Mecha Games, Where For Art Thou?

This is a general lament and a confession. For those who haven’t guessed, I am a fan of the mecha genre. If one needs proof, I’m happy to supply photos of my case full of Gundam and VOTOMS kits, as well as the book which started it all for me – a battered copy of the Decision at Thunder Rift which I picked up to read on a family vacation. Moves and floods forced me to purge my copies of Wolves at the Border and Heir to the Dragon by Robert N. Charrette, which I still regret. (I’m getting them back, though).

So, I’m acquainted with the joys of the genre and I still defend it to this day. And, yes, it does require defense. When a writer you quite admire looks at a show and says, “Did you trick me into watching a mecha show? Don’t let this be a mecha show!” then your favorite genre may have some issues. Especially since, to me, the key things which attract me to a lot of post Gundam mecha shows are the drama and the relationships and, shock, the characters. I’ve got friends who are still angry over Gundam 0083 and Lt. Burning…

Most mecha shows have much in common with action dramas. To the point where you can take their tropes, add them to another series, and get a “new” and popular show. (Flamewar start: Attack on Titan is just a mecha show with the numbers filed off! Fan fight!) And I admit, I get a kick out of seeing young folk discover old mecha shows for the first time and fall for them. Or get gatewayed in through new ones. One of my favorite memories of the last month involved a quick stopover at a hobby shop.

This shop carried a very nice selection of Gundam kits, along with gunpla supplies and other model kits. If you believe the stereotype, I should have only found a bunch of neckbeards roaming the isles complaining about how their moms wouldn’t let them go to the ReturnOfKings gathering. (No, this is not a joke. Apparently to some, enjoying mecha shows and modeling is a straight-line path to rampant sociopathic misogyny).

Instead I found two ladies trying to convince themselves they didn’t want to buy the Perfect Grade Gundam Unicorn on display, and distracting themselves from that intensely beautiful model by re-ordering the kits on the shelves based on series. It honestly made me smile. Ladies like this kept the first Gundam series going when the ratings were low, after all, and were responsible for a lot of Garma/Char manga.

Sometimes, though, just watching feels a bit distant. I would like to actually immerse myself in a mecha based story. Or, as a few friends have asked, maybe I could actually run a mecha game for my tabletop crew. I am the guy who takes photos of his Gundam Heavyarms model.

This, though, leads me to a problem. There are very few mecha games (tabletop and digital) which fit my needs, and probably the needs of others.

The Digital Divide

While visiting my friends at Little Fish Comics I talked about mecha games. Mike, the proprietor and one of the best poets I know, mentioned how a good mecha game was hard to find. The few which existed were split.

You would either get very Mechwarrior style FPS games like Hawken or a storyline-based flight sim like Strike Suit Zero.

I’m choosing these two in particular because they are newer examples. And they’re the only newer ones I’ve found so far which weren’t imports or based on an existing franchise. Even those games are a few years old by comparison. But hey don’t fit the niche I was hoping to fill.

Strike Suit Zero is a beautiful looking game. But it makes two bad assumptions: First, that’d you ever want to play anything other than the Zeta Gundam knock-off off in the title. You’re apparently forced into other fighters – as if this is Star Citizen and the flying is the important bit.

Second, the designers assume the storyline would let you overlook the endless waves of overlong missions. If spending hour after hour fighting is more important than actually accomplishing anything, we may have an issue. Or you should dig up a Galaga sim. If a mission interferes with the story, people stop playing. I don’t have six hours a night to spend playing through one mission anymore, in the hopes there will be a decent story revelation.

(You ever want a guide to making interesting, plot driven missions and side quests you want to do just ’cause – Play Borderlands 2. I mean Face McShooty!)

On the other side of the spectrum is Hawken, the latest in the in-cockpit style games where you can build up your own mech, customize it based on your play style, and then head out to rain SRM death on folks (if that’s your thing). Everything about this looks very nice, especially for an open beta, and general reviews are good. But it has these strikes against it:

First and foremost, there is no story mode at all. Or, if there is one, they’re not promoting it. The FPS MMO aspects emphasize death matches, team shootouts, and going against other players for prizes. There’s a basic background on why you’re doing all of this, but none of fights or the grinding seems to have a purpose beyond endless PVP. I like to think I’m actually going somewhere with my games.

I’ve never had fun with PVP, much less PVP in FPS games which rely on me getting dumped into a pick-up group with a bunch of strangers. I can’t assure the relative maturity level of the players. Listening to some of the YouTube videos, it seems like most anyone who’s 15 and has a twitch stream is playing this game. They’re also reviewers…

And that’s another concern. It was bad enough when I had to deal with griefers in my MMO days, but on competitive games like this I do not want to burn time fending off some rabid GamerGater threatening to SWAT me because my connection died at an inopportune moment. I play to get away from insane politics.

This may be an unkind view of the Hawken community, but my time – and frankly my job – are precious to me. It it highlights the big divide in games.

