May 2015

I’m kind of a sucker for King’s Bounty games, at least if they’re on sale.  Armored Princess is an adorable, perfect little game. But the developer, 1C, has a way of making new games that recycle 75% of the content and don’t really change or update the gameplay.  Warriors of the North felt more like crank-it-out DLC than a new game, and I never finished it.

But I’m back for more with Dark Side. Switching from good to evil is just enough of a switch to make things interesting again; plus you can choose a female protagonist again… though the developers are apparently 13-year-old boys:

How you dress when you're evil

How you dress when you’re evil

As before, you wander a world map made of cute little islands, with various enemies wandering around.  When you engage one, you start a battle. Your character doesn’t fight– she is the general!  Rather, you have up to five units to engage the enemy, on a chessboard-like hex grid:

Fightin' in a coal mine goin' down down

Fightin’ in a coal mine goin’ down down

It’s like D&D: one unit at a time fights. Plus you can use spells once a turn, and when you accumulate ‘Rage’ (by hitting or being hit) you can call upon a powerful sub-demon to help. Units have different skills and abilities. One of my favorites is the Red Dragon, which can burn an entire rank of hexes. (The supply is limited, though, so I underplay them, afraid of losing them.) I’m also fond of the Scoffer Imps, who can through fireballs every few turns, and when that’s on cooldown, kick an enemy up to three hexes away without letting them counterattack. Cerberi are also fun: they can attack three hexes at once, and their special move is a gallop across the board, which saves time.

In the screenshot I have an extra unit provided by a spell, and one of the enemies has defected, as a result of a subdemon ability.

It’s addictive to fight these little battles– it’s a particular pleasure if you can defeat all the enemies without losing any units. The character animations are adorable, too: e.g. units do little taunts when they kill another unit. I also never get tired of watching an AI unit dash forward into a trap.

When you defeat an enemy it disappears from the world map. You work your way up to the island’s king, and replace him with your own candidate.

The major downside: someone apparently told 1C that the game should be more of an RPG, with quests and stuff. The dialogs (which are not voiced) have a folksy charm, and some of the quests are amusing little stories– e.g. to infilitrate one castle you have to dress up as an elf ambassador, and your initial attempts are completely unconvincing, so you have to find someone to apply makeup. But the quests mostly involve running back and forth between characters, and there’s often no clue which character you need. This part quickly becomes tedious and then frustrating, when it’s unclear what you have to do next. I’m a little stuck at the moment, in fact… there are some quests that are blocked for some reason, and islands I can’t get to. So it’s maybe too easy to fire up League of Legends instead.

In all the KB games units are limited: once a shop runs out of units, they’re gone. In Armored Princess this was nicely balanced: basically you had to take over each island with the units at hand, which meant you had to try them all. This would take you out of your comfort zone but provided a useful variety. In Dark Side you have a near-unlimited supply of whatever faction you start with– since I played the demoness, I have a plethora of demons. Other units are available, but the really good ones are in shorter supply. As a result I tend to keep the same units in my army. This does save some running around, at least.

Thematically, the game has an interesting, not entirely consistent take on good vs. evil. The setup is that Good has nearly taken over the planet– dispossessing all the demons, undead, and orcs. You’ve got elves taking over orc islands and humans banning the Dark from their kingdoms. So you have to fight back for the Dark, for simple justice and for balance.

Rather charmingly, agents of the Dark seem to be unfailingly polite. The Dark Lord himself is polite and supportive, and when you meet agents of the Dark in conquered realms, they’re almost pathetically grateful that you’ve shown up to help. So far this is a kind of territorial/ideological vision of the Dark: they’s people too and they have a right to live in peace. Or un-live, in the case of the undead.

You’re also supposed to find and corrupt the three happiest, purest, and loyallest people on the planet, and bring them back to the Dark Lord for use in dark rituals. This sounds more like traditional Evil, though it’s nothing to what the least Grand Theft Auto antihero does before breakfast. If you play a demoness, you make the loyallest dudes fall in love with you, and they become your companions. (All that means is that they add to your battle stats and give you more slots to apply special items like armor.)

My first reaction was that this was a wrong-headed vision of Evil, one that made Evil into a mere alternative side in a cosmic war, like the Commies during the Cold War. It’s like the alignments in D&D, which never made any sense to me as either philosophies or factions. But on reflection I think there’s something to it. Eeeevil empires or dark lords are a simple-minded distortion of the world, and when we look at human kingdoms as Eeeevil we both miss their own humanity, and threaten to go Eeeevil ourselves. The Commies did do evil, but then so did we– nowhere more so than when we propped up scumbag dictators around the world so their countries would stay on our side. ISIS today is about as close to Eeeevil as you can get, but it has its origins in misguided US attempts to raise up Islamic fighters to fight the evil commies, and in the spectactularly bungled US occupation of Iraq.

