This turned into a mini-research project… The chart below shows who had the majority in the Senate and House, and who held the White House, for each of the 115 Congresses of the United States. The main point is to examine when a party has been able to do what it wants in government.


The colors: beige is “Pro-Administration” (not an actual party); green is Federalist; orange is Democratic-Republican; purple is Whig; blue is Democratic; red is Republican. (White can be taken as “the opposition”— except in 1881, when it means that both parties had the same number of Senate seats.)

The number gives the percentage of seats in the Senate and House held by the majority party.

For Democrats and Republicans, I’ve used two colors: dark when the party can do what it wants; light when it can’t.  The general rule is that it’s light when not all three columns match— that is, government is divided.

However, I’ve modified this for the period 1953-1988.  With Eisenhower and Nixon, this is largely because neither tried to govern in conflict with Congress, at least by today’s standards. With Reagan, I’ve shown Congress as stymied, but not Reagan himself: he was able to implement the major policy shift from liberalism to plutocracy without serious setbacks.

I haven’t tried to graphically depict cases where a party was too divided to get much done— e.g under Carter and Trump.

What emerges, I think, are a number of periods with very different overall structures.

  • 1789-1800: the early years. I don’t know much about the politics of the time, but it’s probably not worth drawing lessons from it as everyone was trying to figure out how things worked and what their disagreements were.
  • 1801-1830: the Era of  Good Feelings.  Well, no wonder things went pretty smoothly: the Democratic-Republicans had a lock on government.
  • 1830-1860: the pre-Civil-war period. A lot more contentious, as a Democratic/Whig system developed. The second half of the period, dominated by the slavery question, shows a high degree of contention.
  • 1860-1932: overall, the Republican Period. This was the old style GOP, of course— the party of Northern business above all. There are a few contentious periods, but overall the number of strong GOP years is striking. Only Cleveland and Wilson had strong Democratic years.
  • 1933-1979: the liberal period. This period was dominated almost as strongly by the Democrats.Congress was so reliably Democratic that GOP presidents had to work with it.
  • 1980 on: the plutocratic period. Very largely a return to Republican rule, but much less solidly. Compare the majorities: where the 19C GOP often had numbers in the 60s or higher, the present-day GOP hasn’t risen above 57%. Divided government is the norm rather than the exception.

The reason I looked at all this was because I was curious how often we’ve had divided government, and the bipartisan courtesies that used to accompany it: infrequent filibusters, accommodating confirmation hearings, a collegial Senate, etc. We often hear people bemoaning increased polarization and wishing that people would just work together somehow across party lines. It’s said that the parties used to be miscellaneous coalitions so that they could pretty easily work together.

I think the general answer can be read from the chat: bipartisanship usually isn’t necessary. In 76 out of 115 Congresses— two-thirds of the time— we’ve had undivided government. That means that one party held the presidency and Congress, and could pretty much do as it wanted. (Again, we’re ignoring intra-party fights for now.) In such times you could be bipartisan if events warranted, but you could also pretty much ignore the other party.

Of course, that leaves another third of the time when we have divided government. Then, of course, it’s useful if both parties can work together. On the other hand, at least two of these periods were highly polarized times when being “moderate” arguably meant being a piece of jelly-like protoplasm:

  • The pre-Civil War period. People looked for decades, but there was really no moral or pragmatic compromise to be found between slavery and abolition.  The compromisers of the time aren’t exactly highly regarded today.
  • The present day, which is a lower-key but just as polarized debate on whether the country should be run for the benefit of its richest 10%, or for everyone. And some other issues, like whether or not we’d like to preserve the planet’s ecosphere and avoid nuclear annihilation. I sympathize with those who “hate politics” and wish that everyone would just get along. But you can’t wish the issues away, and “moderates” are usually deeply delusional about what’s actually happening in the country.

(What happened in the 1875-96 period?  I really don’t know, though now I’m curious. This was the Gilded Age, when the preoccupation was making money. The party lines seem baffling today: the Republicans were protectionist and pro-industry; the Democrats were laissez-faire, anti-tariffs, and associated with small farmers, immigrants, and Southerners. Neither seems to map to todays’ liberal/conservative divide.)

So, when you hear that (say) filibusters used to be uncommon— sure, they were, but look at those majority numbers. Majorities over 60 used to be common. This isn’t to say that the abuse of the filibuster isn’t a problem; the point is that periods of amiable divided government really haven’t ever been the norm.


I just finished Massacre at the Palace, by Jonathan Gregson, which focuses on the 2001 massacre of the royal family of Nepal by the crown prince, but retells the entire history of the Shah dynasty.  And good lord, the massacre is only of a piece with Nepali royal history.

