April 2018


First, enjoy, if you can, this TF2/Overwatch comedy video thing.

When Overwatch came out, I said it was like TF3.  The similarities are obvious and deep. Yet it’s not a simple copy.

For one thing… you really can’t make a great game by slavishly copying another game. Cheesy imitations just make people want to go back to the original.  You can do the same genre, even use the same tropes, but if there’s enough talent involved it’ll be it’s own thing.

For another, the only thing that prevented Valve from making TF3 was Valve. Valve has lost its verve. They don’t seem to have any interest in innovating great new games, they’ve bled off their best writers, and their best idea for TF2 is basically “more of the same”.

And finally, let’s talk about differences between TF2 and Overwatch.

One: Valve humor is not Blizzard humor.  Valve’s humor is “everybody is dumb”– kind of like South Park.  It’s too cool for school; it doesn’t care about anything; every TF2 character is annoying and stupid. And that’s absolutely fine for a game! Their “Meet the…” series is brilliant, indeed far better than most of Blizzard’s videos. But their worldbuilding doesn’t go beyond “a pointless, endless battle between pinheaded idiots.”

Blizzard (at least in Overwatch, I’m not talking about its other properties) is almost painfully earnest. Though they have their comic elements, every Overwatch character is a hero, or a strangely appealing villain. As Tracer says, the world could always use more heroes. The backstory is full of drama and rivalry, and there’s a story about a human-omnic war that’s rather dark, but the overall tone of the game is still optimistic, even utopian.  And kind of by accident, it appeared just at a time when ironic detachment suddenly seemed tired and even suspect.

And the game wants the player to feel heroic, too. There are a lot of subtle things to downplay competition and feelings of loss, from the hiding of team stats, to the merging of kills and assists into eliminations, to the assembling of a personal highlights reel. Even the sound design cooperates: you hear your enemies squealing in pain as they die; you don’t hear the same sounds when you do.

Not unrelated is the commitment to diversity. TF2’s characters came from around, well, the Euro-American world.  All are men (which baffles me… Valve has endless energy for making hats and costumes, but can’t make female versions?).  Overwatch, unusually, has 13 male and 13 female characters, plus Bastion. Just 3 are American.  13 are non-white (counting Reaper as Hispanic). I don’t say they’re perfect at this, but they are putting effort into it.

Also worth noting: with all those characters, none are easily confused with each other, and they’ve taken enormous pains to make their silhouettes, voices, and animations distinctive and interesting.  If you play it, take some time to look at the first-person animations– the walks, the gun reloads, shooting. Each character is different, and everything reinforces their personality.

Also, I think Blizzard does so well at making its characters likeable that it’s easy to forget that this is not an easy thing at all. Disney, for instance, never quite got the knack: Mickey Mouse is just not interesting or likeable in the way Bugs Bunny is. A lot of TV characters are not really likeable, only amusingly grotesque, like the TF2 characters.

The TF2 aesthetic is absolutely stunning– for 2007. It looks wan and repetitive next to Numbani, Lijiang Tower, or Junkertown.  This is to be expected with nine years between them.  But again, Valve could have reimagined their game themselves in that time, and chose not to.

The simplicity of the weaponry (most characters can’t change guns) combines with the idea of ults to make the gameplay seem quite different from TF2. Teams are maxed out at six, and don’t allow multiples of one character, while TF2 teams can be as high as 12. All this focuses the game quite a bit.  In TF2, half the players can treat the game as deathmatch most of the time, and it doesn’t matter much. Overwatch requires a higher commitment to the objective, such that you really notice if your Hanzo or Widowmaker is indulging themselves rather than actually making their shots.

And precisely because teams are smaller, and characters can’t be doubled up, you can’t just turtle up, which was the strategy much of the time in TF2. If Blizzard studied TF2, surely one of the conclusions they came to was “don’t let the turrets dominate the game.”

Plus, the two dozen characters make for far more interesting choices, as well as the constant expectation that Blizzard will shake everything up with a new character. I think TF2 made it far easier to slip into a comfort zone– e.g. I mostly played Pyro and Soldier. I have more range in Overwatch, though perhaps not enough, as many rounds of Mystery Heroes have demonstrated.

Finally, there’s the whole Overwatch League thing.  I’ve found these high-level matches pretty interesting.  TF2 now has ranked play, but I’m not sure how well it’d work as an e-sport.  Again, the turtling and the omnipresent snipers make it difficult for teams to coordinate a strategy.

None of this is to disparage TF2, which I played with great enjoyment for, omigod, like eight years.  It’s a great game!  But Overwatch has surpassed it, for me at least.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

When you’re reading and writing about syntax, then you see syntax everywhere.  E.g., I just found this gem on Twitter:

Quoted in NYT is not something I was expecting to get when becoming a socialist.

