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Ren'ai game musings, part one of many

There have been some wonderful visual novels by incredibly talented people. There have also been absolutely wretched ones. That's how it is for pretty much any medium you care to name. That said, I feel like a disproportionate number of the latter are (het male-oriented) romance sim games specifically, and there are a few basic patterns to their badness that could be remedied.

I once saw a Youtube video that purported to be advice for writing ren'ai games. That wasn't what it was. It was a series of disconnected cliches -- The setting should be a high school! The main character should have a bratty little sister! There should be a goofy male best friend! -- presented without any kind of context or explanation as to why they were good ideas. Certainly, this sort of advice might be useful if one wanted to make a ren'ai game as a cynical cash grab with as little thought or effort put into it as possible, but otherwise it was worse than useless. (I can't help but wonder if the wave of interchangeable high school romance ELVNs* overtaking Mangagamer owes some sort of debt to that video.) I'm trying to avoid giving that sort of "advice" here.

In the Bollywood film Three Idiots, there is a recurring line "don't chase success; chase excellence and success will chase you". That is the kind of attitude this series takes. This is not a guide to making a successful ren'ai game, but to make an excellent one.

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[Download] CC-licensed magic reference graphics

I made a couple of reference images/cheat sheets for magic stuff. One lists a few Druid triads, one is a basic elements-and-wheel-of-the-year-and-Tarot-suits like everyone has made at some point (but at least this one's freely licensed?), and one has color correspondences. They're all under a Creative Commons license so feel free to share them.

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Thoughts are free

( BGM )

Thoughts are free,

for who can divine them?

They streak by

like shadows in the night.

No one can know them,

no hunter can shoot them.

Thus it remains:

thoughts are free.

I think what I want to

and what I please;

always in silence

and appropriately.

No one can prevent me

from wishing and desiring.

Thus it remains:

thoughts are free.

And should someone imprison me

in a dark cell,

that would be

a vain labor;

for my thoughts

would tear apart

all barriers and walls:

thoughts are free.

Now I shall abandon

all sorrows,

and never again

torment myself on a whim.

One can always laugh and frolic

with one's own heart,

and think, indeed:

thoughts are free.

Link roundup 2015-09-20

To the Ueshibas

I finally managed to get ahold of some of Ueshiba Riichi's older manga, namely the original Discommunication. There is really no one else like him in the whole industry. Never before, never since. And there may well never be another.

I went into Discommunication knowing what kind of author Ueshiba is, and thereby having some inkling of what to expect, but the readers in its original run didn't. I don't know if I envy them or pity them, or both.

You see, Ueshiba's manga are weird. Not weird like "ha ha, those wacky Japanese people, putting corn on pizza and cats in political commentary shows". Not weird like "this is kind of quirky but still follows basic social conventions". Weird like "I don't even know if this shit is legal to think about". Weird like PCP in comic form. (I'd go so far as to say that the first arc of Yume Tsukai is the single most fucked-up story I have ever seen in any manga, and I've read some real doozies.) So I feel a bit bad for the ones who started reading without any clue what they were in for.

The first chapter of Discommunication consists of a girl chatting with her pals about her boyfriend, who is always making very strange (but consistently nonsexual) requests of her for no discernible reason, such as allowing him to trim the hair on the nape of her neck or taste her tears. She admits that she doesn't understand most of what he does, but loves him dearly and hopes that by unraveling his mysteries she can come to understand herself better as well. It's a quirky, sweet story. In the second chapter, she tries to sew him a sweater, but it goes so horribly wrong that it ends up becoming a cushion. Of course, because she made it, he's so pleased by it that they perform a mysterious occult ceremony that involves drinking each other's blood, and she subsequently flies around on the astral plane in infinite joy for 3 hours.

Imagine picking up Morning magazine one week in 1992, flipping to Discommunication because you liked the initial installment, and reaching that last part. What would go through your mind? What would you do? In (practically speaking) the pre-Internet era for most Japanese, without exhaustive wikis and discussion threads for every series under the sun, would you wonder if you were hallucinating? Would you write to the magazine? But what would you say?

