This Week’s Topics:
- A loose ‘review’ of one of the earliest TSF manga
- A loose ‘review’ of the first modern body swap story
- The growing budgets of the AAA games industry
- The end of an obscure TSF visual novel
- The end of the Greatest Podcast of All-Time
- Delays due to Natalie’s insanity
Rundown Preamble Ramble:
Natalie Reviews To Joca/Joker
It’s another week, and that means we have another manga translation treat from Natalie.TF reader Chari! This time we are going even further back into the past— all the way to 1973— with one of the first TSF manga ever made. Joka he… or To Joca/Joker by Ooshima Yumiko!
Now, this is an extra special translation as Chari could not find any existing scans of the manga online. Which is pretty terrifying as the work is 50 years old, meaning the risk of it becoming lost media was pretty high. So Chari shipped a copy of the comic from Japan, all the way to France, scanned it, and translated it. Meaning that what she did is not only the work of a TSF historian, but a manga archivist too!
To Joca/Joker is the story of two cousins, Joca and Simon, who share a sweet and close relationship that is growing distant as the two enter adolescence. Joca wants to have Simon always around her, while Simon is seeking more independence after being effectively raised by Joca, despite the two being the same age. Despite this, Simon is still protective of Joca, and does not approve of how she is spending more time with the taller and refined Jean-Claude. The rivalry between the two eventually leads them to declare a duel for Joca’s love, much to Joca’s dismay.
To improve Simon’s odds of winning the duel, Joca takes an experimental compound from her father’s lab and gives it to Simon, thinking it will make him stronger. Instead, the compound transforms his very biology, changing his chromosomes, and forcing him to undergo female puberty. After realizing this, Joca’s parents decide to send Simon away as he undergoes this puberty, and lie to Joca about Simon’s death. Because that won’t cause any psychological damage.
7 years later, Simon returns to live with Joca, this time as a woman named Solange. Their hair and eye color changed, somehow, and they developed an alluring feminine physique, causing them to enter a sort of love triangle with Jean-Claude. Or I suppose love quadrangle might be more appropriate. This is where the bulk of the story takes place… and it is something that I think requires a greater level of historical knowledge to fully appreciate.
As a 1973 work from a prolific shoujo manga author, Joca/Joker naturally has a role in the evolution of the shoujo genre and the growth of anime as an aesthetic and art style. I might be able to say more if I read Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan by Patrick W. Galbraith. But that book has been sitting on my desktop for nearly two years at this point…
However, there is another angle to this story that I could not help but fixate on, and it is how the story relates to or parallels the historical experiences of trans people. Now, despite being trans myself, I don’t really have the best grasp of the history of transgender people in modern times, and most of what I know is the ‘generalized’ history. That medical transition research began in the early 20th century, spread across the world as the century went on, and became ‘possible’ in postwar America. However, doing so was super hard.
Why? Well, in the mid 20th century, trans people did not ‘exist’ in the popular consciousness. The concept was not widely spread, the language to describe them did not exist as it does now, and if people did realize they were trans, they often only had one option. Leave their homes, save up money, get operations, and start up a new life as their preferred gender. Doing so was dangerous and often involved a lot of sex work, which came with its own truck load of risks.
The way that Simon/Solange returns was reminiscent of this history as I read the story, but perhaps not the best parallel. The more I thought about their story, the more I began comparing it to an intersex person going through puberty. Specifically, someone who was assigned male at birth, but underwent a female puberty, leading them to live as a woman, regardless of whatever their true identity is.
Now, the story does not touch too deeply on the gender of Simon/Solange. Instead, it chooses to explore the hardships of loss. This entire story could have played out so differently if Joca and Simon/Solange were allowed to continue living together, if Simon/Solange could continue holding onto their old identity even as their body changed. Alas, they were forced to divide themselves, and this only filled the two with grief. Joca was left with a hole in her heart she could never fill. While ‘Solange’ was forced to abandon their everything. It is a tragic tale, manifested by the limited realms of what society deems acceptable, and it comes to a… bitter conclusion.
