Little Nightmares

I don’t even like platformers, but I loved this game. It’s just $4 in the Steam sale, though only for the next eight hours. If I finish this review quickly.

The situation: you are a very small child in an enormous ship full of monsters. You have to escape it and them, and you have no combat skills at all. Your one advantage is your size: you can hide under tables and in small niches the big lumbering things can’t reach. So you sneak around, hide or run from the monsters, climb walls and dressers. There are puzzles to solve to advance, and some collectables to find.

Oh, and for some reason you’re ravenously hungry.

(Supposedly your character is named Six and is a little girl, but nothing in the game itself indicates either fact.)

Edit: I should clarify that it’s not a 1990s 2-D platformer. It’s 2.5D. That is, it’s largely left-to-right, so you’re normally hitting D not W to move forward; but the levels have some depth and you can move around within this area.

I’ve read some reviews that reckoned that the puzzles were too easy. Maybe so, but they’re not intended to be brain-teasers; they’re mostly an excuse to traverse a scary environment. Also that it’s short, which is true– I played it in six hours, and if you’re familiar with this sort of game you can do it in far less.

What’s amazing about the game is a) the beautiful modeling and animations; b) the perfect lighting and level design; c) the sounds; d) the pacing.

It’s a horror game, or maybe a grotesquerie game. The monsters are humans– arguably the game captures a certain feeling from young childhood, when adults outside your close family are huge, inscrutable, and kind of gross. Fitting in with the game’s theme, almost all of them have to do with eating. The Janitor– with impossible long arms that search for you, pictured above– traps children and send them to the kitchen. The Chefs endlessly prepare cuts of meat, including you if they catch you. The Guests gluttonously eat what they prepare.

If you’ve ever seen the films of Jan Švankmeier, there’s definitely a family resemblance. The monsters are grotesque though not especially scary– but of course they’ll kill you if they catch you. They move in a jerky way that suggests stop motion. They have weird designs that may make you think of things pretending to be human, not too successfully. (E.g. the Chefs have expressive faces that are possibly masks hiding their real faces.)

This lovely interview gives some insight into how the animations were made, with nice examples. Note how, for instance, the monsters reach for you, with evident frustration if they can’t reach. If you watch a video this is more comic than scary, but it’s more effective in game, when you have to maneuver yourself skillfully past them.

I’m not sure I’ve talked about lighting before– it sounds like complimenting a game on its catering department. But I don’t talk about it because in most games it’s just adequate. One exception is the original Left 4 Dead, where lighting was carefully used to draw you to objectives.

That’s even more true here. Often the lighting is atmospheric, dark enough to be creepy. Often it focuses attention– it’s subtler than (as some games do) painting the edges white where you can climb up. Sometime it enhances danger, if you don’t know where a danger is lurking. And in a few areas it’s thematic– there are a few places where too much light kills.

The level design and art direction are also amazing: everything contributes to the atmosphere. It’s a very weird place, and the realistic textures and the physics applied to the many objects you can interact with keep it grounded, even if parts of it are baroque (like huge stacks of books or meat). The scale of everything is important too: your character is simply too small to be the child version of the adult monsters, or whoever the chairs and tables are meant for. (For that matter, the furniture, huge for you, seems too small for the monsters.)

The sounds are also well done– little footsteps for you, big clomping steps for the Chef, disgusting eating noises from the Guests. The ship creaks as it sways. When a monster sees you, it lets out an elephant-like shriek; you also hear a heartbeat, signaling how close it is.

As for pacing, I like the way the game has quiet exploring bits, tense sneaking bits, and a few frantic chases. Some games try to take it up to 11 all the time, and even when you’re idle send you an endless stream of messages or voice calls. (Borderlands 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are particular offenders.) But it’s nice to have safe spots where you can look around, or take a break.

Now, I found a few sections difficult, at least at first. And if you die, sometimes you have to repeat a whole subsection. But it would be disappointing if nothing was difficult. There’s one section where you have to run across a table where Guests are eating, and they will grab you if you come too close. At first I always got grabbed, but I learned how to avoid that (if they get near, jump), but then I kept missing the next jump. I finally got it, and well, once is all you need. Again, people used to platformers don’t seem to find it difficult at all.

One interesting oddity is that there is something sinister about Six herself. As I said, she’s hungry, and has to eat at several points. There’s a logical progression to this, and it makes for a more complicated picture.

There’s a sequel out now, but I haven’t tried that.

Amarna

I’ve been perusing the secret diplomatic messages of Egypt— top-level messages between the rulers of all the major Middle Eastern states. These were acquired via an egregious lapse in security. The Egyptians just left the tablets in a room, 3300 years ago.

That is, I’m reading The Amarna Letters, translated by William Moran. Amarna is the modern name— really el-ʿAmārna. The ancient name was Akhetaten, and it was the new capital established by Amenhotep IV, pictured above, better known as Akhenaten, as part of his plan to re-orient Egypt toward the sole worship of Aten. Or to give him his proper name, “the living one, the Ra-Horus of the horizon, who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disk [Aten].” You may be able to see why we abbreviate it.

The letters are almost all written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day. Very bad Akkadian, I should add, with a good deal of West Semitic interference. A few are in Hittite or Hurrian. Curiously, though Egypt controlled Canaan at this time, it never occurred to anyone to write to the Egyptian king in Egyptian.

There are over 300 letters. There are a couple from the Egyptian king, probably drafts or copies of letters sent. Apparently there was another place where Egyptian records were kept, and we don’t have that, so most of the correspondence is from abroad. (So my statement above may be wrong. If anyone did write to the king in Egyptian, it wouldn’t have been filed with the Akkadian documents.)

Your first question is undoubtedly, how do I, a Middle Eastern king, start a letter to the king of Egypt? Like this:

Say to Nimu’wareya, the king of Egypt, my brother: Thus Kadašman-Enlil, the king of Karaduniyaš, your brother. For me all indeed goes well. For you, your household, your wives, and for your sons, your country, your chariots, your horses, your magnates, may all go very well.

