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I couldn’t believe it. I had known Clancy for eighteen years, since we were toddlers, and I never thought he’d be the one to suggest a bar. At least, not until we walked in. The Geosphere was one of the only places near Spegrock U that didn’t feel like a college bar. I mean, it was in a floating dome almost brushing against the atmosphere. Our other friend Kane had gotten us in. Kane could pull connects out of nowhere, and it was super weird. 

Anyway, we walked in, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I could see the stars above, and the city lights below, like we were inside of a glass ornament. We lost Kane as soon as he got through the door. As expected, he was talking to every girl he passed. 

Clancy was wearing a dark gray mock neck and a black blazer, with the legs of his pants draped down to his ankles, where beneath his dress shoes were sharp enough to crack the glass in this place. It’s funny, I hadn’t taken much notice of him growing up. He was just Clancy, Kane’s brother, and to him I was just Lana, Kane’s best friend. But ever since we had gotten to college, and I started seeing him less and less, I noticed when he was there, and I really noticed when he wasn’t.

“Such an idiot,” he muttered under his breath.

“What?”

“Sorry. I was talking about Kane,” he scoffed.

“You can’t mean that! You two are the smartest people here.”

“There are no books for Kane’s kind of stupid.”

“You don’t want to meet someone? Isn’t that the reason guys go to bars?”

“It’s not the reason I wanted to come here.”

“So what is?”

“Perspective.”

“So do you want to sit at the bar or a booth or…?” How else was I supposed to respond to that?

“Right, sorry Lana. We could get a table along the wall. Probably a nicer view.”

“Look at you. I didn’t think you noticed those types of things.”

He clearly didn’t like that one, because he went quiet on me. We took our seat and stared at the drink menus. Truthfully, we hadn’t gone out to a bar since I came of age, so I didn’t know what to get. The stuff they made here was a lot stronger than anything we mixed together at one of Kane’s parties. 

“What would you recommend?” I asked. 

“We could always order that gross Roktarian stuff you got that one time from your dad’s cabinet,” he could barely get through the thought without laughing.

“You know, you love that story a lot more than I do, Clancy.”

“How could I not? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that drunk. Of course, the casualties of that night probably didn’t like it as much as I did either. Poor Kane never got a date with Vanessa Bigsby again.”

“Hey, to be fair, that was just a minor hiccup in the story of Kane’s love life. That’s a disaster even the officers at BOARD couldn’t put a stop to.”

“A fair point, my brother does seem to make poor decisions in that department. Yet you’ve stuck by him through it all. Why haven’t the two of you dated?”

“Me and Kane? You’re out of it,” I kept it cool, but my heart sank at those words. I didn’t want to talk about me and Kane. I wanted to talk about a future with Clancy. I felt so stupid, but at the same time, being there with him, it all felt so possible.

“Why? My brother is obnoxious, but he’s an engineer, and one of the best. He’s going places and you’re amazing. You’re really funny, patient, and you understand people. Those are three things I could never manage.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

He cut me a glare, and then we shared in an awkward silence.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to push anything. I was just curious.”

“It’s fine. It really is. Sometimes it just feels like you don’t see me the way I see you.”

“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” By now he was staring out the window, looking down at the skyline. “That’s what I meant earlier. Perspective. You’ve known me for most of our lives. We always did the same things. We went to the places I felt were safe, did the things I thought were fun. I just wanted to try something different. Change my vantage point.”

“Wow. That’s surprisingly human of you, Clancy. But I think you might be taking things a bit too seriously. We’re here. We’re together. Isn’t that the most important thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I guess for me, I’ve never really thought about this stuff too much. It’s always been more important to just take these moments as they come. It’s fine and well to want to grow and improve, but I think you put too many restrictions on the way you live. I get it. You’re a biologist, and everything feels like a hard science for you. But look at your brother. He’s out here tonight having fun, because he’s not letting logic or reason impede his ability to celebrate the things around him. Or the people.”

“You’ve got my attention,” he said, the contemplative expression on his face warping into a smile. “We could always leave this place and rejoin the world. I’d be even happier if you could show me how.”

“You’d probably be hopeless without me, right?” 

Maybe that’s what made us work. I mean, that day was almost like any other. Sure, the bar was new, but the rest wasn’t. Clancy always watched Kane. I always watched Clancy. Kane always watched whatever brought him joy. It was just another instance of us walking toward the door, with uncertainty laid before us. But as Clancy intended, we looked on with new perspective.

Valdara tied his hair back into a ponytail as he took a knee before the pedestal atop the hill. His sword rested still as silence washed over him. The words carved into the stone slab filled him with a profound sense of regret and loss. He bowed his head, shame falling from his visage.

“I’m sorry, Master. I must take leave once more. Please, lend me your strength. All of this, I do for you.”

Do as you please. Know that I will not settle for any less than utter annihilation.

A harsh red light radiated from the stone’s carvings, overwhelming Valdara’s senses. He lifted the sword and marched away, the winds blowing back his hair and brushing the grass as he blurred into the gray clouded sky in the distance.

When Valdara returned to the hill, blood stained his robes. His sleeves were tattered, his face was bruised and battered, and his knees cracked and buckled with each step until he finally dropped in front of that same pedestal. He attempted to stab the sword into its resting place, but his legs collapsed under him. Valdara finally rested under the protection of the stars. The drops of rain washed the dirt from his hands as exasperated breaths formed quiet words.

“Master, I won. Soldiers from every corner of the country gathered. Ryuuto, the spoiled regent of Midori, Weisheit, the cosmic mentor from the dark realm. All decorated warriors and I fended off their armies for you. Now I ask, am I free?”

Valdara was now crouched on all fours, blood pouring from an open wound in his chest. His smile widened as the hot crimson leaked from his mouth. He rolled over to his back and fell flat as his chest puffed out with laughter. The grip on the hilt of his sword loosened as the pulsating weapon fell from his hand. 

“I did everything you asked of me. What am I to do now?”

I am not the one responsible for our covenant, Valdara. This is the price you pay for the bloodlust you’ve felt. The sword’s pulse rang louder and louder as Valdara’s heartbeat slowed. The carvings in the stone slab radiated a soft red glow as laughter faded to breathing and then to nothing, as the proud warrior Valdara lay, reduced to a victim of the blade’s seduction.

*Note: This is an excerpt of a larger novel-length piece.*

Reported By: Jack Melody

Date of Events Described: 8/15/2806

Date Recorded: ???

“Come on, Jack,” Lawrence said, lifting me off the matt by my hand. “I need you to be more creative. You’re fast for a kid who doesn’t have his powers yet, but if you only try to hit me in the same three ways, I’ll just keep knocking you on your butt.”

“Yeah, big whoop,” I snapped. “You’re part of the ETF. It’d be pretty embarrassing if you couldn’t sweep kick some kid.”

As I rose to my feet, he lifted me up by the shoulder strap on my tank top. He was a lot bigger than me back then, the height and the muscle. 

“Don’t be smug! You think because I’m stronger than you we shouldn’t be fighting? Most of the people you’ll have to fight in this lifetime will be stronger than you. They’ll be better. I don’t care if you join the ETF or not. There are people out here who will crush you without a second thought.”

“You think I don’t know that? I just want to be strong enough to get away from people like that. I don’t want to fight a bunch of assholes flexing on a child!”

“You signed up to train with me, Jack, which means if you get the chance to take a stand for justice, you’d damn well better do so.”

“Justice? The hell do I care about that?” I shouted. “I’m just tired of getting my ass kicked. I want to return the favor. Isn’t that enough?”

I ran toward him, sloppily and arrogantly as I always had, and without skipping a beat he pivoted out of the way of each of my strikes. I felt the room heat up as he avoided each palm strike. His already thin eyes became even sharper and more focused. His entire shirt burned to ash as an aura of flame surrounded his toned torso. The flames gathered at his back, exploding into the shape of an angel’s wings. His long dark brown hair shifted color to a reflective platinum and his pupils followed suit. He didn’t do this often. Awakening Level Phoenix. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and spit on the floor. Jackass was just showing off.

