A Matter of Life or Death
“If you realize your true nature, you are free from life and death.
Tell me, when your eyesight deserts you at the last moment, how can you be free from life and death?”
Summary: Starhawk, a Maverick who was formerly a crime boss' PR guy, and Kojiko Torako, a Gongne Space Samurai, are marooned on a rock in space. Some aliens called Shi show up, mess with Starhawk's head a bit, and then all get killed... Ish. Our heroes then escape to track down Starhawk's ex-boss Raving Red Jane.
Its the 22nd of August Two Thousand Four, this is the day most of the world gets its first taste of WARS. Some people had already gotten to read the first released WARS story, because unlike every other one it was released and sold as a pamphlet at conventions (for $2.95, which is a fairly high price for one short story). However, this is the day it was put up on the internet and all the fans finally got their first look at what the universe of WARS was really like. It was an extra special treat, and a treat even if you didn't care about WARS, because the story was by New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Stackpole, famous for his X-Wing and Battletech novels. So basically this short story was an extremely hyped release, and quite a big deal was made out of it. It needed to be very good, to impress everyone... And to be fair it actually was very good, extremely good. Maybe too good because a fair argument can be made that this is still the best WARS story put into print. From the beautiful and yet totally sarcastic opening from our hero Starhawk, to the crazy cleverness of having him wearing large robot chicken legs, to the brain-invasion battle finale, Stackpole crafted a story that was tightly paced, funny, action packed, weird, and also thoughtful. To say it's WARS finest hour would not be amiss.
That isn't even covering the beautiful art that accompanies the story; the whole thing is illustrated with big brilliant images from the card game, which certainly weren't hard to come across as they had just commissioned them all, but with the art blown up so much bigger its notable how good all of it still looks. They really didn't skimp on the quality artwork for this pamphlet or the game, and this is the first real sign of it (outside of the postcard). Magic the Gathering was of course the Standard of art Decipher wanted you to compare this to, and while Magic's art has improved in the 10 years since this was released, the point was pretty clear: Decipher has commissioned better art. Since all we can go on is the little we've seen, this seems to be a valid shot across the bow, whether or not it will hold up when October comes around is a different story we'll have to return to, but the truth of that later doesn't matter so much as that right now when this story was released the promise of better art was established. WARS is with this pamphlet attempting to place itself on the top tier of quality, and lets be honest: it needs to prove that.
Its fitting that this story is called a Matter of Life or Death, because WARS itself is skimming the edges of life or death even before it is born. We are talking about a card game based off of a dead card game that was beloved and yet also notorious for its brutally complex game mechanics. WARS also has to somehow work its way out from under the shadow of just being a rip off of Star Wars, while also managing to essentially still be Star Wars so that no one feels strange that the mechanics of a beloved Star Wars game are now pasted atop an entirely new setting. Oh, and Decipher needs this game to be a success since they lost the massive income of the Star Wars license. If things go sour, its bound to get the chop.
--And yet with all this support would they really kill something they've put so much effort into? An online radio show? Stories by an acclaimed writer like Stackpole, and art by John Howe of Lord of the Rings fame? Apparently they're working on a soundtrack to! I mean.. This isn't some half hearted commitment here. Sink or swim, Decipher is in this for the long haul right? They won't just cut and run on this world they have created will they? Of course these questions are totally rhetorical, and we all know the answers to them, but they bear stating. WARS at this time was on the brink of death, and it wasn't even born. I was excited about the game, very much so, after reading this story, and I ran over to my local game store to ask the owner if he'd be carrying it. He said no, coolly and coldly. I didn't ask any further questions. I'd assumed that the game that had been set up to follow the amazing Star Wars tcg, to let all of us who'd been enjoying it finally have new cards and play the game again, would be something people would be clamoring to play. Instead, it was treated as a not worth anyone's time.
It didn't help that Decipher had apparently been getting a less than stellar reputation from some game stores, something I wasn't aware of at that age, but it certainly wasn't aiding WARS at all.
All of that being said, did this story do everything it needed to do to introduce the property to people? Despite the quick death of the game, I'd have to say the answer is completely yes.
So then, lets look at what the story did right right, and what it could have done better.
Actually, lets cut ahead: it could have been longer than 24 pages.
This short story pulls more weight than it really should be able to; over a very short period it manages to introduce two protagonists, give us a good sense of who they are, introduce the Mumon Rift, the alien Shi, the eldritch nature of the Shi, as well as a whole host of cultural ideals and other characters who appear off-page. Namely, Raving Red Jane who is so integral to both this story and Starhawk and Torako's characters that this story instantly makes her into a legend, and one of the most well known characters amongst the WARS fandom. It doesn't matter that she only makes one appearance in a short story-- or rather that she only makes one appearance is exactly what she needed to do to become a legend. She is the character spoken of in whispers, the powerful nightmare too good to go confront the other characters directly.