I like the way you wish well to the king’s horses and chariots. This is like telling a modern president that you wish his nuclear weapons to be in good working order.

Other kings wrote Mimmuwareya, or Napḫurureya, or Nibḫurrereya. These are attempts at Neferkheperura, Akhenaten’s throne name. As for Karaduniyaš, that was the Kassite name for Babylon. The Kassites were originally nomads from the Zagros, who took over Babylon in 1590, and ruled for nearly half a millennium— pretty impressive as Mesopotamian dynasties go.

What did the kings talk about? Overwhelmingly, gifts and marriages. They rarely talk about peace or borders or trade, though they assure each other that they love each other. This period was fairly peaceful anyway, so there’s no political grandstanding.

The Kassites knew how to be diplomatic about their requests. One king, Burra-Buriaš, assures Amenhotep, “In my brother’s country, everything is available and my brother needs absolutely nothing. Furthermore, in my country everything too is available and I for my part need absolutely nothing.” That said, he sends Amenhotep four minas of lapis lazuli and five teams of horses. (A mina is 1/2 kg.) For his part, he is “engaged in a work” and needs “much fine gold.” He complains that the last gift of 40 minas of gold, when put into the kiln, yielded “not even 10 minas”. He discreetly suggests that the king did not personally check the shipment, so some minor official altered it.

The Assyrian king is more direct:

Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.

There’s an almost comic series of letters from Tušratta, the Hurrian king. He claims that Amenhotep had promised him two solid gold statues. However, he received only wooden statues plated with gold. He repeatedly asks for the missing statues, writes to the Queen about it as well, and when Amenhotep dies he writes to his heir, Tutankhamun.

I can’t find a reference to the size of the statues, and we may not be able to get to the bottom of the mystery after 3300 years, but I can’t help thinking that the whole mess rests on a misunderstanding. Even for their own use, so far as I know, the Egyptians didn’t make large statues of gold. The famous mask of Tutankhamun is hollow, the gold being no more than 3 mm thick. Even so, it weighs 10 kg, or 20 minas. What would you want a solid statue for anyway? I think Tušratta just assumed that the statue would be solid. And perhaps the Egyptians didn’t want to disabuse him because the idea of a solid statue fit their image, and what was the king going to do anyway, scrape the gold off?

Tušratta feels particularly entitled because he sent his daughter as a wife for the king. This was the other major preoccupation of kings. They sometimes seem to assume that the daughter or sister they provided would be queen of Egypt, rather than just one resident of the harem. (Kings didn’t all have harems: it doesn’t seem to have been a custom in Babylon, for instance.)

A little ironically, Egypt didn’t produce the gold it was famous for. It had a near-monopoly because it had exclusive access to sources farther south in Africa. Similarly, the Kassites produced neither horses, which came from the Iranian mountains, nor lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan.

One curiosity of Amarna diplomacy: kings sometimes complain that their messengers are detained, sometimes for years. One even threatens to detain an Egyptian messenger until his own are freed. It’s not clear why all this was a problem, since surely everyone would have benefited if their messages could go through faster. It doesn’t seem that it gave the detaining king any special leverage. Perhaps it was a matter of prestige: having some foreign ambassadors at court showed that you were a formidable world power.

There are also a large number of letters from Egyptian vassals in Canaan. Curiously, the initial salutation is simpler, though humbler:

Say to the king, my lord: Message of ‘Abdi-Aštarti, servant of the king. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times, here and now, both on the stomach and on the back.

On the front and then the back? Did you roll over in front of the king? I don’t know.

Most of these letters are agitated, because Egypt was neglecting her colonial possessions, and they were threatened by a local rebellion and/or by the Hurrians. Their needs are small— just 200 archers or so. They don’t seem to have received these, perhaps because Akhenaten was too busy with his religious project.

As it happens that rebellion was led by the same ‘Abdi-Aštarti who wrote the above letter, perhaps in better days. His little kingdom or chiefdom was known as Amurru, and spoke Amorite. His son Aziru allied the kingdom with the Hittites.

I find the letters fascinating, though there’s a reason most histories, like this blog post, just quote the juicy bits. They’re highly repetitive, and of course they form no coherent narrative. Moran has done his best placing letters from the same person together, but without Egyptian replies, and without much historical context, it’s not very satisfying as history. Still, the glimpse into day-to-day affairs and ways of speaking is quite interesting.

Cyberpunk 2077: Worldbuilding, game design

Some miscellaneous thoughts about Cyberpunk 2077. (For the review see here.)

I’d give the worldbuilding, oh, a solid B. It’s what everyone expects from cyberpunk: enhanced humans, hacking, powerful AIs, sinister corporations, sleazy cities, a strangely powerful Japan. I don’t rate it higher because it rarely surprises. It never transcends or questions the genre.

The genre goes down easily because we more or less live in a cyberpunk dystopia, minus the metallic skeletons. We don’t have complete governmental collapse, but the libertarians and Trumpists have been working on that. We have ever-growing inequality where the 90% slowly slide backwards. We have over-powerful tech corps, though Mark Zuckerberg does not manage to attain the gravitas of Saburo Arasaka.

A seeming problem is that very little seems to have changed between the time of Johnny Silverhands and that of V, fifty years later. This seems to be intentional: the corps are most comfortable when there is no change. But this strikes me as ahistorical. Not wanting change is not the same as not getting any. And surely the corps would be motivated to one-up each other by doing new research.

Two deeper questions. One, doesn’t the system work well anywhere? Night City is supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy, but Goro’s backstory suggests that Japan is no better. Why, if the Japanese corps are so phenomenal? Did anywhere in the world manage to keep a different social system?

We see some of the extremes: River’s sister lives in a trailer park, while the mayoral candidate lives in a penthouse. But honestly, after 50+ years of dystopia, I’d expect the differences to be far more extreme. Even today, Zuckerberg doesn’t live in a penthouse, but in a mansion. In 2077 I’d expect the CEOs to live in space stations, or estates the size of Kenya.

