak and talk your way through or blast everything before you into oblivion with your cybernetic or nanotechnological Augmentations.

The death of a companion can also have an impact on gameplay. Permanent death (commonly abbreviated to permadeath) is a feature many people can find infuriating, but with a story justification it can be quite something. The first two Fallout games and the entire Fire Emblem series use permanent death as both a gameplay mechanic and a story element. BioWare's story-driven role-playing games use this mechanic too, with their long-running stories carrying the consequences of character death into subsequent entries. The most notorious permanent death in video game history is undoubtedly Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII, a death which multiple critics hailed as one of the most shocking in the genre's history, and a key turning point for the story with lasting impact on later narrative expansions. One of the most emotional deaths I've ever encountered was in Dawn of Mana; after striving the entire game to save his beloved Ritzia, protagonist Keldric is forced to kill her to end the cycle of destruction plaguing their land, leaving both himself and us as the player heartbroken.

One of the things several people will often be shocked by is the main protagonist's own death. While it is quite common in fiction, it still strikes hard for video game players; you yourself have been embodying this character, and now that character is dead. Of course, death can be subjective due to either story or gameplay, but there are some games where the death is certain. Noctis Lucis Caelum in Final Fantasy XV is particularly hard to watch due to the fact that he was chosen for a role ending in death since his childhood; some paths taken in Heavy Rain result in the player characters dying; death forms a central part of both Odin Sphere and Muramasa, with player characters often dying in one of their many endings; and in a unique twist, Drakengard 3 heroine Zero dies in every single timeline, with varying degrees of impact.

Some people might say that death in video games is frequently cheapened due to respawn mechanics and such, but it can be just as relevant as in other storytelling media. In other media you are carried along as an observer, but in video games you are an active participant by design, with more narrative-driven titles often having the option of allowing you to cause the deaths of those close to you. Quite often modern games don't give you the option to save everyone, reflecting the real world. In a medium where the consequences for dying are often just being dropped at the last checkpoint, the gravity of death as a narrative device has come to the fore. Whether it follows the same rules as other storytelling media or strikes out, death is important to the interactive storytelling of video games. Just remember to save so you can see those other outcomes.

Next week, I'll be talking about how I approach the task of working death into my fiction. It has to be solid, dramatic, impactful, not at all contrived, foreshadowed without being blatantly obvious. I enjoy handling deaths, and as my skill in writing has improved, so has my portrayal and handling of death.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 3 - Television

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how death is portrayed in a variety of television series.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Mystery stories are too numerous to name in a single article without it turning into a list, and they all have something in common; a death provides the catalyst for the story's action and central mystery. While the most noteworthy are adaptations of the most famous works of mystery writers - whether faithful to the text or replete with creative alterations - there are several original productions of note. Silent Witness focuses on the forensic side of the crime, the surreal Collision shows more of the investigatory side a massive car crash, Colombo flips things on their head by showing the entire murder before showing how the titular detective solves the crime, Person of Interest puts a science fiction twist on investigation, and NCIS mixes the crime-solving with a strong focus on personality to prevent the show from going stale. In such long-running series, it is more shocking to see characters die - more often it is the character "retiring" or "moving on" that is used to explain the actor or actress moving on to new roles. Notable deaths in long-running series include Warrick Brown from the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Kaitlyn Todd and Ziva David from NCIS, and John Reese from Person of Interest.

In Doctor Who, the very long-running television series, death is actually cheated multiple times. Due to the format of the show and the creative decisions made over the years, they solved the necessity of the lead actor moving on - have each character's "death" be a transitional phase through a pseudo-magical-scientific mechanism unique to his race. Despite the main character cheating death, many supporting characters have met their ends over the course of the story, sometimes in quite unpleasant ways - the many character deaths in series as varied as The Seeds of Death back to Tomb of the Cybermen and forward to Warrior's Gate, the tragic massacres of The Curse of Fenric and Logopolis, the basic premise of The Talons of Weng Chiang, and the unexpectedly mature narratives of Inferno and The Deadly Assassin. I could go on. The thing lacking from the series is companion deaths; the first and one of the most shocking is the death of Adric in the 1982 serial Earthshock. Take into account that this was before the near-pessimistic attitude growing into the revives series of 2005 onward, when the series was still aimed squarely at a younger audience.