…That being said, do I think Joca/Joker is a good story? Definitely! As a love story, I found it very effective in what it set out to do, taking great care in establishing its three central characters and particularly the longing felt by Joca, the main point of view character. I found the depiction of Simon/Solange as this profound beauty to be fascinating given the way people like them would typically be seen in any historical era. And I found the overall emotional drive of this story to be compelling for such a brief comic.
As a work of visual art, I found it to be a fascinating example of the evolution of the more contemporary anime aesthetic. Irises are these weird sketchy donuts and every adult looks to be 12 heads tall, but it also manages to be beautiful all the same. I adore the reverence and meticulous detail that is assigned to plant life, making them seem rich and lively despite just being lines on a page. I love the way everyone and everything manages to look cute or pretty. And these gorgeous pieces of splash art that, despite being in black and white, no grayscale, impressed me with their detail and composition.
As a piece of TSF fiction though… It is very different from what I would have expected. As I said earlier, the story is not really about the identity of Simon/Solange, hence why I’m tip-toeing around their name and pronouns. Instead, it presents the idea of a transformation as something that takes something away. A force of science, not unlike a force of God, that robs this character of everything they knew.
It is an interesting reaction to have to a TSF experience, one less fiery than rage and more bitter than any shade of acceptance. And, much like with the humiliation angle that I discussed last week, is a reaction that can completely change the type of story being told.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot more parallels to actual trans and intersex experiences that I am not fully sure how to categorize it. It is so close to reality that, if the fantastical elements were removed, and an explanation of intersex people was in its place, the story would work pretty much the same.
Natalie Read The First Modern Body Swap Story!
(Natalie ‘Reviews’ An Exchange of Souls)
Following last week’s discussion on TSF, I got curious and decided to check out what is considered the first modern male-to-female body swap story. At least according to Estranho and this Wikipedia list I spent way too much time looking over half my life ago. The story, An Exchange of Souls, was written by Barry Pain back in 1911… and it really shows.
Something that I am painfully aware of whenever I read through anything pre-1950 is how… different the standards for English and general storytelling were. I ran into this issue when I decided to read 1915’s The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka back in 2021— which I still don’t ‘get,’ and why I had to use Sparknotes a lot in my high school English classes. Fortunately, An Exchange of Souls is a lot more straightforward than many other texts from this era… but it is also bad in different ways.
Let’s start with a synopsis. An Exchange of Souls is the story of Daniel Myas, an eccentric doctor and scientist fascinated by the Ego. Something beyond both the body and the mind, an invisible thing that determines one’s true self and identity. Or in other words, a soul. In his pursuit of knowledge, he develops an apparatus that, combined with the power of anesthesia, allows him to separate his Ego from his body, where it enters the body of his assistant and fiancée, Alice Laden. With no Ego, Myas’s body dies, leaving him trapped in the body of Alice.
… Meaning that An Exchange of Souls is not actually a body swap story, rather, a possession story, as the story is pretty clearly about a second soul entering a body, rather than any true exchange of souls. So not only is the classification wrong, but the title is also an outright LIE!
Tangent aside, while there are shades of familiar tropes here, something that I found utterly fascinating about this story is its interpretation of a possession. A component of this story is that the self is not composed of a mind and a body, but rather three things. The mind, body, and the Ego. The mind is where one’s knowledge and instincts/muscle memory reside. The body is the vessel that one uses to interact with the physical world. While the Ego is where one’s identity and memories are stored, and the force that controls and influences both the mind and the body.
This leads to a very… unique transformation as the story goes on. When Myas possesses Alice at the start of the story, he loses his memories, composure, and aspects of his personality in the process. His vast scientific knowledge and understanding of the experiment become lost onto him and he reacts to the sight of his body’s death much like how Alice would. Meaning he panics and breaks things out of fear, because this story is a product of its time.
It is a fascinating idea to me. That of being in the body of someone else, while lacking access to knowledge that one knows they should know, while knowing things that they shouldn’t know. It is something commonly explored in identity death or stories where someone is mind controlled to act like someone else. But here, it is presented as a part of a body swap, or rather, a possession.
As the story goes on and Myas comes to terms with his situation, he begins to undergo a transformation of body and mind. His hair and eye color shift, his facial features alter, his voice deeps and shifts into his original voice, and the female body of Alice becomes more androgynous. His knowledge of the experiment returns, he regains the ability to understand French, and he forgets things that he knew upon finding himself in Alice’s body.
