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December 4, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #7: Scope and Heart

These three things happened last time on D.O.X. is Dead!  (With the proper music, of course.)

Firstly, two dangerously-deadly rival characters are revealed -- the rough-necked punk, Coil, and the bruising beauty, Kath! 

Secondly, the story’s revamped concepts take the stage, with the idea of power discussed furiously at length!

And thirdly, two MORE characters of the core cast of eight make their debut -- the king of normalcy, Johnny, and the queen-sized wallflower Maddie!

And that’s about it for the recap.  So let’s get into the post proper.  First things first, though:

Count the words!  The number of words appearing in this post is…!

Man, Kamen Rider OOO is just too good.  I seriously need to do a post on it one day.

Okay.  So I’m pretty sure I said this already somewhere else (long, long ago, I’d bet), but for posterity’s sake I’ll go ahead and say it again.  There’s absolutely no way I could have put out one of Dead on Prime’s earlier forms -- D.O.X., AKA V2, or Dead Over Two, AKA V1 -- with a straight face.  Not unless I wanted someone to laugh me off of the planet.  Sure, they might have been good enough (which would make the complete overhaul that is DoP an exercise in second-guess-bred futility), but I’m not wholly convinced they would have been good period.

You don’t have to look any further than this blog to know why…well, assuming you’ve read more than just the post before this one.  I made this blog to take a good hard look at video games, and movies, and the like -- probing stories to see what works and what doesn’t.  Even if my words haven’t exactly set the world on fire, they’ve proven immensely useful to me -- just as I hoped they would.  I once said on another blog that you could feasibly learn how to write a good story just by doing the opposite of what (most) video games do.  While you’d have to know what exactly to throw aside first, I still feel like I can stand by those words.

 Video games or otherwise, by now you probably know the end result of an insane number of stories, and by extension the summary and trajectory of its plot: saving the world.  The characters may be different, the setting may be different, and the events may be different, but time and time again it all gets funneled into that one outcome.  Baddies get beat, plans get thwarted, and happy endings abound…or bittersweet endings, every now and then.  And you know what?  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a “save the world” plot, because there are so many different ways you could make it play out.  That’s the joy of storytelling, I suppose.

As always, it’s all about the execution.  A save-the-world plot with a terrible cast doesn’t stand a chance.  But if you can give an audience a strong set of heroes, then you’ve got a MUCH better shot at carving out a win.  That’s not to say you’ll get an automatic win; just because some people like your cast (or if you like the cast…or, alternatively, your mom likes them) doesn’t mean everyone will.  So as the creator, it’s up to you to make sure the audience has as many things to latch onto as possible.  Give ‘em a nice setting!  Give ‘em a plot bound to leave them breathless!  Give ‘em with themes that’ll leave them shouting “DEEP AND MEANINGFUL” into every internet forum in…well, the internet!

But you know what?  In light of Cross-Up, and everything I’ve seen for its sake, I have a personal rule: if you’re going to make a save-the-world plot, then the world has to matter.

As I’ve said, that was one of DmC’s fatal flaws (out of many).  It would have had you believe that the demons masquerading as businessmen, news anchors, and creepy lion-faced women controlled the world by controlling the minds of the people -- turning them into brainwashed slaves as they sucked the money from their pockets.  But you’re lucky to see those “slaves” in any more than three cutscenes, and even then for a couple of seconds at a time.  No interaction with them, no voicing of their dissent (or lack thereof), and no proof of being anything more than average citizens.  All tell, no show.  Just an empty world for the “good guys” to dance their way through.

Compare that to a game like Devil Survivor 2.  Japan gets wrecked by an invasion of demons (and geometric alien things), and the main cast has to scramble to figure out how to survive a seven-day trial -- that, or accept impending doom.  But it becomes more than just a quest to beat the bad guy; it’s about ideologies clashing as the empowered must decide and debate how best to rebuild the broken world.  Can the team give food and medical supplies to the needy?  Should they?  What happens when riots break out and terrorist cells form up out of desperation?  Are you willing to hurt the innocent for the sake of your goals?  Heavy stuff, to be sure, but it makes the game much stronger.

Not the anime, though.  We do not speak of the anime.

The point I’m trying to make is that each story has to keep its scale in mind.  Not every story has to deal with the problems plaguing the world, or a city, or even the space outside the lead’s house.  You can get a lot out of a focused, personal tale, because presumably you’ve got a cast that’s good enough to do the work for you.  Still, you can increase that scale -- and get plenty out of it -- by taking into consideration what your story/setting can offer.  Flesh it out, unpack it, whatever you call it; the more thought you put in, the more tools you give yourself.