Death as an artistic and stylistic expression is nearly unheard of in any non-interactive medium, at least in the sense that the death of a key character forms a recurring concept. I mean, death is final. Isn't it? Well, not in the universe of Aeon Flux. The black-haired, leather-clad, acrobat assassin has been lingering in the public imagination since the 1990s, following a successful series of animated shorts on MTV, culminating in ten half-hour episodes which moved into more conventional territory. A recurring feature of the shorts was that the titular heroine would end up dying in some way. Whether shot, garroted by a cable, killed by a lethal fall, or attacked by an inhuman monster, she met an often grisly end at each short episode's climax. This makes the series stand out from the crowd - what other universe kills its titular protagonist in every single entry? Well, barring the half-hour episodes and later movie adaptation. The movie's tie-in video game did something to rectify that, as a recurring element was each story sequence or mission ending with Aeon's death. This use of death falls within the series' bold experimental style, and helps Aeon stand out as not only one of the most enduring, but one of the clumsiest heroines in science fiction.

Now obviously there are too many television series or one-off specials in existence to count, and those listed above are a very general selection from my own limited experience. But there is a recurring theme I've seen as a writer examining stories. The episodic format of many a television series turns death into something with more impact than often possible in movies; unless it's end of series, the rest of the cast need to move on without that character. In movies, you normally have around two hours with the likelihood of another death down the line. In television, you can have as long as sensibly or even idiotically possible. Of course the quality of that death, as with all things, relies on the quality of the show. For example, character deaths in Primeval resonate far less than those in Sons of Anarchy. This is a rule that applies to all forms of storytelling, but people can be especially critical for television series.

Next week, we dive into the realm of video games. Sharing stories with other mediums, video games have the advantage of being an interactive medium. This enables games with stories of incredible complexity, in addition to turning death into a whole mechanic, and even an element of player choice narrative.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 2 - Movies

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how a death can advance a story in movies.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Movies have a distinct disadvantage against books; they have time limits, and are based on visual elements more than description. Live-action movies also have the issue of the basic restrictions of reality on their characters. This means that many deaths in movies can come off as fairly pedestrian. Sometimes this pedestrian quality can itself be dramatic. An example is the final sequence of events of the gangster movie The Departed, a Westernised remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. The final scene is a stark contrast to the hectic massacre that precedes it. Main protagonist Colin Sullivan has been responsible for killing his former handler Costello, undercover cop Costigan, and another mole in his department. He is hailed, but he is also miserable; he has destroyed both his own life and the lives of many others. Returning to his apartment, he is faced by ex-cop Sean Digman. Without music or fanfare, preceded by only a single hollow expletive, Sullivan is shot through the head and left on the floor. This hollow ending for the movie's main protagonist is sudden and flat, but that actually makes sense within the story's context. Considering all he has been through and all he has done, such a weak ending is perfectly suited to his character.

From protagonists to antagonists, we turn to the despicable personage of Hori, who is arguably the main antagonist of The Hidden Blade. A theme throughout the movie is how the honour and traditions of the samurai are beginning to come under threat during the 1860s, the last years of the Edo period. Main protagonist Munezo Katagiri is forced to watch the life of his friend Yaichiro Hazama twisted and ruined by the corrupt Edo elite, represented by Hori. Hori is shown to be truly repulsive, showing no respect to Katagiri and trying to force him to compromise the samurai code. He then arranges Hazama's dishonourable death, lies to Hazama's wife to receive sexual favours for the promise of Hazama's survival, then all but laughs even after her suicide. Katagiri is the man who whose unbending fealty to his clan meant the killing of his fallen friend, but when faced with Hori's horrific actions, he acts as Hazama's avenging angel. Using a secret style, Katagiri punctures Hori's heart, fatally wounding him. This is a richly-deserved death; for Westerners we seen a plain old horrible man, for Japanese viewers this is a man who soils treasured samurai traditions. His death is also quite apt; destroyed by the very man he forced to influence, with a technique he could never hope to understand, on behalf of the memories of those he condemned to death.

Death is not just a singular event, but can be the thematic foundation of a story. An example of this can be found within Star Trek Generations. Death, the end of things and the meaning of one's life form a recurring theme in the movie. Main villain Soren's obsession with reaching the blissful extra-dimensional Nexus partially stems from the death of his family at the Borg's hands; Picard's brother and nephew are reported dead, leaving Picard as the last of the line; and the movie itself opens with original protagonist James Kirk apparently dying saving the Enterprise-B from the Nexus ribbon. The movie ends with Picard and Kirk ironically using the Nexus itself to foil Soren's plans, but this results in Kirk's true death. Kirk's death alone would be shocking enough to long-term fans of the series, but the movie's real strength is that it uses death and endings as a recurring theme, even if many of the deaths seen during the story are reversed. This lends the movie a far greater weight than if it had been just one death.

In books, words are used to describe nearly everything, even when illustrations help. This can result in death scenes becoming clunky if handled wrong. In the visual arts, particularly in movies, a death can be illustrated in a fraction of the time it might take a book. It can also leave a more vivid impression, as the scene is exactly that; visual. As humans, we respond better to visual inputs, we see and we assimilate through seeing. Seeing death makes it that much more real; thus seeing death in movies, in all its subtle and gory forms, makes it more real to us.