It is a slow transformation, one that takes place over several months, but it is clear to Myas that his Ego is transforming the body and mind of Alice into that of Myas. That his ‘dominant’ Ego is taking control and reshaping the body as ‘a punishment from nature.’ Easily the best written and most captivating part of this story is chapter 12, which is mostly devoted to a detailed letter from Myas, describing the ramifications of this transformation, and how Myas wishes to stop it. How he wishes to relinquish his soul and rightfully return it to Alice.
The story spends a long time building up to this, dedicating chapters to discussing logistics involving clothing, research locations, and Alice’s reputation. …But then, Myas dies in a train accident.
Yeah, it is a possession story where, in trying to unpossess someone, the main character dies in a completely unrelated train accident. Which is just… bad writing. It reminds me of when I wrote stories as a kid, got bored, and decided to rush into an ending just so I could be done with it and move on to something else. Or to phrase it as harshly as possible: It’s a twist that reads like it was written by a 13-year-old in remedial English class!
However, that is not the actual end of the story. That’s the 80% mark. The rest of the story is a needlessly long ‘postscript’ that meanders between the fantastical and the overly rational. One that implies that Myas and Alice might still exist on some spiritual plane, or that the narrator character, Compton, is going insane. But it also tries to brush aside this entire thing as possibly being the result of trauma. Because that totally explains how one can change their hair color, eye color, and shift their speaking voice by three octaves.
As a whole though, I would say there is a compelling story in An Exchange of Souls. …But it is bogged down by what I would generously describe as ‘quirks of its era,’ and crudely describe as ‘fluffy rubbish.’
There are a lot of slow and meandering conversations that do not really relate to the main story and instead read like the ramblings of people who enjoy the sound of their own voices. The decision to follow Compton as an audience composite character of sorts does not really enhance much of anything. He is some wealthy former doctor with servants who spends his days reading historical documents and meeting up with other wealthy doctors, and is not really likable or compelling. There is a weird fixation on things like wills, estates, executors, and managing the deaths of others, which might be a cultural relic. As a tax accountant, I can vouch for the importance of a well-planned estate, but nobody wants to read about estate management in a novella.
The entire story is also written from the perspective of a wealthy White man, meaning there are a lot of minor things that really do not mesh with a progressive 21st century worldview. Especially with the amount of casual sexism imposed on Alice. Her mind is considered ‘plastic’ and malleable, ready to be forged by a man. The female Ego is presented as naturally submissive next to the Ego of a man. And one of the interpretations proposed in the postscript relies on the ‘hysteric woman’ or a ‘bitches be crazy’ theory/trope.
There is a pretty blatant undercurrent of queer and transphobia throughout a lot of the story. The best example is at the start of chapter 14, where Compton describes how “disgusted” he is by crossdressing, and things that blur the lines of men and women. With his rejection of all things not adhering to the gender binary being so extreme he calls Myas in Alice’s body a “creature.” And all of that is before getting into the classism or how carelessly Compton and Myas spend their fortunes.
An Exchange of Souls is a curious little relic from a bygone era, and while I do not think it holds up as a ‘good’ story, I do find its perspective on transformation and possession to be compelling. There is something I find inspiring about the idea of a possession that leads to the transformation of the mind. The idea of a body swap where two people eventually transform back into their original selves, or the closest approximation available using their new bodies and minds. It is an interesting concept that almost makes me want to write a reimagining of this novel. Sadly, I’ve got a bit too much on my plate at the moment to write TSF Series #???: Soul X-Changer 02: Ego Trip. Maybe I’ll get around to it in 2024, but who knows with my idea backlog.
Missing That Saints (Cash) Flow
(Saints Row (2022) Cost $100 Million)
The 2022 Saints Row reboot was among the more disappointing releases this past year. Not because the game was bad, but because it did not capture the tone and atmosphere of the originals… and the game was plagued with bugs upon launch. It reviewed worse than any other main entries in the series, got hit with the ‘did not meet expectations’ stamp, and led Volition to be transferred from Deep Silver to Gearbox.
