In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Cordially,
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.

I saw this on Twitter, and decided that this was an important phrase to learn in Chinese:

CliN-G-UgAA8dB_

網上虛擬交心不宜

wǎng-shàng xūnǐ jiāoxīn bù yí

web-above virtual entrust not should

You should not make virtual commitments online.

 

While we’re at it, my Overwatch pals have been quoting D.Va’s comments in Korean, so let’s look at those in more detail.

안녕하세요!

a̠nɲjʌ̹ŋ ɦa̠sʰe̞jo

Annyeong haseyo!

peace you.have

Do you have peace? = How are you?

That first word is a borrowing from Chinese 安寧— Mandarin ānníng ‘peace, tranquility’. You will undoubtedly recognize the first character from 西安 Xī’ān, the ancient capital of China; also Heian, the ancient name for Kyoto.

D.va is very informal and also from the future, so she just says Annyeong!

감사합니다

ˈka̠ːmsʰa̠ɦa̠mnida̠

Kamsa hamnida!

thanks have.assertive

I am thankful! = Thank you!

Again, the first word is a borrowing: 感謝 gǎnxiè ‘gratitude’; the common way to say “Thank you” in Mandarin— which you can hear Mei say in Overwatch— is 謝謝 xièxiè.

And again, D.Va informally says just Kamsa!

Mei’s “Hello” is 你好 Nǐhǎo, literally “you good?”

 

I thought I should read at least one book by India’s first Nobelist, Rudyard Kipling, so I read what is sometimes called his best novel, Kim, published in 1901 but set in the 1880s, the years Kipling spent in India.  (Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay, was sent to England for schooling, and returned to India in 1882-89 as a journalist. Curiously for someone so closely associated with India, he lived there as an adult for only those seven years.)

I was going to illustrate this review with a picture from the book, but these prove to… raise questions, far more than the book itself.  More on that later. So here’s old Rudyard.

kipling

I doubt that Kim is much read these days on this side of the Atlantic, so let’s go over the basics.  Kim is a European, but raised as a wild child on the streets of Lahore. (He is an orphan, and a native woman takes care of him; she is forgotten halfway through the first chapter.) One day he meets a lama from Tibet, an ancient holy man who is seeking a river blessed by the Buddha. Kim has a bottomless curiosity and he has never met someone like the lama, so he decides to help the unworldly old lama get to Benares.

Kim also has a quest– his father told him that he would see a sign, a red bull on a green field, and have a great destiny.  So in form the book is a double quest with unlikely companions– like Huckleberry Finn and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But Kim also has a friend named Mahbub Ali, who takes the opportunity to send Kim with an important letter.  This introduces what will become the main thread of the plot: a spy story.  Kim, with his ability to effortlessly pass for Hindu, Muslim, or European, would make a perfect spy, and he thrills to the idea. He would love to join the Great Game, the rivalry between Russia and Britain.

Does this sound like a weird collection of themes?  Because it definitely is. There’s a spy novel here, mixed up with a travelogue across northwestern India, mixed up with the friendship of Kim and the lama.  That it works at all is a testimony to Kipling’s skill as a portraitist.  Kim is fun, chiefly because he’s having so much fun– he is enchanted by almost everything he sees, except for the British-run school he’s forced to attend for a few years. Kipling’s (and Kim’s) deep interest in everything Indian is infectious, and he has the remarkable ability to make characters who are admirable, clever, and at the same time lightly comic.

By cinematic or video game standards the spy story is small stuff. Nothing really threatens the British Raj here; if these spies fail their jobs will be taken up by someone else. Which is itself a lesson for storytellers: things can be momentous without being earth-shattering or even particularly violent. The villains, such as they are, are not introduced until page 222; they both survive the book, though not without a loss of dignity.

The lama’s story is occasionally pushed off to the side, and it may seem like a strange digression. But it serves to deepen the story quite a bit. Though he is often depicted as naïve or even mad, the lama is also an invaluable friend to Kim. Neither his religion nor his quest are belittled. As such his invocations of the Wheel of Life and the life of merit serve as a constant rebuke to Kim’s much more worldly ambitions. It seems clear that Kim will follow those ambitions anyway (he isn’t going to become a Buddhist monk), but it’s a nice counterpoint to have someone who thinks the Great Game is complete foolishness.