“So what? Are you gonna burn me now?” I asked. “I don’t give a shit! I’ve been getting pushed around by people stronger than me my whole life. Kids at school, my dad, you think you’re any different?”

I could hear my heartbeat, and it was just pissing me off even more. Like I was nervous, but knowing that I was nervous was just making me even angrier. Then I felt tears start to well up and my breathing lose pace. Then, the hot air dissipated. Lawrence’s aura returned to normal, as did his hair and eyes. The wings turned to smoke and he approached me, wrapping his arms around me. I could feel the warmth of his skin, as the fires of Phoenix returned to a simmer within his blood. I breathed in the smell of smoke and sweat, but the burn had all but gone away in the comfort of his embrace.

“That’s not what this is, Jack. I would never hurt you,” he said. “There’s something I need you to understand, kid. It’s because of the way the world has treated you, that it’s all the more important that you seek a life of justice. You’ve only scratched the surface of what people are capable of. You’re going to see some terrible things, and you’re going to lose hope. At times like those, remember the things I’ve taught you. You are so much better than the world’s evils. You have what it takes to become a hero.”

Not a day goes by where I don’t remember the words I said back to him.

“I’ll become a hero when you show me a world worth saving.”

*Note: This was originally written as scripted content for a video. The video can be viewed here.*

I’m not interested in walking back my initial review for Dragon Ball Xenoverse. The game has a lot of problems, from repetitive combat, to poor game balance, to terrible translations and sound design. The game was a mess, especially when compared to the much beloved Budokai titles. But I also have to give it credit in areas where I didn’t before. It was ambitious. An online Dragon Ball sim on mainstream consoles, with an honestly solid art direction, resolution and framerate, and a new take on the classic Dragon Ball Z story. The game sought out to do something impressive, and for someone who always dreamt of being one of the first black super saiyans, it serviced a need of mine for a brief while.

But the sequel…hoo boy. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 has a lot of problems, but one thing’s for sure. This game is the gold standard of what a sequel should be, building on the premise of the first game, and creating a natural evolution of the first game’s lore, gameplay, and overall presentation. I mean evolution in a good way, by the way. I know that word has…connotations around this fanbase. 

I played through the main campaign of the first Xenoverse without much detouring. This was in large part due to how much I hated the combat, but also because the game didn’t do a very good job of teaching you about the other resources you had access to in TokiToki city. So ultimately, I felt like by the end of my experience, I had logged roughly 10 – 15 hours into a mediocre campaign that was really difficult for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve now passed about 300 hours in Xenoverse 2, and even counting Xenoblade, it’s my most played Switch game. This doesn’t mean it’s a game without problems, but it is a step in the right direction, and I believe one more installment is all it would take to make the best Dragon Ball game to date. 

Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 prioritizes its homage to the source material over traditional game balance. The more traditional you try to make your experience with the game, the more frustrating it’s going to become. Try and make it function like a traditional fighter, and you’ll quickly learn how bad of an idea that is. But the way the game leans into Dragon Ball lore, visual styles, and themes is unparalleled. Everyone praises Dragon Ball FighterZ for its art direction, and don’t get me wrong, it’s well deserved. The game is beautiful. But this game kind of kills it in the style department too. The custom character aesthetics are in line with the true Dragon Ball art direction, while also having their own unique traits that tie them to the lore of these two games. It’s hard not to imagine a robust backstory for your playable avatar character while firing kamehameha waves at your various foes. 

The five races, Saiyan, Earthling, Frieza Race, Majin, and Namekian, truly encapsulate a lot of the Dragon Ball mythos. I kind of wish there were variations for some of them though. Like for instance, being able to make an Earthling character an android/cyborg. I understand how it might not make sense from a lore angle, but they made it work with the Frieza Race and Majins, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

The campaign for Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 is fascinating, because it incorporates a lot of details you wouldn’t otherwise expect. Particularly, the way it makes use of the previous game’s journey helps to make it feel like an integral part of the history, despite some of the changes made. Your custom character from the first game is carried over into this one (sorry Switch players). Still, the first game’s hero is not your playable character, but a revered hero with a holographic statue in the middle of town. You’re now playing as a completely new hero, dealing with the fallout of events that the player is theoretically aware of from the previous title. 

This game’s core premise is effectively interwoven into every facet of the gameplay. For instance, one of the ways the core cast is aware of the tampering with history this time around, is that there are these four time rifts opened around the new Conton City. This is a good change, because it opens up these cool DBZ themed mini games, while also helping to further contextualize the space-time anomalies. It also provides a unique shared importance among the story and side content, which is a big part of why this game feels like such a complete package.

We’re talking about Dragon Ball here! There’s no Dragon Ball without training, and training feels great in this game. There are so many different ways to explore your characters and their abilities, that growth feels consistent and worthwhile. You can go on Parallel Quests, which make up the majority of the game’s content, or train with mentors, which is how you earn various skills. All of this is handled with a delivery of context and worldbuilding that makes your adventures in Conton City feel like a DBZ Roleplay session. 

There’s a fundamental truth in game design, I think, and it’s that a game’s primary obligation is to the audience it knows it will have. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 doesn’t promise to be the best fighting game or the best RPG because that’s not what it’s trying to be. It’s trying to be a celebration of all things Dragon Ball, and on that front, it hits it out of the park.

The first game was ambitious in this same goal, certainly, but it failed because there were so many core issues to the way the game was made, that no amount of fancy presentation could fix it. Ultimately, Dragon Ball Xenoverse was a bust in its execution. But the idea was there, and since combat went from unbearable to actually quite competent between installments, things that felt like padding in the first game feel intentional in this one. 

What exactly are these changes to combat? Well, for starters, the game relies far less on super armor as a means to generate difficulty, which is a huge start. This is important, because the ability to budge enemies is a big part of what makes certain gameplay elements feel immersive. The weight of strikes having some degree of variance also increases the overall importance of customizing your character to your own preferences. Speaking of which, that feels much easier in this game, and the mentor system plays a huge role in that.

In addition, there’s an in-depth system of checks and balances for teleportation and overall use of stamina, that adds a layer of strategy to what would otherwise just be massive slugfests. The guard break system also offers a massive punish for those who would abuse special moves. 

Unlocking skills has become much easier than it was in the previous Xenoverse title. Mentors are now tied to your skill level and story progress, so there will be different residents in Conton City depending on how much of the game’s campaign you’ve completed. This helps you to pace yourself, which is essential, because this game is loaded with content. The same approach is taken with skills you can earn and buy, as well as available Parallel Quests, clothing items, accessories, and much much more. That’s a pretty big part of this game’s appeal over its predecessor too. An increased amount of unlockables with a legitimately fascinating progression system helps to give more purpose to your actions, and creates a generally more satisfying gameplay loop. 

One other thing I really like is the scale of the Time Patrol. Since the events of the previous game, there are now time patrollers everywhere of many different races. It helps to give some legitimacy to certain story details, and makes the overworld more fun to navigate. I do feel like transitioning from a hub world to an overall more interconnected world would really benefit what this game is aiming to be, but who knows? After the commercial success of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, that might be where we’re headed. 

The story itself isn’t too ambitious, mostly a retelling of the first game’s events, with a lot of the cutscenes being reused as well (a definite plus to a time travel story on the budgetary side). Some interesting differences would include the presence of characters from the classic DBZ movies, such as Turles, Lord Slug, Janemba, and even Broly! The old bad one, not the new amazing one.

This is the perfect example of how difficult it is to measure this game’s quality. Like, the presence of three additional characters in the story mode does not make a game better in the overall principles of good game design, sure. But this game becomes better with every character it represents, because characters, stages, skills, they all bring it that much closer to a complete depiction of the Dragon Ball mythos, and that’s more important to a game like Xenoverse 2 than even balance could ever be. I don’t think that’s an issue, either, it’s good for a game to have a strong sense of identity, and what fictional franchise has an identity quite like Dragon Ball?

Of course, this game does falter in its delivery in one area that really takes its immersive quality down a few pegs for me. This is the first time I’ll have ever said this about a game in a review, but Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 has a very underwhelming soundtrack. I know that’s a very subjective area, for sure, but it’s disappointing for me in a great many ways. And it’s being measured against an arguably unfair standard, as it’s adapted from a source material known for its superb sound design, but all the same, I can’t help but feel when I’m battling to obnoxious speed metal that it fails to capture the essence of Dragon Ball. And that’s saying a lot because this series has had a lot of different scores over the years, between the dub specific ones, the original, the score for Super, and even other Dragon Ball games. 

