Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

February 26, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #3: Cities and Madness

Okay.  Let’s talk very briefly about Kamen Rider.

I’ve been hoping that some day in the future I could talk at length about the individual installments I’ve seen -- not only because there’s a lot to love, but there’s a lot to learn (even from Wizard, which is supposed to be much-maligned, but for the life of me I can’t understand why).  For now, I want to bring attention to W; it’s one of the more popular installments, and I can see why.  Said reason is independent of the fact that the titular Rider is composed of two detectives’ minds in one body fighting simultaneously…though that doesn’t hurt.

Anyway, one advantage that W has over the installments I’ve seen is that its setting, Futo, has a much bigger presence in the show than the others.  To be fair I don’t know much about where the shows are filmed (in Japan, derp de doo), but W goes out of its way to give Futo a character of its own.  It’s “the windy city”, as named in the opening theme, and it’s full of pinwheels, windmills, and wind-themed accessories.  The heroes and villains alike concern themselves deeply with it, and want to protect it, or enhance it, or even transform it (using what is effectively a drug that turns people into monsters -- contained in mystic USB drives!).  The people of the city have a special relationship with it, even if they have to acknowledge its faults.  You should expect no less, given that one of the main themes -- in terms of writing and in music -- is “Nobody’s Perfect”. 

W wouldn’t be what it is without Futo.  And if I want to even begin to rival it, I have to do the same.

I’d like to think that there isn’t a single person out there who knows my weaknesses as a writer than me -- although I’d assume that that won’t be the case the very second someone sits down with something I wrote.  Self-deprecation aside, one of the things I’ve struggled with historically is making the setting come to life.  There have been many times when I pretty much didn’t even bother with the setting -- describing it, or even thinking about it -- to the point where I imagine I left some readers imagining a blank void instead of anything even remotely telling.  Incidentally, this is something that’s been reflected in my drawings for ages.  Characters?  I can do that well enough by now.  Backgrounds?  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that a finger-painting kindergartener could beat me.

Even now, settings are a sore point for me.  I think I’ve reached a point where I can handle describing them a bit better, if only because past experiences have driven me to hyper-compensate.  Call it paranoia; I always have to ask myself “Did I render this scene enough?  Are people going to know where these characters are?”  So it’s forced me to think of ways to set and set up a scene, and try ti figure out the placement of each character within it, in most cases.  There’s something vaguely mechanical about the way I do things, in the sense that I go “Okay, add three big details and work your way out from there”, but a system is better than no system.

The problem is that the system was -- and may still be -- full of holes.

I can render a scene in some pretty grave detail.  And that’s cool.  That’s something I have some skill in.  But the problem is that I suspect in D.O.X. -- and doubly so for its predecessor, Dead Over Two -- those scenes were exactly that.  Scenes.  They didn’t come together as a cohesive unit; they were parts of a whole, but those parts had verifiable canyons between them.  Individually they might have worked, but they didn’t offer anything remotely close to what Futo -- to a good setting -- can offer: that cumulative effect created by a unified vision.  The people, the designs, the aesthetics, all of it -- all of it was too scattershot and ill-conceived to offer up anything of use.  Not for what I needed.  Not for what I wanted.

Part of the problem might because the story is more or less an urban fantasy (which I’d assume has a negative context in some circles, but let’s leave that aside for now).  Being based in the present-day world, there’s only so much you can do with the basic framework.  You can’t exactly make Middle-Earth and pass it off as, say, Bismarck, North Dakota.  That much is obvious.  The expectation is that working with a present-day setting makes it easier on the writer, because there’s no need to spend time explaining the mechanics of a world that’s ostensibly ours.  Or coming up with them, for that matter.  

But I’m starting to think that the opposite is true, at least in my case.  Sure, I might not have had to come up with things like new geographical settings or new races to fill new cities, but I took for granted the process of making an impactful setting.  There are likely a hundred different nuances between a city in the east and a city in the west, and probably more.  Even if that’s not the case -- or not too perceivable in the context of a single story set in a single location -- a setting needs to have a character in its own right.  And I botched that with the original versions of the story.  I duct-taped the setting’s mouth shut by my own incompetence.

There’s a difference between describing a setting and realizing it.  I’m starting to understand that now, more so than I ever have before.  How does one go about realizing a setting?  That’s not exactly an easy question to answer, given that the response may vary from person to person.  But it’s something that has to be done, or at least should be done for a stronger effect.  With that in mind, you might be wondering: what’s my answer?  Have I taken any strides to make V3 the best yet, and something worthy of others’ time?  I don’t know that for sure, and I probably won’t for a while yet.  Not until I can look back on everything I wrote with a smile.

