January 2018

As you know from Kingdom of Loathing— what, you haven’t heard of it?  It’s apparently a browser game, I haven’t played it either.  Anyway, West of Loathing is a standalone game and apparently a sequel to it.


I think there was something horrible here.  It’s gone now.

Stuff to get across right away, if you haven’t figured it out:

  • It’s a Western.
  • It’s a comedy.
  • It’s really really low-res.

It’s also a pretty expansive RPG.  I’m about ten hours in, and I’ve discovered about 43 of 72 locations, so I suppose, or should I say I reckon, I’m about halfway through.

You play as a cowgirl, or I suppose as a cowboy, seeking adventure in a goofy, magic-infused West, inhabited by stick figure humans, round goblins, evil cows, and more.  You can be a Cow Puncher (melee), Beanslinger (bean magic– that’s me!), or Snake Oiler (snakes). In the opening town, you can find a pardner.  I chose Crazy Pete.

It’s a little like Jazzpunk, in that you’re missing out, and messing up, if you don’t talk to everyone, look at all the item descriptions, and scrub the current location to find all the jokes. The humor tends to wordplay and the absurd, and if one joke doesn’t land, another will come by in moments.

Unlike Jazzpunk, there’s a surprising amount of game in there. You have stats (starting with Muscle, Mysticality, and Moxie), there are clothes and hats and potions and edibles that change them, plus a wide array of weapons and spells.  And dozens of locations.  You can spend a lot of time in the game, and you’ll probably want to, because a) it’s amusing, and b) it’s not that hard, so it’s always painless to check out one more location or cross off one more quest. On the other hand, tedious things like inventory management are left out– so far as I can see, there’s no inventory limit at all.

(Edit: there’s a clever bit that other RPGs might well imitate. You don’t level up. Rather, you get XP, and you can spend XP buffing stats or skills; increments to one thing cost more XP each time.  So, they get rid of a concept (‘levels’) and let you control the process more.)

Combat is turn-based, a sort of simplified version of King’s Bounty. You and your enemies take turns using your abilities and weapons until one side is all dead.


Wearing my Cultist Mask for extra Mysticality, wasting devil clowns.

It’s not deep.  In fact, I went through several nights of never losing a fight, and wondering what happens if you do.  Then I ran into nastier enemies and lost several fights in a row.  The actual mechanism is clever: losing a fight makes you Angry.  Anger increases your stats slightly, and you can stack it up, but there’s a limit, and when you reach it you faint from rage and wake up the next day back in town, losing the effect of any potions you’d consumed.  So it’s a setback, but pretty minimal. (I don’t think there’s a Save option, or a need for one.)

The stick figures are of course pretty minimal, but they’re animated with charm, and in general the game plays with its limited graphics in nice ways.  E.g. most things are black & white, but ghosts are gray, as are doorways ‘behind’ you (ones leading outward). The above screenshot shows a sepia effect you get at one point. (You can turn it off, but I like it.)

I’ve read a couple of reviews of the game that are near rapturous.  I think it’s a lot of fun, but I also think it’s best to play in shortish sessions. I probably would have been rapturous too when I was younger, because it’s exactly my kind of humor. But zany humor isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was. There’s not much in the game to care about, nor is there a lot of roleplaying choice or combat challenge. So the emotional temperature is fairly low.

Probably for this reason, when something frustrating comes up, it’s more of a turnoff than it should be.  That string of lost fights, for instance: all of a sudden I was facing enemies who could kill me (and my pardner) in two or three turns. Or the circus, which requires an extremely circuitous set of actions.  The sudden roadblock is jarring.

(If you run into the same problems: if you’re underpowered, spend some time wandering in the first region, near Dirtwater– it’s an option on the map– to clean up the easier locations. Keep accumulating stuff and explore the potions and such: you can build up your stats nicely.  And there are some good wikis and walkthroughs if you lose patience with a puzzle.)

I should also mention: I think it gets better a few hours in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the initial encounters, but just tonight I ran into the funniest place yet (Fort Memoriam) and the creepiest (the Circus).






As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of a graphics snob in video games. I just don’t like the look of Half-Life, Fallout 1/2, or Morrowind. So, I was surprised that Robert Yang managed to convince me that, in at least one case, lo-res is better.


This is a comparison of the original (2006) and a remastered (2017) version of a video game, Final Fantasy XII. And yes, Yang’s contention is that the fuzzy original is better.

(Why the girl is leaning to one side in the remastered version, I don’t know.  It’s distracting, but not the point here.)

His analysis of the “remastering” is helpful:

If I had to guess, the artists probably did this: (1) scale up texture by 200%, (2) increase contrast, (3) desaturated a little for that grayish next-gen feel, (4) apply a sharpen filter, (5) overlay a noisy detail texture on top to try to make the surface look more detailed.

He notes that you can automate this process, so you can handle a whole folder of images in a few minutes.

Now, my first reaction was that I liked the sharper image better. (I’ve never played the game, so I have no nostalgia here to invoke.)  In general, our eyes like sharpness! We can really see the intended patterns; the banner looks ten times better; the leaves are more recognizable.  It’s like putting glasses on!

And none of that is wrong. But look at the things Yang is pointing to: desaturation; the sharpen feature; a noise filter. The way I’d put it: the new image is

  • way too loud– it draws attention to itself, though it’s just a background
  • way too contrasty– if you looked at an actual wall, you wouldn’t be conscious of such a wide tonal range, it would mostly look one color
  • much less warm– look especially at the pavement, which has gone from a warm orange to almost black-and-white
  • too flat; because everything is in focus, it looks like a picture, not a world

You can certainly do realism well, but this realism done badly.