You may be wondering, isn’t Kipling an awful racist? Not really. Some of the few people Kipling criticizes are those who look down on the Indians. Whether he looks on Indians accurately I can’t say, but he had a journalist’s eye for details and personalities, and if there are comic notes to some of the Indians, that’s true, or even more true, of the Europeans. And the most heroic Europeans are those who are most appreciative of Indians and Indian culture– such as the museum curator in the first chapter, based on his own father. Even in playing the Great Game itself, most of Kim’s mentors and fellow spies are themselves Indians.

What he was, of course, was an imperialist. George Orwell’s essay on him is well worth reading; Orwell has a knack for clearly explaining a writer’s political problems while also freely admiring his good points. In Kim the imperialism is chiefly there through omission. The gulf between the Brits and the Indians is clearly depicted, but it’s treated as a fact of nature. One of the Indian spies, known as Hurree Babu, even complains to the foreign spies about having an European education without an European salary… a perfectly valid complaint, and yet it’s simply a trick to deceive the foreigners. Kipling simply doesn’t present a situation where Indians and British interests conflict, does not present anyone who questions British rule. There is a reference to the 1857 rebellion, but told from the point of view of a loyalist soldier… not a viewpoint a modern Indian would appreciate, but it’s certainly a historical fact that the British put down the revolt with Indian troops.

This isn’t to be dismissed as simply what people thought in 1901; Kipling was a Tory and even then the left-wing intelligentsia despised him.  Imperialism is indefensible, but it’s also dead and buried, and it doesn’t do us any great credit to despise it when no one is there to defend it. (Yes, we have interventionism, but that’s a different thing and it isn’t very helpful to confuse it with what Europeans were doing a couple centuries ago. The thing to worry about today is not reactionaries’ desire to be colonial teachers and bureaucrats in Simla; it’s reactionaries’ intense fear of the outside world, a fear that can cause them to lash out at home and abroad in dangerous ways.)

At least two movies of Kim have been made, with traditional Hollywood yellowface: in one, the Tibetan monk is played by Peter O’Toole. The pictures are horrendous: O’Toole looks like Bill in Kill Bill with an obvious skullcap, and is about the least Tibetan thing in the world. I can’t resist pointing out this book cover, too. First, what the heck is Kim wearing? That is like the worst depiction of Indian clothing ever… plus how did the background somehow become the Arabian Nights? Fortunately these issues don’t arise if you just read.

Should you read it? I don’t know; it’s not the sort of adventure story that people like today, and there are some weird authorial decisions. (E.g. the story takes place over three years, but most of that is covered extremely sketchily. Plus Kipling uses a rather odd semi-archaic diction to represent when the characters are speaking Hindi… from the editor’s notes this is frequently based on a real knowledge of the language, and also frequently just made up.)

But you know, it all works on its own level. Kim’s identity could be turned into a dissertation, but in narrative terms he’s that most useful construct, a young man who has no real restrictions, like Tintin. If he wants to join a lama on a sacred quest, or deliver secret messages for spies, he just does, dammit.  And it’s hard not to feel after reading it that you now know how best to do some begging or horse trading or school-escaping in 1880s India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, someone had to make Team Fortress 3.  I know that it’s is the obvious comparison, but if Valve ever got around to making TF3, I’d want it to be pretty much exactly like Overwatch: up to date graphics, clever and more diverse characters, good maps, some fun new abilities.  And good riddance to TF2’s accumulated cruft and moneymaking opportunities.

ScreenShot_16-05-28_01-31-21-000

I’ve been playing it every night since release, and having a blast. Naturally I have my favorite characters:

  • D.Va, the Korean girl who pilots a mech suit. She can take a lot of damage and gets a second life when killed (she ejects from the suit and runs around with quite a good gun). I’m learning her basic combo: use the jets to rocket into an enemy or two, hit Melee to stun them, and finish them off with the guns.
  • Tracer, cheeky English girl who is pretty much Scout, only trollier. She has a short-range teleport which can make it very hard for enemies to get a bead on her, and a low-cooldown ability that recovers her location and hit points from a few seconds ago. She’s exhilarating if you play a team that can’t quite handle her.
  • Pharah, who is pretty much TF2’s Soldier– though Soldier is harder to kill. As Pharah you have to get used to hiding a lot. Her ultimate (a rocket barrage) can be a game-changer, if you choose a time and space such that you’re not immediately shot down.
  • Lúcio, the Brazilian D.J. medic. He can either speed up or heal his nearby teammates, plus he has a sonic blaster that does pretty good damage. Best of all he has an alt fire (RMB) which pushes enemies back. Often you can send them off the map, which never gets old.
  • Mei, the Chinese girl, is hard to play but amazingly versatile. She has a freeze ray; if she can freeze an enemy she can finish them off with an icicle. She can project an ice wall in any direction. And if that’s not enough, she has a self-heal. Getting all this to work smoothly in the intensity of combat is tricky, though. She is an excellent counter to Tracer.