That over only 24 pages, much of which is filled with artwork, this is all clear to us is spectacular, and shows how wise a move it was for them to hire a writer of Stackpole's caliber for the job. However, its not a novel, and for a lot of people this is what they will think of WARS as forever, especially if they never read anymore of the stories with how short the game lasts.
As we touched on earlier, the most interesting thing about the WARS setting is that no one faction in the setting are the “good guys”. Every faction in the game is flawed in some way, and strong in another way. Each one is good in one way, and evil in another. But here we are introduced to the setting through the eyes of a Maverick, whose only friend in the story is a Gongen, fighting the Shi. Sadly, though there are stories about every single faction in the WARS Universe, this really sort of ends up being the default setting of the fandom: Mavericks are by far the most popular, followed by Gongen, and the other factions have their fans but not enough to really make too much noise about it. The very first WARS RPG campaign I ran was populated nearly entirely by Mavericks and Gongen characters, with players chosing to make Earthers, Shi, and Quay in only token amounts through the two years the game ran. Even in a later game when many players intentionally made Earthers as a reaction to that... The characters basically all became mavericks after not too long. You can see this effect all over the fandom, and frankly it makes perfect sense. Not only are the Mavericks the most developed of any of the factions in the WARS universe, but they're the faction that most people come into the setting through the eyes of. Because this story doesn't even feature the Earthers or the Quay, they're often thought of as a bit tertiary, despite having their own incredibly interesting cultures.
Which isn't a slam against this story, God knows if Michael Stackpole had tried to shove all five factions into one short story it would have ended up a total unsavable mess, bur rather a complaint about the format chosen for everyone's first taste of WARS. The idea here is clear: people will check out this story, and then continue reading about the adventures of these characters on Decipher's website, keeping them in touch with all the other information about the WARS TCG Decipher wants them to see. In that regard, its a clever ploy, but it still doesn't make WARS compare with Star Wars. After all, that is what we're comparing it to here, and for all that Decipher wants WARS to be Star Wars, there simply isn't a defining story for people to latch onto with it.
Michael Stackpole was chosen for this role after all because of his work on the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. Decipher had already had a good relationship with him after working with him to make Star Wars trading cards of some of his most beloved novel characters (even having him pose for pictures as one, despite him not looking anything like the character), and fans loved his books, so he was a natural choice. But the Star Wars Novels when they were good always knew one thing: people needed to be able to pick up these books and not really understand too much outside of the movies they had seen in theaters. Certainly they could keep the plot going from one novel to the next, but often the plots were self-contained between trilogies of novels, and as long as you knew Luke was re-founding the Jedi and Han and Leia were re-founding the Republic and having babies, you could get along pretty well. This might not have always been the most artistically viable choice, and the books moved away from it eventually, but it was financially viable and it gave the books a sense of safety: as long as you had seen the movies, you could pick up one of the books and read it with only a basic knowledge of what had been going on. WARS never had a work that so integral or defining as part of its cannon. There was no movie, no TV show, and not even a full novel for people to point to and say “there. This is what WARS is. Sit down and cuddle up with this book!”. Instead, we have a short story as the most recognized and important work in the canon of our fandom. This is in some ways a burden, after all its hard to give people a look at the full intricies of what the WARS setting is capable of from such a short tale, but its also a blessing. What other fandom gets a short story that does such a good job of introducing a setting so quickly? You don't have to get someone to sit down and read a book or watch a movie, just read this story it will only take a few minutes!
Which, all in all, isn't even touching on what the story itself is. Taking away how important this story is to the meta-narrative of WARS as a property, its worth looking at the story as a story. The most notable choice about the story right off is that the story is a first person narrative. This instantly sets the story as having a far different tone from Star Wars, where first person narration in stories is rare as it brings the story down to a personal level, and takes it away from the realm of vast star battles littering the sky with shards of thought unconquerable titans. Instead, we have Nick “Starhawk” Murrin sitting around on a rock in space with a Samurai woman he doesn't like from a culture he doesn't respect sitting in his own filth walking around on robot chicken legs because his former employer felt like leaving him to die with a bit of black comedy. Kojiko Torako, the woman, tries to have conversations with him about the nature of dreams, and he just sasses her. Indeed, he sasses pretty much everything making the entire story an exercise in Stackpole getting to write as much sarcasm as he could possibly imagine. When the mind-invading Shi show up in the story, Starhawk sasses them to, in an act of Promethus level rudeness and its brilliant.
