May 2012

I have to say, the permadeath thing adds a certain je ne sais quoi to Dungeons of Dredmor.  Actually, je sais exactly what it adds.  It adds terreur.

The gloves weren’t even very good

I just made it to level 8.  And I’m scared to play more, because level 7 was hard.  I’m constantly braced for a monster zoo– but in a sense those are easy, because there’s no problem tossing all of your carefully hoarded ranged weapons at it.  Level 7, the frozen level, has lots of rooms with half  a dozen monsters, which can get hairy, especially as some of them are these burly blue dudes who are fire-resistant and dish out 20 points damage (i.e., five hits and you’re dead).

I figured that if I died, I’d be so frustrated I probably wouldn’t want to restart, so I created a backup character.  And they’re both pretty vulnerable.

Current favorite skill tree: Psionics.  There’s a real lifesaver of a skill that shoves monsters back– very useful for keeping an encounter ranged-weapons-only.  Plus its pyrotechnics skill is almost as good as the Promethean skill tree (i.e. pyros).

I enjoyed Vampirism for awhile– you can get health back by drinking dead monsters’ blood, and there are generally plenty of dead monsters about.  But neither of my current characters are vampires, and anyway Psionics has a good health skill too.

Permadeath is kind of a cheap mechanic, but it sure induces cautiousness and makes every close shave nerve-wracking.  The biggest drawback– while I’m alive– is that I’m afraid to just explore things.  I didn’t know till I checked out the wiki that you can eat mushrooms.

All this intensity reminds me of a game I’m not playing: Day Z, the zombie mod for Arma II.  It’s an open-world infested by zombies, who are tough but not as much of a threat as the other players, who will happily shoot and loot you.   And if that weren’t enough, you have to get food and clean water (and bandages, if you’re bleeding), or you’ll die.  And it has permadeath too.

What’s striking about it is the effect it has on people: it gives them a drive to tell stories.  You can see it in this RPS article, and I see it in my Mefightclub freinds who’ve played it.  They want to tell how they survived the first day and how they got through the first zombie attack and how they decided to kill, or not kill, another survivor, and how they died, as they inevitably do.

It may just be post-traumatic stress disorder, but if you’re looking for the thing that distinguishes video games from movies and books, that’s it.   The frequent complaints that games don’t tell good enough stories are missing the point.  The best games don’t narrate a story at you.  They provide an environment, and the game and you create an experience together.

I’ve put together a propaganda page for the LCK sequel, Advanced Language Construction.  (If you’re curious, calling it anything starting with Language Construction would screw up my Kindle reports page.  It’s already a hassle checking the page since I made the Language Construction Kitlet.)

I think this illo for the cover turned out well, so here’s a zoomable version.

Smile knowingly to yourself if you know what that glyph is.

Edit: I’ve gotten a  lot of responses– thank you!  I am rushing through one more read-through so I can get it out to people, hopefully tomorrow night.

Not long ago I felt I’d written about all I had to say in the LCK2 (Advanced Language Construction), but I had only 250 pages, and I was aiming for 280.  Well, problem solved!  The section on modality added about 10 pages, and I just finished a short chapter on logic and loglangs.

Can you buy it?  Er, not yet!  I still need to spell-check it, index it, order a proof copy, draw the cover, and all that.  But you can read it, maybe!

I need a handful of readers, whose chief characteristic is a willingness to read a whole PDF and make some comments, and not take too long either.  (Although I have some weeks available, the earlier I get feedback the better, especially anything that requires research.)

Different ability levels are welcome; though I’d love to have readers who can find inaccuracies, I’m most interested in knowing what’s confusing or what’s missing.  You don’t have to have read the LCK, but if you’ve read nothing at all linguistic it’ll probably too hard.

So if that sounds like you, contact me (markrose at zompist dot com).

Ryan Bloom has an interesting post over at the New Yorker on how to translate the first line of Camus’s L’etranger.  It’s good if you like to puzzle over the cultural and literary implications of translating even simple sentences, or if you like to mock those who do.

The line is Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.  The traditional translation is “Mother died today.”, which Bloom argues is doubly wrong: first, it misses the fact that maman is more colloquial, thus making the relationship seem colder than it is; second, it makes ‘today’ seem less consequential, which he thinks gets the novel’s themes wrong.  He prefers “Today, maman died.”

