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December 11, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #8: Avatars and Magic

Let me tell you a little secret: I don’t always know the difference between a good idea and a bad one.

This blog may make me look like a smart guy who has all the answers [citation needed], but that’s hardly true of me.  Just think about it: would a guy who has all the answers feel the need to completely invalidate years of work on a hunch bred from second-guesses and crippling insecurities?  Common knowledge suggests not.  So let it be known that I’m no ace.  I stumble just like everyone else -- maybe more than average.  And I’m hoping that even if I become some writing tour de force, I won’t become so blinded by power that I’ll reject all criticism.  (Consider that a license to punch me in the stomach for anyone who one day sees me as no better than Michael Bay.)

I want to do my best -- and more -- for the sake of others.  I want my stories to entertain people, and make them happy.  And I want to be good enough to make that happen.

Which begs the question: why do I keep doing dumb things?

All right.  So if you’ve been following this feature for a while (which I have doubts about, since I suspect this feature garners anti-pageviews), you may have picked up on me saying that if not for the Guilty Gear franchise, this story wouldn’t exist.  I’ve taken no shortage of lessons from it -- along with the push to make “Xrd’ed”, “Xrd’ing”, and/or “Xrd” into synonyms for starting over -- and I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon.  In my defense, there’s a lot to learn, and even more to love.

One of the more notable factoids about the franchise revolves around its leading man, Sol Badguy.  It’s well-known by this point that he’s a walking reference to Queen (his real name is Frederick, IIRC), but it’s also known that Sol is more or less series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari’s alter ego.  His avatar, of sorts.  As much as I idolize Ishiwatari and his unrivaled soundtracks, putting a vague version of your real self into a story is some seriously risky business.  Just look at Sol: one of the strongest characters, a genius, improbably-designed, and the star of the show.  Ishiwatari himself even voiced Sol at one point.  The man went all in without caring what anyone thought -- and as far as I can tell, it worked.

And I did the same…with significantly-worse results.

R4 (real name redacted…for now) a late addition to the cast, in-universe and out of it.  That is to say, he wasn’t going to be in the story at all -- but there was a hole that needed to be filled, so he went in.  Incidentally, he was a character that predated V1 by about a year or so.  And thinking back to the sort of person that he was, IT SHOWED.

Imagine, if you will, a main character that played a support/informant role to the other members of the cast.  Seems simple enough, right?  Well, imagine that same character being unjustifiably smug and in control at all times -- except when it was time for him to make a “joke”.  Now imagine that same character being able to completely nullify another character’s offense -- i.e. stopping the giant sword of the chosen one bare-handed -- and going on to make him look like a clown and an idiot on a regular basis.  And on top of that, imagine this same character holding onto a magic, electricity-slinging katana implicitly better than of the other weapons shown up to that point.  And imagine (in earlier versions) this character having an improbable hairstyle and eye color, because this character is magical, you guys, so please take him seriously.  And then waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down the line, it’s revealed that he’s God, and thus not only knew everything that would happen, but made everything go just according to keikaku.

I’d say that I wish I could take a brick to Past Voltech’s face, but who knows how that would jack up the timeline.

V1 R4 sucked.  Even Past Voltech figured that out before long.  So the further along the story went, the more R4 got degraded -- turned into a joke instead of (debatably) the broken-tier member of the core cast.  The first and most obvious change was that he gained a crippling weakness toward women.  Much like Guy from Tales of the Abyss, getting too much contact with the fairer sex turned him into a bumbling mass of bones.  And that would have been fine, if the presence and overall impact of the story’s female characters was anything more than an afterthought.

So he got nerfed, again and again.  His hairstyle shifted closer and closer to being an afro, until it eventually did become an afro.  He went from “mysterious and smug” to “dopey on the surface, with flashes of hyper-competence”.  He kept a lot of his magical abilities, but lost the speed to compensate.  His katana turned into a regular old lightning sword (and it’s worth noting that said sword, and his other weapons, all took names from failed game consoles).  Instead of being a secret asshole, he was a genuinely nice guy who wanted nothing more than to keep the peace.  And then it turned out that he was playing everyone as part of a plan to kill everyone even remotely corrupted -- i.e. the Core 8 -- and make sure the “chosen one” bit it.

