The Demon King Editing Notes

Starting in April, I’m going to begin putting together a formal query letter for The Demon King. I’d like to participate in the #PitMad event on Twitter at the beginning of June, and I’d also like to finish up this portion of the project so that I can go ahead and get started on the next novella in the series.

If you’re interested, this is my fifty-word Twitter pitch:

The Demon King is a high fantasy adventure comedy about a garbage wizard named Balthazar who seeks to claim a magical relic sleeping within the castle of a powerful and devious princess. Until then, he would prefer to be left alone so he can read trashy romance novels in peace.

I’m going to put the first novella through another round of intense editing in May, but I just wrapped up the initial set of major edits. I’ve been fixing typos and other minor second-draft awkwardness, but I’ve also been thinking about tone and structure, as well as how I relate to the genre of fantasy in general.

Although this will change as the story progresses, the beginning of The Demon King is largely an episodic comedy that plays with tropes from epic fantasy novels and video games. Instead of exaggerating or subverting these tropes, I’m interested in looking at them from the perspective of rational adult characters who fit their assigned archetypes poorly at best.

Each chapter is prefaced by a short introductory section modeled on the sort of “lore” or “flavor text” that a player can unlock in a video game by defeating a certain number of enemies, collecting a certain number of items, and so on. This isn’t made explicitly clear in the first novella, but these intro sections are written by Balthazar, the eponymous Demon King, who is addicted to romance novels and secretly aspires to be a writer himself.

I’ve been putting a lot of work into crafting an appropriately epic language for these sections. What I’m aiming for is a needlessly fancy style that borders on purple prose without being actually poorly written or obnoxious. In addition, I’d like for readers who come back to these passages after they know more about the world of the story to able to see where Balthazar is being ironic, where he’s being sincere, and where he’s flat-out lying.

I had initially italicized these sections in italics, but I think we can all collectively agree that italics are difficult to read. I therefore reformatted the text to remove all the italics on the chapter intro sections. I might put them back in to demonstrate that these are excerpts from “found sources” and not part of the main body of narration, but I think the character-specific perspectives of the chapters are clear enough that third-person omniscient narration stands out strongly on its own.

I also decided is that everyone is going to be represented as speaking English. If the viewpoint character – usually Balthazar – can understand what someone is saying, it won’t be accented with italics. Perhaps other characters might comment on the fact that he understands speech they don’t, but I don’t want to play games with fantasy languages. Along the same lines, I deleted all mentions of fantasy language names. Nobody needs that.

One of my most hated of all sci-fi and fantasy tropes is when a story gluts itself on constructed terminology, especially in lieu of meaningful worldbuilding. I therefore tried to keep fantasy words at an absolute minimum. The crow people (called starags, after the Gaelic word for “crow”) have their own name because it would be silly to call them “crow people,” and the concept of a “gaesh” (a type of semi-telepathic soul bond that facilitates magic sharing) is something that I want to feel strange and alien to the reader, but I think that’s it.

I leaned into this by using common words for elements that are native to the story. For example, Balthazar is not a “demon” in the usual sense of the word, the “gargoyles” who appear about halfway through the story are actually bat people, the “artifact” Balthazar is seeking is something highly unusual and specific, and the creatures that Balthazar calls “dogs” and “horses” are not dogs and horses by a long shot.

As the story continues, I think it’s going to be fun to play with the disconnect between what various characters take for granted as common knowledge, but I want this to remain comfortably in the realm of comedy and not venture into the territory of “who knows what secrets at what point in the story.” If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me, but plot is overrated. The plot of The Demon King is going to become more interesting and intricate as more layers of its story are revealed, but I want the reader to care about the characters before the plot ever becomes a concern.

That being said, there are major conflicts between the characters that have no easy resolutions, so I took care in my edits to make sure that each of the main characters states their goals clearly. Figuring out why these characters insist on pursuing these goals is the story’s primary source of forward momentum, so I’m doing my best to set up these mysteries while also providing ample clues and a healthy dose of foreshadowing.   