The comments section is even better, or worse, as a bunch of people throw out one suggestion after another, most of them a bit absurd.  A great translator can do wonders, but I suspect that most of these disputes matter less than one might think; they concern only a surface level of a book which is less important than the characters and themes and plot, which survive translation.  (It’s important in another way, in that the translator supplies the author’s voice in English and if it’s a mediocre choice it can put the reader off.  But I don’t think it can be claimed that people don’t sufficiently appreciate Camus.)

Many commenters disapproved of Bloom’s solution of retaining the French maman, and I tend to agree– it’s a copout.  For a francophone it preserves the nuance, but if you’re a francophone you read the book in French.  For an anglophone it says nothing.

(The main problem is that maman covers all of the ground from ‘Mommy’ to ‘Mom’ to ‘Mother’– with the result that none of these sound quite right.  Personally I’d go with Mama, which just seems to have the right feel to it; it’s old-fashioned but not jarringly so.)

Here’s a fantastic speech from Nick Hanauer on income inequality.  He’s a very rich venture capitalist, and his remarks are pretty much what I’ve been pointing out for years: policies that benefit the middle class make the whole nation richer; policies that benefit the rich make only the rich richer.

Key quote:

Here’s an incredible fact.  If the typical American family still got today the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would earn about 25% more and have an astounding $13,000 more a year. Where would the economy be if that were the case?

That’s Reaganism in a nutshell: take $1.5 trillion from the middle class and hand it to the already rich.  Every year.  And Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are champing at the bit to take even more.  (Note that Hanauer isn’t just talking about taxes; he’s also talking about the gains of productivity over the last generation, which used to benefit the whole nation and now just go to the 1%.)

The strange irony is that it isn’t even the rich, as a class, who are demanding more plutocracy.  The super-rich are much more Democratic than the merely rich.  But there’s a fraction of them who never forgave the New Deal and finally see themselves on the way to getting rid of it.  And then, full on regress toward the banana state.

At the same time, I think there’s little mystery in why the moneyed classes, the Very Serious People as Krugman calls them, aren’t really bothered by ongoing recession and high unemployment, here and in  Europe.  Partly it’s because they just don’t see it: they’re still rich, and no one they know is out of a job.  And partly, I think, it’s because rich conservatives are actually most comfortable when everyone else is pinched, and thus ungenerous and unthreatening.  Adam Smith argued against this attitude frequently, in fact– he had to mount arguments that lean years were not, in fact, good for the nation.

You say in your latest blog post that very few movies have got great scripts – the good ones rely mainly on spectacular sets/CGI, good (or good-looking) actors, action sequences, etc, and plot tends to get left until last. Which movies would you say have got great scripts? And what, in your opinion, makes a great movie script (as opposed to an OK one or a bad one)?

–Mornche Geddick

Good question, by which I mean a hard one.  I’m going to just talk about some movies that I think do have great scripts, and then see if there’s anything I can generalize.  I’ve included only films made in English, and I’ve leaned toward geeky movies, inasmuch as the original post talked about an English-speaking geeky movie and it seems unhelpful to just say “Oh, go watch Rashomon or Rules of the Game instead.”  I’ve also included only one film per director.

(Also, it’s not intended as a top films list, so if a film isn’t listed don’t get upset.)

Casablanca.  A lot of the old Bogart films are great, and they’re hard to separate from his likeable, low-key intensity.  But this one has some great lines, it masterfully introduces and sets in motion a large cast, it gets a lot done in very few locations and with very little action per se, and it has heart (doomed romance, Nazi enemies, a main character who’s heroic but roguish enough that it’s not certain he’ll do the right thing).

(Writers: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch)

Memento.  A fantastic mind-fuck.  It’s constructed with what may seem to be a gimmick– it’s told in 10-minute sections in reverse order– but there’s a reason for it: it puts us into the same mindset as the protagonist.  I used to think it didn’t hold together quite as tightly as it was supposed to, but I think this is because I resisted the usual interpretation.  The movie thus uses structure and plot to make maximum fictional use of the already mindblowing idea of anterograde amnesia.  (Nolan’s Batman Begins is also the best of the Batman movies.)

(W: Christopher Nolan)

Being John Malkovich.  Funny, weird, and often disturbing; you never quite know where it’s going to go.  Though everyone remembers the main idea (entering Malkovich’s brain), it has other cute oddities as well, such as the inappropriate puppet show near the beginning (a nice metaphor for the main theme) and the Gilliamesque idea of a half-height floor in an office building.

(W: Charlie Kaufman)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Completely silly and low-tech, but that’s the point: the reason it’s memorable is precisely because of the scintillating writing.  Sketch comedy doesn’t always translate well into 90-minute movies, but this has enough thematic unity to work.  And besides, abandoning the plot 3/4 of the way through is itself a Pythonesque meta-joke.