This game was also a pretty big milestone for the series, because it’s the first major Dragon Ball game to take place in a post-Super world, meaning a lot of the DLC incorporates key characters from Super’s various arcs. This is a positive because it means we get a bigger and more diverse roster, and because it increases the available customization for the player character. It is a bit unfortunate how much content in this game is hidden behind paywalls, but I have to admit, a lot of these characters are a genuine blast to play with, and their skills help players to fully realize their ideal original character with surprising depth. 

Another major plus for this game is its sheer volume of playable modes as well. There’s a full campaign, side stories, Parallel Quests, and local multiplayer. The different competitive multiplayer modes such as the World Tournament, single battles, and team battles all return from the previous game, including their ranked incarnations. There’s also an extra story mode that is paid DLC, but offers a very fascinating take on the existing time travel plot these games tend to focus on. 

They’ve also introduced a lot of game modes that make this game feel more like a proper MMO. There are expert missions and expert raids, which feel like an epic DBZ-style interpretation of the types of big boss raids we’ve seen in the likes of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14. Then there are Crystal Raids where players get to be the raid bosses.

There’s also a Figure Battle mode based loosely on Dragon Ball Heroes, the Japan-Only card game. This mode comes with its own separate story mode, but fair warning, quite a lot of Gacha going on here. 

There’s also five different minigames based on locations from across the series. From Capsule Corp to Frieza’s Spaceship to Majin Buu’s house, these locales will let players customize even further, and each one corresponds with a custom character race, so they can help you achieve new heights of skill. The feeling you get when you start to achieve the best of what your custom character is capable of is as close to experiencing the true Dragon Ball as I think a person can get. 

Again, this game has its flaws, and if measured against more traditional game design standards, I think a lot of people would find themselves panning it, and declaring it mediocre. Yet, when measured by its own ruleset, it becomes clear that this is a game with a powerful sense of identity, and goes beyond the typical corporate adaptation to become a genuinely powerful homage to one of the most prominent franchises in animation history. 

But clearly just having character customization and a bunch of quests you can go on isn’t enough to start crafting robust stories for your characters, right? Right?

Narrator Voice: Tenda was a human on an alternate Earth, besieged by Dr. Gero and the Red Ribbon Army. She was enhanced through experimentation, to achieve the feats of strength and speed only ever seen previously by the saiyans. She joined Time Patrol in the hopes that someday she could return home, defeat the Red Ribbon Army, and save her world.

…Or something like that, I don’t know, maybe it’s just fun to punch Frieza.

Thank you all for tuning in for this review of Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, a game that has taken up more of my time than I’m willing to admit. For more action packed adventures, see some of my other reviews and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss the next ones. Thank you as always for watching and come back soon for more from the GAME ROOM!

*Note – This sample was originally written as scripted content for a YouTube video. That video can be viewed here.*

Fire Emblem Three Houses was widely well received for its inventive approach to some age old mechanics within the series. Its calendar system allowed for a more controlled approach to managing your units and their progression, but more than anything, it allowed for a far more intimate story than previous games in the series. 

For me, Three Houses quickly rose to become the best game in this series, and certainly the game with the best characters. Even Lucina, who I adore for her tragic backstory and hopeful attitude, pales in comparison to some of the cast of this game, at least as far as consistent characterization and overall depth. I’ve spent the last several weeks in an internal debate on which character to cover. Dimitri is my favorite, due to his overall tragic story, and Claude is an interesting subject altogether. Even Rhea felt fun to tackle, but one name kept repeating in my head over and over. I decided to focus on a character that I generally have a much more difficult time with. 

Let’s get the spoiler warning out of the way, because this is going to be an in depth look at a character throughout the entire game, in every route. This essay will be filled to the brim with me trying to make my MFA worth something, so steel yourself for some literary jargon. 

I hate Edelgard. I think she’s hypocritical and stubborn, cruel and unwieldy, overall not a very good person. Also, I love Edelgard. She’s earnest, caring, powerful, ambitious, wise beyond her years, and an incredible advocate for equality in a structurally classist society. And if these two sentiments sound contradictory, I would say it’s a result of how masterfully executed the character actually is. But to understand why Edelgard works, we have to understand how Three Houses works, primarily in the way it tells its story.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses focuses on the perspective of its main character, Byleth, who primarily functions as a surrogate for the player. The overall tale, its characters, and its outcomes, are largely determined by Byleth’s decisions. This is positive for obvious reasons, it gives the player direct control over the events they’re going to be playing out. But from a narrative angle, because you’re involved in fundamentally formative years for the main cast, the seemingly massive changes in their personality are justified, because their experiences are going to be largely different, depending on how the player approaches the game.

Edelgard is perhaps the best example of this, because in three of the four routes you can play through, she’s going to be your enemy. But even the type of enemy she is is heavily influenced by which route you choose. Blue Lions is a story about Dimitri, sure, but it’s equally a story about Edelgard, and how her actions and their relationship created the version of Dimitri you’ll be travelling with throughout the Azure Moon chapters. Golden Deer, on the other hand, is a bit more removed from Edelgard, making her less of a direct enemy, and more of an obstacle in the way of Claude’s own ambitions. This is the difference between a character that we come to have intimate knowledge of, and a larger than life dictator who we hope to defeat. 

And then there’s Crimson Flower. Edelgard’s own route, fought from the perspective of her army, gives insight into a hidden depth of her knowledge and ambition. In order for any of this to work, the key is consistency. Edelgard has to have similar personality traits no matter which route you’re playing. Thankfully, this is yet another area where this Strategy RPG excels, but before we dive into that, let’s talk about who Edelgard is, externally and internally.

Edelgard von Hresvelg is the successor to the imperial throne of Enbarr, capital of Adrestia. The Adrestian Empire is the longest standing human society in Fodlan, with the exception of the underground secret city of Shambala. Because of this, Edelgard is raised to believe that her future, Fodlan’s history, and Fodlan’s future, are one in the same. Her delusions of grandeur aren’t something developed from her own ego, rather, her perception of herself comes from a sense of duty instilled within her from a young age. In addition to this she is ravaged by loss and despair, having lost almost all of her siblings to vile experimentation. The compounding of these truths bring about a sense of profound loneliness and yet still inspires ambition unlike most other characters in Fodlan. 

This is essential in the development of any character arc. For a character to grow and change, they have to overcome the lie that they believe. This core concept implies that the start to a characters arc has them believing something assuredly false about themselves and/or the world around them, and that their growth is centered around disproving that lie.

Edelgard is pre-packaged with quite a few. First is the lie that only she can change the world for the better. This lie is reinforced by her disdain for the church, a force within the game that makes up the vast majority of the world’s order. Of course, the realization of a character, and the conclusion of their arc, demands that the lie they believe be dismantled. Edelgard is a fascinating case, because again, only one of the four arcs have her actually reaching that state of actualization, and that’s Crimson Flower. But this particular lie is not dismantled. Edelgard still insists on being the one to change the world, and clearly believes it was a duty assigned to her at birth. So how then, does she have a complete arc without disproving her lie?

Well it’s simple. If you can’t change the truth, you simply change the lie. Edelgard has a second lie, and I believe it makes up the worst parts of her personality. It’s her belief that her plan, despite being for the betterment of all of mankind, has no room for mercy or empathy. This is a lie reinforced not by outside forces, but by her own actions. For reference, see the second battle at Gronder Field, and with it, the way Edelgard readily sacrifices characters like Bernadetta and Petra for her own gain. These aren’t just soldiers in her army, mind you. These are her friends, people she spent her time at Garreg Mach becoming increasingly close to over quite a stretch of time. When I said that I hated Edelgard earlier, this is the character that I meant. A character so vile and stubborn that in the face of people she’s victimized, her tunnel vision can only ever focus on her own ambitions. 

