Angry Thoughts On Jay Kristoff’s Novel Stormdancer

stormdancerI finished Stormdancer, a novel by Jay Kristoff, over the weekend. It tells the story of Yukiko, daughter to a huntmaster in not-really Japan, though with plenty of steampunk laid over the top of Japanese myth. I picked it up for the same reason listed on the cover by Patrick Rothfuss:

“What’s this? A Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures and a strong female protagonist? Yeah, I’m all over that. Though honestly, you had me at ‘Japanese Steampunk.’”

I’m not a very good critic. There’s a lot I don’t notice when I’m reading a book. Was the Japanese proper? I have no idea, my knowledge of the language comes from games like Persona 4. How was the writing? It seemed okay, I guess — the opening of the book was a bit of a slog, with a lot of world detail getting in the way of actual characters. But there were three things about Stormdancer that I didn’t like, and as someone who’s trying to write himself, I wanted to get them down in words.

There are spoilers here for Stormdancer, so the two people that read this never-updated blog can be warned.

Violence In Steampunk

I love the aesthetic appeal of steampunk. Buckles and goggles and airships and age of exploration with the industrial age laid on top of it. I like that a lot. I’ve played plenty of videogames that use that design idea. I’ve read a decent number of books that explore steampunk as well — Stormdancer, The Court of the Air, and The Falling Machine come to mind right now — and I picked up a few short story anthologies, creatively named Steampunk and Steampunk 2.

I’ve come to expect a few things in steampunk literature. Class conflicts, absolutely — the rise of technology makes life terrible for the lower classes, and that plays into the Victorian era, as I very badly understand it. Aerial feats of derring-do, yes. Airships, certainly. Goggles, of course, you can’t not have the goggles.

The violence.

Stormdancer doesn’t drink deep of the blood of its enemies, but it goes into some body horror territory with the Guardsmen, and Yukiko is very often elbow deep in the blood and guts of her enemies. The book ends with a tremendous body count, with her father, her father’s love, and Yukiko’s ill-advised love interest dying within maybe ten pages of each other.

The Falling Machine went overboard in its violence. I understand that it’s steampunk superheroes, but the scene with one character on a chair being forcibly transformed into a mechanical creature is the kind of thing I’d be hammering on the start button to skip, were I playing it as a game. It stopped being descriptive and started just being cruel.

The Court of the Air gets downright nasty at times, though I admit my memory of it isn’t very sharp. I remember some incredibly horrible things being mentioned in the setting, like ripping off some child’s arms so he would be a king or something. I don’t know. I just remember thinking, “What the hell, author.”

Maybe this is just me talking, and maybe I’m not reading the right books, but this just seems unnecessary. You don’t need to swear hundreds of times to make your work edgy, and you don’t need to take glory in the torture of your protagonists and supporting characters to make them troubled, or make your work stand out, or whatever.

Character Death

This one is very particular to me, very much a personal taste, so I’ll keep it short.

There are ways to challenge characters without killing people. You can still hurt a character, make them suffer, make them grow and overcome, without killing people.

By the time Stormdancer ends it has killed every single member of Yukiko’s family — three in flashback if you count her dog, and one and a half in the story proper — Kasumi (father’s lover) and Masaru (father). Masaru has a touching final moment with Kasumi, giving him motivation and loss, and then he goes and dies inside of three pages saying Yukiko from getting killed by Yoritomo.

It’s lazy.

Character dies. Other character mourns. There’s nowhere else you can go with that now. There’s no resolution, there’s no payoff, it’s just a dead end. It ties it up neat and easy, removes any chance for that character to have happiness in that aspect of her life, and then you move onto the next bit of suffering.

I’m not against character death, but I feel like every character death needs to happen for a reason, an actual reason, and really serve the story. That’s my personal take on character death. I understand that not everyone agrees with me, and it’s a matter of personal taste. Perfectly fine with that.

Misogyny

This one is very particular to me, and I will not keep this short.

Patrick Rothfuss said “strong female protagonist” in his recommendation on the front cover of the book. Yukiko is a pretty strong protagonist, I’m not going to rant about her here. I think she did pretty well, and he did a good job writing her as a warrior and a girl, and how those aren’t mutually exclusive, nor do they overwrite each other. She remained a character, not a tool.

Too bad all the other women in the story were fucking victims.

Why is the emperor a bad man? Because he’s a terrible abusive rapist. Oh, and he desires his sister sexually because why not, let’s make sure everyone dislikes him so when he gets his mind crushed by Yukiko at the end everyone is cheering. There’s a throwaway line with the second-in-command where he says that the consort for the emperor will be sent home once the signs of his… eager attentions fade. Because of course that line’s there.

What happened to Yukiko’s mother? Oh, she was killed, while pregnant, by the emperor, so he could continue chewing cardboard scenery and give Masaru some motivation. Because of course she does.

Yukiko runs into another woman in the Kage village. She has been horribly disfigured by the emperor because, I don’t remember, the emperor is a Bad Man. Because of course he is.

Kasumi dies because of course she dies, she’s the woman. She is there only to provide motivation to Masaru. The last guy in that group, whose name I don’t recall right now and I apologize, he lives. Because of course he does.

The emperor’s sister, a strong ally in the plan to take down her brother, dies offscreen at the end. Killed by her brother. I don’t remember if he said he enjoyed her death, or how, or if I just filled that part in because of course he did.

When it’s time for someone to yell at Yukiko, what do they call her? Slut, whore, filth, bitch, because of course they do. Of course they do.