I’m also trying to learn McCree, the gunslinger, because his stun + empty gun combo is extremely effective against Tracer and other interlopers.

As a linguist, I appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French.

One of the great things about the game is that almost all of the characters have little health. No, really! It means that it’s not hard to get kills, and feel like you’re achieving something. One problem with MOBAs is that it can take minutes on end to whittle someone down. And even in TF2 kills can take a fair amount of effort.  In Overwatch, if you’re on the ball (and up on abilities and ammo) you can take out an isolated enemy, and there are plenty of maneuvers for breaking up a clump.  In TF2 the whole match can be dominated by a long-lasting sentry farm.  In Overwatch you can usually take care of it with a Roadhog tire, a rocket barrage, or D.Va’s ultimate (blowing up her mech).

There’s a lot of careful game design to make it easy and fun to play. The basics are simple: one gun per character, plus a special ability and ultimate. Reloading, but no need to find ammo. The path of the payload maps is indicated for the defenders during setup. The game saves a set of personal highlight movies for you.

Surprisingly, you can’t easily check everyone’s stats, though you see your own. The game tracks “eliminations”, not kills– basically kills plus kill assists. The effect is, I think, to emphasize teamwork: you’re not distracted or overwhelmed by who has the most kills; you just focus on taking down enemies.

ScreenShot_16-05-29_23-25-11-000

Plus I appreciate the care spent on the maps. In the first screenshot, for instance, the broken railcars obviously came off the broken bridge… it’s not just a mess of props. Another map has an old-timey cash register with a holographic display, a nice futuristic detail. All of the maps are firmly grounded in place, but with a rich s.f. overlay– giant mechs wandering the streets of St Petersberg, a utopian city in Africa (Numbani is basically Wakanda). Plus of course all the spawn rooms have plenty of stuff to shoot up; my favorite bits are the oxygen tanks and the popcorn tubs.

The designers apparently have an overall story, but from the game it makes even less sense than TF2’s: if they all belong to Overwatch, why the hell are all these heroes fighting each other in endless, pointless bouts?

There are some frustrations– mostly related to whatever happened in the last game I lost. It can be frustrating if six of your friends are playing, as that’s the limit for a game… still, at least my friends are playing; I’m so used to buying games long after release that I often miss the window where they’re playing the same game. As in any team game, it’s irritating when your teammates spend the game doing the same thing that isn’t working, rather than mixing it up or countering properly… but on the plus side, matches are over in minutes.

Pity about Battleborn, though, isn’t it?  I want good things for that studio so they develop Borderlands 3. But it looks like it was too similar to Overwatch and less appealing.

 

 

 

In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one.  Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.

Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.

Liew

His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him.  But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.

This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.

It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears.  So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)

(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin ?)

The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.

I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father.  Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.

As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.

I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.  It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A game based on Philip K. Dick is either going to be great, or horrible.  From reviews, it seemed that Californium at least looked great, so I picked it up.

Basic idea: a failed writer, Elvin Green, starts finding holes in reality. So he starts to seek them out, and see what happens.

20160502225138_1

Bubbles of alternate reality

And you gotta admit, that’s a pretty Dickian idea.  The implementation is pretty neat, too: when you open a hole, it expands into a sphere, changing everything inside it.  There must be some interesting engine work going on there– see in the picture how nearby objects get a perfect circle cut out of them.  And this is a dynamic process– once a bubble has opened, it even wavers back and forth.

You can figure out most things by yourself, and should, but here are some things to know that may avoid frustration.

  • You will find TV sets that indicate the number of holes you still have to find in that area.
  • There’s a bug in level 2, which you can avoid by going into the police station last (i.e. when you’ve explored every other area).
  • Some of the holes are only visible from certain angles.  You may have to walk around or change your angle.

I’ve seen some reviews that chafe at that last bit, but really it’s part of the point.  The idea of a glitch in reality that may hide when you look directly at it is just part of the existential nightmare.

There is a light puzzle aspect to some of the holes.  I think it’s best to just give in to the spirit of the game here, even if it means walking around trying to find that maddening last glitch.  If they had made the puzzles harder then the story would perhaps have felt intrusive, and if they had made them easier (e.g. adding audio cues or a compass) you’d be done in half an hour.