And yet, I love Edelgard as a character, because she’s merciful, able to cultivate the talents of those around her, and despite methods I don’t agree with, truly does seek to change the world for the better. But how can those ideas exist simultaneously? Well, that’s the easy part. Dismantle the lie.

The structure of a character arc seems to imply a linear narrative. Obviously that makes sense in the context of books and movies, as you’re typically experiencing just that. A narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a dynamic narrative, that changes based on player decisions and actions, and as a result of this, characters have dynamic arcs. For Edelgard, it’s the difference between a flat arc and a hero’s journey. To elaborate on that further, a flat character arc is where a character remains functionally the same throughout an entire narrative. They’re seldom changed by the world, or by other characters. This would be Edelgard in the Blue Lion route. She’s unwavering in her ideals, consistently decisive and immovable throughout the entire story. As a result of this, the world is far more often changed by her. She starts the war, she corrupts Dimitri, divides the alliance, sets major actions in motion. The person that she is ultimately means more to the story than the person she could become. This also makes her a great villain, because characters like Dimitri have to undergo more traditional positive arcs in order to overcome her. 

Edelgard is a character largely informed by her relationships. Those relationships fall into two categories. Those who do things for her, Hubert, Byleth (In Crimson Flower), Ferdinand Von Aegir, her Uncle Arundel, and those who do things to her, Dimitri, Rhea, Byleth (in all other routes), and her Uncle Arundel. I hate the guy, but his presence in both categories is a big part of who Edelgard becomes. 

Arundel is the most impactful person in her life, because he sets her on the path that changes her life. First by experimenting on and subsequently killing her siblings, and then by cultivating that darkness in her heart and urging her to leverage the likes of the Death Knight and Solon in her quest for power. Edelgard’s masked alter ego, the Flame Emperor, is a product of Arundel’s actions. 

The second most impactful relationship in Edelgard’s life is the one she shares with Byleth. Of course, the depth of this relationship is down to player choice, and will ultimately determine the quality of Edelgard’s life, as well as the success of her ambitions.  

I like how heavily the people in Edelgard’s life influence her actions, because I think it serves to emphasize her naturally empathic nature. She cares for others, and is fundamentally chasing what she deems to be everyone in the world’s ideal outcome. Of course, she’s wrong in a lot of ways, but that’s in large part, the entire point. In order for her to be this antagonistic force in ¾ of the game’s story, she has to also be at least a little bit incorrect in her philosophy, or at least her execution of her belief system. 

I’ve often heard the argument made that Byleth is a character who teaches Edelgard the value of mercy. This is a direct contrast to a belief that drives her forward, that mercy has no place in her war. 

In Crimson Flower, we watch this manifest as the lie Edelgard believes. The lie is deconstructed throughout Part 2 of that timeline. For example, the battle between Edelgard and Lysithea during their last stand against Master Tactician, Claude. Or that in Crimson Flower, Edelgard actually has the opportunity to spare Claude’s life. This is the part that I find to be a bit sad.

One of the reason’s Edelgard is so insistent on bearing the burden of responsibility is because she’s rarely been shown genuine empathy or compassion from just about anyone. Even Hubert, who cares for her so deeply, is very transactional in the way he behaves with her. The others within the empire treat her with ill will, and Arundel tries to harm her on numerous occasions. 

The first time she feels at home anywhere is with her classmates and her professor, and she loses out on all of that if Byleth rejects her at the game’s midway point. Of course that would drive someone to stubborn madness. It’s not just Byleth that she wants the approval of, it’s everyone. She’d never admit it, I think Edelgard fears her own potential weakness more than most. 

The beautiful irony in Three Houses is that there are a great many characters with overlapping views and ideals, and yet, they’re so polarized in their relationships with each other because ultimately, almost all of them have an ends oriented ideology rather than a means oriented one. Rhea, Dimitri, and Edelgard are three passionate violent forces, that believe the outcomes are what matter, and that methods are inconsequential so long as the goal is met. 

In the routes within the game where these respective lords are heroes, they survive ultimately because they overcome that mentality. For Edelgard to achieve victory, she has to undergo the hero’s journey, dispelling the lie that has taken hold over her life. This singular instance of a positive arc for her is ultimately the most fleshed out version of her that we see, because the facade is broken down, both by other people in her life finally getting close to her, and by her ambition taking hold and the inspiration for her entire character being laid bare for all to see. 

This game is making some pretty explicit statements about the nature of war, and ends oriented ethics. A lot of it is to say that waving a flag for a noble cause doesn’t inherently excuse the actions said cause demands. While Three Houses is never afraid to vocalize these subjects through character dialogue around Garegg Mach, its clearest vehicle is in one of its most ambitious characters. 

So I’ll say it again, to bookend it all. I hate Edelgard, because of the pain she puts her friends through when she keeps them out. Because she turns this incredible SRPG gameplay into a painful crawl towards the execution of someone I’ve been trained to respect and admire. And I love Edelgard, because she’s the most honest and impactful antagonistic force Fire Emblem has had since the GBA. Because the depth of her character goes so much further than just “villain.” Because she, just by being who she is, elevates the rest of this story from a classic video game narrative, to a genuinely riveting war drama with a sense of dignity and character that exceeds its genre to become in my eyes, an instant classic.

Thank you all for tuning in for this character study! A new approach to video making for me, but something I definitely plan to try again. Once I finish the remaining Yakuza games, I’m gonna break down Kiryu next, because he’s a fascinating one for sure. So if you’re into this sort of thing, like the video and subscribe to make sure you’re around when I make more like it! In the meantime, check out these other recent works of mine and be sure to come back soon for more from the Game Room! 

I was seriously considering writing a personal essay today in celebration of Juneteenth. Some tribute to my family, and ways I feel they embody black excellence. But with a pandemic and everything under the sun causing the world to go slightly awry, I have to admit, I’m a little too riled up to exhibit that level of emotional honesty. So in the spirit of deflecting, I’ve decided to do what I do best and write some reviews! These are going to be quick, burst reviews. Fiction I would recommend (mostly through TV, movies, video games), that I consider to be excellent tales for black people to consume. Stories that represent us, that invite us, that tell our stories, even if we might not notice it at a glance. Some of these are going to be fairly overt, the must sees, and others will be a bit beneath the surface. But if you stick with me, I hope you can find some stories that resonate with you. 

Video Games:

I’ve always had a very challenging relationship with video games. They’re the medium I love most, and yet, as a black person, seldom do I see myself represented in their stories. Until the new Spider-Man: Miles Morales launches for the PS5 later on this year, I’m not so sure that I know of many big budget titles that feature prominently black characters at the forefront. Fighting games typically fail us in major ways, with characters like Balrog and Deejay from Street Fighter serving as little more than caricatures. I mean there’s GTA or Assassin’s Creed 3, I guess? So I’m gonna put it like this. I see the indie developers out there putting more effort into making this a reality. I’ve had no shortage of kind things to say about Kitfox Games, Supergiant Games, The Game Bakers, as these studios seem to reflect values of diversity that keep black characters in games.

As for the rest of the industry, I’ll put it simply. Shame on you! Shame on you for posting your black square on social media and using the hashtag, all while refusing to tell stories about black characters. This is probably a reflection of your studio culture and environment, which I’m certain lacks black presence in your writer’s room. If you won’t do it for us, we’ll just do it ourselves, and the stories we tell will be that much better for it. But if you want our dollars, our engagement, our involvement, do better. Anyway, that’s my rant, let’s move onto some TV shows!

Television/Streaming:

Y’all know I’m all about my nerd culture, so prepare yourself. Here comes the opener:

Luke Cage:

Sweet Christmas! Mike Colter really pulls off Luke’s power pose!