You either play Wing Commander in a mech with endless missions, or you play Call to Duty in a mech, with no storyline and a kid born when you got out of college threatening to call ICE on your family because you missed a rail-gun shot. There’s no neutral ground, and not a lot of choices if you want to play something built in the last decade.

But, wait, what about tabletop? Surely with everything out there.

Machines of Imagination

Alas, the pen & paper game is feeing just as thin as the digital game these days. There was a brief time when the shelves did have quite a few games out there, but it was never able to compete with fantasy based RPGs. But, for a while, we had Mekton Z and its spin-offs, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles and Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Add to that the venerable RPG wing of Battletech and you had materials out there.

But as time went on, the pickings got thinner and the games struggled to maintain an identity. Dream Pod 9’s games were very tied to miniature rules, like Battletech’s Mechwarrior. They also forced the games to be tied to a general RPG system after a while, which just made things more complex. I now folks who prefer the ease of use of the 2nd edition to the 3rd. That’s also true with Jovian Chronicles.

These games show my first issue: dependencies. You want to play the game? You’re dependent on the setting, or on another game. A good example of this is a game called Remnants. The setting is an intrinsic part of the story: a post apocalyptic game where characters find remnants of a lost age via their self-sustaining war machines. If you want to play in this world, or one of the set worlds of other games, you’re good. If not, you’ve got a lot of rewiring to do.

That brings me to my second issue: bolt-on generics. There are a lot of “generic” systems out there these days – FATE, AGE, BRPS, Cypher, Cortex+, even the anime-based BESM, they usually offer some kind of option to play a mecha game. And while they’re worthy systems, to me it’s sometimes obvious they were built to do other things and the mecha game is an add-on for folks asking, “Hey, can I play this.” I’ve yet to see a well-developed system, one that really addresses the genre on its own, and not as 3 pages in a larger book.

Are there any generic mecha games out there? Right now, there’s the aptly titled Mecha game by Chris Perrin. It’s gone through two editions, has some supplements and a few fans out there. Honestly, I’m still digging through it to see how it feels. But so far, he’s come closest.

What about Mekton? Well, I’m one of the folks who’ve gotten burned on the Mekton Zero kickstarter. As for Zeta, while I do love the book in a lot of ways, the time it takes to build a mecha in it. Frankly, the calculation time involved would be better used designing the real thing. Which is a shame, because some of the supplements put out for it really did a great job of catching the feeling of a mecha show.

So, if there ever was room for a good system out there which lets you build the mech show you want, with just the right amount of crunch, that doesn’t force you to buy mini’s for combat, we could use one now.  The same holds true for the video games. I’d love to see a combination of the sleekness that Strike Suit Zero showed in its background, and the emphasis on storyline, but with the first-person controls of Hawken available. But I’m guessing until there is more demand… I’ll have to find some way to make do.

Which, in my long-winded way, is how I arrive at two asks. If you see a project which really catches the feel of a mecha show -either on paper, or in digital format- feel free to post it in the comments. We speak VOTOMS, Escaflowne and Gundam here, along with more obscure dialects. And ask the creators out there: speak up for mecha. It’s got a lot to offer, there are fans out there, and we’re eager for a chance to weep like children as we realize our best friends have betrayed us…

Publication Announcement – Alien Artifacts

 alien artifacts cover Contracts have been signed. Words and edits exchanged. And, I’ve got an announcement.

My short story, “The Captain’s Throne” has been selected for publication in the Alien Artifacts anthology edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier,

The anthology will include short stories by: Jacey Bedford, David Farland/DaveWolverton, C.S. Friedman, Walter H. Hunt, Gini Koch, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin, Seanan McGuire, and Juliet E. McKenna.

I’m very excited about this opportunity and I hope folks will enjoy the story. If you are interested in pre-ordering, visit the Zombies Need Brains order page:

You can order EBook or paperback (or both!), and you can also get a print of the amazing cover. I also heartily recommend ZNB’s other anthologies as well. It’s a great way to support an independent press producing quality work.

Please, circulate the link around. Encourage folks to order. And do let me know what you think.

On Love, Death & Responsibility

Issues of love, death and responsibility – from a creative point of view – have been on my mind during last week.  What follows will contain thoughts on a recent episode of The 100, on representation, on choices, and on the responsiblity of a creator.

So, here’s a picture of Edward James Olmos as Lt. Castillo from Miami Vice as a spoiler break, and a warning. I’ll explain why EJO at the end of this entry.

This was written in response to Episode 7 of The 100‘s 3rd season. There’s been a lot said about the episode. I’ll point to The Mary Sue’s article as a starting point, but you can go anywhere for comments and write-ups. I found a particularly interesting one regarding the writers of the show, and in particular Javier Grillo-Marxuach – the man who wrote this specific episode, as well as episodes of Lost and Helix, and creator of The Middleman. He’s also the show-runner on the upcoming Xena reboot. And I sincerely believe him when he says he’s taken all the comments he’s received to heart. I also think he will act on what he’s heard in the future.