So basically, he was a secret asshole all along.  But at least he referenced video games a lot.

(Must everything tie back to DBZ?)

You know, I don’t think that adding in an author avatar is necessarily a bad thing.  It CAN be, no question (and I’d bet that it usually is), but I wonder how many people care about Sol Badguy’s origins.  Or Hermione Granger’s.  Or…George Costanza’s?  Huh.  Thanks, TV Tropes. 

Well, anyway, the point is that basing a character off of you isn’t an automatic death sentence.  Setting aside the fact that not every member of the audience knows who you are, what matters most is that the character is strong enough to stand on their own, and entertaining enough to win over even the most jaded heart.  Sol gets a pass because he’s cool as shit.  He and his work(s) alike make a case that goes beyond real-world factors and implications.  He’s divorced from his creator, and while you can argue there’s a wish-fulfillment aspect to Sol, you could also argue that a character like Sol is the only sort of lead you could possibly have for the GG canon.  Because of that, he’s not just Ishiwatari.

In my case, I have a different problem.  Or a solution, technically.  As it turns out, R4 is not me -- and now he’s even less me than ever before.

I’ve actually discussed it with others; paradoxically, the character that looks most like me and likes what I like (video games and the color green and lightning) is superficially me at best.  Somewhere along the line, he went from being me -- and even being Mr. Dangerous -- to being someone that I hardly recognized.  I wouldn’t say he has a will of his own, for any number of reasons, but he is more distinct.  And that’s likely because a difference in V3 R4 compared to his V1/V2 precursors.

Basically, R4 has an arc now.

In the past, his story was pretty much relegated to revealing things about himself at a slow drip…and, you know, a massive dump about two thirds of the way through so as to give the plot a shake-up.  This time around, he’s actually got something to him besides ZOMG BIG REVEALS.  He acts like a scatterbrained dope -- something conveyed even better than before, thanks to improvements to mannerisms and dialogue across the board -- but even as early as his first scene you know he’s got more bouncing around in his head than thoughts of virtual pew-pew lasers.

Oooooooooooooh it’s so gooooooooooooooooooooood!

R4 may seem flippant and airheaded at a glance, but it doesn’t take any time at all -- i.e. as early as his second scene -- before you realize that he can be very serious, and he cares immensely about what’s going on around him.  He’s putting in the work to save New Line City, even if he plays more of a second- or third-banana to the rest of the cast; it’s just that he tries to be the kind of character anyone can like, offering support, trying to lighten the mood, or as another character puts it, playing big brother.

The crux of his arc, of course -- however much it plays the long game -- is that even if he’s putting in the work, it’s not enough.  Things spiral out of his control, and he’s a character who, as per his devotion to peace and order and all of that good stuff, would very much like to maintain control.  I can’t stress enough that he wants to do the right thing and make the world a better place (or even just a safe place to live), but things spiral out of hand long before story’s end.  And he’s aware of it; despite his belief in the goodness of people and the power of order, he pretty much has to watch in silence as the city and people he’s trying to protect self-destruct before his eyes.  And you know what?  It’s pissing him off.

I don’t want to say that he becomes the bad guy, but it’s up for debate.  Considering what he does well before things go off the rails, it’s made clear that he’s capable of great kindness and great evil.  He won’t be able to keep his hands clean.  Good thing he’s always wearing gloves.

It’s a long while before R4 undergoes every last inch of his transformation (sparked to some extent by a barge’s worth of suppressed emotions), but if there’s any character with a shot at having the most development, it’s him.  Well, besides leading man Arc, but you get the idea.  The gamer in green will have to figure out just what sort of character he wants to be in the face of adversity, morality, and…well, just plain being around people who’ll zig when he says zag (Arc well among them).  But no matter his alignment at story’s end, this time around he’s got the charm to be not quite so intolerable.

Still, there’s one thing that needs addressing.  In ALL of the story’s versions, there are secrets that need to be kept, and secrets that need to be uncovered.  R4’s a gathering point for some of them, sure -- because let’s be honest, everybody has their secrets -- but what’s the context for it?  Why do there have to be secrets in the first place?  And why do mentions of magic and chosen ones pop up in discussions of a story about ghost-punching?