Hopefully the process of writing a query letter will help me clarify the themes and narrative structure so that I can continue to hone the story when I return to it in May for another set of edits.

For the time being, I’m hosting the first novella in The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

This post’s illustration of Balthazar is by the lovely @Lemonscribs on Instagram, who was kind enough to compare the character’s aesthetic of Katie O’Neill’s fantasy slice-of-life comic The Tea Dragon Society. What an apt observation, and what an incredible compliment!

Draw Me Like One of Your Anime Boyfriends

It is an anime truism that a villain is evil in direct proportion to how stylish and attractive they are.

We can therefore infer that Balthazar is neither good nor evil, as he is not particularly attractive and wears the high fantasy equivalent of a track suit jacket over pajamas.

Different

This comic is about how trauma isn’t just something that someone “overcomes” on the road to personal character development, but rather a significantly transformative experience with lingering aftereffects.

This comic is also about how significantly my art style has changed during the year after I left a traumatic workplace environment. It was an extremely difficult transition, but it’s important to create room to grow.

Memorabilia Zine


This is a preview of the short story I contributed to Memorabilia, a Legend of Zelda fanzine devoted to the archaeology and architecture of Breath of the Wild.

“A Noble Pursuit” is about Rhondson, the Gerudo tailor who moves to Tarrey Town, embarking on a husband hunt to the Akkala Citadel Ruins after Hudson goes missing. It’s a story about exploration and discovery, as well as different views of the past and hopes for the future that awaits Hyrule beyond “happily ever after.”

Pre-orders are open (here) until Sunday, March 14. This zine contains more than a hundred pages of brilliant writing and awe-inspiring art. It’s certain to be a treasure to anyone who enjoyed exploring the ruins and history of Breath of the Wild – and to anyone fascinated by the lore and environmental design in Creating a Champion.

You can check out more previews of the zine on its Twitter account, @MemorabiliaZine, and on its Tumblr account, @memorabiliazine.

Wizard Pants

Today is Monday, March 8. It’s supposed to get warm tomorrow, but it’s not there yet. It’s probably starting to be gorgeous in DC – this is the time of year when the plum trees bloom, and the cherries and dogwoods are right around the corner – but I am past the point in my life when I think it’s reasonable to pay $3k a month for a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. So now I live in West Philadelphia, which is beautiful in its own way, but it’s far enough north that there are still nasty piles of snow in the CVS parking lot.

This weekend my husband was a human slug that lumped around on the couch and rewatched old seasons of The Wire, and he was starting to get depressed from lack of sunlight. I wanted to take him on a field trip, but it’s Philadelphia. Where is there to go?

And then it hit me – Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is in northeast Philadelphia, a little up I-95 as it follows the Delaware River headed toward Trenton. Because it’s right on the river and right off the interstate, this used to be a manufacturing district, but now all the factories are closed and boarded shut. There’s no traffic, and everything is just sort of quietly rusting away. The roads are wide and obviously meant to accommodate tractor-trailer trucks, but they’re completely empty. Local rail lines cross above the roads on bridges, but they’re also rusting and falling down in places. It’s a little creepy and probably super dangerous.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is on one of these big roads. As reported, it is indeed across the street from a crematorium and next door to an adult video store. The crematorium is surprisingly tasteful, and the adult video store was surprisingly busy on a Sunday afternoon. There was nothing much to see at Four Seasons Total Landscaping itself, save for an excessive amount of barbed wire on the chain-link fence in front of their parking lot and a sign out front that says they’re hiring.

The way I understand it, the Trump campaign choosing Four Seasons Total Landscaping as a venue was a characteristically stupid mistake, but this area of Philadelphia is also the only part of the city that consistently votes Republican. It’s about 85% “white,” but the majority of these people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet countries in Central Asia.

So, sitting in our car on the street outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, we googled “Russian grocery store.” We struck gold with a place called NetCost Market, which is apparently the Eastern European equivalent of H-Mart (by which I mean large and a bit upscale but with mostly foreign brand-name products). They had a Halal butcher and a bunch of kosher food, and I have never seen such a prodigious gathering of meat and cheese and pickled fish in my entire life. They also had enormous displays of German chocolate and Northern European (mainly Russian) herbal tea, and it was all ridiculously inexpensive. We filled a shopping basket and walked out of the store having paid less than $40.

