June 2016


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.

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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.

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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.