So the territorial/ideological model of Dark Side turns out to be a pretty good representation of how human affairs really work. Sinless elves vs. demonspawn orcs was always a lousy idea. Sometimes the elves are bastards and the orcs are the oppressed ones.

Anyway, should you get the game? If you’ve never played a KB game, then yes. Well, except then you should probably play Armored Princess instead. If you played one of the earlier games and it’s been awhile, then Dark Side will be fun.

Ah, one more weird thing: I was stuck for a bit on an island with only Deadly enemies. It was kind of frustrating, and I was playing on normal difficulty. It felt like I’d skipped an island of more moderate enemies. And in fact I had, only I didn’t have the map to get there. So, I just attacked the Deadly enemies… the victories were costly but I did whittle them down, and finally got the map to the island I’d missed. I could then whale through a bunch of Weak enemies… thus discovering that there’s an achievement for winning 25 battles without replenishing your armies.

It’s been awhile since I talked about how my Dad is doing. He’s 95 now, which is a large number when it comes to ages.

Dad (L) and his brother, 35 years ago

Dad (L) and his brother, 35 years ago

So how’s he doing? To put it positively: he had a good year last year. He could keep living at home, he updated his website, he enjoyed his music and read books and spent time with family.

This year hasn’t been so good. After a fall and a brief hospital stay, he’s had to have someone in the house 24 hours a day. At first this was an improvement: he could safely get out of bed and get to the bathroom, and he was eating better. The companionship was probably helpful too.  But in the last few weeks he’s been quickly declining.  He has trouble walking for even a few steps, he barely eats, he mostly just sleeps. And a few times he’s been really confused. This week he was really zoned out, except at meal times.  He still likes to go out to eat with me– he always orders crepes. It seems the sweet taste buds last the longest.

Plus the doctor found something bad on his liver. They didn’t know quite what, and don’t seem anxious to find out.  A friend of mine just went through abdominal surgery at a far younger age, and I don’t think Dad could handle it.

This all may sound like a downer, but the way I try to think of it is: he’s had a pretty good 95 years.  In fact, up to the last couple of years, I’d say my parents were a model for enjoying the senior years. (And if I talk about him now and then, it’s because he’s a major preoccupation these days.)

Oh, about the picture: Dad always wore bow ties. For many people this would be an affectation, but he had a good reason. He worked in the printing industry, and when he was a pressman someone had a horrible accident when their tie got caught in a press. Bow ties are safer.

I’m only half done with The Golden Lotus, but the library doesn’t have Volume 2 and I have a lot to say about it already, so let’s get started.

The Golden Lotus Cvr V1.indd
As you will have guessed, I’m referring to 金瓶梅 (Jīn Píng Méi), by an anonymous author of the last century of Míng rule (i.e., around 1600).

The book has a reputation for being dirty– the cover features a quote from Pearl Buck about it being “the greatest novel of physical love which China has produced”– but let’s clear that up right away: as pornography, even as erotica, it sucks. That’s because there’s very little sex in the book, by weight. Enough to shock a Victorian, but these days even right-wing politicians moonlighting as fiction writers would be far dirtier.

Rather, it’s a novel of manners. It’s a detailed examination of the rise and fall of a single household, that of 西門慶 Ximen Qing.  (His rare two-character family name Xīmén means ‘west gate’; his given name Qìng means ‘celebration’.)  Ximen is a rich merchant, a dealer in medicine in the fictional city of Qinghe. Through his connections in the capital, Kāifēng, he obtains an official position, bypassing the civil service examinations.  Though he is mostly a pleasant fellow, he is highly dissolute, spending most of his time on pleasure, drinking, and women; he ignores his medicine business, and when it comes to his official position he’s completely corrupt.

What’s most unusual about the novel is that it focuses not on Ximen but on his wives. He accumulates seven of them (one dies before the book starts), and sleeps with the maidservants and a few other random people as well.  Though there are sections that focus on court politics, or cases that come before him at the city offices, the bulk of the book happens in his house and among the women.