That’s not the story, though. The story is that there was a Dollar General in the same shopping center. I don’t know what Dollar General stores are like in the rest of the country, but in Philadelphia they’re all over the place and where you go to get paper goods (like toilet paper) when the neighborhood CVS or Rite Aid invariably doesn’t have any in stock. They’re super sad and depressing but also super cheap, and they’re like the Wild West in that you never know what fell off the back of a truck somewhere and is currently on sale.

Since the Dollar General was right there, and since we already had the car, I was like, “Listen, I know this is supposed to be a fun day out, but we’re almost out of paper towels.” So we went into the Dollar General, and…

They had wizard pants.

I don’t know how else to describe them – dark blue and black pants covered with various patterns depicting stars, planets, and constellations. Some were high fantasy European, and some were more geometric West African, but they were all fabulous. It might be a stretch to call these pants “tasteful,” but the prints were beautiful. The fabric wasn’t the sort of rough flannel normally used for pajama pants, but a light synthetic cotton like yoga pants, except it was loose and flowing instead of tight and “shaping.” Each pair was $8 even.

My first thought was “holy shit,” which was quickly followed by the realization that I could probably buy these in bulk and resell them on Etsy for an enormous markup. (Which I would never do because that’s too much trouble and lol what, am I going to use myself as a model.) And then I thought, But why is American athletic clothing and longuewear always so gray and boring? Why doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of wizard pants?

So I’m just standing there, right in the middle of the store, staring at these pants and having galaxy brain thoughts, and my husband comes up with the paper towels and is like, “Please hurry up and pick one so we can leave.”

And that’s how I got myself a snazzy pair of wizard pants. They are magical and I love them very much.

I have never seen wizard pants at any other Dollar General location, but I promise this is a real place. It’s the store in the shopping center with the NetCost Market at 2417 Welsh Road.

By the way, when I say that Dollar General is super depressing, what I mean is that it has a bare-bones interior with ghastly fluorescent lighting. The stores are always comically understaffed, so the shelves are in total disarray while there’s just one lonely person at the check-out counter. I used to work at Walmart, and to me Dollar General looks like it’s just a stockroom with no sales floor, by which I mean there’s no attempt to make the space pleasant and inviting. They also sell highly processed American junk food in bulk, which is depressing in a way that runs much deeper than the immediate shopping experience.

I suspect that some people will read what I wrote about Dollar General and jump to the conclusion that I think working-class people are depressing. I actually don’t have much money myself, and the point of my story is that traversing an urban landscape becomes much more interesting when you put stereotypes and generalizations aside in favor of thinking about the histories of specific communities and the daily experiences of the people who live there. I am not slumming it, or whatever, by going to the grocery store in a different neighborhood as a fun day out.

That being said.

These wizard pants transcend social and economic class. They also transcend time and space. They are fantastic and amazing. I don’t know where they came from or where they’re going, but it is a privilege and an honor to accompany them on their journey.

Anyway. I lived in Philadelphia on and off for seven or eight years before moving to DC, but I’m just now realizing that I don’t know the city very well. It will be nice to get out more once the weather gets warmer and we all get properly vaccinated.

Balthazar as Antagonist


The Demon King
has ten chapters, and I’m a little more than halfway done with the first round of edits. I should be able to meet my projection of finishing by March 15, a month after I completed the first draft. The draft is only about 30k words, but progress is slow. The psychic damage I’m taking from finding typos and inconsistencies and unintended repetitions cannot be exaggerated.

This is only the first of five story arcs, so one of my main goals during this round of editing is to ensure that the central conflict is presented clearly and makes sense according to the somewhat limited information available to the reader. This is a short summary:

A powerful wizard named Balthazar wants to find a magical artifact hidden somewhere in the mountains between the kingdom of Whitespire and the ocean, which is highly poisonous. This artifact probably has something to do with the pure water coming down from the mountains and ensuring the prosperity of the kingdom. Balthazar doesn’t mention this artifact to his confidant Ceres, the reigning princess of Whitespire, who is presumably either unaware of its existence or unwilling to discuss it. If Balthazar does manage to find this artifact, the way he plans to use it will result in the downfall of Whitespire.