Yang points to another example, a fan remake of Half-Life 2.  I won’t name it, because I’m not going to say anything nice about it and there’s no need to embarrass a hard-working modder. Here’s a comparison.  (The top image is apparently another mod, but much closer to Valve.)


Oh dear. Let’s go over the problems.

  • What the hell is going on in the screenshot? It’s wicked dark.
  • You can barely see what is supposed to be the focus of the scene: Breen and Eli Vance.
  • Contrariwise, the modder has inserted extremely bright lights where they do no good at all. “Here, I really want you to pay attention to this: the floor.”
  • In general, the physical modeling and the lighting effects are far better– e.g. the round hole in the ceiling isn’t an obvious polygon; the lights, like real lights, don’t just light up the air. But all this realism just hides the narrative.  We don’t get an idea of the shape of the area; we can’t see what’s going on; we don’t know where to go next.
  • Why did he blur the red highlights from the windows?  Why did he lose the overhead light? Come to think of it, why don’t those very bright lights actually illuminate anything?
  • Yes, you’ve learned how to do a shiny floor; but what’s the point? All it does is reflect some lights and thus confuse the scene further.  Does the Combine care that much about waxing their floors?
  • What the hell kind an outfit did he put on Mossman?

Not all the images from the mod are this dark, but when they’re not, they’re generally too busy, too desaturated, and less coherent. They look like someone Googled for hi-res versions of every texture in the scene, without any care to making them work together.

Realism is nice, but isn’t an end in itself. You also have to think about consistency of style, and focusing the player’s attention on what is important, and giving them the information they need to follow the story and navigate the world.  The old Valve was very good at this.

As an example of a game that properly shows off the increased realism that’s now possible, I’d name The Witcher 3. I haven’t finished it, but good lord is it gorgeous. And without losing the readability, consistency, and focus that’s needed for a game to work as a game.

I’ve been playing with Markov text generators.  There was a little too much for a blog entry, so see my results here. Also includes links to web pages where you can run the generators yourself, or even download my C code to run against your own texts.

It’s beginning to look like we’re moving:


We now have a condo!  This makes me happy, because though we have a great landlord, having a place we own will be better in the long run. Our income is what the auditors call “no mucho”, but we will actually be paying substantially less in our new place.

There’s less room for bookshelves, so I’m getting rid of a bunch of books. Choosing books to toss turned out to be a less painful process than I imagined. The basic question is “Will I ever read this again?” and the answer is usually pretty clear. In some cases the answer might be ‘maybe once’, but it’s readily available at the library and I’d rather not lug a copy around forever.

Oh, if you’re in the Chicago area and want some books, contact me within the next week or so.  (No linguistics books, sorry, but a miscellanea of history, classics, comics, and science.)

The condo was offered at a much higher price, which steadily declined over something like 9 months. It ended up at a really good price for a 2-bedroom in its location.  My best guess is that the owner made a bad move by turning the large front room into two smaller rooms by adding a wall. I imagine a lot of people looked at it and said “This is weird, let’s move on to the next listing.” You could take out the wall pretty easily, but people would rather not have the hassle. (We’re keeping it, because it makes for a nice office.)

While I’m at it, I got the latest reports from the goblins chained up in the  Accountancy Dungeon.  Total books sold have just gone over 25,000.  Over 11,000 of that is the LCK. All the language books (and the PCK) sell pretty well.  About 60% of sales are paperbacks, the rest Kindle. The China book is doing adequately— way better than the novels.

You should, of course, be buying the India Construction Kit. But yes, here at the Zompist Fortressplex new plans are already afoot. Here’s a clue.

syntax books

Your first guess will undoubtedly be a Quechua grammar. And that’s still in the running!

But as the pile of syntax books next to my desk suggests, I’ve actually started on another language book, most probably called The Syntax Construction Kit.

Didn’t I cover syntax in the LCK?  Oh yes, more or less, but never to the satisfaction of my internal syntactician. I would really like to draw a bunch of syntactic trees, and explain why syntactic trees were so exciting in around 1980, and how to argue about syntax, and why Noam Chomsky is both brilliant and infuriating.

Syntax was my introduction to academic linguistics, and though it’s useful for conlanging, like knowing bones is useful for designing animals, what I want to get across is how much fun syntax was at that time. Generative syntax was a new field, so new things were being discovered— hell, your syntax class, or you yourself writing a paper, could discover a new fact about English syntax pretty much any time you wanted to. You could watch the big names in the field arguing with each other and not infrequently pausing to teach each other philosophy of science.

Now, only one of the books in the picture was published past 1990, and it’s possible that everything I learned is now completely outdated. I will take the opportunity to update my knowledge, but I’m guessing that I won’t have to change that much. The idea isn’t to teach a particular formalism so much as to teach the methods and findings of modern syntax.

You may be wondering, will there be another regional Construction Kit, after China and India? I certainly hope so! A Middle East Construction Kit is an attractive possibility. But the research load for these things is immense, and I need a little break.

Even less likely: you may be clamoring for more fiction, bless your heart. People who’ve bought my novels seem to like them, but unfortunately there’s just not enough of them. One encouraging sign, though: on my Kindle reports, I noticed that some lovely soul bought about fifty copies of Against Peace and Freedom in December, presumably to give to all their friends. That’s more than it usually sells all year. So I will probably dig out the sequel and keep working at it.