Monday, July 5, 2021

Nipping at the Heels of Gods

By conventional standards, the action scenes I write are unconventional.

Many action scenes in pop culture follow the same tired formula. Lone hero picks up a machine gun, wades into a group of bad guys and blows them all away. Barbarian hefts his blade and cuts down a horde of lesser foes. Gongfu hero takes on 27 ninjas with his bare hands and defeats them all. I suppose to the intended audience it is exciting. I find it mindless. Boring, even.

And if I find it boring, my audience will.

About half a decade ago, I encountered a difficult problem in fiction. I could skip entire fight scenes without losing track of the story, without missing anything, without diminishing my experience of the story by one iota. Be it manga, films or prose, I found myself skipping past what were supposed to be intense battles and climactic duels.

They were mindless. They were boring. They did not hold true to what I knew of violence. I couldn’t bring myself to read those scenes. And when a significant chunk of the story is composed of nothing but mindless violence, reading the story is simply a waste of time and money.

With my own stories, I wanted to do something different.

With Babylon Blues, the goal was to mix high-octane action with scenes of high-tech horror. The characters had the latest in next-generation hardware to battle the horrors that haunted the streets of Babylon. With government sanction and unlimited budgets, they were the maximum cops of a dark, demonic future.

But the gear wasn’t paramount. The action wasn’t paramount. The software was paramount.

Shooting techniques for multiple engagements. Close quarters battle tactics to minimize exposure and engage the threat. Strategies to defeat threats with overwhelming numbers and firepower. Most of all, a mindset focused on winning the fight.

More than just the shooting and slashing, I wanted to take the reader inside the mind of an elite operator and how he would react in the face of overwhelming terror. Heavy firepower was nice, but strategy and mindset was paramount. From the latter comes intense battle scenes that would satisfy everyone who read it.

There are two audiences who read action stories. The first just want to experience the intensity of battle. The second have training and experience of violence, and are looking for stories that match what they know. The former doesn’t care too much about authenticity, so long as they are satisfied. For the latter, authenticity is a requirement for satisfaction. From a purely business perspective, satisfying both audiences make more money than simply satisfying one.

For the action scenes in Babylon Blues, I ensured there was plenty of action to satisfy the former audience—and much depth for the latter to dig into.

With Babylon Red, I had to take another approach.

Following the events of Babylon Blues, the Special Tasks Section has been disbanded. No military hardware. No political backing. No government sanction to hunt down monsters in the guise of men.  No Yuri Yamamoto to nullify black magic. And yet, the former operators of Team Black Watch are still drawn into chaos and conflict.

This changes how the characters approach combat. They can’t fly into the hot zone with all guns blazing. They can’t call on the police to seal off a scene. They can’t rely on firepower-intensive tactics. They cannot hope to fight the enemy head-on.

They cannot use the conventional approach to violence seen in modern-day fiction.

 They have to use what gear they can buy, have on hand, or have stashed away for a rainy day. They have limited ammunition and even more limited explosives. Instead of utilizing the national surveillance network to hunt their enemies, they must now mitigate or defeat omnipresent sensors and cameras. They cannot count on the government backing them—if anything, the government will hunt them down if the New Gods request it.

This points to a different kind of war: urban guerrilla warfare.

In this milieu, stand-up fights are suicide. Team Black Watch must rely on stealth, mobility, and hit-and-run tactics. Instead of lengthy battles, they conduct quick raids, seeking to complete their objectives before reinforcements arrive, and melt into the streets and crowds. They avoid the enemy’s strengths and engage their weaknesses.

They turn the New Gods against each other.

The greatest weakness of the New Gods is that they do not, and cannot, cooperate. They are competing for the same limited resources, and their goals are too divergent. Long-term partnership is impossible. They are all paranoid, looking for signs of malfeasance from their neighbours. Any armistice is merely a breather to rearm, repair and refit.

Despite the presence of former STS operators scattered across Nova Babylonia, the New Gods see each other as their primary threats. Next in line in the threat hierarchy are the minor powers who serve as the cat’s paws of their rivals. The tertiary threat is the independent Dark Powers that seek to carve out their own turf. The former STS don’t even register on the New Gods’ radar unless—and until—they strike back.

And Team Black Watch is aware of this.

If the New Gods willed it, they could easily track down the former operators of the STS and destroy them. But doing so would require significant investment in time, energy and resources. This would compromise their ability to guard against their rivals. As such, they cannot afford to actively hunt for Team Black Watch unless they cause trouble for them. So long as Team Black Watch carries out their activities with a minimum of fuss, the New Gods won’t pursue them. They may hate the operators, but they won’t be spurred into action if Team Black Watch won’t cross the line.

The men and woman of Team Black Watch know this.

And they also know that if the New Gods believe one of their rivals struck at them, they will come down hard on the alleged perpetrator—which will draw their attention away from the team.

Babylon Red is informed by urban guerrilla warfare principles, set in a world populated by demons, monsters and cultists. The only viable strategy is death by a thousand cuts. To strike at the New Gods below their threshold for massive retaliation, over and over and over again. Attrition instead of decision is the order of the day.

This is a long-term campaign. It may seem futile. But the New Gods are not all-powerful. Even they have limited resources. Once they are stretched to the breaking point, they cannot stand for long. If they spend resources going after small groups of rebels, they expose themselves to their rivals. If they defend against their rivals, the rebels may land a decisive strike that will send shockwaves through their empires.

In fiction, it is an unconventional approach. I’ve only ever seen it done a few times, mostly in long war epics. Babylon Red, a collection of serials, is my own take on the idea, focusing on quick but strategic actions. Team Black Watch are like dogs nipping at the heels of the New Gods, darting in to take a small bite, then zipping away before the avenging sword falls.

It does not fit conventional storytelling trend of war and combat. It may not seem significant. But one day, these dogs might just sever the Achilles tendon, and once the tendon is cut, even a god must fall. To continue the adventures of Team Black Watch, back Babylon Red here!

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