The story starts in 1742 with the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah to the kingdom of Gorkha. This was only one of sixty independent kingdoms in what is now Nepal, and by no means one of the major ones. Yet over the next quarter century, Prithvi ran a remarkable campaign of conquest, culminating in his overrunning the much more powerful kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. He and his successors kept on till they controlled the present-day territory of Nepal and quite a bit more.

In 1814-16, Gorkha ran afoul of the British, who defeated it and required it to take a British ambassador, and no others. Other than that, Gorkha retained its independence, and took on the role of Enthusiastic Ally. The British were impressed by the fighting spirit of the kingdom’s warriors, and recruited “Gurkhas” (their version of the name of the country) into their army. They were instrumental in putting down the 1857 revolt and served in large numbers in both world wars.

After that, the Shah dynasty had a big problem: minor kings.  For half a century after Prithvi’s death in 1775, there was almost never an adult king. That left regents in charge, and invited the family to indulge in some intense Game of Thrones style intrigue. The queens were particularly involved– not least because if their children didn’t win the throne, they could be forced to commit suicide.

By the 1830s, power was divided between king Rajendra, crown prince Surendra, and Rajya Laxmi, one of the king’s wives (not Surendra’s mother). Surendra was not popular, as he had a cruel streak: he liked to order subjects to jump down a well or ride a horse off a cliff, just to see if they’d die.

One relatively minor incident: the chief minister, a supporter of the queen, decided to switch his support to Surendra. Laxmi ordered a retainer, Jung Bahadur Konwar, to kill him– which he did, intensifying the palace intrigue. The next move was the king’s: he had his wife’s lover (another state minister) killed.

Laxmi was incensed, and summoned all the senior officers of the realm to an assembly ground known as the Kot, one night in 1846.  Konwar took the precaution of arriving with his brothers as well as a backup force.  Laxmi demanded to know who had been responsible for killing her minister; when no one replied she accused some wretch of doing it and ordered him immediately executed.  When people balked at this, she ran at him herself with a sword, but Konwar restrained her and escorted her back to the balcony. (The king slipped out and escaped the country.)

Once she was safely there, Konwar’s men opened fire on the assembled nobles.  Over thirty were killed, and an unknown number of soldiers and retainers.

The queen rewarded him with the position of chief minister and commander in chief. She expected that in return her own son would be named crown prince, but Konwar refused. She attempted to have him assassinated, but the plot was discovered; Konwar killed another couple dozen of her supporters and exiled her.  With both Laxmi and Rajendra out of the country, he could have the incapable Surendra proclaimed king.  More importantly, he could assume absolute power himself. He was granted a semi-royal title, Rana, and made the prime ministership hereditary.  The Ranas governed for the next century… not without an intra-dynastic shakeup or two of their own. The Shah family was essentially confined as prisoners in their own palace.

So things stood till 1950.  (The country began to be called Nepal in the 1930s, by the way. Previously this had been a name for the Kathmandu Valley only.)  Nepal remained one of the most regressive and poorest countries in Asia, but there was a new factor: there were now three embassies in Kathmandu: the UK, the US, and newly independent India.

King Tribhuvan saw an opportunity, and it was carefully negotiated by his sons, who had more freedom of movement. He requested from the Rana prime minister permission to hold an outdoor picnic. This was granted– as the army would accompany him, it seemed harmless.  The king and his sons each drove their own cars. As the motorcade passed the Indian Embassy, the doors opened and they drove in. It happened so fast that the army escort had no chance to react.  Immediately the king applied for political asylum.

In brief, the Rana ministers were now put in an impossible position, and had to negotiate a return to royal rule.  This was supposed to be democratic, but the Shah kings rarely had much patience for parliamentary rule, and things were only slightly better than under the Ranas. In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency rose up in the countryside and soon controlled a quarter of the country.

The 2001 massacre was dramatic, but seems more an instance of insanity than power politics. The crown prince, Dipendra, wanted to get married; in a typical instance of arrogant royal interference, his mother refused to let him marry his chosen partner. That, at least, seems to be the underlying grievance.  Dipendra also enjoyed guns and had quite a collection of automatic rifles; he also had an alcohol and drug problem.

In June 2001 he snapped– or saw his opportunity. He was host for the royal family’s weekly dinner together.   He behaved strangely throughout the evening, at one point passing out.  He returned with a gun and shot up his family: his parents, his siblings, some aunts and uncles.  One wonders if he had some idea of bullshitting his way through to the throne– but if so, he reconsidered it, and instead shot himself.