I was exposed to Ueshiba gradually, starting from his (relatively speaking) most normal work, Mysterious Girlfriend X. I've also read the arguably most disturbing Yume Tsukai already. Thus, my reaction to the second chapter was a sort of "ahh, it's here, Ueshiba mode is here" that was almost like relief. For that reason, I do envy those first readers at least a little, because I'll never experience the completely wild and mad and out-of-nowhere confusion that they did back then. And because I really can't imagine something like this being allowed in manga now, 20 years later -- the standards of the medium are much more codified, more conservative.

Madoka Magica was hailed as "shocking" and "groundbreaking" for the amazing plot twist major character dying (admittedly, this was mostly by people who had never actually watched a single actual magical girl anime, who were therefore unaware that the classics dropped our darlings like Simo Häyhä), and for "suddenly" shifting genres after three episodes of extremely dark music, crying, and mass destruction. Manga exists now more or less to sell spinoffs, mobile phone gatcha card MMOs, and lots and lots of merchandise. Doing something that's meaningfully new or different is just too risky to shareholders, so conventionally-published manga can't do it.

Miyazawa Kenji wrote,

O new poets!

Receive a new, clear energy

from the winds, clouds, and lights,

outlining the form which man and Earth should take!*

as well as directly addressing the Copernicus, Darwin, and Marx "of the new era".

Thus, Ueshiba of the new era, resolutely be heretics!

*A quotation from To the students. This admittedly loose translation is my own.

Deities are not Friend Computer

I hold that all stories, completely irrespective of genre and time period and theme and everything else, are about patterns. Humans are fantastic at recognizing patterns, to the point that we see them when they're not even there in a phenomenon called pareidolia . Stories started out as a way of recording experiences so that, even if you hadn't lived through a given event, you could learn the general pattern that it followed. This isn't what happened exactly, we said, but it is the kind of thing that happens. So if it's bad, pay attention in case you see it start to happen to you, and if it's good, here's what you need to do to make it happen. The tiny, weak Anansi earned the world's stories by felling more powerful enemies through cunning -- so keep in mind what you can do if you're clever, while also remembering that from a venomous spider's perspective, you look an awful lot like a more powerful enemy.

(I'd argue that the single line "based on a true story", and its particularly narrow definition of the word "true" that it often doesn't even hold to, has done more damage to our story-telling culture than anything short of book burnings. Does your story contain recognizable emotions and character arcs? Then it's based on a true story, even if it's about spaghetti rabbits from space.)

Fred Clark at slacktivist has spoken about one good thing he learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons as a youngster, during the height of the anti-RPG crusades: the alignment system helped him realize that you can be lawful without being good, and vice-versa. A lesson that the game's detractors would have done well to learn, perhaps.

As for me, I've learned a few things from TRPGs myself. If you asked, I would probably tell you that the most important lesson is "if the GM asks 'are you sure you want to do that?', don't do that" -- it's a rule that served me well many times. But outside of the game, the most important lesson is this:

If there are deities, They are not Friend Computer.

I'm a huge fan of the game Paranoia, which casts the players as "troubleshooters" imposing order on behalf of the totalitarian Computer that rules their society. Paranoia's setting is incredibly dark, but it's also a biting social commentary with a side of acerbic wit. The first edition of the game was published in the mid-80s, and skewers fears and reasonings that were common in that era (the recently-Kickstarted next edition plans to swap out "Communists" in favor of "terrorists", to give new players more of a feel for the context of the game's humor).

While The Computer refers to Itself as "Friend Computer" and emphasizes Its benevolence at every turn, in reality It is transparently evil. The Computer is in some sense the antagonist of Paranoia, and much of the tension in the game comes from trying to follow Its (almost always contradictory) orders without rousing its ire or suspicion. Despite Its awesome power over all aspects of the characters' lives, The Computer demands constant reaffirmation of Its goodness and the players' loyalty to It, and (seemingly deliberately) misinterprets same as so insufficiently ingratiating that their speaker must be a secret Communist; this leads to players tripping over each other to construct progressively more flowery, glowing exaltations. The Computer is, appropriately enough, paranoid, and is constantly imagining conspiracies against It that the players must investigate -- and, if they find nothing, invent evidence of in turn, so that The Computer will not conclude that they are hiding the truth from It.