That undoes — that more that undoes any success your protagonist had. You can’t say that you’re writing a strong female protagonist if she’s the only one who doesn’t get horribly murdered or raped for the crime of being a woman in your story.

It’s lazy at best. It’s hateful at worst.

Regardless, it has no place in contemporary writing.

Final verdict — sorely disappointed, vaguely disgusted.

Press B To Innovate – Asura’s Wrath

Asura’s Wrath very well may be the oddest game I’ve ever played. Calling it a game almost seems to be stretching the definition a bit too far for my liking, but it also uses its status as a game in some of the most intelligent and amazing ways that I’ve ever seen.

Asura’s Wrath is the story of the demigod Asura and his prodigious wrath. His story is told across three seasons of six episodes each, with most every episode ending on a rather dramatic cliffhanger. The game is structured like an anime, and this goes beyond just the episodic style — there are commercial bumpers in every episode, and when you return from commercial sometimes you see the same scene you saw before you went to commercial, to better set the moment. Credits play over the top of every opening, with longer credits rolling after the end of each season. The action is framed beautifully with incredible camerawork that really understands what the game is trying to do. There are multiple moments where I was reminded of Darksiders and its comic-book-panel-ready cutscenes, where a game was used to tell a story that would have fit just as well in another medium. Each episode took about twenty minutes to play out.

Asura’s Wrath is the video game version of Simon Says, where the player is asked to do little more than match the button appearing onscreen and occasionally engage in some rudimentary arena combat. It can, and has, been called Quick-Time-Event: The Game.

Both of those are accurate descriptions of the game, and both of those leave far too much out.

The rest of this post will be full of interface spoilers as well as a few story spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Asura’s Wrath uses some damn fine QTEs to tell an utterly ridiculous story. The first boss battle of the game is against a man named Wyzen, chewing scenery like a starving man, who starts out an equal foe to Asura. After being punched off a cliff, Wyzen grows to roughly five hundred feet high, and the battle continues. During this fight missiles are launched from a ship orbiting the planet, but many of these missiles are caught by Asura and punched back into the ship until it explodes and crashes. The game then turns into Space Harrier for a little bit as Asura and Wyzen race each other before leaping into the air and trying to punch each other. Asura wins and Wyzen is shot into space.

Once in space, Wyzen grows until he can hold the planet like a basketball, and decides to squash Asura by poking the planet with his finger. Asura catches his finger with all six arms (Asura gets so angry he grows more arms — I should have mentioned that), and then punches that finger so much so that Wyzen explodes.

It bears repeating that this is the first boss in the game, and it only goes up from there.

Asura’s Wrath is barely a videogame, yet it uses the fact that it IS a videogame to do some incredible things.

The achievements are perfectly timed and placed — pressing B when prompted to “shut Wyzen up” has Asura punch Wyzen into a wall, and the second Wyzen impacts the stone the achivement pops. “15G – Shut Up, Wyzen!”

The arena battles exist primarily to get you to the next ridiculous display; enemies do not have health bars. Asura has a Rage meter, and once you fill that rage meter you press RT to Burst, and whenever you hit Burst something insane is going to take place. The game knows how that bar works, and it uses it incredibly well. During one villain’s monologue, the bar steadily fills, and when Asura’s dead wife or kidnapped daughter is mentioned, the bar jerks forward, filling up faster at the sound of their names. When Asura sees a concerned girl following after him, this bar empties when he stops and shows compassion and worry for her. When Asura activates a later form in battle, the type of gauge he’s using changes to match that form.

The QTEs themselves follow the rules QTEs must follow to not be awful. If you’re going to punch someone really freaking yard, the prompt is Y, the heavy attack. Analog stick movements match the direction the character is going, all the bare minimum needed for me to keep my hair in my head. I didn’t come across a QTE with a fail-state, and at no point are you chaining together four buttons to jump up a hill, you’re pressing one button to punch a guy into the moon and another button to punch the moon into the guy. As soon as you are familiar with how the QTEs work, though, Asura’s Wrath starts doing some really interesting and satisfying things with them.

Early in the game, you have to press the B button a whole lot to fill up Asura’s Wrath and Burst into the enemies. Later in the game, the screen is FULL of the B button, with every press knocking out one of those buttons. Asura’s usual battle stance, activated by press the left stick left and the right stick right, changes to have at least ten icons on each side, and Asura unleashes a dozen arms from his back as he prepares for battle. One battle features the QTE “timing circle,” for lack of a better word, going in slow motion, and then in reverse.

The last battle does the most interesting thing I saw, though. The villain has its own QTEs, with white button prompts, and you see every press it makes. As Asura gains the upper hand, the enemy starts failing, just like the player has undoubtedly done over the course of the game, and at the end of the battle the Burst trigger takes up the entire screen. I very nearly jumped out of my chair like the Redskins scored a game-winning touchdown. I did shout “Burst!” and throw up the horns.

Asura’s Wrath uses its knowledge of its status as a game so well that it stumped me. One villain electrocuted another one and threw her into a wall, and the instant she hit the wall I got the “disconnected from Xbox Live” message on my 360. Does my 360 often knock itself offline? Yes. Was that a thematically appropriate moment for that kind of fourth-wall breakage? Absolutely. Do I know if it was on purpose or a happy accident? Not in the slightest.

Asura’s Wrath will probably never happen again, and that might be a good thing; these kinds of tricks could get really old, really fast, and as a full $60 product plus DLC for the “true” ending is really too much to ask. All that said, though, it’s one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in 2012 by far.

BURST