One uncle survived, and became the new king. But he was never very popular, and the public seems to have finally had enough of royal rule. He was forced to return to parliamentary rule, and then, in 2008, parliament declared an end to the monarchy. Since then Nepal has had one of the most unusual political landscapes in the world: power has alternated between two communist parties (one Maoist, one Marxist-Leninist) and a center-left one.

All this makes a great story, but I should emphasize, the moral of the story is that kings suck. I’m reminded of a terrible passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, where a king explains that the lot of a king is one of service and hardship and is nothing to be envied… bullshit, C.S.  Where kings have real power, they are absolute bastards… not least because if they aren’t, they will be the puppets of someone who is.

The usual (bare) justification for monarchy is that it avoid succession struggles: you don’t have a civil war upon the death of each leader.  Even this low standard is violated in large swaths of history (see: the Roman Empire).  Though reflecting on Nepal’s history, perhaps a modified version of this claim could be defended: monarchy doesn’t avoid succession disputes, but it does make it a little more likely that they will be handled by nasty and murderous political intrigue, rather than by civil war. Even the Kot massacre was better than all-out war.

Still, the tradeoff is pretty terrible. The Ranas and the Shahs made out well, but the country remained miserably poor and undeveloped, and unequipped to deal with modern problems. (And the British deserve some share of the blame as well.  They were perfectly happy with Nepal as a backwards buffer state on their border, and they implicitly supported Rana misrule for over a century.)

Oh, I guess I should say something about Gregson’s book, eh?  Well, it’s really good, not least because he has such rich material to work with.  It’s well told, and it’s not a bad introduction to recent Nepalese history as well.






One reason I can tell my India book is almost done is that I keep finding things that are interesting, but too detailed or particular to go in the book. But they can go in this blog!

I’m reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which is pretty good. At one point she writes

The Sanskrit names of several Indian foods contain the element china, indicating their Chinese origin, including peaches (chinani), pears (chinarajaputra), lettuce (chinasalit), and cinnamon (dalchini, or Chinese bark).

Sounds good, except when I checked a Sanskrit dictionary to get more scholarly transliterations. None of these words appears there. Other words are given for all but ‘lettuce’.

Time for some Googling.  I find Sen’s claim repeated in several places. But then I find an old book which has this to say:

The Sanskrit names here given for the peach and the pear seem to be known only from this narrative. Later authorities tell us that these fruits are indigenous in the country, and the whole story of the hostage is possibly invention.

What hostage?  Well, it’s too good a story not to repeat.

When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of king Kanishka… The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration. …The pilgrim proceeds to relate how Peaches and Pears were unknown in this district and the part of India beyond until they were introduced by the “China hostage”.

The story is not impossible, but we should be extremely skeptical, not least because this is precisely the kind of story people love: tracing a cultural change not to some nameless trader, but to a colorful celebrity, here the son of a far ruler with an inexplicable fear of an Indian monarch. Plus we have the non-confirmation from the lexicons.

All this is a good reminder to approach sources with caution, and to wonder how many normal-sounding statements in history books are based on things as shaky as this. However, it doesn’t affect my book at all— it takes too much space to explain what turns out not to be a fact at all.

Still, there’s more to say! The “old book” I found is called On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., by Thomas Watters, 1904.  Yuan Chwang is the “pilgrim” referred to in the cite above.

But who is he?  Turns out he’s none other than 玄奘 Xuánzàng, who some readers may remember from my China Construction Kit, and whose trip to India inspired the Míng novel Journey to the West. I’m tempted to read Watters’ book, because I’m curious to know more about Xuánzàng’s actual trip, as opposed to the mythological joyride of Journey to the West. Bookmarked for later!

It’s a great thing, by the way, that scholars have finally standardized on pinyin, because Chinese names used to be murder for scholars. Not a few historians of India didn’t get the memo, as they still refer to “Hiuen Tsang”. Other variants include Hiouen Thsang, Hsüan Chwang, Hhüen Kwân, and Shuen Shang. What a mess. Contrariwise, it’s very nice that even a century-old book like Watters uses a Sanskrit transliteration almost identical to what we use today.

Oh, what’s that about Chinese mangoes?  That’s the literal translation of chinarajaputra. (Well, rajaputra literally means ‘prince’, but it’s also a word for mango, so if you did need a word for ‘pear’, ‘Chinese mango’ makes more sense than ‘Chinese prince’.) (But the real Sanskrit word for ‘pear’ seems to be amritaphala.)




I just finished the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Story), by Somadeva, written in Kashmīr in the 11C. Or, well, an abridgment of it, in Arshia Sattar’s very readable modern translation.


A vidyādhara. Nice booties!

