Tuesday, July 31 2007

Shingu, Luck, and Plot

It's always fun to go back after a well-written book or anime series and note things that you missed on the first go through, especially things that are meaningless when first seen but only important in retrospection.  This goes double for a mystery or techno-thriller novel or a good conspiracy-plot anime such as Shingu.  Stephen den Beste has gone through and done a wonderful job of trying to piece together the backstory for the series.   There's no real way for us to be certain he's right;  it was a pleasant surprise to find a series with a story written with both no gaping logical holes in the plot, a satisfactory conclusion, and still a number of questions that it would be nice to have an answer to (and a series that doesn't presuppose or even call out for the existence of a sequel, to boot.)

I came to a different conclusion about what I believe was going on behind one of the mysteries of Shingu's plot, but that's my perogative as a viewer, and his explanation both fits the facts and satisfies the characterizations.  As a warning:  this post contains minor spoilers including brief synopsis of the major plot and characters, about the following series:  Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Ranma 1/2, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Ah! My Goddess.  The More section below the fold has my plot analysis of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, including major spoilers of crucial plot elements.

I have been thinking about the role of luck in plot for both anime and role-playing games.  This is separate from probability in games, even fluke probability.  While I have had interesting thoughts on the role of probability in gaming, there's a big difference in luck as a role in plot and the role of probability in action.  To keep the discussion focused on luck in plot, we'll start with a look at anime, a non-interactive medium.

To start with, luck as a role in plot is specifically not a random factor.  The anime writers and director have to plan in advance what happens to his characters in order to drive the story.  Anything that happens has to be specifically written to happen, so there's no real chance involved from the perspective of the writer or viewer.  I am instead talking about luck from the character's perspective inside the imaginary world created by the writer.

My belief is that in anime, crucial plot elements should not be explained by a factor of random chance.  There should be a deliberate action by the main characters or by the series antagonists driving major plot points.  The main characters have to be responsible for what they do.  If the bad guy needs to be stopped, he needs to be defeated by a good guy or by himself.  There's no satisfaction to places where the bad guy is defeated by circumstances under which neither he nor the main characters have any control.  Likewise, if something seriously bad happens to the main character, it has to be caused either by enemy action or the heroes own hubris for it to have emotional effect.  If it's enemy action, it's time for the hero to affirm his dedication to overcoming the enemy.  If it's hubris, the hero needs to overcome his own shortcomings before he can truly move on.

There is an exception, and that is characters that are specifically defined by the plot as lucky or unlucky, even if this status is never vocalized.  As an anime example, Irresponsible Captain Justy Tylor is lucky;  in fact, he's lucky to the point where his luck can be reasonably counted on to get him out of a jam and get the crew of his ship, the Soyokaze, through problems if they are acting on his behalf.  At this point with the plot, improbable events that benefit Tylor or the Soyokaze can be justified in plot with relation to Tylor's luck.  The luck is Tylor's, so the sense is that Tylor defeated the problem, even if he didn't do it consciously. 

Likewise, Ranma Santome from Ranma 1/2 has a very specific case of bad luck due to his curse: when he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl.  How often do random people get splashed with cold water on a daily basis?  Not often.  Yet it happens to Ranma all the time.  It's acceptable in plot for this to happen because of the curse's unstated component, namely that it's not a proper curse unless it seriously inconveniences the one cursed.

In a sense, the System Force that protects Belldandy and Keiichi in Ah! My Goddess is luck given an explanation as to why it's not a product of chance.  Keiichi wished that he could have a goddess like Belldandy at his side at all times, and the System Force is the computer-like universal system's way of keeping that wish by basically stopping anything that looks to interfere with that wish in the most direct route.  To mere mortals, however, it just looks that whenever someone tries to separate the two, something unlucky happens to that person.  To someone in the Ah! My Goddess universe that's not familiar with the real ways of the universe, it is luck or chance as there is no consistent explanation of what's going on, but Goddesses and readers are privy to the mechanism that makes these events products of deliberate action (even if the events themselves are semi-random).  (It brings to mind another, more recent, series involving a "god" with the ability to distort reality to her whims in a subconscious fashion.)

Which brings us to conspiracy anime such as Shingu.  One of the hallmarks of a good conspiracy plotline is a series of seemingly random events that all come together to form one coherent plot.  Ideally, anything attributable to luck should be able to be explained away as deliberate action by one of the conspiracies by the end of the story (or at least hint at another, greater conspiracy just beyond the reach of the story).  Shingu accomplishes this very well.  Although there are a number of questions left deliberately unanswered, including one big question, the sense is that nothing has happened purely by luck.