He’s also made two key statements about the story arc and this episode in particular. The first was that he was one writer on another person’s show, with a specific job. His job was to take all the plot elements given, and to create an effective narrative for them to deliver a strong episode.  He also said that he, and the writer’s and creators as a whole, were arrogant and naive about the impact of their choices.  Both are true.  Like any professional, especially on a show he did not run, he had a job to do.  And he, like the other creatives behind the show, thought the work would be taken the context the writer’s room intended.  The also thought the good will they’d built with the fanbase, along with the story elements they’d set in place,would help them put the death in the right perspective.

But they were wrong. As they focused on the context of the show, they forgot they were not writing in a vacuum. And there’s a lot of very naked pain on the net right now because of this.  As I read the reaction, and sorted through my own feelings, I put myself in the shoes of both the fans, and JGM.  It started thinking about my own writing, and the responsibilities I had as an author, and about the novel that’s dominated my recent years, Ivre.

Now, if you want to stop here and throw something at the screen, go ahead. “What ‘responsiblity?’ You’re barely published! Not like that novel of yours is out there in the world.”

“True,” I’d say (though I’d admonish you for throwing something at your monitor). But that doesn’t mean I have any less of a responsibility for the content I create and choose to let loose into the world.

I’ve been posting Ivre in bits and pieces here. If you’d like to see the whole thing, I can generate a draft and post it for folks to look at. But I’ll give a spoiler here: there are a lot of deaths.  And I intended it this way. The story was structured to follow Adia and Tellus as they discovered the city of Ivre, its people, its politics and the impact it held on a much wider war between the Gallatian Empire and the non-human Krell.

Then, there was a terrible, tragic act of violence which began a chain of retributions. At the very end, the characters you’ve been introduced to in what I’ve posted so far begin to fall like it was the last two episodes of Zeta Gundam. Or Ideon. (Check out the TV Tropes page on it – first entry under Anime & Manga).

That included Ufric and Cormac, two soldiers of the city of Ivre – lovers and love interests for Adia. They died fighting off a horde of Krell soldiers, defending the Lady Protector as she sought to end the horror engulfing her city before there was nothing left of Ivre. I thought it was a tragic, brave and necessary scene given the stakes involved. It was episode 23 of Zeta Gundam, and the final battle was on. They were soldiers, defending their city, their friends and their lover. They died together, insisting she do her duty and protect the last chance the Ivre had to survive.

But I also killed an LGBT couple as well as two dedicated soldiers. I did it after showing them meeting Adia, falling for her, and seeing all three have serious conversations about where they want the relationship to go. I did it after showing them as happy, functional and kind. And I knew it would happen, right from the start.

This is where the responsibility comes in: I do not live, work or write in a vacuum. If stories of happy LGBT couples living tragedy free lives common as rain, it would be a wartime loss with all the appropriate emotion involved. Were there no tropes of “the gay couple gets it” or “the black man doesn’t survive the horror movie” or “the transsexual man is a serial killer!” I would feel more comfortable about the scene. It wouldn’t keep needling at me.

But that’s not the world we live in. Right now: we live in a world where charities like The Trevor Project are absolutely necessary. Right now: we live in a world beautiful young souls commit suicide because they feel they’re alone, or trapped in bigoted households. Right now: we live in a world where friends of mine won’t travel through specific states police pulling them over and arresting them for “driving while black.”

And right now, in my own world – the one I have total responsibility for – the one which exists just on paper: I don’t know how to change the scene without changing the book as a whole.

So I’m going to stop working on it until I can find a better way out, that still keeps with my themes but doesn’t make my most prominent bisexual characters sacrifices. And that’s much harder than any tragic LGBT couple ending. People think the Tomino style “Kill ’em all” endings are hard. Here’s the secret: They’re not. Writing an ending where people live and have to survive with what has happened is far, far harder. We don’t give it the dramatic cache of a pile of corpses. You have to work for it. You’ve got to fight for it and justify it. Even the grimmest of stories sometimes needs an ending where the hero and the heroine float off into space in their cryotube, hoping for a better future when they awake.

I’m going to work my way towards those endings. But I’m not there yet.  So for now, Ivre is shelved. Time to work on a new story.


Oh – why Edward James Olmos? When I was growing up, I was stuck on TV as much as anyone in the world. Back then, no one had heard of Serbia or Venezuela. Most couldn’t even spell Venezuela No one knew where to put me. Was I Latino? Something else? There was no one who looked or sounded like anyone in my family – on either side. And certainly no one in authority.

Then came Castillo. In the world of Miami Vice, he was a badass. Edward James Olmos could, in a glare, say more than pages of scripted dialog.  In the days when most Latinos were given parts like drug lords or cocaine cowboys, calm and commanding Lt. Castillo was a miracle. It’s small wonder my favorite episode is “Bushido.”  The fact he existed, the fact he looked like my cousins and myself, meant the world to me because it said that I existed.

And at ten tender years of age, the world of TV was the only world that mattered to a kid like me.

So I know why this is so precious – why having a positive narrative where you are the star is vital. And that’s why I probably won’t be doing more work on Ivre right now.

(This is also why I’ll never ask the man for an autograph – I’d revert to a 10 year old again and weep.)