Which leads to a further question: is there still a 10%? How much of a privileged class do you need to run a dystopia? You need executives, doctors, bureaucrats, AI wranglers, architects, robotics engineers, database czars, bodyguards, personal trainers, entertainers, cooks. And you’d prefer that none of these people stink, or hate your guts enough to assassinate you. Presumably these are the people who live in the nicer parts of Night City. Still, do they really not care that it’s a violent hellhole? Someone says in-game that 1/5 of the population died in 2076. About 1/100 died in the US in 2020, and the half a million due to Covid was a major political issue. An elite can last indefinitely while oppressing most of the population, but they’d damn well better take care of the 10%.

Two: Why isn’t there a revolution? The game itself shows high-caliber weaponry available to gangs and even individuals– the key event in Johnny’s career is detonating a mini-nuke against Arasaka (though he had corpo help), and the plot of the game shows that acquiring a tank as well as a military assault on a corp are not that difficult. There are enough wars that plenty of people have military experience. When people are desperate, they don’t even care too much about replacing the current system; they’re content to destroy it.

I don’t have much confidence that fascist and/or plutocratic elements won’t take over and ruin major countries. It’s happened before, and our major bulwark against it here in the US– Rooseveltian liberalism– has been systematically undermined. At the same time, in history, fascist regimes usually crack up relatively quickly, while plutocratic ones generate anarchist or socialist opposition. Or just destroy themselves in a depression, allowing new systems to take over.

Also, I know it kind of militates against the cyberpunk atmosphere if you have to say “Over in Denmark and Taiwan, liberal democracy continued to thrive.” But, well, cyberpunk mostly works by narrowing its focus to the US plus a highly distorted picture of 1970s Japan. As ever, sf is how America criticizes itself. But the US isn’t the only country in the world. I don’t think every country is likely to follow our exact path downward. And yes, you could invent an informed, plausible descent for every other country, but that’s not really something we see in history either. Someone usually does better than everyone else.

One thing that strike me as weird about C77’s Night City: it seems to have no sense of race. This may be due to the fact that it’s written by Polish people, who can imagine an American city but not American racial politics. No one seems to notice anyone’s race; we don’t know if Blacks are still disadvantaged, or how Asian-Americans feel about Arasaka. Despite his name, Jackie Welles is Hispanic; the ofrenda quest is about the only recognition of ethnicity in the game.

I mentioned this in the review, but I do think the writers too easily use sexual sleaziness as a shorthand for social corruption. It’s lazy and regressive. I would expect a futuristic utopia to strike us as full of weird sex. People like sex, and if the weirdness can be indulged without exploiting or harming people, why not?

(Related: metal bodies? Eh. As soon as it’s feasible, people will want to be furries.)

Cyberpunk’s linguistics is worth a glance. I like the fact that V’s neurimplants allow her to immediately understand Spanish and Japanese. (Why they trip up over common Spanish phrases like mija, I don’t know. Did she check the “Local Color” checkbox?) It seems realistic that these come standard, but she has to download something for Haitian Creole.

The game makes an attempt at Near-Future English, mostly by adding new words (eddies, chooms, deltas, chrome, output), but also by syntax: apparently Truncation has become far more common, and the cool kids leave out subject pronouns most of the time. They don’t posit any phonological change, but that would be hard to get the voice actors to do. It’s a little surprising that there aren’t many borrowings, even from Japanese. (Though maybe if everyone has in-head translators, there’s no need for borrowings?)

The games’s intention seems to be to make V a blank slate character. You can choose her sex, orientation, appearance, background, and morality. All that is cool, except where the writers impose their own notion of the character. It bugged me, for instance, that even after romancing Judy, when she talks to River she talks only about old boyfriends. It seems careless to give her a full lesbian romance, and not realize that her past would be lesbian (or bisexual) too.

Similarly, though it’s a minor point, her interactions with Jackie’s family and with Goro and Panam suggest that she doesn’t know either Hispanic or Asian culture. But what if V is Hispanic or Asian? I understand that providing alternate dialog for such options would be work. But they did that amount of work anyway! The dialogs go way beyond the needs of the story, so I don’t think it’s asking too much that an AAA game allow us not only to look non-white, but to act it. If it takes more time, lop off two or three of the available cars.

If you’re designing a game with a generic character, I’m afraid it’s harder than ever these days. It’s no longer enough to just remember in the dialog that the player might be female. Sexuality is way more complicated these days; race and ethnicity is more than just providing a couple more skin tones. Maybe it’s too much to ask to provide more than two voice actors– but Saints Row managed that long ago.

One thing I appreciate about the game is that it often remembers your romance partner. They have a hefty series of quests. Afterward, you can visit them and have a nice chat; you call them before the final mission; you get a cutscene and/or credits message later on. I felt a real affection for Judy once I was done, unlike (say) my Skyrim wife, who I could take on quests. It’s also way better than (say) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where you can recruit your first girlfriend Odessa for your ship, and see her there subsequently, but with no further story or dialog.

If anything I’d love to have more of that. One of the cool things about Mass Effect 1, or Fallout New Vegas, is that your current companion would comment in various locations. It’d be neat if you could get Judy’s opinion on River, or on other situations. Or if you could take her out now and then.

Finally, one more gameplay complaint: the damn Relic Malfunctions. I get it, V is sick, and they want to remind you, in case the Johnny hallucinations weren’t a strong enough hint. But they invariably do this in the easy-ass way of taking control from you and shoving you into a cutscene.

How else could you do it? One way would be to add some intermittent or persistent debuffs. E.g. less health or stamina, or a slowed walking speed. Maybe you could get these back up with drugs, or counter them with new implants. I don’t necessarily like sanity metrics and other ways of impeding the player (I hated the malaria in Far Cry 2), but if it’s manageable it would add an interesting mechanic.

Cyberpunk 2077 done

I finished the game. I rushed through bits of it, kept complaining a lot, but I’ll also miss it now that it’s over.