I’m not saying that as some master of the craft.  I’m saying it as someone who figured it out through revisions small and large.  Back in V1/V2, leading man Arc was a smug smartass who thought he had all the answers, and combined with the intense focus on his problems (and his thoughts, by extension), it made for a more reductive story.  He got better as the story went on, but I’d bet that that narrowing hampered the enjoyment factor from the get-go.  What was his town like?  What were the people around him like?  What set everything besides Arc -- and any other cast member -- apart from any given urban fantasy?  I’m hard-pressed to come up with an answer.

Whereas V1/V2 had New Rock City, V3 has New Line City -- the size of which, while indeterminate from text alone, at the very least feels larger.  Part of that comes from an increased attention to detail, and the fact that transportation around the city part of the city is a common concern for our heroes.  But it also comes from the cast; Arc is still less-than-welcoming (pre-character development), but he’s a much more mellow character.  More tolerant, to an extent; he’ll only lash out if people really get on his nerves, so even if there is something he doesn’t agree with, he’ll live and let live.  He’ll play the observer, and choose to do things his way while others do theirs.  So, because he takes note of others, the audience does too.

Arc has his character -- and an unrepentantly bold one, at that -- but his development comes in relation to the world around him.  As the plot unfolds, he has to consider the world in a way he never has before, and decide just what sort of person (let alone hero) he wants to be.  Or to be more specific, the crux of his development is him realizing that he needs to be much more than just some sharp-tongued street fighter…the problem being that he has to figure out how to help people.  Given the context of the story, that’s not as easy as you think it is. 

It’s said almost flat-out that beating the big bad isn’t enough to set things right -- so it’s up to him and the others to redefine themselves in the context of the world.  What do they want?  What are they supposed to be?  Do they have the power to fulfill their desires, however noble or however selfish?  How far into the depths are they willing to go -- for justice, for greed, or just an end to their individual despair?

Each member of the Core 8, to varying degrees, imparts change on the world around them.  Why?  It’s because the world -- the circumstances, and the people in it -- changes them right back.  That’s how it should be; fictional or not, no man exists inside a vacuum.  So you have some characters learning what it means to be a hero, trusting in others and sticking out their necks for causes small and large.  BUT you’ve also got characters forced to grow up -- to realize that there are dangers, sorrows, and even injustices that can break anyone in two. 

Incidental characters will make that happen.  Events across the story’s timeline will make that happen.  Interactions between the Core 8, the people of New Line, or even a single detail of the so-called “city of broken dreams” will make that happen.  I can tell you right now that something that happens in the first chapter will have huge ramifications down the line.  I know how to play the long game.

Long story short, this story is Devil Survivor meets Under the Dome with a dash of The Avengers.  With Kamen Rider Wizard thrown in for good measure.

But you didn’t hear that from me.

I’m making this sound a lot more complicated than it really is.  I can tell you right now that even if there are some themes throughout and depths explored, this isn’t some weighty tale designed to go off the rails into a dime-store philosophy lesson.  This is a story with ghost-punching, so it should have more than a little emphasis on ghost-punching.  So even with the essential flourishes, Dead on Prime is still as straightforward as it gets: the world’s in danger, so people come together to fight off evil and keep the peace.  Easy.

Again, it’s about the execution.  How you do it is almost always going to be more important than what you do.  (Consider that your first and last Voltech Pro Tip.)  Now, I can’t speak for everyone out there, because everyone is different, and every story will have wildly different needs.  Likewise, every creator is going to have different requirements and tastes that’ll shape their potential magnum opus.  And that’s cool.  But speaking personally, I have to do something that’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s spent more than a picosecond on this blog (on more posts than this one): it’s gotta be about those highs and lows. 

More specifically?  My stories have GOT to have heart.

That’s non-negotiable.  Setting aside the fact that I would be a damn dirty hypocrite if I created some charmless, po-faced slog without a hint of irony, I know that my stuff works best when there’s a good balance.  I can do those serious moments.  I can go into “you’re gonna have a bad time” mode.  I can put good people in VERY bad situations (like meeting a serial killer in chapter one).  Terrible things happen on a regular basis, and there’s one section of the plot in particular that’s the most unrelenting form of a Hope Spot I’ve made yet.