Let’s do some syntax!  First, what is this?  It’s not quite like anything else in my bestiary of transformations. It’s an extraposition of a V’ from the VP, but I can’t make parallels with other auxiliaries:

?Quoted in the NYT is not something I was expecting to be.

?Printed by a major publishing firm is not something I was expecting to be.

*Brought down three prime ministers is not what Brenda thought she would ever have.

The first two are maybe marginal. But simpler statements definitely fail:

*Eaten tripe and onions is not something that I have.

*Eating tripe and onions is not something that I am.

*Compared to a troglodyte is not something that I’ve got(ten).

The sentences seems closest to Pseudo-Clefting, but it doesn’t quite work:

What ended the Martian threat was bacteria.

What he dreams of is being profiled by both Forbes and Dungeon.

What he never expected was getting quoted in the NYT.

*What he never expected getting was quoted in the NYT.  

On the other hand, other uses of get seem to work:

A case of 200-year old wines is not something I was expecting to get from my grandfather.

A rock is what I got.

So I think the best I can come up with is that the Twitter sentence works by analogy from the physical to the auxiliary sense of get. This would help explain why the sentences with get sound better than those with be.

It’s fine, by the way, if you don’t quite accept the original sentence. I’m not 100% sure I do either, but I don’t find it clearly ungrammatical either.

If you’re a conlanger, this construction is worth thinking about— not that you should copy it, but are there any other areas where the syntax can be stretched like this? It’s all too easy to just come up with a straightforward example of (say) the passive, and never think about possible, impossible, and in-between variants.

I actually picked this up when it came out, but never finished it.  And I still haven’t, but I’m playing it again, and I’m almost done, so I’d might as well write a review.

2016-02-29_00001

I sure hope there’s a zipline so I can get down there

Re-reading my review of the reboot, I’m struck by how many things I didn’t like that they’ve now fixed:

  • Basically no Quicktime events. (There are a few “run away across a collapsing building” scenes, but they generally use moves you’ve mastered anyway.)
  • Not as many cutscenes in general. You mostly get to control your own camera!
  • No gallery of ‘friends’ who do nothing to help and are there mainly to get in trouble and/or get killed.
  • No snotty ‘friend’ who’s set up as the obvious betrayer.  (There is a betrayer, but they provided a plausible motivation this time.)

Almost all of the game is set in Siberia, looking for the lost city of Kitezh. Now, Kitezh is a city from Russian folklore which supposedly resisted the Mongol invasion by slipping into a lake.  A Rimsky-Korsakov opera has it becoming invisible instead.  Also it’s supposedly near Nizhny Novgorod, which is not in Siberia.

Whatevs. Here it’s founded by Byzantines, who’ve come from Syria, led by their Prophet, who seems to have the secret of eternal life.  An evil cult named Trinity wants this, and so does Lara Croft, but in a much nicer way.

On the plus side:

  • It’s really pretty; the mountains and the forests and the various ruins are very well done.
  • It has much bigger areas to explore, and you’re able to mess around all you like. (There were some small hubs in the first game, but there wasn’t much to do in each one, and the plot was always hurrying you on.)
  • I like Lara’s voice actress, Camilla Luddington. There’s much less character development this time, so most of the work of making Lara likeable comes down to the voice acting, and Luddington makes her sound earnest and concerned. OK, that may sound dull, but compare that to your basic space marine, who usually sounds indifferent and/or bombastic.
  • There is less emphasis on “hard enemies which mess with what you’ve learned so far”, which is fine by me. E.g. you have armored enemies, but you also have some good options against them.
  • The basic gameplay loop is fun.  Sneak around, shoot arrows or bullets at people, solve some physics puzzles, do some mild parkour. Everyone who’s passed through Kitezh– Trinity, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Soviets– is fond of leaving ruins which can only be traversed with Lara’s particular gear– climbing pick, rope arrows, etc. Some places even give you a choice of route!

Honestly the open world aspect can be wearing.  There are optional tombs scattered around– you’d might as well do as many as you can, since they offer perks. There are challenges and optional missions and resources to pick up and animals to hunt and relics to find and… well, if you like that sort of thing, there’s a lot of it. The first time I played the game, I put it aside halfway through, and I think it’s because of all this cruft. I feel like I should do everything, but it becomes a chore.

I’m enjoying it more now, mostly because I’ve given myself permission to skip anything I don’t feel like doing. Anyway, in general, this isn’t a Bethesda game, where the main questline is the dullest of them all.  They put the most work into the main story.