The original Kathāsaritsāgara is about six times longer, and claims to be itself an abridgment of a book called the Brihatkathā, written by a celestial being named Guṇāḍhya in his own blood, in Paiśācī, the language of the piśācas, the lowest class of demons. Rather too much scholarly time has been spent on the trail of this mythical book in a mythical language— even some modern scholars are convinced that Paiśācī was a real language, though there exists not a scrap of it nor the Brihatkathā.

I’ve talked about the nested stories in the Hitopadeśabut Somadeva has them beat. Navigating one particular part of the ocean:

  • Śiva is asked by his wife Parvātī to tell a story no one has heard before.  He tells the story of the vidyādharas, celestial beings with magical powers such as flight and shape-changing. He tells it in a locked room. One of their attendants is curious about this and uses his own powers to enter invisibly; he listens to the story and tells it to his wife, who tells it to Parvātī.  Parvātī is angry at Śiva, since it appears everyone knows this story! Śiva divines what happened and explains, whereupon Parvātī punishes the attendant to live as a mortal.
  • This attendant, now living as a mortal, is Guṇāḍhya. He has a whole book’s worth of adventures; one consequence is that he takes a vow not to use Sanskrit, which is why when he writes the Brihatkathā he uses an ignoble language. His curse will end when he spreads this story to the world. To accomplish this, he sends it to a king, who rejects it because it is written in Paiśācī. Sadly, Guṇāḍhya begins to read and burn the manuscript. Finally the king happens to come to the place where Guṇāḍhya is reading, and is enchanted with the stories. Guṇāḍhya has burned 6 of the 7 books, but he gives the last book to the king, ending his curse.
  • Now we come to the story told in that book, which is the framing device for the rest of the stories: the story of the human prince Naravāhanadatta, how he accumulated an impressive harem of human and celestial wives, and finally became a vidyādhara himself and emperor of the vidyādharas. Most of the other stories are told to him to amuse or distract him, or because they relate to some of his problems.
  • One of the these stories, related by his minister Gomukha, concerns the king Sumanas.  One day a tribal woman arrives, a stunning beauty, who has a parrot. The parrot can talk, and is asked for his story.
  • The parrot tells about growing up in a tree, until hunters come by and kill the parrots there, including his father.  A brahmin rescues the young parrot and takes him to his guru, who laughs.  He laughs because he knows the story of the parrot’s previous birth.
  • The guru tells the story of the prince Somaprabha, who does what valorous princes do— conquers the surrounding lands. Far from home, he comes to a lake where a beautiful vidyādhara woman is singing.
  • She tells him her story. She is Manorathaprabhā, the daughter of a vidyādhara king. She used her powers of flight to wander the world, and fell in love with an ascetic. They are briefly separated, and unable to bear this, the ascetic kills himself. The voice of a god prevents Manorathaprabhā from doing the same. Her friend Makarandikā now arrives and falls in love with Somaprabha…

Eventually Somadeva clears the stack and finishes each of these stories appropriately. (If you’re curious, the parrot is Makarandikā’s father under a curse.)

As you can imagine, this structure allows Somadeva to include pretty much any story he’s heard. There are animal stories overlapping with the Hitopadeśa, and jātaka stories (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous births), and vampire stories, and a tiny little retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa. There’s a whole book devoted to stories of the wickedness of women, and to balance them, stories of virtuous women triumphing over wicked men. There’s even an amusing libel about Pāṇini, author of the great, definitive Sanskrit grammar: that he was a dull scholar who only received his grammar from the gods as a reward for austerities.

I have my doubts about the spiritual value of the doctrine of saṃsāra— the endless cycle of rebirth— it’s too easy a solution to the problem of pain. It seems like a copout to blame present suffering on misdeeds in a past life. But the Indian storytellers show the real value of saṃsāra: as a narrative device. Neil Gaiman has noted that stories, if prolonged too far, always end in death. But with saṃsāra, death is only a temporary milestone, a chance for a story to change gears. In these stories, celestial beings are constantly being cursed to be mortals or animals, wives and lovers recur as in a cosmic dance, and stories dash madly from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean to all across historical India.

Malice is usually punished, and virtue is often rewarded… but so is a certain roguish opportunism. There are plenty of ascetics here, and people who tire of the pleasure of the world and go off to meditate in the forest— but Somadeva doesn’t seem to really believe in mokṣa. Here, asceticism too may only be a phase, perhaps ended by falling in love with a vidyādhara, or some other contrivance.

The Ten Princes had a certain unity of theme— men rising from nothing to find wives and become kings— and the Hitopadeśa is all animal stories, so this book is much more miscellaneous. But that’s a virtue in its own way: if one set of stories doesn’t quite thrill you, the next might.