I’m a Marvel guy, can’t let it go. I’ve loved Spider-Man since I was a kid, and had a blast watching the MCU movies, playing Marvel video games, wearing the pajamas (an embarrassing tidbit you get as a reward for reading this far in). I was always aware of Carl Lucas, but rarely spent time with the character outside of his appearance in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. But when I found out he was getting a show on Netflix? Of course I was excited! Finally, the MCU was taking on the streets of Harlem with something more relatable than a big green monster. Mike Colter steps into the shoes of a bulletproof black man, keeping the streets of New York safe from an arms dealer masterfully adapted from the comics, with Mahershala Ali at the helm. Between you and me, he’ gives what is easily the best performance on the cast. That isn’t to say the others fall short! The acting is no joke, and while the first season definitely has some hiccups, I consider the second season to be just a beat short of perfect! I understand that Marvel has been aiming to consolidate their TV endeavors, and that’s the main reason why this show was cancelled, but I do wish we had gotten another season. In all seriousness, this is beyond just being a well told story. It’s the tale of an impenetrable man. His greatest challenge isn’t to keep himself alive, but to protect others. Luke’s greatest tool isn’t his strength, but his empathy. An empathetic, strong, unbreakable black man, keeping his streets safe. Also increasingly relevant are the conversations of police brutality in the streets of New York, which I personally believe the show handles with tact. The only downside to watching this is that The Defenders takes place between season’s 1 and 2, which…yikes.

#BlackAF:

I know this show has been pretty divisive in the black community, and that’s actually one of the reasons why I’m so interested in discussing it. I think it’s good for us to have vocal discourse about black media, and in fact, that’s the plot of one of the episodes of this show! I enjoy the premise, a young black woman creating a mini-documentary for her college application. It’s charming, and it tells a story less focused on the traditional “black struggle” and more about the experience of successful black people in Hollywood. It’s irreverent, funny, bold, and for someone who didn’t watch Black-ish it also felt very unique and original to me. I understand the frustration for women wishing to see more representation from black women of all shades. I can completely see where you’re coming from. I’ve only ever known Rashida Jones as the daughter of Quincy Jones (before I watched The Office and Parks and Rec) and so to me, I’ve only ever seen her as a black woman. But my experience is not yours, and I refuse to disrespect what you’ve been through. Even if you disagree with the themes of the show, I think the conversation it invites is something worth celebrating.

Static Shock:

“I put the shock to your system!”

Probably the least contemporary thing I’ll put on here, and with what I consider to be good reason. Static Shock is the black child’s superhero show. That something like this even exists is special in its own right, but my goodness, that it’s done so well is something special all on its own. The show follows the adventures of Virgil Hawkins, as he uses his newly developed powers to protect his hometown of Dakota City. Along the way he’ll encounter other teens with powers just like his, and contends with issues that plague youth of all walks of life. This includes juggling parental expectations, romance, gun violence, homelessness, racism, and more. And yeah, it’s a kid’s show, so it’s all gonna feel like an after school special when these issues come up, but Virgil’s vibrant and caring personality makes it easy to follow along with the subject matter, and brings levity to difficult conversations. Plus, rather than feeling like some one-off superhero show for the sake of appeasing black fans, Virgil’s story connects with other animated series’ of the time such as Justice League and Batman Beyond, to ensure viewers that this boy is slated for some great things with DC’s heroes. 

Young Justice:

Marvel, what are you doing? DC is running laps around you on this matter! Young Justice was my jam from the very beginning. I loved the concept of a team built entirely out of sidekicks. Characters like Robin and Kid Flash were some of my favorites on Teen Titans, so when I saw what we were getting here I was very thrilled. Little did I know, we would be seeing one of the most genuinely diverse casts of superheroes to ever be animated! Starting with characters like Aqualad and Rocket, expanding into the vast roster of DC superheroes, we see different characters from different backgrounds making up the entirety of the team. But as a black person, to see a leader like Aqualad rise up by virtue of his integrity and strength, was really powerful. And the show doesn’t stop there. It always seeks to empower its black characters in ways that feel authentic and earned. People give DC crap because of their movies, but when it comes to their animated stuff, they really do it justice. Also, beyond just the diversity component, this is a really good show. It has a fun set of villains, an unfolding plot, and some of the best character arcs western animation has to offer!

The Boondocks (S1 – 3):

Yeah, okay, a lot of animation on here, but that’s what I like, so you just have to deal with it. The Boondocks turned me off big time when I first started watching it. It’s very vulgar, and very unapologetic, and while in a lot of ways, I think some of the comedy hasn’t aged quite as well, the social commentary in the show is evergreen. There’s a level of depth hidden in every episode. Top it off with some top notch sound design and anime-style visuals, and you have the makings of a really good show. Unfortunately, it did fall off in its most recent season, but the number one rule in a streaming society is that we only have to watch the parts we like! Cheers to instant gratification. 

Movies:

Dope:

I know Shameik Moore has said some ignorant things over the last few weeks, but if you ask me, that doesn’t change the quality of this movie. It’s a weird one, for sure, but it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that depicts the contemporary black struggle. The challenge with trying to become educated in a world where the odds are stacked against you, and where traditional teen rebellion sets your path of course. It’s all accented with a really good soundtrack and a surprisingly accurate approach to youth, specifically in a high school setting. Also, you’re not gonna catch some slave movie on this list. We’re more than just our history, and we’re telling meaningful stories too.

Get Out: 

BRUH, I’m not defending this selection. If you’ve seen this movie, you know why it has to be seen, and if you haven’t seen it, you have to. I’m terrified of horror as a genre. Thrillers are something I typically avoid like the plague. Don’t hit me with the jump scares, my poor heart can’t handle it! But this movie is so masterfully crafted from start to finish. This is a good story without the metaphors and commentary. It’s just a genuinely well told story, but once you get into the weeds and start digging into what the message really is, it becomes clear that Jordan Peele is on track to become a legend. I’ve never felt so heard in my life, watching a movie that directly addresses the racist side of liberalism, targeting the ways in which people excuse themselves from conversations surrounding race, believing that it has nothing to do with them. All the while continuing to benefit from black culture and successes, refusing to be vocal advocates for our prosperity. But to go any further, I think, would be a disservice to the story. You have to check it out yourself. If there’s any one thing you watch as a result of this review, I hope Get Out is the one you pick. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse:

Could there be anyone else?

For my final pick, I’m going with what I consider to be one of the best animated movies ever made. I’m a classic Spider-Man fan, so I’ll always prefer Peter Parker to Miles Morales, but the way this movie approaches this young biracial boy’s journey into the spider suit is absolutely magnificent. It never shies away from Miles’s identity, they can’t! It’s part of who he is. But also, what a great story about heroism, and about familial bonds. Everything is so neatly handled, but the visuals are easily the most impressive feat in the film. The blend of classic 90s musical stylings with contemporary hip-hop creates a sense of sound unfamiliar to Spider-Man fans, but it is absolutely welcome. It’s never been more fun to watch the web-slinger in action, but equally as important is the way it tells a story in which everyone can be a hero. The core of this movie is the idea that we can all wear the mask. I’ll cross my arms and shout “Wakanda Forever” with you as much as you want me too, but if you want to watch the definitive black superhero movie, this is it. 

Conclusion: 

These are obviously not the only black stories. Some people might have noticed the absence of books. As a recent MFA grad, I’ve had to reconcile with my feelings about literature, and how to critique it. It’s less of my wheelhouse, and for that reason, as I develop that skill, I’ll distance myself from doing so publicly. As for the aforementioned works, these are just stories that resonated with me. I want to hear about yours! Tell me about black stories that have helped you, made you feel seen, heard, made you want to write, draw, tell stories of your own. Black excellence is present, it’s visible in so many facets of our lives, and it’s something I’m proud to be able to live every single day. As for my comments about video games, I’m not just gonna sit here and be silent, hoping that the games I want to see get made. I’m committed to diverse games, and I know my team at Feather Fellow Games LLC are supportive of me in that as well. This has just been a fun way to celebrate black art and art about black people during Juneteenth, but there are so many ways we can continue to contribute and help with the current happenings in the world. We can’t turn a blind eye, bury our heads in the sand, exist in complicit and complacent silence. Whatever you can do to help, doing research, calling, writing letters to elected officials. If you need me, reach out. If you’re fighting for justice, I will always fight with you. And if you just need something to read in the mean time, something to take your mind off the world’s issues for just a brief moment, you’re always welcome here. As always, thank you so much for reading, and come back soon for more from the GAME ROOM!!!

