Visual Novel Theatre: Narcissu

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Narcissu has been on my list forever, and I just haven’t wanted to experience it.  Which is an oddity for me.  I love fiction, I enjoy visual novels, and I enjoy thought-provoking works, all of which, by reputation at least, Narcissu fits.  But I didn’t want to read it.  I didn’t want to deal with this.  I know the subject matter it covers, and it’s not something I’ve historically done well with.  Sure, you might look down on me for it, for letting myself get so cowed by such a simple, universal subject.  You might call me names, like wuss, and coward, and gorgeous.  And I might deserve them.  Especially that last one.  But the topic at the core of Narcissu is one that I’ve not handled well over the course of my life, one that regularly cuts through the cold, chiseled, manly outer shell into the tender emotional heart underneath.

Narcissu is about dying.  Slowly, inevitably, dying.

Narcissu’s reputation ensured I was interested, but its subject ensured I needed to be in the right mindset for it.  And so it remained in limbo for a long, long while, until now.  I’m coming off of one of the worst months I’ve had the displeasure of living through, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s all it took to finally tip the scales and get me to do this thing.

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Narcissu is a Japanese-based visual novel written by Tomo Kataoka, an experienced visual novel creator whose works have almost never left Japan so you’d really have almost no reason to know who he is outside of this entry.  It comes in two parts, both of which we’ll be covering here: Narcissu and Narcissu Side 2nd, of which each tells a self-contained but related story and both of which have been given officially endorsed fan translations.  It’s available for free on Steam here or for regular download here for those who would rather not have DRM in their freeware, fan-translated, absolutely-no-strings-attached visual novel.

Both entries in Narcissu largely start from the same place.  You’re behind the eyes of a young Japanese person who’s been struggling their entire life with an unnamed terminal circulatory disease, probably Dramatitus or something like that.  The opening lines of the novel tie your protagonist pretty firmly with the local hospital, where they become particularly well-acquainted with the 7th floor, the hospice, the end-of-life care center.  Your protagonist makes friends, of a sort, with one of the residents there, and become acquainted to the rules of that place.  Namely, once you’re admitted there, there’s no getting better, and though you may recover enough to go home for a while, you will eventually be readmitted to the hospice, and you will not live long enough to make it to a fourth stay.  Together, you journey, with your friend dealing with the issues they’re facing near the end of their life.

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Narcissu, that is, the first part of this duology, puts you in the shoes of a nameless, featureless, faceless young man who is admitted to the 7th floor hospice after losing your lifetime battle with your illness.  There, you meet Setsumi, a quiet, reserved girl just a bit older than you.  Over the course of weeks, you get to know each other.  Eventually, your condition stabilizes enough that you’re released to your home, but rather than heading back to spend time with your family, on a whim you steal your dad’s car and escape with Setsumi.  You’ve got no real plan, and while Setsumi has ideas, she’s so closed-off that she’s really not forthcoming with them.  You travel simply for the sake of travelling for a while, stealing what you need as you go, before you work out enough hints from Setsumi to get together a goal.  After you figure out what she really wants, you and Setsumi begin searching Japan for a flower, the narcissus, or daffodil, that gives this visual novel its name.

Side 2nd is a prequel, taking place around seven years before the first part.  You spend most of the time in Setsumi’s head, before she found herself consigned to the seventh floor hospice and was just a long-term outpatient.  Her family is just now shifting and changing their life to accommodate her illness and unique needs, and are absolutely ecstatic when she makes a friend.  The catch?  That friend is Himeko, a resident of the seventh floor hospice.  Himeko, who has by all outward appearances cast of everything, faith, family, friends, from her old life, pretty much takes the shy, quiet Setsumi under her wing.  Setsumi begins visiting daily, at Himeko’s request, and Himeko starts taking the younger girl on small outings as she checks off a list of the ten things she wants to do before she dies.