I’m not going to avoid spoilers, so finish the game first if that’s important to you. See my initial and midgame thoughts here.

First, a pretty picture…. one of the best moments in the game, a sunrise in the Nomad camp. I didn’t capture it well, sorry.

Good news first: the story only gets stronger. I feel like I did three romance quests, though only one was a romance: Judy, Panam, and River. (I never met Kerry, the fourth choice.) All three are pretty involved– several missions each. Kind of weird: even though I didn’t romance two of them, they felt like they were written as romances anyway. There’s a point where you spend the night with Panam, and have the chance to touch her thigh… from walkthroughs, I know this is a trigger for the actual romance. I didn’t try it, because I’m loyal to Judy, dammit. I also had to let River down softly… sorry dude. But hey, never get involved with a cop. Besides, it seemed like trouble if this was, like, the first time he’d ever let himself have any emotions. Also, I kinda wanted an option to point out that I was already involved.

But it’s cool, because these were all intense stories that left me feeling close to the characters. And Panam is one fucking good pal to have. If you’ve played the game, you’ll see the above shot and know that I took the Panam ending… the only good one, so far as I can see.

As for Judy… well, the girl is cute as hell, also a little messed up and I hope I know what I’m doing. But her last mission…

This is the best mission in the game, bar none. And it’s really simple. Judy takes you diving. (There’s a clue in her apartment that she’s into that, but I didn’t see it at the time.) What she wants to show you is… her childhood town, which is buried under a lake. There’s a little anti-corpo message there, but it’s mostly just a quiet, atmospheric mission where you swim around after Judy, learn more about each other, and end up in bed together.

I’ve heard some complaints about the sex scenes in C77, but really, it’s not bad. Not perfect, but compare them to (say) Dragon Age Origins, where the sex was ludicrous. This one wasn’t perfect, but it was comparable to an R-rated scene in a movie, and managed to be sexy rather than cringe.

And look at that picture… Judy has a really great smile.

Perhaps because the creators are Polish, the overall tone of the game is bittersweet. You don’t defeat everyone and retire in glory, as you would in an American game. None of the romance stories end really well: Panam’s leaves her and the clan leader still bickering; River gets fired; Judy’s takeover of Clouds gets fucked up. The main quest is the same. You can’t destroy Arasaka, though you can give it a solid blow. You can get rid of Johnny, but all you get is a reprieve: V has only a few months to live. But with the Panam ending, you feel you have a chance. Maybe we’ll find out in DLC whether that pans out.

One nice bit: you can use Judy’s apartment after you hook up. You can find her there and have an extra conversation, which is nice. This is typical of the game: there is way more effort put into optional dialog than in most games. And it pays off: most of the characters end up feeling like people rather than plot points, and a lot of the endgame is actually rather affecting.

I skipped a lot of side gigs, as well as all the pointless cruft (finding Johnny’s old gear, buying cars, most of the tarot cards, the million NCPD side quests). The side quests (besides the romances) were hit-or-miss anyway. I liked Delamain; the pet tortoise was cute; the Peralezes made a nice portrait of paranoia in the upper crust but was a little skimpy; Lizzy Wizzy was kind of dumb. (Good idea, but too rushed, and the all-metal body thing seemed to be made for the art book– it didn’t add anything to the game.)

The gameplay and level design never really improve. I did get a four-slot cyberdeck, which helped, but it never felt like I could cyberpunk my way through a mission. I could never afford a better deck, which seems like a poor design decision: how am I doing the final missions without being a dangerous cyberfiend? Insultingly, they even make the final mooks immune to hacking.

I got the monofilament, which was OK, and I got a nice sniper rifle, which finally allows you to one-shot enemies, though at the cost of a long reload. My most powerful weapon was still a knife.

I can see now where they put their years of development time. One: animations. Look around in the game: almost every scene has custom animations, probably mocapped. How many hours did Keanu spend leaning on things? Two: cars. There are something like two dozen cars you can buy, if you can find the eddies.

I didn’t buy any, because driving is even worse than the combat. Once more, for any game designers reading this: WASD sucks for driving a car. Let us use the mouse. Play Borderlands if you can’t imagine how to do it. If you do insist on WASD, don’t make the damn cars fishtail so much that it’s hard to make the slightest turn, and don’t punish us for your poor control scheme by sending the police after us when we inevitably crash into things. I used Jackie’s Arch almost exclusively, since it seemed easier to control than any of the cars.

Some thoughts on Night City itself. I recommend taking some time to walk around in one of the busy areas, like a shopping district. Gawk at the weird outfits, catch some conversations, check out the ads. In some ways Saints Row III did better at being a city: having actual attractions, distinct-feeling neighborhoods, side quests that were fun to run into, stores you could enter. But C77 is certainly good at evoking a busy dystopian cityscape. Part of it is just the sheer number of people… in contrast with (say) Mass Effect or Fallout New Vegas, they can now render enough NPCS to make a nightclub look boppin’.

Finally, if you’re worried about bugs… it’s actually quite playable now, after the last patch. (Though I do have a new computer.) What they can’t patch away is the poor combat and level design, but at least I can tell people now that the story does get better.

The Innocents Abroad

One result of the pandemic: I’ve been re-reading what feels like everything on my bookshelves. And I have a lot of bookshelves.

When I was a teenager, I think it was, I loved The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I just finished re-reading it. It’s an account of his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 on the Quaker City with about sixty other Americans– most of them, by his count, old fogeys “between 40 and 70”. He was 32 at the time, a failed miner and riverboat pilot, but a rising newspaper humorist. His fare ($1250) was paid by a California paper.

quaker city

The Quaker City advances on Europe

His account is mostly an extended comedy routine, though he’s also attempting to convey to his readers what it was like to travel to these places, and that involves quite a bit of serious description and retelling of stories he’s read, or heard from his guides. It’s clear that he read a lot of contemporary travel guides, and that those told visitors what things to see, what they meant, and what their dimensions were, information he sometimes regurgitates half-chewed.