On the minus side–

  • I don’t mind dying to enemies– the fights always seem fair, and if I die it’s my fault and it’s usually easy to see why.  But I hate dying because I missed a jump, especially if it has fiddly positioning or timing to it. The game doesn’t even have the excuse of Mirror’s Edge, that it’s about split-second button presses. Rather than falling to her death, Lara should recover, like Batman.  (You could make her repeat the last bit, if you want mistakes to have a cost.)
  • The plot idea of ‘vindicating Dad’ is far less interesting than the first game, which moved Lara from frightened young girl to badass warrior woman. Once she’s that badass, there’s little she really needs, so the emotional temperature drops a bit.

There’s another sequel coming out later this year, so I hope I’ve put Trinity down by the time it comes out.

Edit: Finished it tonight… I really wasn’t far from the end. The final boss fight isn’t terribly hard, which is also fine by me.

Though they lost the character arc from the first game, I think the story here is a lot more meaningful. The story in the first game is more or less “try to escape this extremely dangerous island which Lara’s dad for some reason wanted to get to.” Here, it’s all related to having the secret of immortality… it’s not any more believable, but at least you can see that it has big consequences which explain why everyone is after it.

 

 

 

Today’s reading: Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal, by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, published in 1660.  Let’s call it PRG. You can get it here, in the 1803 edition. My understanding was that it was a precursor to Chomsky, and in fact he claimed as much in a book, Cartesian Linguistics (1965).  Spoiler: it isn’t.

grammaire

Undoubtedly your first question will be: as a grammar from Renaissance times, how does it compare to the word of Šm Fatandor Revouse, Pere aluatas i Caďinor? In overall coverage and linguistic knowledge, it’s fairly similar— for instance, PRG, like Šm Revouse, stumbles in the phonology section through not having any vocabulary or notation for phonetics; both are reduced to talking about letters.

On the other hand, PRG is fairly free of the sort of metaphysical and nationalistic nonsense that Šm Revouse indulges.  In particular, they never claim that the ancient languages are better than the modern, nor do they try to find spiritual categories or whatever within language. They acknowledge at several points that many aspects of language are arbitrary, and vary between languages. (They do sometimes appeal to the notion of ‘elegance.’)

By the way, see here for an argument from W.K. Percival that there is really no such thing as “Cartesian linguistics” at all, that PRG was not particularly innovative or Cartesian, and that Descartes’ idea of language, to the extent he had any, had very little resemblance to Chomsky’s.

Anyway, what is PRG? It’s not really a grammar at all, either of French or the ancient languages. It could be called a sketch of a comparative grammar, or an overview of the concepts needed to study grammar. So it starts with sounds, then discusses nouns, pronouns, adjectives, cases, verbs, etc.  It never gives enough information to fully cover any topic or tell you in detail how a language handles it, but it does define all grammatical terms, gives examples, and opines on what the functions of each thing are.

Chomsky felt that his notion of “universal grammar” was prefigured here, but I’d say PRG starts from the pretty obvious fact that a similar grammatical analysis can be used for the major languages of Europe. PRG never really runs into a fact about modern French that can’t be described using the terms of classical grammar.  So, for instance, they are perfectly aware that French nouns don’t have case, but they find it useful to relate subjects to the Latin nominative, PPs with de to the genitive, and PPs with à to the dative.

The languages covered are very few: of ancient languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; of modern, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are a couple of references to German; none at all to English, and nothing on languages the authors surely were aware of: Basque, Bréton, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic.

Chomsky went so far as to assert that PRG prefigured his “surface and deep structures”. This is completely absurd; PRG talks about things like subjects and predicates and propositions, but this was bog-standard thinking about language since ancient times. They come a little closer in this passage on adjectives:

When I say Invisible God has created the visible world, three judgements occur in my mind, contained in this proposition. Because I judge first that God is invisible. 2. That he has created the world. 3. That the world is visible. And of these three propositions, the second is the principal one, and the core of the proposition; the first and the third are incidental to it.

The idea that the adjective invisible applied to God represents a proposition God is invisible reoccurs in generative grammar. On the other hand, it is not part of a transformational view of language, nor it is part of a systematic treatment of semantics. It’s really a pretty basic observation about adjectives… if you want to say what an adjective is, you’re almost bound to observe that it says what something is like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve invented deep structure, or phrase structure rules.

There are some interesting bits where the authors try to relate meanings to other meanings. E.g. they say at one point that Petrus vivit ‘Peter lives’ is equivalent to Petrus vivens est ‘Peter is living’, or that Pudet me ‘I am ashamed’ is equivalent to Pudor est tenens mihi ‘Shame is had by me’. You could generously relate this to generative semantics, except backwards: GS tends to make verbs primitive, while PRG tries to restate verbs in terms of adjectives or nouns.