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Both sides of Narcissu are very much an experiment in using minimalism as part of the visual novel craft.  This is most obviously apparent through the presentation.  Visuals are limited to pretty basic backgrounds, and you barely see your characters at all, while the music is simple and understated, and the game limits itself to using 1-3 lines of text at a time.  This extends to the plot itself, as you get barely any characterization, and events follow a pretty simple structure and progression.  Each game only has two main characters, maintains few moving parts, and has little in the way of big splash screens or special effects.  The second game opens up a bit, incorporating a few side characters, having two intertwined plotlines, and featuring a notable animation and songs, but even so, compared to other visual novels, it’s a pretty bare bones tale.  By word of the author, this is all very deliberate, both to evoke imagination in the reader to fill in the gaps and to play with the medium a bit.

It is very easy to do minimalism poorly.  When you’re creating an experience without a lot in it, well, sometimes it can be hard to fit all the pieces together.  Minimalism lays your story bare, and to be successful, you need to have something to shine through.  Hard to put together when you’re trying to use as little content as possible.  And Narcissu does have some missteps I implementing its minimalism, mostly in the first part, as the author seems a lot more comfortable with the form in the second.  But the minimalism does allow the work’s themes to shine through, in such a beautiful way.  I was never engaged by the story, nor was I really entertained, but the theming was so powerful, because of that minimalism, and that’s what truly stuck with me.  These tales work on a high, concept-level more than anything else, are more as a whole story than as the sum of its events.  More than anything else, the first part of Narcissu is a tale of finally taking control after a lifetime without it, of facing inevitability, of death and suicide, of disregarding the structures of society when it has nothing for you.  And the beauty of Narcissu Side 2nd is almost entirely in its treatment of themes.  The story is self-contained, but in no way separate from the first game, and the connections are largely through its themes.  The themes in Side 2nd serve as a counterpart to those in the first part.  Where the first part is about looking ahead and finding nothing, the second part is about finding solace in re-living the past.  Where the first deals with coming to an end, the second deals with cycles.  Where the first covers the progression into hopeless situations, the second is about faith in adversity.  The theming in Side 2nd is such that, though the plot itself may be fully experienced enjoyed on its own, you will never get a complete picture without also going through the first part.  In fact, it’s one of the few works that retroactively makes its predecessor better, and it does so entirely through its treatment of themes.  The themes in both parts of Narcissu are so powerful, and come through so clearly, that I fear I’m not a skilled enough writer to properly discuss them in this review.

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And so, moving on.  I was worried this was going to be a depressing work.  It wasn’t.  Not for me, at least.  Others on the internet have reported different experiences.  I never connected with the characters to quite emphasize with the crappy situations they were going through.  Going by the author’s notes, this was by design.  I did, however, find it very thought-provoking.  I had finished it up shortly before heading to sleep, and it had kept me up in my hotel bed for hours, thinking through the content it provided.  Which is a truly strong showing for a work as minimal as this.

You have to be willing to read into it to get anything out of it, though.  This isn’t a story you can really enjoy casually.  In his notes, Kataoka had mentioned he was trying to create a work that was really subject to the whole Death of the Author deal, where it’s all about the reader filling in the gaps and interpreting the story as makes sense to them, individually.  I think he may have gone a little too far that direction, particularly in the first part, where it can start to feel less open to interpretation and more clueless and deliberately obtuse.  Some odd writing on the part of either the authors or the translators doesn’t help either.  However, there is enough there that if you’re willing to work at it, you’ll probably be able to draw something meaningful out of this work.  I certainly did.

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Dragging On in Dark Souls

Last time, on Dying Slowly in Dark Souls, I learned that I had been underestimating just how bad this undead life can be.  Sure, when you die over and over again, yet always come back almost good as new, it’s easy to forget the sting that death carries.  It’s easy to forget that sometimes it’s final.  And yet, just like Laurentius of Great Swamp before, death has taken one more good man.  My friend, Solaire of Astora, gone hollow, or at least driven mad by that maggot that had attached to his head, and put down by my hand.  And he won’t be coming back.