It’s so easy to get caught up in the intricate details of the worlds we create. Descriptors are fun and add all sorts of flavor and imagery, but conversations between characters are integral to ensuring believable relationships even in the most fantastical settings. Because Speculative Fiction is my preference, I’ll be focusing on that genre, but make no mistake! Some of these rules are universal. 

1.    Sentence Structure Over Character Voice

Perhaps one of the most prolific narratives about human trials and adversity is the novel Push by Sapphire. Its narrator, Precious, lives in unfortunate circumstances to say the least. Her education and grammar are limited as a result, and the narration and dialogue cut no corners in delivering this information. A lot of the book is written in broken sentences, with words being cut off by apostrophes and the like. Because of this, the novel is a far more immersive experience. A character like Precious speaking the way I’m speaking to you now would not have been very believable. It might have made for a good story, but I don’t think readers would have connected with her reality as much.

All of this is to say, everyone doesn’t speak the same way. Even though a sentence might sound beautiful, in execution, it can’t subvert our knowledge of a character. The protagonist of my most recent work, Jack Melody, is a rough around the edges young adult. While some of his experiences could be seen as profound, he’s not the type to use a lot of strong literary metaphors. I feel as though writing those in his voice, even in narration, is doing a massive disservice to this character. Keep that in mind. Sometimes a simple “I’m sick of this shit,” is more true to life than “I’m overwhelmed by the purely exhausting nature of your actions!” 

2)  TOO MANY QUIPS! 

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Let me reiterate that. I LOVE THE MCU! It’s brought me my favorite show in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and brought to life my favorite live action incarnation of my favorite hero, Spider-Man. But the introduction of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and all of the charming superheroes that followed, have left novelists and screenwriters alike in this trap of thinking quips are a supplement for real dialogue. 

Think about the last conversation you had with a friend. Allow yourself the freedom to think egotistically here. Are you genuinely creative or clever enough to have a witty response to every single thing that’s said? And if not, why would every character in your fiction be that way? Let me be clear, it’s okay to have a charming comic relief character. You can even have a character who quips a lot, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if you have everyone do it, it starts to feel like you’re using quips to replace characterization, which then turns into lazy dialogue.

3) Losing Character Positions

I’m very guilty of this one myself. Sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in the nonstop exchanges between characters that you lose sight of their position in the world. I don’t mean status, I mean their literal physical position. Did a character just run to get to where they are? Try to express exasperation in their words. Did they just wake up? Make their sentences shorter. Their brain is still getting into the swing of things!

Character personality and situation are two key factors, but they’re not the only two. Time of day, level of consciousness, level of awareness (are they distracted by anything?), and so much more are essential to make sure the character you’re writing is speaking in a way that’s true to them.

4) Not Reading Dialogue Out Loud

Forget how it makes you sound or look, you HAVE to read your dialogue out loud. Think about those trail-off moments when a character is confessing their love or sharing their tragic backstory. Those big romanticized moments can feel so incredible when we’re writing them. They’re over-the-top, they’re dramatic, they’re epic. But are they truly what your character would say? Are they truly what anyone would say? If you ask my friends, I’m immune to this rule, because I don’t talk like a normal human being anyway. 

Still, even if you don’t see people regularly, you’ve probably watched a documentary, or reality TV, or even some sitcoms. You know how people talk to one another, and you’ll probably have a gut reaction to a piece of dialogue as you’re reading it out loud.

5) Exposition Dump

Information comes in many ways, and novel writing has the rare advantage of being able to give you descriptors for that. Because of this, we can keep dialogue succinct. Falling into the trap of the exposition dump is common. It’s a phenomenon where we deliver all meaningful information through conversation. This is one of those rare moments where you probably want to subvert reality a little bit. Sure, we do get a lot of information from conversation IRL, but it’s less fun that way when it’s written on the page. If a character is giving information to another character, it should be for one of two reasons. A) this is the only logical way for the character to receive the information or B) this is the most interesting way for the character to receive this info.

I can’t promise that avoiding these potholes will make your dialogue perfect, but I can guarantee that it will be easier to hear your character’s voices when you employ these techniques. Of course, that just opens up a whole new can of worms. Thank you all for reading and come back soon for more from the GAME ROOM!!!

Below, you can find many of my completed projects and 3D artwork.

Game Projects:

Pavilion Pummel: http://banknhpavilion.com/games/mhpp/6.30.2015.html

Pavilion Pummel is an award winning game designed and developed for the Gamestock Competition at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion. This title stars concert attendees as they battle their way across the arena, defeating aliens in an effort to have one good time. My role in this project was a combination of audio design, concept art and direction, and core game design.

Pixel Commando: https://www.kongregate.com/games/massivehawk/pixel-commando

Still a favorite of mine, Pixel Commando stars Corporal Carnage as he fights back the Kragosaurian invasion. This game combines 2D character art with 3D environments, and as part of a game jam project, was completed in just 48 hours. I was responsible for the art, story, and some core design elements for this game.

Coming of Darkness: https://drive.google.com/open?id=11R4-INxQasoxeeiiacil2IPiwIjcan_H

This direct download game allowed me and my team to flex our narrative muscles, with a focus on long-form narrative and thorough audio design. My roles in this game included voice acting, story, level design, and early game design.

3D Art:

Cragnore, Rayne’s Beast: A creature from my MFA thesis novel named Cragnore. This dragon is an extension of the warrior Rayne.

Cragnore, Rayne’s Beast by mustaphaprice on Sketchfab

Cahokian Wolf Demon: This creature, designed for a low-poly (likely mobile) game setting, is captured by the living plant creature known as Life Trap.

Cahokian Wolf Demon And Base by mustaphaprice on Sketchfab

For more on game design, please check out my video series, where I do detailed breakdowns of game design principles and approaches adopted by popular game franchises.

I still remember when Max’s mom died. It was such a weird time for all of us. I had to be about three or four at the time. Lady Lucia was the one who convinced Max’s father, Lord Nathanial, to take me in. She used to bake fresh bread for us. She called me “Lilline.” Then one day that just stopped. Then there was standing before the wooden box that held her lifeless body. Then it was watching Lord Nathanial on his hands and knees, torn apart to the core of his soul. I remember wiping Max’s tears and hugging her close to me.

I still remember when we went to school together for the first time. A young boy stole Max’s comb. He pushed her down, and I remember the hot feeling I got in my chest. I unleashed barrages of fierce punches on this child. I remember the men in white, arriving as they always did. Carrying me away and hooking me up to their machine to drain the bursts of power that overcame me.

I remember when Max and I used to run through the halls. She would pretend to be a villain, and I would be the valiant hero, tasked with defeating her. She had heart, for sure. But that didn’t last forever.

“Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” Max said. I remember that too. She said that when Lord Nathanial started talking to her about ruling the Shadow Kingdom as its queen. We were fourteen years old.

“It will be fun, Max,” I said. “Everyone will love you.”

“You should know by now, I don’t care about any of that.”

I remember when Max first started skipping school. We were about sixteen years old. I tried my best to keep her focused. One day Lord Nathanial caught her. He took both of us to the throne room and lectured us for hours on what it meant to be royalty.

“Do you understand?” he asked at the end of his lecture.

“No,” Max answered. “I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. My mother spent her entire life caring for others. In the end she died. She died young and sick. I can’t see a reason to uphold these values when I could be dead at any moment anyway.”

“It’s not about that, Maxine,” Nathanial said. “I understand how you feel. I miss your mother very much. But she regretted not one moment of her life. She married a man she loved. She gave birth to the most important person in her life. Just because her life ended doesn’t mean it was not worth living. You just need to find something that makes your life worth living.”

“I will watch over Lady Maxine in the future, your lordship,” I said sheepishly. “I will ensure that she doesn’t miss lessons again.”

I had never seen such a genuine smile from Lord Nathanial.

“Lilly, you have protected my daughter from many things over the past several years,” he said. “I thank you for taking her into your care.”

“I don’t need you to babysit me, Lilly.”

“Max, I’m not trying to smother you. I just want to make sure you get the best out of life. That’s what friends are for.”

Max scoffed and turned away, but through her scowl, I could see her holding back a grin. That was enough for me.

After that, Max didn’t skip school anymore. But she never grew to like it either, going through the motions every step of the way.