There are NPCs scattered around the level; they are 2-D models that turn to face you, and talk at you when you’re close, not unlike Jazzpunk. This is not my favorite design technique, but I understand that for a small studio, 3-D human models and animations would be a huge effort that wouldn’t improve the game greatly.  The voice acting is all good, however.

The best thing about the game, besides the hole-in-reality mechanic, is its feverish level design.  You start out in a supersaturated, cartoony 1970s Berkeley, California, and it’s fun to walk around the street and a half or so that you’ve given to explore.  You see other worlds in the course of the story, and they’re all fun and thought-provoking, plus they have a thematic relevance to Elvin Green’s story.

It took me a little over 4 hours, which is probably about right for what the game mechanic can support.  I mean, they could have added three more worlds, and it would probably be tedious more than exciting.

The ending is a little abrupt, and not as mind-blowing as one might hope… but honestly, Dick doesn’t usually succeed in wrapping things up nicely either.  He creates this hallucinatory blend of religion and paranoia, and just being there is the point.   So it’s probably just as well that the developers didn’t overdo the ending.  I’d say they capture the atmosphere of a Dick novel very well (though they’re not aiming at any one novel in particular), and if that sounds like the sort of atmosphere you’d like to breathe for awhile, check it out.

 

 

 

This paragraph is amazing:

Once upon a time there was a monk who was inclined to imagine things rather a lot. One day, he happened to imagine a man named Jivata, who drank too much and fell into a heavy sleep.  As Jivata dreamt, he saw a Brahmin who read all day long. One day, that Brahmin fell asleep, and as his daily activities were still alive within him, like a tree inside a seed, he dreamt that he was a prince. One day that prince fell asleep after a heavy meal, and dreamt that he was a great king. One day that king fell asleep, having gorged himself on his every desire, and in his dream he saw himself as a celestial woman. The woman fell into a deep sleep in the languor that followed making love, and she saw herself as a doe with darting eyes. That doe one day fell asleep and dreamed that she was a clinging vine, because she had been accustomed to eating vines; for animals dream too, and they always remember what they have seen and heard.

This is from the Yogavasishtha, written sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; the translation is by Wendy Doniger in On Hinduism.

Where do you go after a paragraph like that?  Anywhere you like.  But here’s how it goes.

The vine saw herself as a bee that used to buzz among the vines; the bee fell in love with a lotus and was so intoxicated by the lotus sap he drank that his wits became numb; just then an elephant came to that pond and trampled the lotus, and the bee, still attached to the lotus, was crushed with it on the elephant’s tusk. As the bee looked at the elephant, he saw himself as an elephant in rut. That elephant in rut fell into a deep pit and became the favorite elephant of a king. One day the elephant was cut to pieces by a sword in battle, and as he went to his final resting place he saw a swarm of bees hovering over the sweet ichor that oozed from his temples, and so the elephant became a bee again. The bee returned to the lotus pond and was trampled under the feet of another elephant, and just then he noticed a goose beside him in the pond, and so he became a goose. That goose moved through other births, other wombs, for a long time; until one day, when he was a goose in a flock of other geese, he realized that, being a goose, he was the same as the swan of the Creator. Just as he had this thought, he was shot by a hunter and he died, and then he was born as the swan of the Creator.

One day the swan saw Rudra and thought, with sudden certainty, “I am Rudra.” Immediately that idea was reflected like an image in a mirror, and he took on the form of Rudra. Then he could see all of his former experiences, and he understood them: “Because Jivata admired Brahmins, he saw himself as a Brahmin; and since the Brahmin had thought about princes all the time, he became a prince. And that fickle woman was so jealous of the beautiful eyes of a doe that she became a doe… These creatures are my own rebirths.” And, after awhile, the monk and Jivata and all the others will wear out their bodies and will unite in the world of Rudra.

(Rudra is better known as  Shiva; in this tradition, he is the supreme god.)

So the interlocking dreams turn into a transference of souls just by imagination, and then into the cycle of rebirth.  And it ends up as a playful, vivid demonstration of the idea of pantheism– we’re all forms of Shiva, but just don’t realize it.

Still, it’s the little details that create the intense dreaminess of the passage: Jivata’s drunken stupor, the celestial woman making love, the bee’s infatuation with lotus sap. (As Doniger points out, the common element running through the dream is desire.)

 

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