Well, I’ll go ahead and explain that (amidst more spoilers) because it’s the only way I can talk about V1/V2’s worst character by a landslide.  So, here’s Old Wade.

Old Wade is -- or was -- a member of the Astrum Guard, an organization full of magic-users who have protected the world from mystic threats for generations.  Think of them as a more fantastic version of the Men in Black; they go after ghosts, demons, and spirits unbeknownst to the average man, all while being sticklers for their veil of secrecy.  But thanks to the plot, i.e. the lord of the dead doing his damnedest to mess up everything, they’re forced to handle their greatest challenge in more ways than one.

So as you can guess, Old Wade, R4, and the chosen one -- the white-haired punk, Coil -- were all members of the Astrum Guard.  (In V3, the organization is simply called ASTRAL…no relation.)  Coil went in to save the world or some such nonsense, with R4 tagging along for support, and Old Wade as an advisor/mission control.  Really, there was no one better for the job; Old Wade was in no uncertain terms Coil’s father figure, playing surrogate parent as well as teacher -- even if Coil didn’t have a tenth of the talent his status suggested.  But to compensate, Old Wade was known as one of the best in the biz; nigh-unrivaled in magical ability, well aware of the most powerful techniques known to man, and even beyond that a fast-and-furious fighter who would make even Brawl-era Meta Knight look bottom-tier.

Too bad Old Wade wasn’t really a character.

I’m not even joking.  If you read that description, you pretty much have the entirety of Old Wade’s character down.  He had no arc.  He had no presence.  He had nothing going for him besides being “the wise old master”; it doesn’t say kind things about him when his biggest flourish is that he was only three feet tall.  All in all, he was there to fulfill a function instead of being an active, engaging member of the Core 8 -- just there to pass out problem-resolving magic like candy on Halloween.  Hell, the guy hyped up to be one of the Guard’s greatest members didn’t get to do anything.

The explanation jammed in at one point was that Old Wade’s tiny body was the result of a curse -- of a crime he committed years ago, and thus had to deal with the punishment.  Because of that (and the city’s blooming corruption), it was all too common for the old man to be unconscious.  He couldn’t handle the strain.  Basically, that meant that across some seventy-nine chapters, he only got involved in three fights. 

One against grunts; another against the one of the big bad’s elites; his third and last against…a bunch of hands trying to grab Arc on his way to the final battle.  Sure, keeping the old man out of the action managed to keep him from resolving every situation, but it came at too steep a price.  And even setting the fights aside, there’s no explanation as to why he spent the majority of the story -- even the talking bits that would, you know, establish his character -- completely segregated from the rest of the cast.

Someone get me a brick and a time machine.

There was no character that needed an overhaul more than Old Wade, without question.  But in the context of late-game V2, that was pretty much impossible; as the saying goes, I wrote myself into a corner.  I had to write myself out of it with V3, which I could thanks to the foresight gained from past failures.  What did I learn?  Obviously, don’t make characters that only exist to facilitate plot events.  Make characters that are actually…you know, characters.

I think that part of the character’s evolution came from the world’s evolution.  See, in previous iterations the Astrum Guard wasn’t nearly as big an influence as I made it out to be.  Outside of three members of the Core 8, only four other Guardsmen were in New Rock City -- and even then, only for one chapter.  Again, they only had three appearances at large: once to get wrecked by the big bad in Russia, again in a flashback, and a third time just a couple of chapters from the end.  That’s pretty incongruous, given just how big of an impact it had on Coil, R4, and Old Wade.

So the big dumb ghost police had to get buffed.  And they did; they became ASTRAL, and became more involved in the story.  The soldiers take on an active role in fighting off the enemies plaguing New Line City, even if it’s all through behind-the-scenes action -- justified, because the common folk can’t even see what’s going on, and letting them in on the world’s degradation = mass panic = more corruption = complete disaster.  But as these things tend to go, the situation spirals out of ASTRAL’s control; its holes get exposed one by one. 