(W: The Pythons)

Ghostbusters.  A rather conventional action-movie structure, but more coherent than most.  E.g. the final action sequence doesn’t come out of nowhere, but builds out of the earlier low-key confrontations with the Nasty Bureaucrat Guy.  Lots of great lines, and they managed to nail the delicate balance between taking the story seriously and winking at the audience.  (If you take shlock too seriously you get MST3K fodder, and if you don’t take it seriously enough you get camp.)

(W: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis)

A Clockwork Orange.  Hard to isolate the plot, as it also has great visuals and great performances, plus the greatest future conlang on film.  But it focuses on some of the deepest social and philosophical questions– free will, anarchy vs conformism, animality vs. morality, and it’s just brilliantly manipulative– it takes us on a roller coaster of emotional reactions to its antihero.  Like Dr. Strangelove, it confronts us with some of the attractiveness of evil and destruction without blunting their horror.

(W: Stanley Kubrick)

Galaxy Quest.  Hey, if David Mamet thinks it’s a perfect movie, it’s worth a close look.  Non-heroes learn to act like heroes… this is the basic adventure story, but without the usual ironic barrier of archaizing convention (no orphaned farmboys here).

(W: David Howard, Robert Gordon)

Rear Window.  Hitchcock could fill out this list all by himself.  Though the cleverness of the idea is itself interesting– it’s all photographed from a single vantage point– the real brilliance is in how Hitchcock builds up his thrills.  My go-to example for cerebral terror is the moment Grace Kelly is rifling through the murderer’s apartment– and we pan over to see the murderer himself coming to open the door.  No monsters, no SFX, no guns, nothing but a man in an overcoat, but it’s chilling as hell because of what the director put in our heads.

(W: John Michael Hayes)

Annie Hall.  Hey, remember when Woody Allen made fantastic films?  If not, go get this one.  The point of intersection between his “early funny films” and his later drive to be a ’50s European.  Full of great lines, some great fourth-wall-breaking, and rueful self-awareness.

(W: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman)

Young Frankenstein.  I think this is my wife’s favorite film.  In other films Brooks tends to degenerate into vamping and chaos, but this film remains controlled and is all the funnier for it.  Again, any number of great scenes, but it’s also a loving homage to the early horror film, and it actually has a coherent plot with character arcs and everything.  (So I don’t list too many humor films, let me also list Airplane! whose gag-a-minute pace is wedded to a firm classic plot structure.)

(W: Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks)

Noises Off!  An adaptation of a stage farce, with the neat idea that we first watch a rehearsal (of an imaginary play); then we see the backstage of an actual performance; and finally a production later in the run when everything is going wrong.  And on top of that, the opportunity is taken to tell interlocking, satiric stories about the half dozen actors and the director.

(W: Marty Kaplan, after Michael Frayn)

What About Bob?  Some very clever satire of self-help and the therapeutic situation, plus the age-old laff riot of the slow burn: take an uptight, arrogant, straitlaced dude and add an annoying, persistent, impossible-to-evade force of chaos.  Almost all of the scenes can be placed somewhere along this slow line of unravelment, made all the more piquant by the fact that the force of chaos is a huge fan of the uptight guy and only wants him to succeed.

(W: Tom Schulman)

Sin City.  Noir boiled down to its geekish, stylish essence.  It’s nasty and brutal and over the top, and yet nothing is wasted, every scene and shot is planned.  Sometimes you see a shlock movie and think “It would’ve been cool if they’d actually fixed the plot holes, wrote good lines, and honed the plot.”  This is what you get if you do that: pulp film buffed till it shines.

(W: Frank Miller)

Do the Right Thing.  I may be prejudiced since I read Lee’s diaries and production notes, so I can see how much thought he put into every detail.  But I think it’s a great movie.  Interesting characters, a slow-building plot, a confrontation with race which manages to be powerful without ever being unfair.

(W: Spike Lee)

Honorable mentions:

Mulholland Drive.  It doesn’t quite count because it was intended as a TV series, and its first half is expansive as only a longer form can be, and of course there was no time to develop all the plot strands.  Lynch makes it into a single movie by an almost shamanistic act of will.  Importantly, it’s not a good movie because it’s weird.  There’s any number of films that just go weird in the middle, and usually it’s just a mess.  This one is held together in part by Naomi Watts’s fantastic performance, but even that wouldn’t have helped if there wasn’t a story that made sense of it.

