Monday, November 30, 2015

On Fighting Games: I Dream Of Skullgirls

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of classic sitcoms with my mother. One of my favorites was I Dream of Jeannie. It was the first TV show to introduce me to the concept of wish-granting as a plot device. 

Despite the fact that it usually involves magic, wish-granting is a very relatable plot device because we all have unattainable desires. At some point, we've all uttered the phrase "I wish..." In fact, the reason why we might desire certain things is because of how unrealistic it is to obtain them. Few things are more attractive than a fantasy.

From Alladin to The Fairly Oddparents, the wish-granting plot device allows us to explore what would happen if our wildest dreams could actually come true.

This concept is what makes Skullgirls a very unique kind of fighting game.

To the best of my knowledge, Skullgirls is the only fighting game in the genre's history to use the wish-granting plot device as the primary aspect of its story. If there are other obscure games that use it, then my argument would be that Skullgirls is the most successful fighting game among them.

Wish-granting stories are typically centered around a magical item or a sentient being that has a close relationship with that item. In the case of Skullgirls, the item is the Skull Heart.

Rather than using a tournament to bring all the fighters together, Skullgirls utilizes the concept of a scavenger hunt. All of the characters in the story are searching for the Skull Heart, an ancient item that grants the wish of one person every seven years. And like the Soul Edge in Namco's Soul series, the Skull Heart's wish-granting power comes at a great personal price.

The Skull Heart will only grant the wish of someone with a "pure" heart. If if the heart is impure, then the Skull Heart will pervert the wish into something grotesque, and then make the wish-grantee a "Skullgirl," a slave to the will of the Skull Heart.

The story of Skullgirls successfully does the two things all stories with wish-granting plot devices do: First, it establishes rules. Second, it uses those rules to turn the central character's desires against them.

Wish-granting stories are not defined by phenomenal cosmic power, but by the limitations of that power. One of the reasons why Disney's Aladdin works so well is because the Genie is limited in what he can provide for Aladdin as it pertains to his desires. Aladdin wants Jasmine, plain and simple. The easiest thing to do is to rub on that lamp and say "I wish Jasmine loved me."

However, as well all know, the Genie has a few rules, one of which is that he can't make anyone fall in love with another person. Why? It's never explained. But then, it doesn't have to be. As an audience, we fully embrace those limitations because it creates realism for the story. That's how dreams work in real life, after all. If we can't do something one way, then we look for the next best option. Aladdin does the same thing. Since he can't make Jasmine fall in love with him, he uses Genie to help him create a persona that would impress Jasmine so much that she would fall in love with him on her own.

And in the process, Aladdin lies to everyone – to Jasmine, to Jasmine's dad, to everyone in Agrabah. He even lies to Genie. In the end, Aladdin loses himself in his false persona until his dream of being with Jasmine is twisted into something that he doesn't want. All of these events are set up by the establishment of rules and how the central character's desires are used against him because of those rules.

Kids have all sort of wishes. Most of them are impulsive. Some of them can be incredibly dangerous, which is why Timmy Turner connects so well with audiences. One of the things that always fascinated me about the The Fairly OddParents is that creators established a big book of rules called "Da Rules." Part of the reason why the show is still running nine seasons strong is because it keeps coming up with incredibly fascinating consequences for Timmy whenever he breaks one (or several) of the rules in the book. Timmy constantly has his impulsive desires turned against him, even if those desires appear altruistic.

It's the same with Skullgirls. All of the characters are looking for the Skull Heart for various reasons. Filia wants her lost memories. Cerebella only desires her adoptive father's approval. Parasoul wants to destroy the Skull Heart, and yet she becomes the next Skullgirl by making a wish that saves her sister.

Skullgirls is one of the hottest fighting game franchises of the 2010s, yet it uses the same kind of narrative structure that made a generation's worth of wish-granting stories successful.

Side Note: Wouldn't it be cool if Jeannie was a character in Skullgirls?

Five-Q with Aiki Flinthart, Author

If your read any of my articles, listened to any of my podcast episodes, or sat down in any of my classes, the one thing you've learned about me is that I celebrate uniqueness. I love to hear stories about people becoming successful through extraordinary or non-traditional paths. To be honest, it's harder to come by unique stories about writers who become successful because no writer takes the exact same road. However, what makes my next guest truly unique is how she chooses to define success.

I am pleased to bring you Aiki Flinthart from Brisbane, Australia. I was introduced to Aiki via iBooks, where her book series 80AD was ranked in the Top 100 for downloaded books. Between iBooks, Amazon, and Smashwords, her book series has over 300,000 downloads. But her drive to write novels wasn't ignited by dreams of money or critical acclaim. She did it for her son.

I hope you enjoy today's Five-Q. It was a real treat to interview her. You can find Aiki on Facebook and her website at

Aiki Flinthart lives and writes in Brisbane.
Aaron David Harris: Why did you decide to self-publish your work? Was it out of necessity? Or did you desire to have your work untouched by a publisher?

Aiki Flinthart: When I wrote the 80AD series, I did it purely for my son’s entertainment and interest – to get him reading more, because he’s dyslexic and found it difficult to wade through the big YA books.  It was only after he’d read it and loved it that I considered publication. I made three, very tentative, attempts to get publishers interested, but not knowing basic things like how to format it, or what to write in the cover letter, worked against me.

In the end, I realised I was less interested in being traditionally ‘published’ and more interested in helping kids learn a little about history and themselves.  After all, I’d written the books to engage kids, not to earn money.