However, this past week an Embracer analyst reviewed the financials of the holding group and determined that Saints Row (2022) cost roughly $100 million. Which I am assuming includes marketing, as that is typically how these things go.
How did it cost $100 million? Well, I could do a breakdown like I did with the $162 million budget of The Callisto Protocol, but the cost breakdown here is pretty simple. Saints Row (2022) is an open world game that recycled virtually no assets from prior projects. Assets had to be produced or outsourced, side content had to be developed, people had to be paid, and oodles of marketing had to be done to promote the game. As much as it seems crazy, this $100 million budget is a pretty standard in the AAA industry… which leads me to ask further questions. Namely, how much does it cost to break even on a $100 million video game?
That is always going to be different, but my bootleg conservative per unit profit margin guestimate is $36 per $60 game sold. This gives us a breakeven point of 2.778 million units sold, or 3 million if you want to be extra conservative. …Also known as too many units.
As I see these budgets get higher and higher, I start to have more doubts about the future of the industry— more concerns over which games get made. Because if making a game is this expensive, then it is going to need to appeal to a broad demographic and feature widely marketable design trends. It would need to be part of a valuable IP, either in games or another medium, and be something that can not only make back its budget, but make a profit and facilitate franchise growth. All of which sounds… terrible and antithetical to the idea that art should be creative or challenging.
What is the solution to this? Well, to stop making AAA games, pretty much. Stop aiming for increasingly higher levels of graphical fidelity. Reduce scope and focus on using assets efficiently, rather than making loads of them. Maintain a smaller team size to encourage more direct and efficient communication. I’m basically just recounting that one Archie Sonic meme is describing a more sustainable industry.
…However, if the issue is budget, then you probably shouldn’t pay workers more. Besides, game developers are treated so poorly, they’ll probably be happy with mediocre pay, crunch that does not exceed 50 hours a week, and job security.
Now, what does this mean for Volition and Saints Row? Well, that’s a bit hard to say. Their last two releases were flops and they don’t have a particularly lucrative vision for what the Saints Row series should be going forward. Which begs the question of what can and should be the next step for them and the series.
Personally, I would like to see Sperasoft remaster Saints Row IV like they did Saints Row: The Third, and have Volition work on a Saints Row 2 remaster— maybe call it Saints Row 2008 or something. Why? Well, I think that one learns a lot about a work or a series by trying to directly recreate it, and by trying to do something different, Saints Row (2022) lost some of its identity. Which isn’t too surprising, as every SR game has a different identity. …But mostly I just want a prettier version of Saints Row 2. And I think that is what people actually wanted with a rebooted Saints Row.
Did Natalie KILL a TSF Visual Novel?
(Cellular Shift Enters an Indefinite Hiatus)
On February 10th, I released a review of Cellular Shift. A not-so-great TSF visual novel with a lot of potential and flashes of something great. So imagine my surprise when on February 14th— 4 days later— the developer of the game, Jacob Grant, announced Cellular Shift was going on an indefinite hiatus.
Now, my first thought was… did I do this? The timeline matches up pretty well. Someone posts a critical review and the game goes on hiatus 4 days later. However, that review garnered a whopping 133 views prior to Grant’s post, and this announcement is coming after several announced delays. Combined with the language of the post, it is safe to say that the project is going on an indefinite hiatus because it is simply too much work for Grant to commit to. Not because of anything I did.
As an indefinite hiatus, there is a possibility that the title will be revived at some point. But for the foreseeable future, Grant plans on transitioning to novel writing with a dark fantasy story. While this is a bit upsetting to me, I am glad that Grant still has plans to continue creating things, and I am interested in what their fantasy story could entail. As I said in my review:
[The developer of Cellular Shift] has a firm, girthy noggin on their shoulders, and the power to create something truly great.”Cellular Shift Version 0.6.6 Review – Natalie Neumann
So I’m going to be following them for at least a few years to see how they grow as a creator. Also, as someone who has been repeatedly let down by creators who just vanish one day, thank you for being transparent, Pattern on the Pants Games.
…And sorry if you did not want your (probably) legal name out there, but Patreon told me your name when billing was paused, so… I think that makes it public?