Next week, we dive into the realm of television. While sharing many similarities to the workings of movies and more frequently bound by the rules of the real world, they also have the ability to tell longer stories and a greater freedom of expression.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 1 - Books

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how a death can advance a story in books.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

To take an example of death being a multilayered story catalyst, let's look at the death of Boromir from Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, the first volume of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. While not exactly foreshadowing, Boromir is constantly shown to be the weak link in the Fellowship, as his will is being easily suborned by the Ring's baleful influence. Events come to a head when he tried to force Frodo to hand over the Ring, an act which ultimately breaks his madness. Aragorn offers him a chance to redeem himself by protecting Merry and Pippin. Boromir is ultimately slain by orc arrows, redeeming himself by giving his life in defense of the remaining Hobbits and proving his worth despite the Ring's temptation. Boromir's fall and death serves a three-fold purpose in the narrative; it shows the full corrupting force of the Ring as Boromir is otherwise a noble and true man, it allows the character to find redemption and regain reader sympathy after being an ambiguous to antagonistic force, and symbolises the shattering of the Fellowship that has endured since Gandalf's fall and presumed death in Moria. This is an example of a potent story death, as it drives home plot points and evolves the plot beyond the initial volume, giving readers an extra hook to continue following the story.

Heroic deaths are as common as they can be in general fiction, so it's difficult to pick out any one death that fits this trope while doing a good job of it. The death I'm choosing for this next piece is from Jonathan Stroud's final original Bartemaeus novel Ptolemy's Gate. This novel is the culmination of plot threads scattered through the length of the trilogy, whose hidden main theme is the unequal relationship between magicians, their magical servants, and the people they rule through fear and ignorance. After the spirits of magicians are liberated through forcefully possessing their masters to destroy humanity, the two main protagonists - Bartimaeus and his master Nathaneal - are forced to undergo a similar merge while working cooperatively to destroy the abominations born from the rebellion. It culminates in Nathaneal breaking the powerful staff he has been using to destroy the powerful Nouda, an act that would kill both himself and Bartimaeus. Going against all their interactions up to this point, Nathaneal releases Bartimaeus before his death, sacrificing himself but freeing his servant. Through his death Nathaneal saved both London and humanity in general, but through releasing Bartimaeus he overcame the precepts of being a Magician that were drilled into his otherwise kindly self.

Death forms a core part of many of the most famous mysteries within crime fiction. Wilkie Collin's seminal The Moonstone focuses on theft far more than death despite being classed as the first true detective story, but there's no denying death is the central theme of crime and mystery novels from the Victorian era onward. Historian Lucy Worsley, in her book and television series A Very British Murder traced a line of public fascination with murder going back into the early 1800s that influenced the trend in fiction. When used in detective or mystery fiction, the murder is the focal point of the plot. Your protagonist seeks to discover the truth behind the murder whether the reason be simplistic, complicated, farcical or tragic. Everything else about the story can be seen as incidental to the central murder. Of course in some stories, such as At Bertram's Hotel, a murder only occurs fairly late in the story and is almost entirely separate from the main mystery.

The deaths of people otherwise unconnected with the flow of the story up to a certain point can seem odd and jarring, but there are several works that use it to great effect. One of the most forceful uses I've ever experienced is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Much of this story concerns Professor Aronnax's journeys with the enigmatic Captain Nemo around the oceans, seeing its wonders and dangers while getting to know his captor/host better. But the story started with a monster attacking ships, and it would begin its conclusion with that. A mysterious ship appears that enrages Nemo, prompting him to imprison his guests and attack the ship. Aronnax becomes witness to the aftermath - the ship sinks into the abyss with all hands as Nemo watches every detail and Aronnax watches with him in stunned silence. These people and the ship has never appeared in the book to this point, but Nemo's merciless action and the sequel Aronnax observes acts as the book's emotional crescendo, and a turning point leading to the final escape and the apparent loss of Nemo's ship to the Maelstrom whirlpool.

A recurring element within novels is that individual and widespread depictions of death are frequently well-described, or at least given a substantial amount of description and dialogue. This is due to the ever more relaxed restrictions on word usage in various genres despite continued expectations of certain lengths being attached to certain genres. You could be detailed and gruesome about a single corpse, or place sweeping descriptions of widespread carnage. It's something unique to novels - the ability to tell through words, leaving a lot up to the imagination while also giving more detail than many visual media can accomplish.

Next week, we dive into the realm of movies. Functioning on similar yet differing rules, death is portrayed differently from novels, turning it into an alternately thrilling and gratuitous experience unlike any other.