Han Solo's character in the original Star Wars functioned so well in part because he didn't believe in any of the highfalutin concepts being bantered around in it. It allowed the film to have its cake and eat it to with the New Agey concept of the Force, letting the film at once be totally honest and sentimental about the spiritual jargon of it all, while also being able to laugh at it as if to say, “You don't really believe this, do you?” without skipping a beat or sounding dishonest about it. Starhawk isn't Han Solo, however. Sure, he is funny, and he jabs at the honor and spiritualism Toroko espouses, but he doesn't come from the same stories that Han did. Han Solo is not just a lovable rogue, but a noble pirate and an honorable cowboy. He may lie, cheat, and steal, and be slick as a used car salesman, but he's got a heart of gold inside his chest. His costume very carefully portrays this, giving him a vest and holster like a cowboy, but the striped pants of a sea captain. Its an interesting visual image, and lets us know that Han is part of the long tradition of the gunshooters of the American West, as well as the swashbucklers of the high seas, bringing in images of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and Gene Autry in The Phantom Empire.
Starhawk isn't anything like that. He is a murderer. The most he can defend himself to Torako is that he himself didn't kill her family members, that was someone else, but he is still a killer. Sure, Han Killed Greedo in Star Wars in cold blood, but Greedo probably would have shot him if Han hadn't shot first. Starhawk killed people because he worked for a psychotic gang leader. He's not noble, and though he's funny and we like him, he doesn't fit the lovable rogue, and he's more of a PR guy than a captain. No, Starhawk is filling the Han Solo role, but he's from an entirely different story: Starhawk came out of a Cyberpunk Novel. This statement is more profound than it looks. For those who don't know what Cyberpunk is, its actually fairly hard to define but I'll give it my best shot: Cyberpunk is a look at the future from a pessimistic viewpoint, acknowledging the reality that corporations and gangs will hold the power over our lives in the future moreso than they are now, that also has in interest in humanity's future through technology either through biological modification or our increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology. Also, Cyberpunk has to be cool, and usually focuses on people at the bottom of the food chain. It had a brief bout of popularity with the Matrix films, the only notable mainstream piece of Cyberpunk that gained real popularity. There were other attempts at bringing it into the forefront sure: Aeon Flux, Johnny Memonic, Ghost in the Shell, and some of them were fairly or even very successful, but they always remained niche.
The two foundational works of Cyberpunk are “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, and “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, which each have their own particular take on the Genre. Starhawk is pretty clearly in the vein of Neuromancer, and you can imagine him being a tertiary character in that book: some flunky of a crime boss talking people into checking out the new drugs dens the main characters have to talk to get some piece of information. Funnily enough, he's the main character here, the most unlikely and should-be-unlikable guy, but it totally works.
Mostly, this is because Stackpole understands not just what story he is telling, but what kind of story he needs to tell. Everybody on earth has read endless stories about Han Solo knock offs, and Luke Skywalker knock offs. They've even read knock offs of Neo from the Matrix. So Stackpole takes the kind of guy who would usually give the heroes one fact they needed while being a sleazeball, and makes him the protagonist even though the person with the real motivation to drive the story is Torako. Torako is a great character herself, and we'll talk about her in depth a different day, but she is also the character you'd expect to be narrating this story: highly talented, highly driven on her quest for revenge and honor, spiritually interested and philosophical. By all means, she is Luke Skywalker in a different life. It would have been easy to introduce things through her eyes, and show us the universe through someone who takes it seriously and sees the beauty in it. This is much more interesting, because we've seen that before. Everyone knows the hero's journey and how it works out, but its a real breath of fresh air to see the heroes journey from the viewpoint of someone who would roll their eyes at the mere thought of it. Starhawk isn't a part of the epic quest to defeat the alien Shi, or save Gongen, or even regain honor, he's just pissed his boss left him to die and wants to kill her right back. Torako, the natural born protagonist, teams up with him, and now we have the obvious direction for our stories to go in.
This is it, it makes sense. We'll follow the adventures of these two, and see the universe from their eyes as they go out and explore it on their quest. Obviously there will be some pit stops along the way, but they've been set up fairly clearly as our point of view into the universe. I remember being very excited for the next story, to follow these two on their next adventure. I checked the Decipher website frequently for an update. That we are about to cut away from their adventure is puzzling to say the least. But we'll see them again, even if it isn't timed as well as it could have been for us.
As for this story, it lives on far better than any other story we'll be talking about.
In a matter of life and death, the one who asks the question of mortality is the one to have it answered.