The counterbalance to all of that is, paradoxically, that Dead on Prime is a lot funnier and warmer than versions past.  I’m better at comedy now than I was even at the tail end of V2’s lifespan -- possibly because I started watching Modern Family semi-recently (or, you know, because of I Hraet You).  So certain lines, events, and reactions are enough to actually get a smile out of me -- which is the best outcome my writing can hope for -- while ensuring that I can take a firm stand against the doom and gloom of my own creation.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the improvements come from more than just practice.  It comes from a better understanding of what a story needs to achieve, mine or otherwise.  Think of it this way: if you reduce every story to its absolute basest, you can think of it as a game of connect the dots.  This happens, so this happens, and then this happens, and so on.  Everything proceeds in a logical order. Everything feeds into the next dot, so that when all’s said and done you can have the big picture -- and a good picture, at that one.  Easy enough.

But like any good video game, it’s all about creating illusions.  Even if you are connecting the dots (albeit with untold thousands of words), there are ways to make it less transparent.  I didn’t do that with V1/V2.  The characters didn’t feel organic, and neither did the events.  I knew that there had to be setup for the sake of (and strength of) a payoff, but thinking back it was as regimented as all get out.  I pretty much went BEEP-BEEP-BOOP-BOOP-SETUP-SETUP-SETUP-JOKE-SETUP-EVENT-EVENT-SETUP-EVENT-PAYOFF.  For some it might have gotten a pass, but I’d bet that those with an eye even a little sharp could have pointed at it and said “Was this written by a robot?”

The problem, I bet, was that my ulterior motives showed every step of the way.  Dialogue and scenes existed to tell the reader what each character was all about, rather than have the character show it through natural motions.  Sure, characters are supposed to be loci of ideas, but the way I did it in the past made them much too transparent.  Clumsy, and certainly unnatural. 

Let’s take second banana Katie as an example.  Back in V2 (and V1 especially), her purpose wasn’t so much about being a character, but a means to set up her character -- to move the pieces to their proper places for that distant payoff.  She may have had scenes where she walked through school with her friends, talked with Arc on the phone, and chilled out in her room, but those scenes pretty much telegraphed the trajectory of the plot. 


It may be years before I, personally, completely mask the ulterior motives needed to move the plot and make the story what it is.  But at least this time around, I’m much more competent; there’s more subtlety now than there was back then, at least.  Here’s an important distinction: in her second scene, Katie Kaylee rides on a tram with Arc, finishing off a big burger.  The plot (and a new threat) kicks in a little later, but until then?  It’s just a scene that lets the two of them talk.  Have a conversation.  Show who they are, and even if they trade jokes and insults, they’re still a couple of kids that care about each other.  It’s a scene that exists for its own sake, not for some distant event in the future.

But that’s not the only example.  Kaylee expresses her rightful concerns early on, but much like her partner Arc, she chooses to press on regardless.  Still, that won’t stop her from doing what anyone would do, crisis or otherwise: go home and spend time with the family.  She yuks it up with her mom and dad (who are secretly some of my favorite characters, if only because they’re decidedly OTT) and eats her fair share of burgers while going over a couple of current events.  And then Kath shows up, and rather than have her remind the reader of THE SHEER WEIGHT AND IMPORTANCE OF THE IMPENDING PLOT, she makes the party much, much, much crazier. 

Kath’s introduction scene shows you -- barring her hidden depths -- exactly what sort of character she is.  Meanwhile, you get to see even more of what kind of person Kaylee is -- what she values, what she says and does, and what she ultimately wants to protect when it comes time to punch some ghosts.  Details large and small (with more small ones than you’d expect throughout the story, meaning maybe I CAN be subtle) add to these people and their world instead of just hammering in the obvious and/or unnecessary.  People actually get to be people.

And when they get to be people, they get to be more than just mouthpieces, puppets, or plot devices.  They get to have heart, because they can find themselves in situations where they can show off their hearts.  That’s what helps make Dead on Prime much stronger than its predecessors; the mechanical progression has been replaced by an organic rhythm.  It’s not so much about proving its merit as it is…well, just being a story.  It’s just about getting a good cast together in a world on the line between despair and hope -- and giving them the tools to save it, as well as the tools needed to show why saving New Line City even matters.  Because if they don’t have lives worth saving, why should they or anyone else care?

Past iterations probably couldn’t have given a solid answer.  But this one?  I’ve got a good feeling about this one.

And that’ll do it for this post.  Lucky seven’s all done, and set for the record books.  Next time, it’ll be the most major of posts: the last two members of the core cast of eight will finally be revealed.

Better start praying for me now.  These two might make or break the story -- and I’m pretty sure they broke it last time.


Man, Fourze was pretty good too.

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