The book is named for three of them: Pan Jinlian (金蓮 Golden Lotus), Li Ping’er (Little Vase), and Pang Chunmei (Spring Plum).  The title can be read “Gold Vase Plum”. Jinlian is the fieriest of Ximen’s wives; she starts out as another man’s wife, in fact. She has an affair with Ximen and poisons her husband in order to marry Ximen (becoming wife #5).  She’s jealous and easily angered, and does her best to cause trouble in the household; at the same time she knows when not to go too far, and usually gets along well with the other wives. Ping’er is wife #6, but quickly rises in position by the simple expedient of having a son, Ximen’s first. (Chunmei is a maid of Jinlian, and doesn’t really do anything in Volume 1 to justify her placement in the title.)

The introduction names at least three scholars the book has been attributed to, but no one seems to have mentioned the obvious idea that it was written by a woman. If Lady Murasaki could do it, so could a Chinese elite woman. It would explain the realistic psychology and interactions among the women, and the fact that they are fully conscious of Ximen’s faults. Would a male writer be quite so interested in what the wives do all day when Ximen is out, or how they interact with their maids, or how not to frighten a baby, or whether or not Ximen’s lovemaking pleased them or not?

Imperial China was a highly hierarchical and patriarchal society, and yet none of the wives could be described as subservient. All of them speak quite freely to Ximen, and they lord it over the servants and pass out money much as he does. (Of course, if he’s mad at someone he strips them down and whips them– but his wives can do the same to their servants.)

The Western book Golden Lotus most reminds me of is Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, which you may know from the 1988 Glenn Close / John Malkovich film. Many of the characters are pretty vile, and though much of the time they just enjoy themselves, they frequently remind you (by whipping a servant or driving a woman to suicide or subverting justice with a bribe) that they’re fundamentally immoral and deserve whatever happens to them in Volume 2.

However, Laclos is first-person and explicitly inverts the usual moral point of view; Lotus is more a matter of taking a long, delicious look at depravity before tearing everything down. The author set the book in the last years of the Northern Sòng dynasty (just before the Jurchens overran the entire north of China), and the corruption he depicts is an obvious comment on the corruption and misrule of the late Míng.

Like all the great Chinese novels, it’s sprawling, though the focus on Ximen’s household gives it an easy-to-comprehend center. You learn a lot about the everyday mores of Imperial Chinese society: the elaborate formulas of politeness; the emphasis on luxurious objets d’art and delicacies of food; the drinking games; the occasional and very eclectic spirituality; the cost of a meal or a slave; the fact that your sleeves functioned as pockets or even briefcases. The baby is over-coddled– it’s considered a terrible thing if he’s frightened by a cat, or if his hands get cold.

One thing that fascinates me is the culture of gift giving. Ximen is always giving gifts– whether it’s a tael of silver to a singing girl, or five taels as traveling expenses for a servant going to the capital, or five hundred taels plus silks, vases, and scrolls as a bribe to a major official. The women get gifts from him and give them to each other. If an official comes by, both parties exchange gifts. If a servant from another household comes by, or a musician is engaged, they’re given food and drink once their business is done. If you become an official, you had better give a party, and if you don’t have money you’ll have to borrow it. Large gifts have to be refused once or twice before being accepted, and generally require a counter-gift.

A tael, by the way, was a little over an ounce; the Chinese term was actually 两 liǎng. It weighed about 37.5 grams, thus about 7 British shillings. Adam Smith reports that the wages of a London laborer in his time (1776) was 1.5 shillings a day. So a tip of one tael was quite generous. (Indeed, the characters give the most menial workers much less– one or more qián, which was 1/10 of a tael.)

Again, where the book does talk about sex, it’s mostly a quick ellipsis, sometimes expanded into randy poems (which the translator has not managed to turn into anything erotic). But when it’s frank, it’s frank, and as the introduction notes, it includes things that verge into fetish territory, such as cock rings and a little light bondage. Ximen is also shown, though not in much detail, as enjoying a young male servant. Curiously, for all the women present, there’s no mention of lesbianism.

Another curiosity: the book turns out to be an elaborate reworking of an episode from one of the other classic Míng novels– Shuǐ hǔ zhuàn (The Water Margin), the story of a large group of heroic outlaws. In one episode, Wu Song becomes famous for killing a tiger with his bare hands. He goes to visit his brother, an ugly man married to the beautiful Pan Jinlian. As in Lotus, Pan is in love with a dissolute rich man, Ximen Qing, and murders her husband, Wu’s brother. In Water Margin Wu kills both of them; in Lotus only one of them. But he’s exiled in chapter 10 and doesn’t get his revenge till Volume 2.

More later, when I can score a copy…

Edit: And here’s my thoughts on volume 2.