Before one particular campaign, my GM had the players answer a small "troubleshooter's questionnaire" from our characters' perspectives. One question asked what the correct course of action would be if an escaping Communist fled down a dirty corridor -- the joke being that pursuit is suspicious because it involves the character's uniform, the property of Friend Computer, getting dirty, whereas allowing the criminal to escape obviously demonstrates that the player is a Communist themselves. My answer, well-regarded by my group, was "this hypothetical implies that Friend Computer would allow a corridor to get dirty; who wrote this question?"

Paranoia is fiction, but it taught me a particular pattern of insecurity and abuse of power, one that I started to see in real life. I saw Christians engaging in endless loops of "but isn't saying [x] limiting God?" "Actually, isn't saying that [x] is limiting God really limiting God?", as if they were frightened that -- as with The Computer -- their praise had to leap over a continually-rising bar just to keep from being considered a subversive insult.

Even within individual traditions, there's a huge amount of disagreement on the nature of the gods and what it is we owe to them. But if we want a remotely healthy relationship with deity, we have to keep in mind that our purpose in life is not to desperately struggle to fulfill their whims without being caught in their traps. They are great and They are gods, and if there's one thing I am sure of, it is that the service They want from us is not based on terror or denigration of self. Deities are not Friend Computer.

The criticality of copyediting

I've been revising for the GRE, and one textbook walked the readers through a sample problem. They made the following claim (verbatim):

\begin{equation*} 3^{(3+24)}=3x \end{equation*}
\begin{equation*} x = 27 \end{equation*}

Now, I'm no math genius, but I'm fairly confident that 3 to the 27th power is not equal to 3 times 27. The former, as far as I can tell, is somewhere in the trillions, and the latter is 81.

I've spent the past day or so in a huge panic, reading and re-reading that equation, messing around with it in various ways, and trying to figure out what fundamental facts I must be getting wrong if my answer was seemingly off by millions of orders of magnitude. If it was not immediately apparent to me that \(3^{27}=3\cdot27\), what was I missing? Was there some incredibly important rule that must be followed, of which I was utterly ignorant? Was I, in fact, the worst at mathematics in all of recorded history?

It turns out that there was a typographical error that made the x in "3x" not superscripted -- it's supposed to be \(3^{x}\). Whoops.

This is why careful copyediting and proper LaTeX are very, very important. I want those hours back, textbook publisher...

Review: The Astounding Antagonists

My relationship with superheroes is a bit difficult to quantify.

I thought Batman: The Animated Series was a masterpiece, I generally enjoyed Justice League and occasionally Teen Titans and Batman Beyond, and I think newspaper Spider-Man is probably the single worst comic in existence at the moment. I hate Internet arguments about superheroes more than arguments about Gundam but less than arguments about music. I haven't seen any of the Avengers movies or the Superman movies or any of the other comic book movies that are hot at the moment, with the exception of The Dark Knight when it came on TV, and which I thought was absolute tripe. I tried Watchmen but found everything about it insufferable, and I still haven't found any other superhero comics that I'd consider meaningfully critical of the genre's staples, especially the idea of secret identities. The portrayal of a religious minority's real, actual gods as completely fictional characters bothers me a little; no matter how much we tell ourselves that this could lead to more exposure or whatever, I've started seeing people who think that Thor is an original character created entirely by Marvel Comics, and that the thought of worshipping him is akin to worshipping Bugs Bunny. When I finally realized that I just plain didn't enjoy anything I'd tried to read from DC or Marvel -- despite the entirely uncompelling efforts of many to persuade me that I "should" like comics that hadn't liked, because Frank Miller is so talented as long as you ignore about half of everything that happens, or because this comic is so cool and liberal aside from its portrayal of women and Muslims and queer people -- and should probably just read manga and indie comics that I did actually enjoy, I felt so much better. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. [1]

So I might not be the most qualified person to review The Astounding Antagonists or superhero novels in general [2], but I loved it, so here we go.

The Astounding Antagonists [Kindle Edition] by Rafael Chandler

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Rest in peace, Mr. Henson [2015]

James "Jim" Henson (born 1936 Sept. 24) passed away twenty-five years ago today.

He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers, and indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world.

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