Balthazar is open with Ceres about his intentions to destroy Whitespire, but he makes no move to attack the kingdom, choosing instead to seek other magical artifacts elsewhere. It’s unclear why Balthazar is taking such a circuitous route toward his goal, but I hope the reader is able to get the sense that he’s not really the sort of person who would harm anyone if he could avoid it. He specifically doesn’t want to harm Ceres, mainly because he likes her.

There’s no significant antagonist in the story aside from Balthazar himself, as he’s going to have to do terrible things and hurt the people he cares about if he insists on achieving his goal. Unfortunately, he’s deadly serious about what he aims to do, so much so that it’s at the core of his sense of identity.

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m inspired by the narrative structure of Homestuck, in which everything seems very silly and trope-driven until the reader gains a better understanding of what’s going on with the world of the story. I think it’s probably a fool’s errand to ask any given writer what themes they’re trying to express, but Balthazar has a line to the effect of “you always have a choice” that’s probably the closest thing to a statement of purpose I have regarding issues of individual freedom and dignity in the face of overwhelmingly horrible circumstances.

Also there are dick jokes, which symbolizes the fact that I like dick jokes.

In any case, once I finish this round of edits, I’m going to let the story sit for another month before writing a formal query. I’ll then do another round of edits before participating in several pitch events starting in late May. I’ll more than likely take the story offline at that point, but you can still read the draft as I edit it on AO3 (here).

2021 Writing Log, Part Five

– I edited chapters one through four of The Demon King, an original fantasy novella about a garbage wizard and his awful friends. I sustained heavy psychic damage from some of the typos and inconsistencies I found, but the story isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s really fun to read, but I don’t know whether I’m saying this because the story is actually good or because it’s bespoke to my specific set of interests. In any case, you can read the draft (here) as I continue to edit.

– While I was in editing mode, I went back and edited the stories in Night of the Final Day, a collection of five short pieces based on Majora’s Mask. I know it’s a bit weird to say this about my own work, but these stories are pretty good, especially the last one. I planned for this series to include thirteen stories, but I ended up dropping a lot of side projects when I started writing The Demon King in November. I might return to this series one day, but I figure that it’s probably for the best to go ahead and label it as complete for the time being.

– I wrote and submitted the first draft of my story for Fated, a Legend of Zelda fanzine. You can follow the zine’s progress on Twitter (here).

– I finished an almost-final draft “Ms. Weaver’s Halloween Candy,” the short story I’m submitting to Midnight Gathering, an upcoming collection of original horror fiction, comics, and illustrations. I’m really proud of this story, which is the most Stephen King thing I’ve ever written. More on this project as it unfolds.

– I wrote and submitted an outline for “The Kumo Diary,” the short story I’m putting together for Carpe Noctem, an upcoming collection of illustrated historical fiction about vampires. The outline was approved by the editors, so I started writing the story, which is about a Meiji-era scholar who has discovered an interesting medieval manuscript. This is something I’ve been wanting to write for years, and I’m enjoying myself immensely. You can follow the project on Twitter (here).

– I submitted a review of Yoshiko Okuyama’s monograph Reframing Disability in Manga to an academic journal called Pacific Affairs. I’ll post a link to the review once it’s live, but let me summarize by saying that it’s a wonderful book and an extremely welcome addition to the body of scholarship on Japanese media and popular culture.

– I posted a review of the game Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (here).

– I recorded my panel for the 2021 Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, which involved a ton of preparation in terms of editing my paper, putting together a slideshow, and practicing the presentation itself. I’ll post more about this closer to the conference itself, which is at the end of March.