I think my favorite stories are the stories of the vetāla, more or less the Indian equivalent of the vampire. They are spirits who reanimate dead bodies. A king, Vikrama, is visited by a beggar every day for ten years, and given a fruit. He gives the fruits to his treasurer, but one day he instead gives it to a passing monkey, and a jewel comes out. He asks the treasurer about the other fruits, and the honest man answers that he has simply thrown them into the treasury through a window. They go to look, and find that the fruits all rotted away, leaving an immense treasure.

This naturally makes the king ask the beggar what’s up. The beggar says that he was hoping to get the king to do him a favor. The king agrees. He is told to come to a cremation ground at night to meet the beggar.

Once there, the beggar asks him to walk to a tree and bring him the corpse that’s hanging from it.  The king goes and cuts it down, but it turns out to be inhabited by a vetāla. As the king is taking him back to the beggar, the vetāla begins telling him stories. But the stories are also riddles, and the king has to answer each one correctly. For instance, a washing man falls in love with a woman named Madanasundarī. She goes with her new husband and his brother to a temple of Parvātī, but they have nothing to offer as a sacrifice. Her husband goes in and is so overcome by the religious atmosphere that he feels he must sacrifice something— and having nothing else, cuts off his own head. His brother comes after him, and seeing his head on the floor, does the same. Madanasundarī finally goes after them, and is shocked to see them both dead. She is about to kill herself when the goddess intervenes. She tells the girl to reattach the heads to the bodies, and they will be restored to life.  This she does, but in her excitement she puts the wrong heads on the bodies.

Now, the vetāla asks, which man was really her husband— the man with her husband’s head, or the one with his body?  Vikrama responds that the man with the head is her real husband: “the head rules the limbs and personal identity depends on the head.”  (This sounds reasonable to us, but then we believe that we live in our brains, which was not an opinion shared by all cultures.)

After a couple dozen stories, the vetāla reveals that the beggar is a sorcerer, and plans to sacrifice the king to him to achieve power over the vidyādharas. The beggar will ask him to lay down on the ground in a certain way.  The vetāla tells him to ask the beggar to show him how; the king should then cut off his head.  The king does just this.  The vetāla disappears and Śiva makes Vikrama king of the vidyādharas.  Which in turn brings us back to Naravāhanadatta, who at this point in the framing story also becomes king of the vidyādharas.

Anyway: bottom line, if you can find Sattar’s translation, go get it.  It’s a quick read and you won’t regret it.

Marc Laidlaw, a former writer for Valve, has published a plot summary for Half-Life 2 Episode 3. It’s obfuscated and gender-swapped (which is actually kind of amusing), but here’s a deobfuscated version. Fresh off reading Shamus Young’s dissections of bad plots, I’m going to go ahead and say: it’s a terrible plot.


(Go read it, this won’t make any sense till you do.)

Now, I fully realize this is an informal treatment, probably from very early in the (now dead) development process. There’s no game here… but it would have been added, and adding game elements is something Valve is… was… good at. But it can be judged as an attempt at the story.

As a short sf story, it has a few good ideas with some horror potential: Breen as a miserable Combine slug; the between-worlds Borealis; the final reveal of the galaxy-class power of the Combine.

As a plot, it’s worse than Mass Effect 2.  (See Shamus for why the plot of ME2 is actually worse than ME3.) It not only throws out any forward progress made in HL2 and in Episodes 1/2, it actually sets things back. Is every Half-Life plot supposed to be “Gordon Freeman does something perilous to shut down a portal that’s supposed to fix things, and in the next game we find out it failed”?

The Breen encounter might be kind of fun, but it’s also a kick in the teeth to HL2 itself. Breen was a fantastic character, but just bringing him back is the epitome of genre laziness. I don’t want to read LOTR 2 where the Ring turns out not to have been destroyed, and Frodo has to return from Eressëa to destroy it again.

Having Alyx kill Judith Mossman suggests that Laidlaw forgot he was writing a game rather than a movie. As Shamus might point out, this is like your DM having the NPCS in the party kill the Big Bad. If Alyx is the protagonist of the game, make her the frigging player character.

The dimension-hopping of the Borealis would probably be fun to look at, but it’s not used in any interesting sense here. If what we have is a dimension-hopping ship, we should have more than one destination.  (I fear that Aperture Science and Cave Johnson, however, are a little too comic to fit into the Half-Life games.)

The Dyson sphere is a great reveal.  If it’s done right, you get an oh shit moment: the enemy is even more powerful than it appeared. Only… the Combine was already all-powerful. It conquered Earth in seven hours, remember? HL2 owes most of its power to its depiction of enormous, intractable catastrophe. Only, “the right man in the wrong place can make a world of difference”, right? Even if he spends a lot of the game whacking headcrabs with a crowbar.