Natalie’s Favorite Podcast is DEAD!
(The Comedy Button Podcast is Coming To An End)
Well this one stings. I do not really talk about them beyond the occasional reference, but one of my favorite things in this world is The Comedy Button. A non-topical podcast that is largely about a group of friends getting together and hanging out. Making jokes, sharing stories about their lives, and just having fun together. While the show is trying to be comedic most of the time, and the cast is a bunch of genuinely funny people, it is more than that.
There is a level of openness and vulnerability that makes the cast feel like… regular people, and this is seen with the sorts of topics the show occasionally veers into. Their less successful romantic pursuits and feelings of isolation or loneliness. The death of loved ones and what it is like to be with someone knowing they only have a few months left to live. Their ennui with life and sense of listlessness that comes with trying to be a creative person in an industry that has only been around for a few decades. It is a show where one of the greatest episodes ever is where a cast member talks about how his brother got murdered at age 12. And where one of my favorite bits is when they talk about candy salads.
For me though, much of the appeal comes from the fact that I have been listening to this show since it debuted in October 2011. When I was 16-years-old. Before I started Natalie.TF. Before I started the predecessor to Natalie.TF. Back when I was still a freaking egg in high school.
It cheered me up when I was feeling down, accentuated my highs, and acted as the supplemental soundtrack to dozens of different games that I played throughout the years.. Their banter and casual demeanor with one another shaped how I viewed and wrote conversations. They are one of the key inspirations why I started pursuing more creative work in general.
But now, after I finished high school, community college, regular college, got a Master’s degree, started working, left two jobs, came out as trans, and got all my surgeries… it is coming to an end. Not due to any animosity between the cast or anything, but because they feel that the time is right. While it is possible that new episodes will still be recorded and released, there is no guarantee or schedule, and knowing how these boys and girl are, I’m going to expect nothing.
While I will miss having a new episode to download every week— or every other week— the show will always be there for me to revisit. All 687 episodes, all 32 days worth of audio recordings, all the laughs, all the tragedy, and all the growth along the way. Thank you, Max, Brian, Scott, Ryan, Anthony, and Kristen. You helped shape me into who I am today. For better or for worse, but mostly for worse.
I will never stop barking yes for no, and if I ever write anything with a horse, you better believe that someone’s gonna kick him right in his pussy.
The Saga of Bandcamp, An Epic Company, Continues…
(Bandcamp Songs Are Coming to Fortnite)
One of the most heartbreaking acquisitions in recent years has been Epic’s acquisition of Bandcamp. Not because of what they have done since rebranding Bandcamp as ‘Bandcamp, an Epic Company’ but because of what this acquisition is. A bastion for independent musical artists being consumed by the producer of software that is becoming an increasingly essential part of both the video game and film industries. I have been dreading what Epic would do with Bandcamp since then. In the following almost-year, I have heard a few anecdotes about them cracking down on mashup creators and remixers, but nothing really solid. However, this past week Epic made their first noteworthy use of Bandcamp as a platform.
In a recent news update for Fortnite, Epic announced that an in-game radio will feature hand-selected artists from Bandcamp. This is a fairly small thing, but my semi-analytical psycho-mind cannot help but think about how this is a harbinger for something more.
Epic has steadily been buying up companies like the 3D model storefront Sketchfab, the professional artist platform ArtStation, along with various facial capture and photogrammetry studios. Why buy up seemingly unrelated platforms like this? Vertical integration, bay-bee! Epic already has the engine that powers a significant portion of the AAA and AA games industry, and instead of buying the competition, they want to buy other tools that developers use.
Games need models, and with Sketchfab and the Unreal marketplace, Epic is providing developers with cheap placeholder assets and nets a small profit with each sale. If developers need facial capture or photo quality assets, they can pay Epic’s subsidiaries instead of doing things in-house. And with Bandcamp, I have a feeling that Epic will eventually transform the platform into something similar to Platinum Sellers Beats and Pond5. A music licensing marketplace where creators can opt in to license their music in exchange for an upfront royalty-free fee.