But in the meantime?  I’m feeling a lot better.  Because it all started with the air.

Compared to V1 or V2 (Dead over Two and D.O.X. respectively, in case you missed it), V3 is a distinctly sadder story.  Not all doom and gloom, mind, but if I’ve done it justice, I’ve managed to add in a sense of melancholy.  Part of that is because of some of the new themes and mindsets; some of the key phrases are “broken dreams” and “leaving it all behind” -- and beyond that, there’s still the ever-weighty concept of death weaved into the story.  Not exactly sunny concepts…and that’s exactly why at the start of V3, the weather is positively icky.  Cloudy, a little chilly, and full of scattered showers.    Depressing stuff, to be sure, in case there are any climate-sensitive folks reading this.

And it goes further than that.  There’s a sense of decay to most of the sights -- disrepair, or abandoned areas, or just the steely urban trappings being less than inviting (has a chain link fence ever warmed up someone’s heart?).  There’s a sense of isolation, and maybe a bit of futility; downcast citizens stroll through the rain, hoping to make it to their next destination for some sense of solace.  Youths gather in urban sprawls and laugh the days away, abandoning their suburban homes for a chance to have some fun and brighten up their dreary, boring days.  Trolleys carry townsfolk from one end of the city to another, past weathered and unvisited landmarks in dire need of attention.  It’s a world that hasn’t lost its hope, but it’s got no reason to celebrate it, either.  The most its citizens can do is try to cling to individual happiness, however briefly -- and let their problems resolve themselves.  Even though they know they won’t.

…Well, I’ll give myself one bit of praise: I can at least hype things up fairly well.

But those are all conceptual things -- potential that may or may not go fulfilled.  So let’s switch gears and talk about something a bit more concrete.  For example, what exactly is the plot of this story?

Let’s get to it, then.  New Line City (once called New Rock City in V2) is being plagued by all sorts of weird incidents.  Buildings start collapsing, people start getting more violent, and numbers and tombstones pop up almost at random.  In order to stem the tide, local smart-ass Arc Siegel -- someone who’s been seeing people die in his dreams for weeks -- takes it upon himself to try and sort it all out, alongside his pretty little partner Kaylee Hazlett.  But almost from minute one, things start spiraling out of hand with the emergence of spatial distortions, sudden mutations by the populace, and the emergence of ghosts.  Despite getting deeper and deeper into the mystery, New Line just keeps getting worse and worse -- to the point where it looks like everyone in it has to face the inevitable. 

There are a lot of details I’m leaving out (for obvious reasons), and what I’ve described here just barely dips into the third day of…well, I don’t know how many days there are going to be when all’s said and done, but there’ll be plenty.  I’ll get into some of the finer points on a later date -- like the villain, for one -- but for now I want to talk about one of the most important aspects of the story.  See, it’s true that you can expect ghosts to pop up and start wreaking havoc, and plenty of other creepy-crawlies get thrown into the mix.  But there’s an aspect to the story -- across all three versions -- that’s a threat bigger than any ghost.

The word of the day here is corruption.

Here’s how it works.  In the context of this story, everything -- living or not -- is made out of numbers.  They’re the end result of metaphysical coding, which can influence and be influenced by internal as well as external factors.  The tradeoff, then, is that the code can be interfered with by negative stimuli.  In the case of the average human, physical or mental stress can lead to their code getting distorted, and as a result their very beings can be distorted into new and often less-than-pleasant forms.  That’s the corruption in a nutshell. 

Carried regularly in what’s known as the Black Vertex, it weaves its way into people, preying on their weaknesses, desires, and moments of vulnerability to transform them.  In some cases?  It’ll kill them outright, or at least make it that much easier.  In others, it’ll turn them into creepy-crawlies; plenty turn into the rank-and-file beasts plaguing New Line (and helping to spread corruption), but others get turned into even more powerful singular units -- enemy aces, as it were.  But in general, there’s one common result of the corruption: insanity.  If you let that in, you risk losing your mind.  Granted there are different degrees of corruption, but allowing even a little of it is like begging for the worst-case scenario.

It’s probably worth mentioning, then, that every member of the main cast gets corrupted.