Applying these lessons to games, especially the more plot or story focused roleplaying games, is hard, because no one has complete control of the plot and you have a truly random element thrown in in the form of dice or other random number generators.  You have at least the GM, running the story as one faction with the party of players running the second faction.  In more complicated games, the GM is trying to script the actions of two or more independent factions such that each has a coherent motivation and plan, while the players are each a separately motivated faction.  Ironically enough, most of the rule-based roleplaying games put down on paper the difference between plot luck, which is a rule, and random chance, the rolls of the dice.  Most rule systems have a way to designate characters as lucky or unlucky, subject to luck in the imaginary world of the game which takes the forms of rules in the real world of the players.

When plotting a roleplaying game as GM, I tend to rely on luck only in the here and now of the characters.  Any actions outside the direct view of the players are scripted for the most rational actions of each faction I control.  The only random chance that can affect this script is direct action by the players.  On the other hand, the factions I control have to act as if there was luck involved in their actions.  It's a tough balance to work.


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Sunday, July 22 2007

Otakon 2007

I have just returned, alive, from Otakon 2007.  Otakon is probably the East Coast's largest anime convention, held every summer in Baltimore, Maryland.

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What does one do at an anime convention?  Oddly enough, the one thing I didn't do this year is actually watch any anime.  I was with a friend with more refined tastes, and there was nothing we could agree on watching which was more interesting than watching our fellow otaku.  We therefore spent a lot of time people-watching and taking photographs.  My friend is a much more skilled photographer, and his photos are up on his flickr page.  We did catch the anime music videos, of which there were no particularly outstanding examples this year.  We also spent some time in the dealer room, acquiring swag, and in the game room, watching people playing video games (and occasionally joining in ourselves.)

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I can often get a sense of the state of the otaku community by watching the cosplayers at the convention.  As always, Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto are heavily represented.  For a new series, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (above) had a surprising following.  Fate/Stay Night has come in to its own with a sizable representation.  There were more members of SOS-Dan from  Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya than last year, but that club was overshadowed by the Ouran High School Host Club (below).

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Some series always have a presence, and are fairly consistent from year to year: Sailor Moon, Utena, Inu Yasha, Fruits Basket, Prince of Tennis, and HellsingDBZ representation was down, as was Evangelion, although I still saw a Gendo or two, a Rei, and at least one Asuka.  Gundam was down, although there were more of the old school Gundam characters.

As there is a cross-interest between anime and video games, especially Japanese video games, video games were well represented amongst the cosplayers.  The Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series are heavily represented.  A lot of the fighting games have representatives as well, especially the Dead or Alive series, the Guilty Gear series, and the Soul Calibur series.  There were a lot of very heavily armed generic mercenary types, many of which are probably connected to the Metal Gear series.  Nippon Ichi's Disgaea (one of my favorite console games) had the usual couple of representatives.  There were a fair number of Mario characters, with Princess Peach being the most predominant.  Finally, none of the very plentiful Phoenix Wright characters ever objected to having their pictures taken (although most could be persuaded to object while having their picture taken (below).)

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For American characters and generics, Jedi were out, Pirates were in, though Ninja still outnumbered Pirates thanks to their representations in specific anime series.  American comic characters were out, with DC suffering more than Marvel from loss of representation.  There were a few Transformers present.

[Warning:  The next paragraph contains some disturbing imagery.  People with strong imaginations should skip it.  Don't say I didn't warn you.]

For the disturbing cosplayers, there were a few.  One pimp had two 'ladies' on a chain.  I didn't see Sailor Bubba or Man-Faye, but Man-noha was wrong, and the only thing more eye-gougingly awful than seeing a guy cosplaying Haruhi Suzumiya is seeing a guy cosplaying Haruhi Suzumiya in her bunny-girl outfit.  Then again, you didn't need a costume to be disturbing.  One guy had a pedobear t-shirt, and I'm told there was someone with a Nazi armband.  People, you're not doing your hobby any favors.  Grow up and stop trying to be offensive just to be offensive.
[Okay, rant and imagery over.]