(W: David Lynch)

Serenity.  As a movie, way too rushed, because it was trying to be the entire second season of a TV series.  And arguably Whedon’s greatest skill is in managing complicated long-term ensemble series, so the compression really hurts.

(W: Joss Whedon)


You’ll notice some tricks or gimmicks in the list– obviously that sort of thing draws attention to the script.  It’s of course possible to be tricksy and still fail.

I also put a high value on a movie that can do the unexpected without simply becoming bizarre.  Hitchcock’s Psycho (W: Joseph Stefano) is the classic example: it’s quite a mindfuck to kill of the main character halfway through.  Extra credit for unexpected directions that turn out to thematically resonate: e.g. the prison sequence of Clockwork Orange (W: Kubrick) certainly isn’t what we expected from the first half, but of course criminality and punishment go together.

Bonus points for themes deeper than “blowing up things and defeating the evil wizard”.  I don’t demand that the story be tied to present-day life and morals– after all, if we can have a good story about anterograde amnesia, why not one about robots and free will?  A film like Wall-E (W: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon) includes what would be a completely scathing satire of capitalism if it wasn’t disguised as a kid’s cartoon.

I’ve also left out a bunch of films whose plot might be described as straightforward.  The original Star Wars (W: George Lucas) might fit this category.  The writing is not great, and what makes the movie is its unprecedented set design.  But the story hits all the right notes and just has a very satisfying feel to it.

If there’s any common thread, it’s probably coherence.  Does the picture hold together as a unit, is the writing consistently good, do the decisions of the characters as well as the director reinforce what the movie’s trying to do?  A poor script, by contrast, feels like it’s bolted together, the characters do things for no apparent reason, and the climax supplies only thrills rather than any higher satisfaction.

(Update: Alert reader GreenBowTie pointed out that I didn’t include the screenwriters’ names, so I added them.  With adaptations this opens up a can of worms which I’m not going to disentangle here.)

I just finished Jose Luis Borges’s El libro de arena, published in 1975 and containing a number of his later stories.  On the whole it’s fairly meh, though I’m sure I lost a lot by reading it in Spanish.

The best of the stories, worthy of his overwhelming early ones, is the title story, which treats the theme of “The Library of Babel” from another angle: the Book of Sand is a book with an infinite number of pages.  The Library of Babel updated to fit in your hand, and this one is illustrated, too!  Playing with impossible concepts is always fun, though Borges always adds a certain depressiveness to them.

Also of note is the first story, “El otro”, in which Borges has an encounter with his fifty-years-younger self.  It’s a bit mild and bookish, but I liked the irony of his conclusion that his two selves wouldn’t find each other that interesting.

If you like Lovecraft there’s a short Lovecraftian homage.  (He gets Lovecraft’s indirection, but not really any of his strange fascinations.  Here, I’ll spoil it for you: it’s about a house that’s being rebuilt for an alien; the narrator visits it and is naturally baffled by all the things he simply can’t understand.  It’s a fine sf concept, but rather too clean and non-nightmarish for Lovecraft.)

The strangest tale is “El congreso”, which keeps changing gears.  I think he had an idea he just couldn’t find a way to make work.  A landowner, don Alejandro, wants to be a deputy in the national congress, but it doesn’t work out.  He decides to make his own Congress– one that will represent the whole world.  This could be a political story, or a parody of pre-WWI idealism, or something metaphysical, or a story of madness; it touches on all of these without ever settling on anything.  There’s an amusing bit where there’s some discussion of who each (self-elected) delegate represents– “Nora Erfjord was Norwegian.  Did she represent secretaries, or Norwegians, or simply all pretty women?”  But that’s as ‘Borgesian’ as the story gets.  There’s a pointless subplot about the Congress’s library; then the narrator goes to England; then he returns to don Alejandro’s ranch where there’s a big party that marks the end of the Congress.  It’s a bit of a mess.  I think at root the problem is that he can’t find a way to make the Congress’s ambitions at all real, so it devolves into the misadventures of a bunch of people we don’t really care about.  (In an afterword he mentions Chesterton; he may have been thinking of the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, but if so I don’t think the imitation worked.)

The other stories didn’t make much of an impression, though one of them, “Utopia de un hombre que esta cansado”, is perhaps notable for being a rather dark and dreary vista of the future (no apocalypse, just a dwindling bunch of melancholics who’ve grown tired of the world).  There’s also his only prose love story, “Ulrica”.

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