But we really have to avoid overinterpreting texts in terms of current theories. PRG is, by modern standards, hobbled by a lack of semantic terms and frames of reference. The authors didn’t have predicate calculus to think about, or Minsky’s idea of frames, or Fillmore’s idea of semantic roles, or Rosch’s prototypes or fuzzy categories, or Lakoff’s ideas on categories and metaphors.

They’re doing the best they can with the concepts they have. On verbs, for instance, they reject the old idea that verbs represent actions or passions, pointing out (quite rightly) that there are stative verbs which are neither. They propose that the essence of a verb is that it affirms something— that is, it asserts a proposition about something. The prototypical affirmation is the word est “is”, which is why they restate Petrus vivit as Petrus vivens est. Essentially they’re reducing sentences with verbs to things they have already discussed: objects and attributes.

They have a very short chapter on syntax, whose content is rather disappointing. It amounts to these observations:

  • Some words have to agree with each other, to avoid confusion.
  • Some words require each other (e.g. nouns and subjects), and some words depend on another (e.g. adjectives on nouns).
  • When everything is stated well, without rhetoric, the order of words is “natural” and follows the “natural expression of our thoughts”.
  • However, sometimes people want to be fancy, and they omit words, insert superfluous words, or reverse words.

I’m guessing they were in a hurry to wrap up, because they certainly knew Latin well enough to know that the basic sentence order was different in Latin and French, but also could be more freely varied.

A minor point of interest: PRG frequently, like generative grammar, gives negative examples— things we don’t say. This was by no means common in grammars— Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar, for instance, doesn’t do this.

Should you run out and read it? Eh, probably not, especially as it turns out it’s not a precursor at all to modern syntax. It is interesting if you want to know how early rationalists approached grammar, e.g. if you wanted to write something like Šm Revouse’s grammar for your own conlang.

 

 

 

I’m up to page 220, which probably means I’m half done with the Syntax Construction Kit. So it’s time for another progress report.

The last book I read, Robert Van Valin’s An introduction to Syntax, is perhaps the least useful on the details of syntax, but the most useful on what syntax has been doing for the last forty years. There are two overall strands:

  • A focus on constituent structure, the path taken by Chomsky.
  • A focus on relations between words: semantic roles, valence, dependencies.

That’s really helpful, and it’s a better framing than the division I learned in the 1980s between Chomskyan syntax and generative semantics.  The problem with that was, in effect, that GS disappeared. So it kind of looked like the Chomskyans won the battle.

But like Sith and Jedi, you can never really get rid of either side in this fight. In many ways GS simply regrouped and came back as Cognitive Linguistics. Plus, it turns out that many of the specific GS ideas that Chomsky rejected in the 1970s… came back in the ’90s as Minimalism. In particular, semantic roles have a place in the theory, and even the semantic breakdown of verbs (show = cause to see) that GS emphasized years ago, and that Chomsky at the time bitterly resisted.

Also, an unexpected side path: in order to understand and explain a lot of modern theories, I’m having to re-read papers I read for my first syntax classes, nearly forty years ago. My professor had pretty good taste in what would prove important.

There’s two challenges in writing this sort of book.

  • How to communicate that Chomsky isn’t the only game in town, without simply writing a brusque travelog of maybe a dozen alternatives
  • How to make this useful and interesting for someone who just wants to write conlangs, man

Van  Valin scupulously divides his page count between the constituent and the relational point of view. I will emphasize relations far more than I originally intended to, but I’m still going to focus on constituent structure. Partly that’s because there’s so much to cover, but it’s also because I’ve already written quite a bit about relations and semantics in my previous books.

But in general, I’m trying for breadth of syntactic data, not depth in Minimalism (or any other school). The problem with the latter approach is that you may learn to create a syntactic tree that your professor won’t scribble red marks over, but you won’t learn why that particular tree is so great. Every theory can handle, say, WH-movement.

Hopefully, that will address the second challenge as well.  As the Conlanger’s Lexipedia gives you a huge amount of information about words, my aim with this book is to give you more things to put in your syntax section than you thought was possible. And hopefully some pretty weird things. Wait till you see a Bach-Peters sentence.

Plus, web toys! I don’t know why more syntax books haven’t been written by computer programmers; it’s a natural fit. Though I have to say: Chomsky should have run his ideas on Minimalism past a programmer. Some of Minimalism is beautifully simple: you can set out the basic structure of a sentence with a minimum of rules. Then, to handle tense and case, question, and movements, you have to add an amazing superstructure of arbitrary, hard-to-generalize rules. The idea is to get rid of ‘arbitrary’ rules like Passive, but the contrivances needed to do so seem just as arbitrary to me.