So what difference does Gordon— or Alyx— make in this story? Absolutely none. the Dyson sphere makes a great Act II reversal; it’s a terrible end to the story.

Plus, to make G-Man mysterious is one thing; to have him make no sense at all is just wankery. Is he like the Outsider, changing his favorites on a whim? There was the idea that he was some sort of galactic mercenary… but then it’s way past time we learn something about what entities are paying his fees.

Here’s just a few ideas that would make this plot summary at least kind of game-like:

  • Make Alyx the PC.
  • Lose Breen. Invent an actual new named Combine antagonist who is racing you to the Borealis.
  • Alyx has the ability to kill Mossman at any time. If it’s too early, you lose. If it’s too late, she grounds the ship in the Antarctic and the Combine swarm in.
  • Use the dimension-hopping to prop up the Resistance at a few key points. This is optional, but each point will give you soldiers to take along, and they’ll make the fights at the Dyson Sphere easier.
  • At the Dyson Sphere, you find your nemesis snuck onto the ship. It was wounded, but this is its home turf. You have to follow and kill it.  You are using the ship to blink about; because of its time instability, you may arrive at a location several minutes before or after the nemesis does, which affects the difficulty of the fight.
  • In the fights, Gordon is your ally and uses his gravity gun. You, however, have a portal gun that was lying around the ship.
  • When you defeat it, the G-Man talks to you.  “Good job getting here,” he smirks, and offers you three choices:
    • Use the Dyson Sphere base to destroy all Combine points connected to it– freeing a vast number of planets, but also destroying unimaginable numbers of innocent beings who happen to be near the Combine facilities.
    • Destroy the base itself– leaving the Combine and their slaves on each planet isolated from each other.
    • Open a portal that allows one of the G-Man’s other clients to reach Earth. He assures you, with a slappable smile, that they hate the Combine “and will not destroy your people.”

Oh, you want HL3 and HL4 too?  OK, some ideas:

  • Get rid of the remaining Combine on Earth before they can reconstruct a portal.
  • Or, if you chose Door Number Three, get rid of the G-Man’s pals, who turn out to be just as nasty but in different ways.
  • Take the fight to the Combine homeworld.
  • Find out why the Combine are fighting: they are building resources against an intergalactic threat. Guess what, you’re the one facing it now.


I just spent about an entire workday reading two video game reviews by Shamus Young.  They’re pretty good. Here he is on Arkham City; here he is on the Mass Effect series.

arkham city catwoman

What holds her goggles on?

Did I mention these are really long?  The Mass Effect one is in fifty installments.

Now, Shamus is pretty solid on gameplay. He agrees with me, as well he should, on the excellence of Arkham City and why its combat system is fantastic. He observes that the actual gameplay improves over the Mass Effect games. But his heart is elsewhere. What he really wants to talk about (and boy howdy, does he) is plot. And plot holes. And character problems. And worldbuilding problems.

I’m making fun of his verbosity, but I read these entire things, and he’s actually really good at this sort of criticism. He points out what works in the story, and what doesn’t.  He can be pedantic, but he’s actually quite forgiving about things-required-for-gameplay.  (Like, Batman is in the city for like 12 hours, and never once stops to eat or even take a drink of water. That’s OK, everyone understands how games differ from real life.) If you were the game designer, you’d probably bristle at what he has to say, but the thing is, he’s almost always right, and he’ll even explain, for free, how you could have done it right and make the game better that way.

On Arkham City, about the thing he likes best is the Joker/Clayface plot, and how the Big Twist is carefully foreshadowed.  And what he likes least is how passive Batman is about, well, everything.  He’s never prepared for anything, he is constantly getting sidetracked, and he almost never does any actual detecting.

I agree, but of course I think the game works despite this, perhaps because the “World’s Greatest Detective” side of Batman has always been a bit of a cheat. In the original stories he’s all about the punching. If he does come up with a clue, it’s not the Poirot style of using reason to knit a story together; it’s the comic-book or Star Trek trope of “Being a super-genius, I will come up with the next plot strand by staring at this computer.” Still, it’s nice when Batman actually comes up with something to do on his own that works, rather than being supplied it by a voice in his ear. Using Poison Ivy in the first game works. About the only idea Batman comes up with himself in Arkham City is going to see Catwoman, and that actually tells him nothing.

On Mass Effect he goes through the entire plot of all three games.  In short: he thinks 1 is masterfully done, while 2/3 throw out everything that worked and try to tell a new story.  If it worked, that would be OK, though weird; but in fact it’s completely incoherent.

In short: lots of people thought that the problem was 3’s ending.  But he makes the case that the series went off the rails at the beginning of 2 and made terrible decisions throughout. The ending didn’t suck any worse than the rest of the plot; but since it was the ending, nothing came afterward to distract the player back into acceptance.