Otakon is very heavily commercialized with regards to support from the American studios which release anime.  Each company generally has a panel and a substantial booth in the dealer room, and Bandai, Geneon, and ADV had premieres.  Still, Otakon had a fair number of fansubs on the schedule, including Code Geass, Sola, Nodame Cantible, and Lucky Star.  This extends to products other than gaming;  Mountain Dew had a promotion on Friday which was (apparently, as I only know about it third hand) offering free Dew or Dew merchandise to anyone who was willing to stand in line and play the Halo 3 demo.

The video game room is an interesting combination of Japan-only releases of games mixed with the latest in American console goodness.  The Wii was represented with a number of party games, although the older Gamecube was in use more and on the bigger TVs for Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart Double Dash.  Boding ill for Sony, I didn't see anything that looked like a PS3 game, though there were a lot of PS2 games (with the consoles themselves locked away, it's hard to tell which console is which).  Microsoft had a small but very visible presence for the X-Box 360 with an impressive four on four Gears of War game, and there was a smaller contingent of gamers playing Halo 2.  In other gaming related news, it seemed that half the con had a Nintendo DS.

All in all, a fun convention.
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Wednesday, July 18 2007

To Otakon!

I will be attending Otakon in Baltimore, MD, this upcoming Friday and Saturday.  I hope to have pictures up Sunday.

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Sunday, July 15 2007

Games and History Part 1: the Fog of War

I recently received a "homework assignment" from the gaming group that I play with.  This consisted of a copy of Against the Panzers by Allyn Vannoy and Jay Karamales and instructions to read it with an eye towards what lessons could be applied to my tactics in wargaming.  Reading the book has indeed given me some insight into American infantry tactics in the second world war, but on another level, reading the book has given me insights into how history relates to games development to a degree that will require several posts to analyze.

One of the first things I noted with regards to game development and game tactics and strategy when compared to historical scenarios is the role of what has come to be known as the "fog of war", the limited information available to a commander with regards to the current situation, be that situation real or simulated.  The one thing that is obvious in retrospect when reading about the second world war is how little each side knew about the disposition and conditions of the opposing forces (and occasionally their own forces).

In tabletop gaming, its hard to represent the fog of war on a meaningful level without major investments in time and resources.  Simple board games can accomplish this by hiding the values of the pieces from the opposing player, but still intelligence can be gleaned from watching what moves where, and where the opposing player is focusing his attention.  More complicated games require a neutral party capable of determining when the opposing sides notice each other.  This adds complexity and therefore time to the game, and requires the attention of an additional gamer that does not get the satisfaction of actually playing the game.

With computer games, the computer itself is able to act as a fair, transparent third party.  This means that for casual gaming, the computer has an advantage over the traditional tabletop game as a means of providing a 'realistic' tactical model.  The recent staple genres of computer games emphasizing tactical decision making have been the real-time strategy (RTS) and tactical first-person shooter (FPS) genres.  Real-time strategy games generally emphasize an overall battlefield level of control, as the gamer directs units from an overhead perspective, and make decisions as to unit aquisition and overall strategy, while leaving the micromanagement of combat to the computer.  First-person shooter games have always put the player in the role of a single battlefield unit, and emphasize reflexes and situational awareness.  The modern tactical breed of FPS games adds the additional level of encouraging small groups of players to work together with a variety of roles in combat, where a balanced, coordinated team can effectively deal with larger numbers of uncoordinated opponents.

Real-time strategy games have almost always featured a two-level awareness limitation.  First, the player screen normally shows only a small portion of the field and the units under the players control at a time, requiring the player to shift his attention between locations.  Second, the information displayed is generally only valid for a short distance around the players units and their allies, meaning the current situation in a large portion of enemy controlled territory is unknown.  On the other hand, units in RTS games are perfectly coordinated;  what one unit can see is available to the player and any friendly unit.  Additionally, units in RTS games also have perfect friend or foe recognition, and will not target friendly forces unless deliberately ordered to do so.

FPS games have a different set of issues approximating the fog of war.  Normally, the player's visibility is the simulated line of sight from a single soldier or vehicle (although some games allow special extras, such as forward observation for beyond visual range artillery, remote sensors or camera-guided weaponry).  As the limits of visibility in computer games is a factor of computer power and screen resolution, this visibility distance is very short and of poor detail at distance.  Computer games tend to approximate this in some respects by providing a limited friend-or-foe system, but this tends to limit the realism of trying to identify a potential hostile.  In addition, to provide the fun expected by people who want the fun of a fast-paced game with friends, FPS games normally provide the player with a running casualty tally, indicating the casualty, the killer, and the weapon, often valuable information.

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