Epic would be able to market this platform to game developers, and offer integrations directly into Unreal 5. Which would make it easy for developers to implement music into their games by searching for relevant tags and genres. It would be a lot less work than working with a composer on relevant music, or could serve as a base— a rough example— of what a developer wants from a composer.
Now, this is just a ‘best guess’ estimate of mine. I truthfully know little about Unreal and how the engine works as a piece of software, and this conclusion is based mostly on observed trends and how vertical integrations usually go. However… it sounds about right to me.
Ends & Updates:
Mice Tea Review Delayed Until April & Verde’s Doohickey 2.0 Update
I hate doing this, but I am going to need to delay my Mice Tea review yet again. Instead of aiming for late February, I am targeting a late April release, which should be around the release date of the final retail release of the game. It may seem like I am putting it off because I don’t want to play it, but if anything, the opposite is true. I played the Felicia route in June 2022, thought it was fantastic, and I have no doubt that the rest of the game is just as good!
Mice Tea is a great game, it feels premium in every facet, I know that my review of it would be gushing, and that’s why I am delaying my review! Because a game this good needs to be a treat, and I cannot enjoy a good treat when I have other things on my to-do list hanging over me like a guillotine. Mice Tea must be a reward after I have accomplished a larger task, and I have three on my plate. Two are fairly minor tasks, but the third is ballooning into the biggest project I have ever undertaken in my gosh darn life.
Task 1) Psycho Bullet Festival: The Odyssey of Abigale Quinlan – Episode Alternative is going to be a 5,000 to 15,000 word short story releasing on April 27, 2023. It has a workable outline and I should be able to finish the story in 5 days, tops.
Task 2) Psycho Shatter 1985: Black Vice Re;Birth – The Day After is going to be a 10,000 to 20,000 word short story releasing on May 18, 2023. It has an outline that needs to be revised, but I should be able to finish the story in 7 days.
Task 3) Verde’s Doohickey 2.0: Sensational Summer Romp is still in the outlining phase, and it has grown from a 100,000 to 150,000 word novel. Currently, I would estimate as having a final word count in the range of 300,000. This would make it twice as long as my current longest novel, Psycho Bullet Festival 2222 (~139,000 words). And if I were to adopt an unsustainable 5,000-words-a-day writing quota, it would take me two months just to prepare a draft, and another month to edit and produce art assets.
…So when is VD 2.0 coming out again? Well, my current plan is to release the story in real time, starting with the first chapter on May 16th and ending with the final chapter on August 15th. This means that the story does not need to be ‘done’ until August 14th, meaning I have just under 6 months to finish this novel.
Can I do this?
I DON’T KNOW!
But I am going to TRY TRY TRY!!!
Now, you might be thinking ‘why the hell is this crazy lady trying to write a 300,000 word story?’ And my answer is that I don’t want to… but I am working on a story with so many possibilities, characters, and stuff that it probably will just wind up being that long. Trust me, I compare how long my outlines are to my final work. The general rule of thumb is that my outlines are 15% to 25% as long as the final work. The Dominance of Abigale Quinlan was 15k words that became 88k, while TSF Series #016: Darling Lust was 9.7k that became 43k.
Act I of Verde’s Doohickey 2.0: Sensational Summer Romp is currently 36k words long. Meaning it alone will probably be longer than PBF2222.
However, I think the most… frustrating thing about this situation is the fact that I am writing this story now. That this is novel number eight for me, when the ideas for novels 9, 10, and 11 are going to be so much simpler and easier.
An utterly insane multiversal novel where the fabric of reality is shredded by a transdimensional demon in the shape of a man? That’s Psycho Shatter 1988: APOLITICALGENOCIDE, coming in 2024. A multi-day body swap story centering a large group of characters? That’s Psycho Shatter 2000: Black Vice Mania, coming 2025. A multi-month story following characters after their lives are changed forever via a transformation doohickey? That’s Psycho Shatter 2001: Weiss Vice Omake, coming 2026.
Verde’s Doohickey 2.0: Sensational Summer Romp is set to be the most ambitious novel I will ever write… and I’m doing it while I’m still in my twenties. Which is stupid!
…Oh crap. I also need to study to become an enrolled agent during this summer, don’t I? Yeah, I’m pretty much boned here, aren’t I?