June 2018


I’m both early and late to this party: Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, but it’s an episodic game and 4 of 5 episodes are out. The last one should be out, oh, any day now.

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On a magic realist tour, always stop for the music

It’s a weird little game, though if you started with Grim Fandango, threw in some García Marquez, and marinated it in Southern Gothic, you’d end up about here. It’s mostly text adventure, but it makes effective use of some evocative, beautiful visuals. It largely tells a tale rather than letting you shape it, but your choices affect your experience immensely. And everything, from tone to which character is the protagonist, is subject to change.

The basics: you start out playing a truck driver named Conway, who gets lost trying to deliver a shipment of antiques. He stops off at a gas station and learns that the address he’s looking for is more or less in neverland– it’s on the titular Route Zero, an underground highway that you can’t get to by normal means. He’s sent on an increasingly bizarre quest to find the entrance to this highway.

Along the way he picks up a very motley crew of other strange loners: Shannon, a girl he finds in an abandoned mine; a boy named Ezra who hangs with a giant eagle and whose parents have disappeared; Junebug and Johnnie, traveling musicians who happen to be robots, though no one is gauche enough to hassle them about it; Cate, who runs a tugboat along an underground river and also serves as a midwife. We end up learning quite a lot about each of them and their predicaments.

A lot of fantasy is empowerment fantasy. Not here. Magic realism is a sort of inversion of Samuel Beckett: ultimately the universe is bleak and tragic, but damn if we aren’t going to have some fun along the way. The story of KRZ is full of terrible things: a flooded mine, unscrupulous corporations, infuriating bureaucracies, debt, decay, and medical emergencies. Against all this, there’s only friendship, kindness, and music. The story hints that Conway has a tendency to look for escape in a bottle. But there’s other kinds of escape, even if only momentary, like the sudden dizzying pans or zooms in KRZ’s visuals where you realize that the flat-seeming images are really 3-D modeled.

There are a lot of references to other works… let’s just say that very few of the names in the story are random. It’s not intrusive, though, just a nod to fellow travelers.

I mentioned Grim Fandango as being closest to what KRZ is like as a game.  You don’t really have the puzzles, however, or the hope of a happy ending. (We’ll see. I hope at least someone in the story gets one.) You make choices, almost always by choosing a line of dialog.

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OK, not a fascinating choice, but it’s the only screenshot I had that showed choices.

I’ll warn you right now: it seems like your choices don’t impact the overall story at all. (But we’ll see when Act 5 comes out.) You get about the same story in the same order no matter what you do. And yet the choices aren’t meaningless; they’re a low-key form of roleplaying. You can choose to be distanced, or empathetic. You can intensely pursue your quest goals, or you can accept digressions.  You can define some of the characters’ pasts and how they feel about them.

In some ways the game, without redefining the basic idea of a dialog tree, makes it work better than almost any other game. The big Bethesda and Bioware games almost always give you three basic options: be nasty, be helpful, or don’t get involved. The choices here may not be highly consequential, but they’re generally all reasonable, at least.

The story opens out quite a bit in Act 4, where you’re travelling on Cate’s tugboat, making various stops. At each one you choose which character you want to follow. So here you can really only get half the story, though apparently (I haven’t tried replaying it) you get hints of what happened in the other branch.

Oh, a warning that might avoid some surprised swearing: the game has three save slots, but it doesn’t remember which one you used last. I thought it hadn’t saved my progress at one point, but it had– I just had to choose the right save slot.

Will you like it? Well, if your idea of a game is “shoot all the things”, maybe not. I think it has its longueurs; on the other hand, I’m eager to see how it all comes together in Act 5. For the most part it’s aiming at a particular strain of melancholy, leavened by some comedy and bemused folksiness (none of the characters quite knows what’s going on, though some are less troubled by this than others). Mostly it hits its marks.