I feel a bit hollow.  No, not that kind of hollow.  At least, not much.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.  Mourn?  Rage against the Lords?  Rail against the undead curse that allowed this to happen?  None of those would help.  Instead, as always, I can only move on.  Just one foot in front of the other.  My feelings don’t matter, I need to keep moving forward.  I can grieve when there’s time.  For now, much as I hate it, there’s some things I need to take care of.

I owe that much to Solaire, at least.

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We’ve just got a few places left to explore in Lost Izalith.  The first on our plate is this obvious trap we had noticed but largely ignored last entry.  Now, I am a lot of things.  A warrior.  A genius.  A renowned sexpot.  One thing that’s not on this list?  A chump.  It’s obvious, just from checking out the lay of the floor in that room, that the ground is going to give way as soon as I put pressure on it.  I don’t know a way of going through without triggering that trap, though.  Hedging my bets, I stick to one side as I move forward, figuring that this will be less of a fall than walking in the center.  Specifically, I stay to the left.  Because it’s closer to the bait.  Which I know is counter-intuitive, but come on, treasure!

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Sure enough, the ground gives way as soon as I step on it.  I fall.  For like a foot.  I had been walking directly over this root, which catches me, saving me from certain death.  For once, my greed saved me.  Of course, the bait disappears at this point, but I can’t complain.

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I head down the root, which winds quite a bit before reaching the bottom.  There are these monsters below me.  I am really, really glad I didn’t fall in there.  What kind of beast eats with the crown of its head?

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Hey, look at that.  It’s Sieg…. Something.  Siegmeyer, or Sieglinde, I can’t tell.  They both have those child-bearing hips.  Runs in the family, I guess.  Either way, I am really, really glad to see a friendly face.  I could really use that, right now.  I hop off the root when it nears the floor of this ruin, then make my way around to talk to them.

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One of those tentacle pudding monsters tries to cut me off.  I slip past him then cut him down easily enough. Continue reading

New Eden Page 22: Reality Sucks

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Panel 1

AGLA: Hmm?

Goon: The tablet!  Give it to me now!

Panel 2

AGLA: That’s what you were yelling about?

AGLA: Sure.  Here.  Take it.

Panel 3

Goon: Where did you even get that?  I thought they took everything off you when you got on.

AGLA: Sorry, I’m not quite fluent in English.

Panel 4

Goon: Do you even understand the situation you’re in?  You need to take things more seriously.

Panel 5

AGLA: You’re questioning me, right?  Aren’t I supposed to have a lawyer for this part?

Panel 6

Goon: If you were an American dealing with normal police, then yes.  You’re Japanese, flying over international waters, and we’re the CIA.

Goon: We can do whatever we want with you.  Now, tell us about your video game.

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The Despair of Dark Souls

Last time, on this thing, we killed a fat wad of fire and a gigantic gross-out bug, then gained the ability to walk on liquid rock.  Unfortunately, we’re still stuck underground for a while yet.  I hate being underground.  Have I mentioned that?  Sewer levels, caves, volcanoes, none of it’s really for me.  I think I’m starting to understand why Lordran’s so full of those sun-worshippers.

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Speaking of sun-worshippers, hey look!  It’s Solaire!  He’s my best friend!  Did I mention he’s my best friend?  Because he totally is.

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Unfortunately, he hasn’t perked up any since we saw him in the Undead Burg.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Dude doesn’t even notice that I’m here, so absorbed is he in his sorrows.  I try to offer some comfort, some support, but I don’t think any of it’s getting through.  He just keeps repeating the same thing.  I’ve got some business to take care of here, so eventually, I have to break off and press onwards, but for whatever it’s worth, I assure him that I’ll be back to check up on him once it’s all over.  I don’t like the state he’s in right now.

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Ahead of me is a veritable sea of magma.  No way through without getting my feet wet.  Luckily, I picked up this ring from the oogy Centipede Demon that supposedly will let me just walk right across it.  I’m a little hesitant about it.  Like, what if I don’t stay afloat?  I know I’m effectively immortal, but drowning in red-hot magma seems to me a particularly unpleasant way to die.  I’m not sure if I could hang on to my sanity in that event.