ASTRAL’s trying to solve the story’s problems in the worst way possible.  They’re using old methodology against a new threat, and one that by nature has all their tricks down pat.  So if they want to save the world, they’ll have to step up their game…except the organization effectively refuses to evolve, and/or does so at such a slow rate that they’re either ineffectual or cause more problems than they solve.  As a result, the Core 8 -- and the rest of New Line City, after a certain point -- will have to decide just what they should do with their would-be protectors.

With that all said, one question remains: what does all this mean for Old Wade?  Nothing.  Old Wade doesn’t exist anymore. 

Say hello to Welkin F. Steiner.

Welkin (now standing at a healthy 6’1”, BTW) is the Core 8’s biggest anchor to ASTRAL, as one of its formerly-greatest members.  He still has skill in spades, no question, but here’s the thing: he’s a criminal.  Prior to the start of the story -- and even then, a good sixteen chapters into it -- he’s been imprisoned, and it’s only thanks to some behind-the-scene shenanigans that he appears before Arc and Johnny.  Even once he gets to walk around freely, ASTRAL is wary of him; he’s an asset, but given his crimes he’s still a prime suspect for pretty much anything that could possibly go wrong.

And it goes both ways.  Welkin makes it very clear that he disapproves of ASTRAL’s practices, past or present.  He KNOWS all too well that it won’t last, which is why he pushes so hard for A) reformation and B) the new generation to take the reins, and decide how to make a better world.  He’s still very much on the side of order -- even though he’s got a good dozen reasons not to, some bloodier than others -- but in his words, the world needs the right sort of order.  And he wants to be a facilitator of that order.  Out with the old, in with the new.

So.  What kind of character is Welkin?  I think I’ll let this song explain on my behalf.

To put it as eruditely as possible, Welkin is hella-classy.  He’s a cool cat who is virtually impossible to rattle; well-spoken and confident, he’s capable of poking fun at whippersnappers, explaining the mission/magic du jour, and delegating orders to his comrades.  Like R4, he can act pretty flippant (albeit in a more mature way), but he makes it plainly obvious that he cares deeply about the people around him.  He will offer support, will encourage, and will believe in the best of people and the world, while pushing for positive reform.  Hell, one of his major defining moments comes from him giving a speech to the people of New Line.  What about?  I’ll keep that a secret for now.

If it sounds like I’m making Welkin out to be the perfect gentleman, then you’d do well to suspect some S-ranked chicanery down the line.  Again, much like R4 the points on his arc come a good ways into the story.  That’s to be expected, mostly; as the eldest of the Core 8, his character development isn’t necessarily about him becoming a better person because he already went through that shit over the course of his life.  He’s close to being the very best man he can be -- SO, his arc has to be more than just “I’ve learned the value of friendship!  Yes!”  He defines himself in relation to how he tries to make his ideal world -- how he treats others, and ultimately, what he ends up doing to them.  In other words?  The aforementioned chicanery.

…But he’s a better fighter now, right?

Actually, he's even better than that -- because Welkin doesn't even need to use his hands to kick your ass.

In the past, Old Wade was only a member of the Core 8 in name only -- and given how the other characters worked back then, I wouldn’t blame anyone for calling them the Core 4 ½.  But this time around?  Everyone matters.  Everyone’s got something to contribute -- be it one more punch in a fight, one more joke to get a laugh, one more point on their arc, one more theme to embody, one more struggle to lay bare, or just one more line for anyone to enjoy.  Each of these characters is at their very best -- the best they’ve ever been.

And they’ll only get better from here. 

So let’s hear it for the Core 8, shall we?  Here they are (with accompanying passable-at-best art):

Arc Siegel -- The New Line Ace!

Kaylee Hazlett -- The Blossoming Brave!

Coil -- The Rule-Smashing Punk!

R4 -- The Zero-Watt Player! 

Kath -- The Bad-Bruising Beauty!

Johnny -- The Hard Luck Rocker!

Maddie -- The Mightiest Maiden!

Welkin -- The Fanged Veteran!

And that’s everyone…with titles that I’m sure won’t have any bearing on any of these characters.

So that’ll do it for now.  What’s up next time?  We’ll see.  You can’t possibly expect me to plan that far ahead, can you?  Don’t be ridiculous.  After all, I’m no R4.  In fact, I accidentally wrote another avatar in without even knowing it?  Care to know who it is?  Here’s a hint: it’s Kaylee.