A lot of the comedy holds up. I like his gentle parodying of his favorite traveling companions. E.g. the Oracle tries to get as many learned words as possible into every sentence, while knowing the meaning of none of them. Then there’s what he calls the “pilgrims”: fellow passengers who are far more religious than he is, and yet have a positive mania for cracking off mementos from famous places. He has a chapter where the subhead “The Ascent of Vesuvius– continued” is repeated at least half a dozen times, as he keeps digressing far away from the volcano. He and his closest companions loved to tease guides, calling them all Ferguson, and tormenting them by asking of any historical figure or statue, “Is he dead?” He’s amusing and drily ironic about Catholic relics, counting how many places had the same bones or the same pieces of the Crown of Thorns.

Comedy these days is mostly fast: one-liners or back-and-forth repartee. Twain, like his English counterpart Jerome K. Jerome, is more a fan of the extended bit, a long anecdote full of buildup and color. He was highly in demand as a lecturer, and I picture him acting out the physical comedy and doing all the voices.

Though he grew up in Missouri and set his most famous novels there, here he presents himself as a Westerner, and indeed is a little too quick to compare all mountains to the Rockies and all lakes to Lake Tahoe. Cities are compared to New York (and he was also contributing dispatches to NY newspapers).

He’s obviously well read, and honestly appreciates a lot of what he sees. Though what he appreciates is a little random. He is completely unimpressed by the Last Supper (probably with reason– it was in bad shape) and in fact by most paintings. He is rapturous about the Pyramids and the Sphinx, mostly because they’re so ancient, and because their hardness resists the hammers of the pilgrims.

Sometimes the country bumpkin act gets a little old. A particularly annoying sort of traveler (often but not exclusively American or British) complains at finding things done differently than they are at home. A little too often Twain is that sort of traveler. That business about Tahoe, for instance. Probably he had read too many guidebooks that depicted everything in Europe as uniquely magnificent, but c’mon, Sam, a two-page encomium of Lake Tahoe back home is not necessary. Similarly, though it’s fascinating that the one town he finds “just like an American city” and wholly approves of is Odessa, it’s extremely provincial to only like things you liked before.

Twain has complicated feelings about poverty. On the one hand, he has a hearty distaste for oppression, and (e.g.) castigates the Catholic Church in Italy for living in luxury while the peasants are miserable. On the other, well, he hates seeing poor people– their rags, their diseases and deformities, their neediness. This particularly applies to all the Muslim cities he sees, but also to Naples, and for that matter to Native Americans. He’s not immune to pity (when the tourists are mobbed by people asking for baksheesh, he and the others give them money), but he can’t get past the feelings of repulsion at the people themselves, and he sometimes expresses the wish to get rid of them.

Such thoughts provoke an aggrieved response in some people, so if you’re thinking of that, just don’t go there. There was a lot to like about Twain, and there are things to dislike. He is not immune to be criticism, and frankly anyone who thinks he is hasn’t really understood him. He was an acerbic critic himself when he wanted to be, which was usually. He himself claims that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and it’s hardly unfair to ask him to live up to his own ideals.

(One possible defense is worth a response: that he was joking. First, it’s usually quite clear when he’s joking and when he’s not, and a lot of the xenophobia is not jokes. And second, pretending to be a bigot is not actually a laff riot; all too often, it’s just bigotry hiding behind facetiousness.)

Readers should also be aware that Twain’s description of Palestine as a desolate and barren place has done some real harm, by allowing some moderns to discount the rights or the very existence of the people who lived there. This article is a corrective. It should be noted that Twain visited in the dry season, when the country presented its worst aspect; also that one of his major themes was the discrepancy between romantic or ancient accounts and present realities, and he was not above exaggerating this for effect. He says about the same thing of Greece, by the way– “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufacturing, or commerce apparently”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to deceive, but this sort of analysis isn’t any more reliable than modern columnists’ assessment of national opinion based on talks with their cab drivers.

Something that might be surprising is Twain’s small but real piety. I’ve read other books by him that are far more skeptical. But at this point he seemed to be a faithful Protestant, though not a zealous one. He listened courteously to the “pilgrims” (who loved nothing on shipboard more than an evening of religious talks), he knows his scripture, and there is really nothing in the book that could offend a Christian. He criticizes hypocrisy and a few logical errors, and he’s not going to allow the pilgrims to put him off drinking and smoking, but he says nothing against the religion itself.

The best modern travel writing aims at not just describing the sights, but the people. This requires at least knowing the local language, and access to more than tour guides and waiters. Twain does not achieve this. He knows a little French, but by his own account none of the Americans could make their efforts understandable to a Frenchman. The structure of his tour means that he spends almost all of his time in Touristland, and though he freely talks about national character, this is mostly based on meeting people in the tourist industry.

If you can get past all that, the book is still pretty funny; it’s also quite interesting as a portrait of the times. The non-comedy bits– the places where he rhapsodizes over a building or some scenery he happened to like– are not greatly informative. But you get a good idea, I think, of how a smart but not college-educated American of the 1860s would react to the sights and the slights of the Old World. (His advice on Turkish baths: don’t bother.) Even the mechanics of tourism are worth looking at: obviously a lot of people traveled, because there was a network of guides and hotels and textbooks; but of course you couldn’t call ahead, you had no camera, and you weren’t on a strict schedule: if you could afford the trip at all, you were there for months. You also brought a huge trunk or two of gear– but in Twain’s case, this could be left on the ship, while you made your land excursions with a few suitcases.

Cyberpunk 2077: More thoughts

After my first bad reactions, and after playing about 18 hours, I’ve reached a truce with Cyberpunk 2077. I think I understand my feelings better now: the story is pretty good, and often fascinating. The gameplay sucks.

Now that’s a stylin’ V, right? Right?

To mitigate this, I’ve a) lowered the difficulty, and b) grabbed a big frigging katana. I don’t know why, but my guns do about 150 dps while melee does over 300. That makes the combat go way faster.

What’s wrong with the gameplay?