Well, what good has my sanity ever done me, anyway?  I slip the ring on, and dart across towards the next bit of stone poking out.  Luckily, my footing holds.  And the ring works.  It’s not exactly comfortable, but the burn is lowered from immediately cauterizing me from the waist down to biting into a way too hot hunk of meat.  I can’t stay in it indefinitely, but it holds of the burn long enough for me to get where I’m going.

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And where I’m going is Lost Izalith, apparently.  Guess I’m on the right trail of the Witches of Izalith.  Although why they would live below what was assumedly a home for demons is anyone’s guess. Continue reading

Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Non-endings in Storytelling

Man, Frank R. Stockton was such a punk.

So, there’s a lot of bad endings in the world of stories.  I’m not talking about downer endings, those can actually be quite good no matter how sad they may be.  I’m talking about those blatant sequel hooks, rushed finales, story threads you’ve been waiting for the conclusion on that never finish up, works that just skip the denouement entirely, and the like.  Narrative tricks that stop the story without finishing it.  Non-endings.  Non-endings have been around for quite a while.  Longer than you or I.  Frank R. Stockton punking it up all over the 19th century is proof enough for that.  It seems they’ve been getting more and more frequent in the modern age, though, as pretty much every writing industry gets more competitive, as serial fiction gets more popular, as more creators either get lazy or try to leave things open for the follow up.  It’s easy to see why.  Endings are really, really hard in the first place.  Keeping track of all the myriad threads you’ve opened up?  That’s for nerds!  And hey, if you set things up so that people have to keep with your story beyond the initial work in order to get a satisfactory conclusion?  Who cares if it’s manipulative as all hell!  There’s dollars/ego at stake!

Yeah, so non-endings abound, they’re getting more pervasive, and a lot of authors seem really, really attached to them.  They also make all of your stories worse, though.  And I’ve got the science, in the form of pretty line graphs and century old literary theories, to prove it.  And you can’t doubt any of it.  I got my Bachelor of Science degree.  See, “Science”.  It’s right in the name.

Anyways, once upon a time there was this guy called Gustav Freytag, better known to modern literary historians as the Frey-Dawg.  The Frey-Dawg was a novelist and playwright who wrote some things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re European or something, but he moonlighted as a literary critic because nothing picks up women in the 1800’s like talking smack about Shakespeare that they’ll never understand.  Remember than in case you ever get your hands on a time machine.  It was in the latter field that the Frey-Dawg truly made his mark on history.  Check this out.

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This is Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.  Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Dramatic Structure because your English teacher had all the personality of a brick wall.  This showcases what is just about the most basic plot structure you can have and still have a story anybody’s going to want to read.  That line could represent a lot of things, like tension, pace, reader’s interest, the amount of changes being made, whatever.  You could argue about that for years, and it really doesn’t matter.  It’s something you feel mostly by impulse, what specifically it is doesn’t make a difference.  Basically, this plot structure sees your hero kicking it in his crib at the start, spends a bit of time showing you the base level of what the story-world is, before shaking it all up with the Inciting Incident.  Said Inciting Incident starts up the rising action, with the hero progressing through the plot and leading up to the big “Luke, I Am Your Father” moment at the climax.  After the climax, the story stops introducing new elements and focuses on wrapping up the threads it does have, the mysteries have been uncovered, the hero is whaling on the bad guy, that sort of thing.  Then there’s no more to do, and you hit the denouement, where all the happily ever after happens, and the story sets the stage for the life you’ll assume the characters and world will have after you put the book down.

The Frey-Dawg built this pyramid strictly with five-act Greek and Shakesperian dramas in mind, but you can actually fit most stories ever since mankind was hanging around in caves telling tales of rocks mating into something approaching this mold.  Not only is this such a basic measure of storytelling, this also outlines what are usually the minimum requirements to tell what most readers will consider to be a ‘complete’ story.  This is generally what it takes to satisfy readers.  This is the structure that most simply fills the needs of storytelling.