To be honest, I was also very insecure about whether the books were ‘good enough’.  I’ve been thinking a lot more about this recently, because my next series is ready to go, and I’m still not very keen on going down the stressful, angst-ridden path of traditional publishing.   I’ve learned a lot about how to write over the last few years, so I have more confidence in my style and latest novels.  But, even though I do have publishers interested in my latest series, IRON, FIRE & STEEL, I still may not paper-publish. I just want to write and improve. I’m not in this to earn a living out of it, so I don’t want chasing publishers to become the focus.

ADH: Describe the kind of writing you do? What influences your work?

AF: My older brother was an avid sci-fi reader, so I inherited a lot of his books by default.  I loved them.  We both spent our spare time reading Tolkien, Asimov, Clarke and all the classic sci fi masters, as well Marvel & DC comics, plus darker writers like Bradbury.  In my teens I found more lighthearted storytellers like Robert Aspirin and Terry Pratchett, and fantasy writers like Christopher Stasheff.

I’ll confess that, as a teenage girl, I read romances but I found the ‘unrequited love angst/misunderstandings formula’ a bit trying after a few books.  I just wanted the heroine’s to get up and do something rather than waiting for the hero to fix things. In recent years I’ve read a lot of ‘self-help’ books, not only as  a way of improving my self-esteem and my relationship with my son and husband, but also as a great way of understanding how to write better, richer characters.

So I lean toward writing sci-fantasy more than anything.  Being a scientist, I like to blend as much fact in with my fiction as possible.  It’s amazing how much one can learn from reading decent fiction that’s well-researched.  I prefer stories that make me think about the world in some way; that teach me something about how the world works, how people think or how I think.  Hopefully I can create stories that do the same for other people.

ADH: Articles on self-publishing always talk about marketing your work? Do you “market” your work? Is that important to you?

I’ve never actually read any articles on self-publishing.  My decision to self-publish was impulsive.  I only set up a Facebook account as an afterthought, because the publishing website suggested it.  So I’m probably not the best authority on this one.  However one of the best suggestions I’ve heard is to send out a sample of your upcoming book to as many people as you can reach, and ask them to help by downloading & reviewing in Amazon, once it’s released.  Amazon’s review system means that the more positive reviews you get, the more exposure your book gets in the ‘people who bought this also bought…’ prompts.

Other than that, I actually get tired of seeing authors self-promote their upcoming books too much.  So I try and keep my FB postings to be 95% other things that might be interesting, and 5% or less book promotions. I am thrilled that 80AD took off so wonderfully on its own and I love the kind feedback people send me daily, but I’m not terribly good at ‘marketing’.  I’d rather spend the time writing.

ADH: How do you determine if your novels are successful? Downloads? Purchases? Facebook likes?

AF: When I first put up 80AD, I was ecstatic when the number of downloads/purchases on Smashwords passed the 100 mark.  That was more people than I could possibly count as supportive friends, so it was being read by complete strangers.  To me, that was success. After that first 100, I tried to stop watching.  It was affecting me too much. In reality, when my son and my husband read and enjoyed them, I’d achieved my goal.

The more I look outside myself for my definition of success, the less satisfied I am with my own work.  I can’t please everyone.  Watching downloads, likes and reviews is a recipe for a self-esteem crash. If I put my definition for success or failure in the hands of other people, I ride a very scary, very dangerous emotional rollercoaster. Storytelling is highly subjective.  If I like my story and I’ve done my absolute best to write it well and craft it into a compelling, readable work, then it’s a success.  If other people like it, that’s a bonus.

ADH: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

AF: Best advice I can give?  Be open to learning.  Learn to be a better person.  Learn new skills of all sorts.  Learn how to improve your writing. Our schooling and socialisation tends to be very competition-based, so we often get defensive if our work isn’t considered ‘perfect’ the first time, by everyone.  Accept that you have a lot to learn.  Set out to learn as much as you can about how to be a better writer.  Ignore the idiot reviewers who just like to vent their own insecurities, but every well-thought-out critique can be a useful pointer for how you can improve.

Read books by writers you love and work out why they appeal. Go to good writing ‘how to’ conferences;  find good ‘how to’ websites; connect with other writers and form a beta-reader group.  Learn and give support to each other as you all go through the trials of life and writing. Stay humble.  Enjoy being creative – don’t get so caught up in the hype of perceived success, chasing money, or the time consumed by marketing, reading reviews and watching your FB feed that you forget what you love: being creative and getting better at being creative.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reno Recap

Hey y'all!

So I'm still in recovery mode from my fantastic trip to beautiful Reno, NV, where I gave a presentation on fighting game storylines at the Wizard World Reno. Again, I did not know I'd be going to Reno. I thought the Youmacon was going to be the last event of 2015. So I had to quickly find a plane ticket and a place to stay.

In lieu of a hotel, I crashed at my best friend's house (yeah he just happened to be living there now. Ain't God good?!). It was like being in college again. To thank him for his hospitality, I hooked him up with a pass for the event and he hosted the panel along side me, which was so awesome because I played so many fighting games with him growing up. So it was cool to see things come full circle.

I networked with so many people out there, and I think I'll have some wonderful people to introduce you to for Five-Q, including comic book legend Jim Shooter. I had a fascinating conversation with him about diversity in comics during his run at DC comics and I can't wait to share his insight with you.

Soon I'll be dropping a podcast to recap the month, an analysis of the Skullgirls storyline, as well a new Five-Q from my favorite Australian author, Aiki Flinthart. It's an honor to know her and I had a fantastic time learning about her path to successful writing.

Stay tuned. Have a great Thanksgiving week!