But the characters and side quests!  Yes, these were almost entirely good, and the stories here were often fantastic. On the other hand, almost all of what was good storywise came from 1. He particularly admires the Rachni/Turian/Salarian/Krogan storyline. The Rachni invade and kick everyone’s ass; the Salarians uplift the Krogans to fight them; they succeed but then become a threat on their own; the Turians unleash the genophage to beat them down.

As Shamus points out, this isn’t just a story (A happened, then B happened, then C happened), but a plot: A happened, this caused B, and that caused C in turn. It sets up a complicated history and conflicts between the species and creates multiple intervention points for Commander Shepard. The Geth/Quarian subplot is also high quality. In both cases, the story was set up in 1 and not mishandled in 2/3.

What went wrong in the main questline in 2/3?  In a word, everything. Cerberus makes no sense. The Illusive Man has contradictory powers, goals, and methods– one moment he’s a terrorist, another he’s a misguided nationalist who’s the only person willing to fight the Reapers, yet another he’s a dupe of the Reapers (yet never accomplishes anything for them). Game 1 set up a clear goal for Shepard (learn how to fight the Reapers, using her ability to understand the Protheans and her Asari friend’s special competence in that area).  2 threw all that away in order to fight a completely different threat, for completely different masters.  Then the ending of 2 was itself thrown away so that Shepard could go back to the Reapers… only she doesn’t, she spends almost the entire questline fighting Cerberus. The whole Reaper thing– the supposed inevitability of synthetics destroying organics– is completely contradicted by the story of the Geth. In the whole of 2/3 there’s no entity, from Shepard on down, who has a clear rational goal in the main story and pursues it intelligently.

Plus, outside the “good subquests”, Shepard is never given interesting choices, or even good dialog options. In all of 2 she never gets any zingers in with the Illusive Man, and in 3 she never defends her time with Cerebus, even to the extent of saying she had no choice. And yet Cerebus never has any word for itself either; no pro-Cerebus character ever explains any good thing it’s doing.

Now, as it happens, I enjoyed 2 more than 1. (I never played 3.) But that’s because I value plot far less than Shamus does. I thought 1’s gameplay was mediocre; 2’s was far better, and the squad recruitment and loyalty quests were almost all satisfying.  And this difference in evaluation is just fine.  He doesn’t expect everyone to share his preferences, and he’s very good at explaining why, for those who really care about plot and worldbuilding, failures in these areas are really obnoxious.

It’s not that I don’t care about story at all– a good one adds immeasurably to a game. But I’m willing to forgive a lot if the core gameplay is well done.  Left 4 Dead, for instance, is the stupidest of horror stories: a constant run from mindless zombies. But it’s a blast while you’re in it.

(If you know me, you might be surprised that I’m not all about the worldbuilding in games. Well, I do love a good world! But it’s only one of the things that make a great game shine, and it really can’t rescue poor gameplay.)

If all this whets your appetite, he also has good analyses on why the Thieves’ Guild storyline in Skyrim is far worse than the one in Oblivion, and why Fallout 3‘s main story is idiotic.

Shamus doesn’t get much into the production of video games, and this is the one defect in his analysis. He obviously understands that games are written by teams, but I think he kind of assumes that some Head Writer is in charge of everything. Now, my own knowledge doesn’t go beyond reading some interviews and diving down fairly deeply into Fallout New Vegas‘s game editor. But I get the impression that Shamus thinks games work like this:

  • writer outlines the main plot, much like a screenplay
  • writer works out the levels, main quests, and side quests
  • maybe other people come in and do some work, but writer acts like a movie director in charge of it all

And I suspect development mostly works like this:

  • developers work on the game engine
  • level designers create a bunch of levels
  • art directors create pictures; these are turned into a shit-ton of assets
  • meanwhile, a bunch of ideas are tossed around for an overall story
  • writers cobble together dialogs that justify moving from Level A to Level B
  • quests are created, each one by some designer who doesn’t talk to any of the others
  • pretty much each of these steps are reworked several times as ideas change, problems arise, and various suits step in
  • oh shit we’re supposed to ship in 12 months, we’d better get our shit together
  • the levels that demo the best are selected; the rest are thrown out
  • writers frantically stitch together those levels, patching over the missing quests that would have made sense of the overall story
  • voice talent comes in; now rewriting anything becomes nearly impossible
  • the writers grumble because things don’t make sense, but the team is shell-shocked by now, finishing final art and level design and quashing the infinity of bugs QA keeps finding
  • oh jesus we promised it’d be out by now and we can’t delay any more, HERE IT IS