– I redrew an illustration of Balthazar from The Demon King to track how much progress I’ve made on my art style during the past year. When I put the images side by side on Twitter (here), the difference is striking. I mentioned this on the tweet thread, but being able to leave a toxic work environment made such a world of difference to my self-confidence, which in turn bolstered my level of creative energy. So much of developing a creative style involves experimentation, and it’s hard to take risks in any aspect of your life when you’re constantly being judged and criticized. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that changing my job changed my entire life.

– I started drawing three comics during the past few days. I made something of a breakthrough when I realized that, ironically, it’s much easier for me to visualize images through words. I therefore started writing out formal scripts along with storyboard-style annotated thumbnails, and this has made it much more comfortable for me to make progress on the art side.

– And finally! I picked up the Legend of Haiku zine project again! I don’t want to jinx it, but it feels good to be making progress again.

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

Whisper of the Heart


My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

I’ve been saving Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for a rainy day since it came out on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and my “rainy day” turned out to be my first winter back in Philadelphia, which has hit me with far more snow than I expected. Wrath of the White Witch is magical and delightful, and it’s the perfect game for cozy days indoors.

Wrath of the White Witch is a seventy-hour JRPG that’s intended for kids around the same age as the game’s protagonist, who is around ten years old. It was developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli by Level-5, which makes the Professor Layton and Yo-kai Watch games.

As indicated by the game’s title, it takes place in two closely connected worlds, a high fantasy world of wizards and castles and talking animals and a world loosely based on our own. You play as Oliver, a boy who travels between a suburb of 1950s Detroit and the fantasy world with the intent of finding a way to save his mother, who has recently passed away from an illness. The idea is that Oliver’s mother’s “soulmate” in the fantasy world has gone missing; and, if he can find and rescue her, then this might have an effect on his mother’s fate in his own world.

The game’s combat system is much more complicated to describe than it is to actually play. You have three characters who can move freely across the battlefield while executing commands. You control one, and the others are controlled by AI. The AI is unfortunately not that smart, but almost none of the battles are actually that hard. The classic JRPG strategy of “just be five levels over where you probably need to be” works perfectly every time, and there’s also an Easy Mode that you can switch on and off whenever you like.

Each of your three characters can equip three familiars, which you can catch in the wild and train like pokémon. You’ll use your familiars to fight, but there isn’t any pressing need to balance your team or do research into the strengths or weaknesses of individual creatures. There’s also no pressure to catch new familiars, or even any way to check your progress if “catching them all” is your goal. The familiars are cute and fun to play with, and there’s no drawback to just using the ones you like. You can also feed them adorable status-boosting snacks if you want to.

The combat system is fairly deep, but it took me about five hours of gameplay to start moving beyond a basic sort of “attack by hitting the enemy with your stick” mentality. Wrath of the White Witch originally came out on the PlayStation 3 console in 2011; and, true to that era, it tries to explain everything to you with copious amounts of text. Oliver is accompanied by a companion named Drippy, who’s a little like Fi in Skyward Sword in that he will repeatedly interrupt gameplay to explain mechanics you could easily have figured out for yourself. Thankfully, he eventually backs off, which makes it much easier to experiment and thereby figure out the ins and outs of battle strategies.

There are a few other aspects of Wrath of the White Witch that show the game’s age. To give an example, it reminds me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII in that it forces the player to sit through more than two hours of exposition and pointless tutorial missions before the game actually begins in earnest. I won’t lie – this is horribly tedious, and you just kind of have to sit there and be patient.

Bits and pieces of the game’s story are a little tone-deaf as well, especially given its secondary setting in the United States at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is one African-American character in Wrath of the White Witch. His name is Rusty, and he beats his wife. Like, right in front of you. His back is turned to the camera when he does it, but what’s happening is obvious. This is one of the only real instances of the game portraying a negative emotion stronger than mild anger or gentle sadness, and it’s… I mean, this is a poor word choice, but it’s striking.

One of Oliver’s traveling companions in the fantasy world is Esther, a girl from a vaguely Orientalist desert city modeled on Silk Road culture. Her counterpart in Oliver’s world is his best friend’s neighbor, a girl named Myrtle. Oliver has seen Myrtle out of her window, but he’s never spoken to her because she’s ostensibly too sick to leave the house.