I remember when one of our big dances approached and a handsome gentleman asked me to go with him. I remember Max’s scowl. The way her red eyebrows sat flat and low over her blank eyes. She was envious of the boy. So I accommodated. I said no. The two of us would go together as we always had.

I remember when we slow danced together, and she leaned in towards me. I held her tight, and for the first time in our lives, Max asked me a very big question.

“Lilly, what do you want to do? After this is over I mean?”

“We can go back to the palace if you want.”

“That’s not what I mean. Someday I’m going to take the throne, Lilly. I’m going to live in that palace for the rest of my life. But what about you? Don’t you want anything more than that? Don’t you want more than me?”

I remember her face starting to swell and her breaths becoming more heavy. I kissed her on the cheek and she looked at me with puzzled eyes.

“Maxine Avengard, I am going to become your general. I will lead your army, and protect you with everything I have. I don’t quite know how to fight yet, but I’ll learn. I will learn and I will unleash hell on anyone who opposes you. We’ve been together for as long as I can remember. How could I want anything more than you?”

I had never seen Max turn so red. She looked down and started to mutter.

“What did you say?”

“I said, there’s an instructor in the palace who can show us some sword skills. If you wanted to learn how to fight. I’ve never really been interested in combat myself, but if you’re going to fight to protect me, then I’ll protect you too.”

I remember meeting our instructor, Rayne. The days we spent just learning the stances. The forms. Never once even swinging the blade.

“Maxine, you are simply too aggressive,” Rayne said. “You’ll never be a calculated fighter if you’re always leaning towards your opponent. You have to let your opponent’s movements dictate your own. You have to be reactive, rather than proactive.”

“I’m not going to die fighting, Rayne,” Max shouted. “I want to stay in control of the fight.”

“You’re only in control if you always know what’s coming next,” Rayne answered.

I was picking it up faster than Max. My life had always been a chain reaction. The men in white and their machines, that they used to drain my rare energy taught me not to use my powers. Waking up one day and having no parents taught me to keep the ones you love close to your heart. Meeting her. Falling in love with Max. That taught me to wield my heart in my blade and protect her with everything I had.

I remember seeing a side of Max that I never had before. Our final lesson had Max and I facing off against each other. We had to take that precision, and that reactive nature, and apply it in the most decisive match yet. I remember the way Max bolted towards me, still maintaining her proactive nature, in spite of Rayne’s warnings. I parried each of her strikes, keeping her moving closer to my reach. Max’s downward slash gave me all the opportunity I needed to guard and shift, pivoting, while causing her to stagger forward. With a swift kick to the back she fell to the ground.

I reached to pull her up but as she stood, she shook my hand away and returned to her stance. With her aggressive form I was able to predict and avoid all of her attacks. But she kept swinging. Something in her form was changing as each strike missed. I watched her focused expression turn into a vicious grin, her eyes filled with vengeful lust. Each of her strikes, just a little bit harsher than the last, lined with a warrior’s energy. I guarded one last strike with my own blade, but the sword broke against her fierce swing, flying into the air and landing beside me, sticking into the ground. My sword dissolved into black smoke, and I was now at the mercy of her decision. Then she did it. She pointed her blade at me.

I remember when I lost control. Just as they had when I was younger, my eyes changed when I felt the danger. The symbols appeared on my body and that same burst of power from my young days returned to me.

I can’t remember. I can’t remember what I did after that. I just remember feeling like I was going to lose, and waking up in the same machine. I remember the fear. Looking at my hands to see small blood stains. I remember looking around the room, shaking, afraid. Where was she? Where was Max? I jumped out of the incubation chamber and dashed for the palace entrance.

I remember the way the guards met me at the gate, with their spears pointed towards me. I remember the way Rayne looked at me when she gave the order. The guilt in her eyes. That her own training regimen led to this. I was a danger to the crown. A danger to Max. The guards charged at me, and using the very reactive style Rayne taught me, I dodged their strikes and incapacitated them with my blade. Then I ran again. Around the palace perimeter, searching for a way in.

I remembered a special entrance that Max and I used to get into the palace when she’d leave school. It was a small window under the bridge. I climbed through the window and made my way to the infirmary where she was laying. That’s when I saw what I had done.

I remember when Max lost her eye. Watching her lay in the bed with the patch, clutching her wound with shock filling her remaining eye.

“Why would you come here?” she asked.

“Max, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. All I ever wanted was to protect you. I’m so sorry.”

“That was both of us. I got caught up in the moment, and I almost hurt you. It was only right that you defend yourself. Besides, not like there was much around here to look at anyway.”

“This isn’t funny, Max. I’ve ruined your eye.”

“You should know by now, I don’t care about anything like that. Lilly, they’re not going to let you stay.”

I remember what Max gave me. She reached into her drawer to retrieve a golden necklace, with a black gem in the center.

“Rayne couldn’t stop you when you were having that burst. You defeated her in a single strike. You’re too strong to exist in this kingdom. But I’m not going to do this without you. I want you to have this necklace. This is my promise to you, Lilly. Get yourself out of here. Go somewhere safe and start a new life. When I take the throne, I will find you. We’ll do this again.”

“How ironic, that you would be the one protecting me. I love you, Max. You’re going to make a great queen someday.”

“You just make it out so you can live to see it.”

I remember Max’s kiss. I remember my tears as they fell down my face, and the realization that I might never see her again. I remember holding her hand. I remember her trembling slowing down to an abrupt stop. I remember her determined smile, and the fire it started in my heart.

I will continue to wait. I will wait as long as I have to for Max to find me. I still remember, and I pray I never forget.

Top Left: Crimson Bottom Left: Phantom
Middle: Hades
Top Right: Jade Bottom Right: Dark Seeker

A journey back to the dawn of life would reveal a realm of pure darkness. No land or skies. Void wrapped around the infinite universe and housed a war between three beings of pure energy. Their conflict was illuminated by the distant gaze of Inferno’s Star. The first of these beings was a spirit of flame, known simply as Phantom. The second, a silhouette of shadow with a chilling aura bore the title of Dark Seeker. These companions faced onward to life’s greatest foe. The final being, their enemy, Hades. Hades wore the vivid colors of a swallowed world in his aura. Green emerged upon his flesh while trails of blue followed behind its aura.

A journey back to the dawn of life would reveal a realm of pure darkness. No land or skies. Void wrapped around the infinite universe and housed a war between three beings of pure energy. Their conflict was illuminated by the distant gaze of Inferno’s Star. The first of these beings was a spirit of flame, known simply as Phantom. The second, a silhouette of shadow with a chilling aura bore the title of Dark Seeker. These companions faced onward to life’s greatest foe. The final being, their enemy, Hades. Hades wore the vivid colors of a swallowed world in his aura. Green emerged upon his flesh while trails of blue followed behind its aura.

“Marvelous,” Hades started. “Just as God intended. The three of us, battling for the essence of life itself. You won’t hold Superbia back. He will have his perfect world.”

Phantom burst with rage, light and heat burning around it.

“Hades,” he bellowed, “your unmitigated lust to wake your deity has ravaged our realm. We will not be subjugated by Superbia, nor will we be destroyed by you.”

Hades changed its posture, leaning and propelling forward with a loud bang behind itself. As he prepared to lunge, the Dark Seeker roared with loss and rage churning its insides. 

“Hades, you’ve claimed your last soul. We will have our loved ones back!”

Both Phantom and Dark Seeker charged forward, lunging at Hades. Hades’ glow expanded as a dark brown wall emerged before him. Hades used its astral force to project the wall toward his enemies. As the foul beast lunged for Phantom, it lashed out, generating manifestations of its energy and striking its foe. Phantom snapped back as its fire exploded in a wave around its body.

“My flames will incinerate the pages of your destiny, Hades,” it cried out.

As the flames settled and Hades returned to an attack stance, mists of Dark Seeker’s power surrounded the battlefield. Hades slowed its movements as the frost paralyzed its body.

“This is the power of the mighty Hades? I expected more from you. Where is the power that you used to slay my brethren? Where is the strength that you used to massacre all that I love?”

Hades screamed, piercing the void with a burst of energy so intense it shattered the ice around itself. Pieces of Dark Seeker’s form dissolved and melted into space.