Of course, tastes in narratives change over time.  While this structure fit a lot, possibly even most, of stories up through the early 1900s, most modern authors and readers alike prefer something considerably more complicated.  Modern storytelling tends to extend the rising action greatly, pushing the climax back into the endgame, and adding in a lot of mini-climaxes or complications on the way there.  Both the exposition and the denouement tend to be shorter, establishing the baseline and wrapping things up a lot faster compared to the time spent on the main thrust of the plot.  You have little bits of falling action interspersed among the rising action, then the main fall happens over a lot less time than Shakespeare would give it.  So, for an example of how Frey-Dawg would work that structure around a modern story, here’s the pyramid for an absolute masterpiece I just spent the last five minutes thinking up.  Man, I’m awesome.

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Don’t get too stunned by how amazing I am.  We still have some talking to do.  So, the important part, at least for our discussion today, is at the end there, the bit starting right after the climax.  Even in modern-day stories, where the post-climax period is a lot shorter, our stories still have a period where they wind down, then plateau before THE END.  That is vitally important.  That is what you need to have a good, satisfying ending, no matter how happy or sad your conclusion is.

And that is what all these various non-endings fail at.  Frey-Dawg clearly showed future generations just what it takes, and our storytellers are just stomping all over it.  These endings suck because they fail to take into account the basic needs of a finale, as demonstrated by Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.

Let’s take a look at exactly how these work out.  There’s three main structures these bad endings tend to fall into.

Continue reading

Double Dipping in Dark Souls

Last time, on Losing It in Dark Souls, we managed not to make the crass joke that was begging to be told.  Seriously, that took some willpower.  We also lowered the lava level in the Demon Ruins, allowing us to progress onwards towards the whole saving the world thing.  I’m sure that’s worth something, too.

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With the Ceaseless Discharge (hehe) gone, this is what the landscape before me looks like now.  Considering this was flooded in molten magma just minutes ago, the stone underfoot should be hot enough to cook me all the way through in the stockpot that is my armor.  I’ve never let something so minor as the laws of physics keep me down.  I stride onwards, down the hill, and find myself faced with a choice of two paths when I reach the bottom.

The path to my right has something shiny on it, but it looks suspiciously like the way I’m supposed to go.  The path to the left has at least seven big hulking monstrosities on it, who are more than ready to turn me into some sort of ugly paste.

Eh, but who wants to go the way you’re supposed to?  There’s adventure to be had!  I arrow the nearest one.  It doesn’t do any damage, but it draws the monster’s attention.  The beast charges.

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Hey, I recognize you.  It’s the Taurus Demon, from way back in the Undead Burg!  My eyes dart around rapidly as he approaches, but nope, there’s no easily accessible ledge to abuse this time around.  A pity.  I’ve absolutely no experience in fighting these guys fair.

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Luckily, I’ve grown considerably stronger than I was the first time I faced these.  Two hits puts it in critical condition.  The demon clocks me with that great axe of his once in the meantime, though, and sends me flying.  Dude’s strong.  Still, he’s slow, and his tells are long.  I easily duck around his blows and put him down with a third strike.

After that, I feather another, and start the whole process over again.

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Obviously, it’d be suicide to charge them all together.  More than one, maybe two, at a time, I’d be minced.  Luckily they’re not very smart.

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Strong, yes.  Intimidating, maybe the first one.  But their grasp of tactics is minimal.

This turns it into a battle of attrition.  Their numbers against my estus.  I take a few hits here and there, but it’s still decidedly in my favor.

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The second to last one is even kind enough to leave his weapon behind.  I’ll need to give that a try, sometime.

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I charge the final one, ready for our climactic battle.  He hits me once, dealing damage through my shield.  Not nearly enough, though, and I put him down as easily as the rest.

Continue reading