It turns out that the Myrtle was sick but has gotten better, and that she doesn’t leave her room because she’s scared of her father. Rusty, a car mechanic, has had to work overtime to pay for her hospital bills, and he’s been taking his frustration out on his wife, which terrifies Myrtle. Since Oliver is a wizard, he can use magic to heal Rusty’s heart, help Myrtle overcome her anxiety, and thus inspire Esther to embrace the courage she needs to go on her own journey.

This is very much a ten-year-old’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it makes sense in its own way, but…

Both Myrtle and Esther have straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and peach-tinted pale skin. It’s weird to call anyone speaking Japanese “white,” but almost everyone in the game is a generic light-skinned anime person. This means that the abusive husband’s racial identity really stands out.

He gets better, of course. After Rusty’s heart is healed, he apologizes to his wife and hugs his daughter, and everything is okay. He helps you out with a sidequest later on in the game in a way that demonstrates his high competence as a mechanic. But still, for there to be only one Black person in Detroit… And for the one Black character in the game to be violent like that… And for both his wife and daughter to be coded as white… I just feel like there’s a lot of racial history at play here that isn’t given sufficient depth for its inclusion in the game to be worthwhile.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to American culture than hot dogs and hamburgers and saying hello to your neighbors from across their white-picket fences as you stroll down Main Street. If you’re setting a game in the United States, you should have more than one Black character, and you need to be aware of the historical violence and deep cultural wounds created by stereotypes about Black male violence against white women.

I suppose you could counter this with, “But Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese game for children that flattens and parodies all of the people and cultures it incorporates into its fantasy world,” and that’s fair. At the same time, I’m happy that Japanese game developers have since figured out that it’s okay to have more than one Black or dark-skinned character in any given game, and that it won’t break anyone’s sense of immersion to have NPCs walking around with a variety of skintones.

(Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that I’m not cherry-picking an example here. There are a few other examples of problematic portrayals of racial and ethnic difference in Wrath of the White Witch, as well as many other examples that could be drawn from JRPGs in general. This is a serious and complicated topic, but addressing it isn’t really the point of this blog post. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, the essay collection The State of Play is a great place to get started.)

So there are elements of Wrath of the White Witch that betray the game’s age, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of its reflection of the then-current state of transnational conversations concerning representation. Still, most of the game is an absolute treasure.

The cel-shaded graphics are amazing and have not aged a day. The animation is spectacular. In particular, the way that the mantle of Oliver’s cape moves is a technological marvel. You really do feel as though you’re walking around in a Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s incredible. The world map is gorgeous, and the towns are intricately detailed and full of life. You can tell that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli put a lot of love and attention into designing the world, and it’s an enormous amount of fun to explore and take on sidequests.

The translation is brilliant, and the voice acting is lovely. The level of detail put into the sound design is pure Studio Ghibli. The score by Joe Hisaishi is everything you’d hope it would be.

I’m not saying that every game needs to have an active fandom, but I wonder why this game is relatively uncelebrated in my circles of social media. There were precious few JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, which was odd after the immense popularity of JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, so you’d think a high-quality game like Wrath of the White Witch would have stood out. Then again, I myself never managed to get into it back when it first came out despite having started it a few times. My guess is that Wrath of the White Witch’s innocent charm and nostalgic JRPG elements help it work well as a pokémon-style portable game on the small screen of the Nintendo Switch.

I know that a sequel, Revenant Kingdom, was released for PlayStation 4 in 2018, but I was too obsessed with Breath of the Wild at the time to pay much attention to it. Revenant Kingdom is partially set in contemporary New York, and I get the sense that it’s intended for an adult audience. I think it might be worth checking out once I finish up the last few postgame sidequests of Wrath of the White Witch just to see how the world of the story (and the worldview of its creators) has changed in the past ten years.

Dungeon Etiquette

We live in a society.

Trying to apply real world logic to video games is a fool’s errand, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that most of what “heroes” do is awfully close to war crimes.

…I write, having just spent two hours leveling up my JRPG adventuring party through wanton murder and environmental destruction.