October 2017

I was thinking about some games I’ve started and not finished, and I think I’ve figured out why: there’s too much to do.


Your to-do list

These games include Rise of the Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.  I loved the games they’re sequels to, I’ve started them, got some distance into them, and just never seem to start them up again. What I realized today is that the original games were mostly linear, and the new games are far more open-world.

And it makes me anxious. I feel like I have to find everything in an area before moving on.  I know I could skip most of the stuff, but then I worry that I won’t have mastered all the skills needed for the main quest.  I have other complaints– e.g. Faith and Merc in the original Mirror’s Edge were far more likeable characters than Faith and Noah in Catalyst— but I think it’s the size of the game that bothers me.

The irony is, I’ve put an ungodly number of hours into Mirror’s Edge. But part of that it is because it’s in nice digestible chunks. I will replay the game occasionally, or I’ll spend time on the time trials.  The game is so focused that there’s no paralysis of choice.

Dishonored and Dishonored 2 hit the sweet spot of “mostly linear, but with side stuff to make it fun to explore.” There are just enough runes and lore drops.  Arkham City is also well balanced.  (I did get all the Riddler trophies– once. If I just want to mess around as Batman or Catwoman, I’ll play the challenge maps.) Saints Row 4 has a nice approach: it’s sprawling, and yet the game will lead you through all the activities if you let it.

So if you’re a developer, I’d suggest that making an open world is not something you have to do, and can even make your game worse.  Embrace linearity.  I’d rather have a solid main quest to do than a huge number of fairly shallow activities, where it’s not clear what I should be doing.  (On the other hand, a good place for those shallow activities is in a separate challenge mode.)

If you’re Bethesda, however, you should just carry on. Fallout 3 and Oblivion, for me, did open-world in just the right way. Although I completed the main story in both, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t really have to. Plus these games, and Saints Row 3/4, are great at making so much of the world interactive. That is: an open world goes well with multiple playstyles and playthroughs: if you can be a hero one time and a rogue another, if you can wander down the road and find a new story, if you can make a home and find shops to customize your character.  Neither Faith nor Lara really have the opportunity to put the main quest aside for a few months, maybe buying a house or playing as a rogue.

All this is entirely subjective (it’s quite all right if you play games very differently), and it’s not intended as the last word on these particular games.

Edit: So why do publishers insist on making games open-world?  According to this scary article, it’s because they can monetize them better. Ugh.




The most important thing is done, I think: the cover!


Who are these people?  Once you read the book, you will know!  Also the answer is on the back cover, but you won’t even need that clue.

The text is about done— I have at least one more book I want to read, but it’s about time to order the proof copy. I’m hoping to make the book available by the end of November. Make your family buy you a copy!

I could probably use another couple of readers for this draft. E-mail me if  you’re interested and you are pretty sure you can read it and make comments within the next 3-4 weeks. (Sorry for the rush… some other stuff has needed dealing with.)

By the way, does anyone know what that big tree in the center is?  The fruits look like mangos, but the leaves are nothing like mango leaves. Perhaps an Indian tulip tree?

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.