  • It’s mostly guns. I was expecting cyberpunk.
  • There isn’t anything interesting about its guns. Borderlands knows how to make pew-pew interesting; C77 doesn’t.
  • The enemies are dull. Didn’t these guys make the Witcher games? Monsters are interesting; mooks are not.
  • The hacking continues to suck. I guess I need a new cyberdeck with more slots, so I’ll work on that. There’s very little to do and all it does is put off the gunplay a little.
  • The levels and powers aren’t designed for stealth. (They’re too small, there are no places to get back into stealth, there are too few takedown options.)

It frustrates me whenever I think about it, because there’s no lack of better models. You could stealth ‘n hack your way through Deus Ex. For basic stealth, see Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; for advanced stealth, the Arkham or Dishonored games. Or hell, for interesting hacking look at Gunpoint.

But yeah, I can get through the combat now at least. The stories are variable, but are often a lot more involving and well-written than they have to be. As one example, tracking down Evelyn Parker, I had to buy a session with a sex worker. (I think these people are still human, but heavily modified?) Sounds cheesy, right? But it’s not what you expect (e.g. there’s no sex). It actually turns into a heavy psychotherapy session for V.

Another: I’m tracking down rogue cabs for Delamain, an AI who runs a cab company. Again, this sounds like the sort of collectibles mission you’d get in Saints Row. But each rogue cab has gone astray in its own way, so each one is an interesting surprise.

One more: Jackie, your partner from Act I, gets an ofrenda from his mother. They put quite a lot of work into this, with no gameplay at all, and it works pretty well. It would have worked better if there’d been more opportunity to get to know Jackie, but it’s still a surprising amount of depth to add to one NPC.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have story complaints. In general, I have the same issue as with the main storyline of Borderlands 3: the writers often think they’re far more edgy and fascinating than they are. I get a little tired of the endless gallery of tough-guy gangsters and fixers. The whole idea of black market braindances is… I dunno, probably realistic but way more grotesque than it has to be.

I understand that they’re trying to do a dystopia here. But I feel like they’re not always clear on the difference between exotic and outrageous. One example: at one point you meet a doctor named Fingers. He’s obviously intended to be a piece of work– after all, he sold Evelyn to sleazy braindance producers. But they seem to want to express this by coding him as gay and dressing him in a collar and shorts and a mesh shirt.

This isn’t characteristic of the game as a whole (where, after all, there are gay and lesbian romance options and your character can dress as absurdly as you can manage). But, I dunno, it seems like a step backwards from, oh, Zimos in Saints Row 3… who’s an absurd pimp but also your homey and useful supporter. I just wish the game designers had more room in their heads for the idea of “weird but also cool.”

But anyway, I want to at least get that romance with Judy, so I’ll keep going. (I’m still not too enamored of Keanu, but at least he’s not punching me any more.)

Yes, Trump’s a fascist

The latest annoying thing in the pundit class is think pieces on whether Trump is a fascist. Here’s The New Statesman saying no, not at all. Here’s Vox saying maybe but mostly no.

For readers who’ve been living in a cave: for nearly half a century, the gold standard for presidential corruption was Watergate, for which Nixon was almost impeached (he resigned instead). Now it’s January 6, 2021, when Trump gave a speech urging his supporters to march on Congress, and they did– thousands of them bursting into the capitol and forcing the Senate and House to flee to safety. A handful of people died, including one policeman beaten to death by the mob. At least some of the rioters were attempting serious sedition, bringing weapons and restraints; they aimed to murder Congress members or take them hostage. Some threatened to kill not only Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker, but Mike Pence, Trump’s own VP.

It’s become clear that this was no protest or exuberant mob– it was a deliberate attack, and the ringleaders went right to various Members’ offices. They failed to get their hands on anyone; I’m sure there will be whole books written on why that was. But it was way closer than it should have been.

A question that’s become almost a joke over four years is “What would it take for Republicans to turn against Trump?” Personal corruption and a torrent of lies didn’t do it, nor did abuses of power, attempts to ruin America’s alliances, concentration camps for migrants, cozying up to Putin, unlabeled feds bundling dissenters into vans in the middle of the night, a pandemic on track to kill more Americans than World War II. But what did it for quite a few of them was their own president egging on a mob to kill them. Who knew?

It was an attempt at a violent coup to overthrow democracy. The “fascism” charge should be open-and-shut at this point. So why are the pundits so sure it’s not?

Before we get there, let’s look at one expert that’s willing to call Trump a fascist: Robert Paxton. He wrote, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”

This is significant for me, because he wrote the book that I reviewed back in the Bush administration. His definition is worth quoting:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

At the time I concluded that Bush wasn’t a fascist– largely because the use of violence wasn’t there. Trump’s coup attempt crosses that line.

One objection would be the clown-car aspect of Trump and Trump’s supporters. It wasn’t a successful coup attempt. But this misses the point.

  • Trump is the president… the guy with the nuclear football. His incompetence may have saved us for now, but…
  • Half the Republicans in Congress supported his attempts to overturn the election.
  • Trump retains the support of a majority of Republicans (though his approval has declined since the attack).
  • The extremists– the people with the guns and restraints– were emboldened by the attack, and plan to do more.
  • Ever hear of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch? A failed coup attempt has historically led to more attempts.
  • Hitler and Mussolini made far more use of violence. But both were put into power legally, by the conservatives of the day. They were contemptuous of democracy– but used its institutions to get into power, only dismantling them afterward.

Why are the fascism experts besides Paxton reluctant to call Trump a fascist? The objections mostly come down to one of these things:

  • Worries that some “real” fascist will come down the pike, and we won’t know what to call them.
  • Quibbles over the historical details of early-20C fascism.
  • Wise-ass comments that Trumpism has American roots.

The first objection does make a point, just not a very good one. Suppose Trump had succeeded in denying the election results. Would it be comforting, or educational, or pedantically correct, to say that he wasn’t a “fascist”, but an “authoritarian”, or a “right-wing populist”, or a “nationalist”? Jesus, people, we’re talking about an illegal coup ending our 250-year American democracy. You don’t win a prize by denying it the word “fascism”. And you know, people who successfully execute a coup don’t end their criminal careers with that. The violence and vindictiveness would only ramp up.