But like I said, there are different degrees of corruption; it’s not an instant failure state, and it’s more than possible to proceed normally despite it.  The same goes for everyone in New Line City; everyone in it is corrupted just by being there, but they don’t go insane just because they get a little dirty.  But once the pressure starts building for these people -- from within or without -- then things start getting hairy.  Hearing voices is not a very good sign (though when is it ever?), and from then on it only gets worse.  How the core eight characters respond to the corruption is a notable aspect to the story.  Can they hold on to themselves in a world going mad?  Will they give in to the Black Vertex, and let themselves be corrupted?  How long can they hold out?  Can they come together despite their blooming madness to save the city, and the world at large?

It might be a little cringe-inducing to know that this story has “the world’s at stake!” as an angle, given that you could say the same about every other story ever made.  But there’s a trick to this one, however slight.  Remember, in the context of this story everything has that coding inside of it.  That means that everything can become corrupted, up to and including the city itself.  It creates a vicious cycle; because the city’s corrupted, the people can become corrupted.  And because the people are corrupted, they end up corrupting the city right back.  The city transforms in kind, and promotes the spread of nightmarish creatures and spatial distortions -- and in turn, the people get stressed, fall prey to corruption, and become an even bigger part of the problem.

It’s worth noting that in V1 and V2, the problem was isolated in the single city.  In V3, however, it’s implied that something similar is happening all over.  New Line City just gets the worst of it -- and that’s all it takes to ensure the rise of hell on earth.  Said rise doesn’t even take a week.

Simply put, Arc and the others aren’t trying to save the world.  They’re trying to take it back.

Probably not like that, though.

Going back to story mechanics, the thing that bothers me in retrospect about V1/V2 is that bad stuff happened to the city, but there wasn’t really a united aesthetic.  Chalk it up to revision after revision, but things just sort of happened the way they did because they looked cool at that moment, or that scene.  Sure, it might have looked cool to a reader, and to be fair it WAS because of corruption (and you can’t expect that to create anything but random events), but I’m not satisfied with the way the earlier versions played things out. 

Most of it played out over the course of a single day, but things went from bad to worse pretty quickly regardless.  The problem was that there was a random element to each change; it was if the setting was saying “Hey, look at me!  I’m nutty!  Whoops, scene change!  I look like this now!  And now I’m this!  Aren’t I crazy?!”  It worked, but it could have synced up a lot better with the core ideas behind the story.

With V3, those changes are still there (though I haven’t worked out how I’m going to show every change), but they’re orbiting more closely around a central theme: numbers.  There was a reason it used to be called Dead over Two -- because there was a major mathematical motif running through it -- chiefly because A) the main character was effectively half-dead, and B) the number two popped up in a number of ways throughout.  V3 reinforces the numbers and their effect and presence, from characters to concepts, all the way to the city’s transformation. 

The numbers are the undercurrent, the foundation of the world; seeing them flicker and move is something worth marveling over, but they’re also a sign that something’s gone wrong -- in the same sense that seeing the insides of a finished house never says good things about what’s gone on inside them.  But damned if they’re not cool to look at; there are numbers forming leaping helixes, parallel lines making auroras, and polygons waving their way across streets.  At the moment, there’s a certain level of cleanliness that V1/V2 didn’t have, and I like where things are going right now.  Since I have something to revolve around, it’s not so much about writing whatever pops into my head; it’s about acting on the groundwork that’s already been laid, and moving in accordance with -- or beyond -- expectations. 

I...I'm not even going to pretend like there's context for this.  I just think it's hilariously awesome.

So here’s the tl;dr version: I wasn’t in a good place with the setting -- in this, or anything else -- but I think I’m several steps higher than I used to be.  I took a lot of stuff for granted, but once I started considering the possibilities, I found an element that’s just as vital as any given character.  Maybe more.  Granted I still have a lot more work ahead of me, but I’m in a position where I can at least begin to understand what can be done with a setting, and make it a part of the story instead of just a point on a checklist.  Will it pay off in the end?  It just might.  But if nothing else, I’ve managed to level up my game -- and I intend to level up even more.

So that’ll just about do it for this installment.  And good thing, too -- I’m starting to feel a bit more optimistic about my efforts.  So I suppose I’m at a point where I can switch back to talking about the characters…namely, a pair of troublemakers that just might put Arc and Kaylee on blast.  So tune in next time.  Or not.  I can tell you right now that the next post is going to have someone improbably buxom in it -- and as such, the story is completely invalidated by way of being completely sexist and objectifying women.  And I deserve to have my head rammed onto a pike.

Or -- and hear me out on this -- maybe she’ll be a good character because of what she says and does, not just because of the way she looks.  You know, the way it should be.

Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.  There’s no way that could ever happen, right, internet?


Shotaro!  Philip!  Play me out!


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