Again, this isn’t to say that Shamus’s criticisms are wrong. It’s just, there was never something like a script where everything was laid out.  There was probably a treatment of the main story, but it’s spectacularly out of date. The process is designed so that a dozen people can be simultaneously writing quests without checking constantly with their boss or each other. And when you’re actually doing a quest in the game editor, there are a million things to think about– all the McGuffins have to be placed in the game-world, all the triggering boxes set up, all the dialog logic coded. You have to juggle an amazing number of possibilities that most players will never see. Players focus on a few big decisions, but a lot of the logic in a quest relates to far smaller decisions: are there ways to accomplish a goal by stealth or by combat?  Did the player mindlessly wipe out NPC #2394 who you’d chosen to produce a plot point?  What if they stumble on things in the ‘wrong’ order? Do we have a quip for each of the possible 12 companions to utter? How many NPC dialog lines have to be doubled because they refer to the PC’s gender? What special options exist because you took some perk, or you have a high (im)morality score?

It wouldn’t surprise me if Bioware was aware of half of the problems Shamus found… only once a quest is written, voice-acted, with level design and art created… who the fuck wants to redo it?

I also suspect it’s a lot easier to get all this right if you can railroad the player more. Arkham City has lots of sidequests, but the main quest is entirely linear, and the player has no story choices. (Well, technically you have one, as Catwoman, but one of them just ends the game.)

Edit: One more thought… to understand why nerds write 50-post screeds like this, and why other nerds read them, you have to understand something about nerds: we are way more frustrated by something that’s 90% what we like, than by something that’s only 50%. People really got into Mass Effect (and forgave its dull combat) because of the setting, the characters, and the pure fun of being Shepard. People wouldn’t get this exercised over a terrible set of games.


I had these drawing studies for my last gods picture and thought they might be an interesting process story.

The nice thing about these gods, Nečeron and Eši, is that they have things they can do. Nečeron is god of craft, so he can be building. Eši is god of art, so she can be doing art. But just that would be a little boring. From somewhere, but undoubtedly influenced by M.C. Escher, came the idea of each creating the structure that’s holding up the other.

Here are some doodles trying to make it work:


Nečeron’s bit is easy: he’s creating whatever Eši is standing on. (It starts as a table.) But what is she painting? Maybe some sort of framework holding up the platform he’s sitting on?  That’s the lower left drawing; it looked cumbersome.  Maybe a ladder (bottom right), but then he only has one hand free to work. Finally I tried a set of stairs, and that worked.

Here’s the second attempt at that:


I decided that the concept worked, but now ran into the next problem: I can’t really draw this scene out of my own brain. The figures here don’t look terrible, but the proportion and placement of the limbs was difficult, and the blobs representing the hands hide the fact that the concept requires four iterations of my personal drawing bugbear: hands holding objects.

(These are sketches, and would certainly have been improved if I kept working on them. But one thing I’ve learned is that poor proportions do not improve by rendering them really well. Better to get the sketch right.)

I tried looking for photos online, but getting these specific poses would be difficult.

Taking reference photos, however, is easy! I have an iPad! Here’s the pictures as they appear in Photoshop, with the sketch done right on top of them.


Who’s the model?  Oh, just some guy who’s available very cheaply.

If you compare this with the previous step, you can find an embarrassing number of errors in the original. E.g. Eši’s legs are way too small, the shoulder facing us is too low, and her neck is not drawn as if we’re looking up at her. Plus I think the final poses are far more dramatic.

I did the final outline over the purple sketch. Then the procedure is: select an area in the outline; fix the selection to make sure it includes everything I want, and fill it in on a separate color layer with a flat color.  Then go over each flat color area and use the airbrush to add shading. The bricks and stairs also get some texturing, added with filters. The jewelry is done on a separate layer with its own drop shadow— a cheap, quick way to add realistic shadows.

The gods aren’t wearing much.  That’s just how gods are, of course. On an operational level, there are two reasons for this (which we can assume are shared to some extent by Almean sculptors and painters).  The lofty level is that I like the human figure and hate to cover it up.  The less lofty reason is… clothes are frigging hard to draw. Figure drawing is hard enough, and clothing requires a whole new set of skills and rules of thumb, and looks terrible when you get it wrong. Plus, these are Caďinorian gods, so they should be wearing Caďinorian robes, which require, like, a black belt in drawing. They’re made of wrinkles. There’s a reason so many superheroes wear leotards: they’re basically drawn on top of the nude figure, with no folds.

The final picture:


Tonight, I like it; in a year, I’m sure it’ll dissatisfy me. Actually, when I look at it, I wonder if the angle of the iPad foreshortened the figures, making their feet proportionately too big. Oh well.