The various quibbles are interesting to historians. E.g. the New Statesman article explains that Hitler and Mussolini were war-mongers intent on grabbing new territory. Yes, but there are historical reasons for that. Germany and Italy came late to the European imperialism party; one had just lost a World War and the other felt like it had. This was, if you remember, a time when Britain and France still had their colonial empires; the feeling was that that was what great nations do. Plus, they were small nations by US standards– their only way to feel like superpowers was to expand.

The US has a very different history and sense of itself. Though the rest of the world thinks it’s imperialist, it’s mostly via soft power; our actual colonial empire was not very important. American nationalists aren’t at root very interested in the world: they are consumed with the threats they see internally.

Finally, some historians are concerned that people over-emphasize 20C Germany and Italy, forgetting the long history of right-wing nationalism and white supremacy at home– everything from the Confederacy to Jim Crow to Joe McCarthy to the Klan. Again, there’s a point to this: there is no need to sync up events today and a hundred years ago, and think that Trumpism is a repeat of Hitler.

But the more general answer is: yes, Trumpism does recall some of the more lawless parts of American history, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone.

It’s worth noting that the real fascists, the people who really like Hitler, are already on board with Trumpism. A bunch of them participated in the attempted coup– proudly wearing their Nazi T-shirts. It’s undoubtedly true that they would turn on Trump on a dime if he isn’t nasty enough for them. But they’ve been made welcome in the GOP, and until that problem is solved, fascism will be a major factor in US politics.

Finally, the Jan 6. attempt– unlike the two months of legal shenanigans– created a real fissure in the Republican Party. For once we don’t have a few pursed lips expressing “concern” over Trump. We don’t know how meaningful that is, yet; we’ll get a much better idea during the impeachment trial.

Trumpism isn’t gone, and the large fraction of the GOP electorate that cheered him on won’t disappear. But things might start to look different in a week, when Trump is out of office and can’t post on Twitter– and a bunch of Senators start to realize that they have the power to keep him from running again.

Minecraft Islands

I could write about the coup attempt… it turns out the one thing that will make Republicans maybe turn on Trump is if he sends a mob to attack and kill them, who knew? But you’ve probably heard all about it, so I feel like talking about Minecraft.

A streamer played something that looked interesting– a Minecraft mode called Islands. It’s not a mod, it’s a world generation option. You get floating islands in the void, all one biome. It’s kind of like Skyblock but you can do actual mining. Here’s my base; you can see some of the islands as well as my attempt to make it look like the Nether.

Since it’s only the Plains biome, there’s a lot of stuff missing… you can’t even get clay, sand, or most types of tree. The islands don’t extend down far enough to get diamonds. On the other hand, you can pick up some exotic materials from wandering traders. Although the single biome is a little dull, the restrictions, and the fear of falling in the void, make it pretty interesting. (The Nether is normal.)

The pool was my first really big project. It’s quite deep, probably 15 to 20 blocks. Unfortunately it doesn’t generate squid or dolphins, though it’s an excellent source of Drowned.

I just finished the ziggurat today. It looks quite nice from the inside:

Actual ziggurats were, perhaps disappointingly, not hollow. But a hollow one is easier to build and has an interesting interior. Note that every block has nothing below it: I had to place each block on a temporary scaffolding block, and then remove the scaffolding.

I lucked out with this world, I think: I spawned pretty near a village, and not far from a ruined portal.

One of the curiosities of the Island mode is that deep mines– the ones with railroads, cave spiders, etc.– still generate, but below the islands. So they just hang there, all visible, in the void. Likewise strongholds. Villages often generate partly or wholly down in the void too. I found a lone cleric villager in one, but when I checked later to rescue him he was gone, poor thing.

What next? Not much, perhaps… I may have done everything worth doing. I may just wait till the Caves update is done and try a regular world again. Also I’d better see how V is doing. (People have told me the game gets better after the Heist chapter.)

Obenzayet and Almea+400

First, if you haven’t seen it, I finally finished the Obenzayet grammar. I started it around 1997– much of the lexicon was already visible on the Proto-Eastern page, but now you can see what a Naviu grammar looks like.

I’ve been steadily doing stuff over on my Patreon. Here’s a teaser: a map of Ctesifon at its height in 1750.

Here’s a list of what I’ve done so far on the Patreon:

  • An essay on the Cadinorian constitution
  • An essay on the Verdurian constitution (these two together are about 70 pages)
  • A timeline of future technology
  • Modern Verdurian terms (this is now on my website)
  • An essay on how to write fantasy given that most actual historical kings and kingdoms were appalling
  • The new base map of Lebiscuri
  • A grammar of Bhöɣetan, the first known language from Lebiscuri
  • A map of the Verdurian subway system as of 3625
  • An architectural diagram from my Middle East book, and a quick tutorial on how to do stuff like that in Illustrator
  • The Obenzayet grammar (it appeared there first)
  • Ongoing: A series of historical maps of Ctesifon, from ancient times into The Future. This will be part of the archeology section of Almea+400.

So, a lot goes on there, and it’ll keep going on. Plus, people ask interesting questions and point out all my typos. Sign up to see these and more!

If you can’t, that’s fine too– eventually most of this stuff will be available on my website, or as a companion volume to the print Historical Atlas.

Cyberpunk 2077: first disgruntled thoughts

I started Cyberpunk 2077 and I’m not far into it, just 9 hours. I’ve looked forward to this game for a long time– maybe too much, because it doesn’t seem to be what I was expecting. So far I’m not enjoying it much, but I hope it gets better. (Feel free to tell me if it does!) I haven’t played enough to call this a review; mostly I want to get my initial reactions down.

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First, the infamous bugs. I just got a new computer, because the old one was having disk problems. This definitely improved performance, though last night I noticed weird graphics glitching (trees from the distance weren’t getting culled). But nothing has really got in the way. I got stuck in cyber mode a few times, but learned that this isn’t a bug, just undocumented– you hit Caps Lock to get out.