So I guess deep down, I’m actually a pink-clad little girl.

I knew it all along.


  1. Wise Old Man and God-Mode Sue? Eh... could be worse. Still, mistakes that can't go unpunished I guess.

    "I’m hoping that even if I become some writing tour de force, I won’t become so blinded by power that I’ll reject all criticism. (Consider that a license to punch me in the stomach for anyone who one day sees me as no better than Michael Bay.)"

    I'll hold you to that, then. XD

    *smacks head with paper fan*

    Anywho, it seems you can never know how bad you messed up until either you completed your first draft or took a break, stepped back, and found something that nearly blinds you. Every author - professional or casual - experiences that. My fanfic hasn't progressed much despite being 80% done because, holy crap on a stick, a lot of things I wrote were STUPID. Maybe having a second pair of eyes would help, but man, I'm so tempted to go back to the drawing board.

    Honestly though, I can easily see the original R4 being THE scrappy of the bunch due to his BS powers surpassing even that of the chosen one. (It only worked in Harry Potter b/c Harry was a kid, average in nearly everything, but had a loyal enormous support network to make sure he can end Voldemort permanently.) Then revealing R4 is God is more of a "You don't say?!" moment, so making him a "secret asshole" with less overpowered moves is more digestible and less obvious. Subtlety can be difficult at times, but it's better to be a tad on-the-nose about symbolism and foreshadowing than be too obtuse or blatant. But I can say for sure that revamped R4 seems much more balanced than before.

    As for old man Welkin (which feels like a reference to something I know but can't remember atm), I'd say your original take on him highlights a problem a lot of people have with the wise mentor types of tropes. They are so good at what they do thanks to years of experience, but they can't help out in the fight for some odd reason (i.e. "Let the young ones fight my fight because I'm too old"). Gandalf would like to have a word with those old men... and their writers. Far too often the wise old mentor leans on the premise of being an expert in knowledge and feeble in everything else. Being too much like Zelda in the triforce dynamic between her, Link, and Ganondorf. Very smart, does little in fights with it, and ends up useless outside of exposition or dead to raise stakes.

    So yeah. Welkin could have been worse, but he still needed work to make him less of a plot device.

    But yeah, it seems like you know what you're doing with this revamping so keep at it. This fellow very-flawed writer approves. ...Now I should cry over the thought of rewriting my crappy fanfic. Superior being(s), what was past me thinking? >.>

  2. Yeah, if there's one advantage I've got from hindsight, it's that I know how to balance out these characters. You can probably blame that on me playing (too many) fighting games, but as it stands there isn't a single member of the Core 8 I'd call overpowered. Welkin's a professional asskicker because he's been doing it for a long time, but that's counterbalanced by A) a specific set of weaknesses, and B) he's pretty much peaked in terms of power, which is PRETTY BAD when you're in a story where your opponents can even the odds by giving in to dark desires. Meanwhile, R4 is pretty much Guile with a boomerang (yeah!) -- he'll break you down from long range, but he's slow, can't handle up-close pressure, and outside of his bag of tricks he can't do a lot of damage. A true specialist, without question -- and balanced because of it.

    There's probably more that I can say about both of these characters (and the other members of the Core 8), but I'd prefer to hold off in the interest of not spoiling EVERYTHING...and, you know, not having another 8,000 word post. But for what it's worth, these guys aren't stronger characters because of what they can do (or not do) on the battlefield; they're stronger because they actually get to BE characters instead of catering purely to archetypes.

    I guess that's the clincher, isn't it? Characters end up being more by doing more -- and having the freedom to do more. That's true of all my guys, now that I think about it; Welkin's proactivity makes a huge difference for his persona and his character, while R4's progression from...well, I guess he's still kind of a secret asshole, but he goes into much more interesting territory this time around.

    Which I'd feel better about if I didn't have a hunch I copied his arc wholesale from Kamen Rider Gaim's Micchy. To be fair, there aren't a lot of characters better to copy.

    Hmmm. It's almost as if I intend to do a post on him someday soon. But you didn't hear that from me.