Sometimes it’d be nice if it really gave into the weirdness, gave you some of the exhilaration of parts of (say) Edith Finch. But that would probably spoil the quieter bits, which you’d rush through to get to the set pieces. This is a game where some strangers bonding over mushroom hunting (next to an underground river), or deciding whether or not to talk to the dog in the straw hat, are as important as pursuing Conway’s increasingly unlikely delivery.

 

 

 

 

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If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.

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Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)

 

 

I’ve been working on a few projects. One is making flags for the nations of Ereláe. You can see what I’ve done so far here.

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Rather more surprising: I’ve been translating a French novel. No, you haven’t heard of it; that’s why I’m translating it. 🙂  I hope the author won’t mind my naming it: it’s Damien Loch by Shan Millan. It’s a fantasy novel,  but a rather satirical and contrarian one. It’s more or less “What if your asshole neighbor turned out to come from another world… but he was still an asshole?”

One of the fascinating bit about translating is how styles and wording differ between even quite similar languages. Conlangers, take note! One way to put it is: if the word-for-word gloss from your language sounds just like English, you probably haven’t worked out your language’s style enough.

For me at least, the problem is that reading the French original, the French style starts to sound natural, and the English ends up strange and wooden. So of course I have to go over the English and make it sound, well, English.

In return, Shan is translating the Language Construction Kit— the book— into French! I tried to do this myself a few years ago, and didn’t get very far, mostly because of the same style problem. I could make a French version myself, but it would be horribly awful. 

Anyway, this will eventually be very exciting for English fantasy fans, and French conlangers.

The other project came out of my work on syntax: I decided to finally update the Verdurian grammar. In the syntax book I want to explain how you can use modern syntax to inform your conlang’s grammar, you see, and I thought I’d better do it myself first. (Not that there wasn’t syntax in the grammar before, but now there’s more.)

I’ve also taken the opportunity to make the grammar easier, and harder. Easier, in that I can explain some things better, and get rid of what I now think are confusing presentations. (Also, there will be glosses for all the examples, a practice I now think is indispensable.) Harder, in that I don’t feel that I have to explain basic linguistics in every grammar, especially since the ‘easy’ route is already there in the form of guided lessons.

(No finish date yet, but it shouldn’t be too long.)

(I’m also hoping to include actual Verdurian text, for people who have the right font.)

Is there a good methodology or series of questions one should ask themselves when determining what the “alphabetical order” will be of one’s alphabet or other writing system? Is there any particular reason why “A” should be before “B” and that before “C”?

—Colin

Great question— the answer may be a bit disappointing. The obvious thing to do is to look at natural language alphabetical orders. Only…

  • The alphabet was really only invented once— by the Canaanites, some time after 2000 BC. Everyone else, including the Jews, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans, adapted their system and kept their order.
  • We really don’t know why that order prevailed. No one even seems to have any good guesses. The World’s Writing Systems never, so far as I could see, covers the topic.

(There are actually two attested ancient orders, you can see a comparison here.)

(Also, technically, the Canaanite writing system was a consonantal alphabet, or abjad. Later, partial vowel symbols were used. The Greeks were the first to represent all their vowels.)

So far so disappointing, but we also have the example of the Brāhmī script, which is the ancestor of Devanāgarī and other Indian and SE Asian scripts. This arose around 300 BC, and the interesting thing about it is that its order is phonetically motivated. Letters are grouped by point of articulation (it starts क ख ग घ ka kha ga gha), and the secondary order is from the back of the mouth to the front: ka…, ca…, ṭa…, ta…, pa… Finally there’s semivowels and then sibilants. A linguist couldn’t have done a better job. The Brāhmī order very likely influenced the order in Korean and Japanese.

(The a‘s aren’t just part of the letter— in these systems a symbol has an inherent vowel. So क alone is ka. You add diacritics for other vowels: कि ki, कु ku, etc.)

There’s one other scheme that might appeal to you: mnemonics. A real-world example is the iroha order for the Japanese kana. It’s a poem which includes every character in the syllabary just once, and still serves as an alternative order for the kana.

Since there aren’t many real-world examples, I think a conlanger is also entitled to use any crazy system they can come up with…