Hades generated more energy above itself, this time taking the form of a dark brown sphere. The sphere expanded, reaching indescribable magnitude. The Phantom and the Dark Seeker gathered their own power as they sought a method to destroy the sphere. Hades launched the sphere in their direction but the Dark Seeker lunged forward and unleashed a wave of mist onto the object. Ice shrouded the entire sphere, and it came to a complete stop. 

The three spirits took the battle to the surface of this sphere. With each movement forward, Phantom’s radiating heat melted the ice into the round rock.

“Credit is given where due, Dark Seeker,” Hades said. “You are capable of greatness. Become one with me and we can create whatever we desire.”

“You are a fool, Hades. You obsess over power that does not belong to you. If you revive Superbia, if you reset the universe, you’ll only bring about ruin. Even you are not immune to the consequences of your own actions.”

Hades materialized sharp brown rods around itself and launched them toward its opponents. Phantom incinerated the projectiles with yet another burst of light. The spirits found themselves skating along the surface of the sphere, trails of aura lingering behind them as they clashed. The ice and fire crashed against Hades and its barriers. 

Each successive strike aligned further than the last until finally, they delivered the perfect synchronized blast. A combination of ice and flame that left a crack in Hades’ being. Hades, now filled with rage, unleashed a wave of energy so fierce and dense the ground shook until trillions of wooden spires emerged from the surface. Its shout shook the foundation of the battlefield, sprouting lush green upon these planetary appendages. Hades sought an advantage as it disappeared into the lush of the world’s first forest.

“The mighty Hades runs? Imagine this,” the Phantom roared. “After everything you claimed to stand for. You wish to dominate all, yet when you face opposition you run and hide? No ruler goes unchallenged, Hades. All the more reason why the position does not suit you!”

“On the contrary, Phantom,” Hades began. “Only a fool stands and fights when they find themselves outmatched. What you deem pride, I would call rash foolishness.”

“Well how far can your cowardice take you, Destroyer?” Phantom snapped. The fiery spirit materialized a spark and expanded, creating a flame large and wide enough to incinerate the entire forest. As heat incinerated each and every tree, Hades fell back, overwhelmed my the smog’s weight. The fallen trees and the ash they created shrouded Hades, burying it beneath the aftermath of the attack.

Hades emerged from the ashes and lunged toward Phantom, unleashing a shriek that echoed throughout the entire void. Dark Seeker attempted to move, but Hades’ sphere gripped him, trapping him in the ground. Hades finally pinned Phantom, dark power overwhelming it with every strike. A barrage of violent attacks all lead up to a final blow delivered to the center of the flame. 

Phantom unleashed the largest flame it could muster, severely burning Hades. Hades dropped to the ground as it screeched in agony. Phantom unleashed a series of flaming spheres at Hades. Each attack burned brighter, smashed harder, expanded the crater beneath. 

In a state of vulnerability, Phantom remembered those that Hades consumed on its quest for power. Phantom remembered the Crimson Spirit, whom it had loved. Phantom remembered reaching for Crimson’s touch as it fell into the abyss that was Hades. With this grief overpowering it, each attack grew stronger. Hades’ form distorted as its shape shattered. Phantom approached Hades, preparing one final strike. As the energy between the two spiked, another jagged spire tore through the ground and impaled Phantom.

“No,” The Dark Seeker cried out. “Phantom, retreat, now!”

“Prepare to become a part of Hades,” Hades shouted. “Goodbye, Phantom.”

Hades took hold of the Phantom’s very essence. Hades then opened its mouth and the inside flashed with a bright yellow light. The flames of Phantom dissolved as the spirit faded into the aura of Hades.

“Mark my words, Hades. Even you, with strength this great, can never truly extinguish the flames of the Phantom.”

As the Phantom fully vanished, a faint red aura surrounded Hades. The beast slammed its body to the surface as its mass expanded. Hades growled ferociously as its celestial shape continued to expand. Dark Seeker looked in shock as Hades reached the size of a titan. 

“You are the last spirit I have yet to consume. When I feed on you I shall become a truly omnipotent being. How can you hope to defeat me without the help of your precious friend? The Phantom is part of me. The only way for you to be reunited with those you love is to follow their path. We can awaken god together, Dark Seeker.”

Dark Seeker trembled in a state of terror. Looking in horror the being of darkness finally attempted to escape. Dark Seeker’s speed increased as it skated along the surface. Dark Seeker’s mind was shrouded in an overwhelming sense of fear and isolation; being the last of its kind. As Dark Seeker focused its mind, the image of its comrades burned brighter through its mind. The beautiful Crimson Spirit that stood against Hades. The Jade Spirit that was its lover. Even the Phantom Spirit that was its best friend and bravest ally. Dark Seeker had lost all of them to Hades. When things seemed to be at their worst, something happened to the Dark Seeker. A golden aura surrounded it, encasing it in a warm glow. The Dark Seeker could feel its aura radiating with every passing second. Feeling this increase in strength, the Dark Seeker charged toward Hades.

“You would still oppose me? This will make swallowing you far easier than I thought it would be,” Hades said before striking Dark Seeker.

The Dark Seeker flew low to the ground avoiding Hades’ strike and charged directly into it. Hades clutched the impacted area and fell forward. The Dark Seeker flew toward Hades and delivered a slashing strike, launching the evil spirit into the atmosphere. The Dark Seeker ripped toward Hades but was blocked by a brutal and decisive strike. As the Dark Seeker went crashing into the ground, it created a pillar of ice and latched to its side, landing on the ice pillar and gently sliding down to the surface. It used the ice to project itself back into the atmosphere with Hades. 

“This is it, Hades,” Dark Seeker shouted. “The end of this battle is upon us. I will destroy you and all that you are.”

Hades charged down upon the Seeker, and with its substantial size created a quake that launched the two across the surface. Dark Seeker managed to stop its own momentum. Upon stopping, it created a large ball of ice and launched a barrage of shards. The shards of ice slashed through Hades.

“Is that the last of your power?” Hades asked as it unleashed waves of fire upon Dark Seeker. Dark Seeker continued to fly away from every wave; dodging, surviving. Suddenly, however, a voice echoed throughout its soul. A familiar voice forged in fire.

“Have we fallen for naught?”

“Phantom,” Dark Seeker internalized its words. “The Destroyer is more powerful than we can hope to match. I cannot stand against this beast. Not alone.”

“You are never alone, Dark Seeker. We are all one. We are all pieces of the universe. Show Hades the might of those it would destroy. Use the power we share to end this war!”

The Dark Seeker slammed the ground as the yellow aura expanded around it. Dark Seeker started to grow as well, expanding to the size of Hades. 

“I am forever tied to those I love, Hades. Prepare to perish beneath the might of all of the spirits.” 

Dark Seeker subdued Hades with a full-bodied charge, and, as the large titan fell to the ground, the giant ice shard impaled it. That ice melted and the water filled the crater beneath. Hades kicked the Dark Seeker, and he fell into one of the other craters. Dark Seeker then launched itself into the skies with ice, which would melt and fill the crater shortly after, creating the oceans. 

The two landed on opposite sides of the surface. The two engaged in one final charge towards one another. Hades delivered a deadly strike to Dark Seeker. As this strike connected, Dark Seeker created a large blade of ice and impaled Hades. This strike created a massive shockwave and melted ice spread across the surface.

The two dropped to the ground, and this battle was truly over. Hades and the Dark Seeker dissolved slowly. Hades fell through the surface and changed shape, becoming spherical as it melded with the core of the sphere. Finally the flames of the Phantom lit brightly around it creating a burning core. Dark Seeker shed tears, even in triumph. These tears would bring life to blades of green across the sphere. An entire sphere once completely barren was now covered in green and blue. But it was still empty. 

From within the center, the flames of the Phantom rose to the surface. These flames didn’t burn any of the matter on this sphere, however. These flames took the shape of new spirits. Spirits of creatures that would swim throughout the oceans, or dance upon the grass, or grow from the dirt. What arose from this battle was neither chaos nor the Hell that birthed it. The battle between Phantom, Dark Seeker, and Hades created the world.