The good things: it looks great. It’s very… cyberpunky. It’s certainly everything I wanted visually. The basic setup. Some neat characters, like Judy.

The bad things: everything else. I’m just going to go through my notes and complain. Note that there are spoilers for The Heist here.

1. The goddamn cutscenes. The Heist– the big mission that sets up the basic game predicament– is a bunch of short on-rails action sequences and one damn cutscene after another. It’s the sort of thing that makes me think CDPR forgot they were writing a game; they wanted to make a movie instead. 

An example: at one point you are guiding a little robot through rooms in a skyscraper. This could have been enormously exciting: navigate foot-high vents, wait for guards, solve minor puzzles, whatever. Instead, it’s literally divided up into rooms, where the big puzzle is “Use detective vision to find the next vent.” There is only one vent (or other objective) to find, and you don’t even get to pilot the robot.

Later on they give up on even this level of interaction. You just get one cutscene after another. At best you get a few dull dialog choices to make.

2. Combat is boring yet difficult. Enemies are bullet sponges– one website claims that a headshot at close range with a pistol removes 1/4 of the health bar. Whuh? I guess Borderlands 3 is like that, but in BL3, shooting pretty much is the gameplay and they’ve made it fun. In C77 it’s more like “you must eliminate these mooks before we’ll dole out more story.” And I dunno, is the heart of cyberpunk “shooting mooks with a pistol”?

3. Yet when you briefly play Johnny Silverhands, you can mostly one-shot enemies. I get that they wanted to tell the story at that point and not impede it with really
difficult mooks… but as I say, the entire mission is on rails, so in the rest of it they did want to impede the story with mooks.

4. Where is the damn ammo? I am probably missing obvious sources, but I ran out of ammo during the Heist missions, and yes, I did look for ammo boxes. Why doesn’t
picking up enemy guns give you ammo, as in every other game? Note that you’re absolutely screwed without ammo; luckily I was almost at the end and could just run to the elevator.

5. Yet again, this is a game with stealth where stealth doesn’t seem to be a viable option. Did CDPR play the Arkham games (they must have, see below) or Dishonored? Your options are wimpy, things like give an enemy a little shock, or blind them for a few seconds. You can disable someone from behind, but the levels are tiny, so the Arkham/Dishonored strategy of carefully observing enemies and taking them out one by one is rarely possible. And your “quickhacks” are severely limited: in effect, you can maybe use them for the first two of the dozen enemies you face in a level.

6. You get level-ups, but they seem to be hardly worth it: things like “increase crit chance by 1%.”

7. The Keanu thing, ugh. So you get a hallucination of Keanu in your head, who apparently is able to physically punch you, and also wants to take over your brain. This is… the plot of Arkham Knight. At least Joker was amusing.

8. An earlier mission makes a big deal of “braindances”, interactive memories. And there hasn’t been another one since. If it’s a device that’s used only rarely, they expended way too much effort on giving them a complicated UI. And it’s still basically “use detective vision to find the colored interactable objects.”

9. Like many others, I want to see my V. Supposedly they did first person view for “immersion”, but I find it less immersive. I want third person as an option, at least.

10. The grimdark. I guess it comes with the territory, but cyberpunk shouldn’t just be noir, it should have some sort of added futuristic grotesquerie. The game doesn’t feel like a Gibson novel, it feels like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody talks like a gangster, the story relies a little too heavily on killing your pals, and not even the villains seem to be having fun.

11. The intro sequences are another huge missed opportunity. You pick a background and get maybe half an hour of distinct gameplay, then you’re given a freaking
montage of Moving Up in Night City with Jackie.

I understand that choices have to be made when making a huge game. But this is a strange and bad choice. Being a near-helpless noob is an awesome narrative opportunity. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls games get this: the first ten levels, when you don’t know what you’re doing and every enemy is weird and ammo and health are scarce, are the best parts of the games. It would have been great to explore the city, take on side quests, learn what the bewildering build options are for, scrounge for beds till you get the reward of Your Own Hovel. Instead, you’re apparently an established minor mook with your own place. It feels like this whole part of the game was rushed, in order that they could do… what? I don’t even see the tradeoff gains, though surely they’re out there.

12. Speaking of your own place… V’s is boring. Contrast e.g. Adam Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex, which is a master class in environmental storytelling. There is almost nothing to do in V’s place, nothing that distinguishes her from the NPCs, apparently no customization options. The only things it offers are a place for checking your mail, a vending machine, and a mirror, all of which could easily have been provided elsewhere.

13. While the main mission is on rails, the open world is provided essentially without any guide. I’m not as enamored of open worlds as I once was. Apparently you can do things like find all of Keanu’s old gear, which sounds about as fun as collecting CD-ROMs in Saints Row 2. Which are the fun side missions? I shouldn’t have to consult websites for this.

14. I’m really uncomfortable with the treatment of Japan. There was some of this in Gibson and Stephenson, but I didn’t get this sense of othering from them. There’s a CEO? yakuza leader? who talks like a samurai, wears samurai robes, has a rebellious son, and talks about Americans as “barbarians”… I mean, jeez, maybe you could get away with this in 1975, but does CDPR think this is how Japanese corporations work today? (It’s the American CEO, not the Japanese, who is likely to be an unquestionable despot.)

15. A minor point, but characters sometimes harrass you if you’re not addressing the main task. This is extremely annoying if, e.g., you’re searching for the one goddamn interactable object in the vicinity.  

Related: I ran into some cops hassling someone.  All three had interaction symbols over them… but I couldn’t seem to get into position to see how to use them, and when I got near the cops got aggressive. Did they do playtesting at all?  (When Valve used to make games, this used to be something they were excellent at. You were never confused in a Valve game except at points you were supposed to be confused.)

16. The city is often on multiple levels– cool!– but the wayfinding does not take account of this– annoying! 

What would I have liked instead? I’m not sure, but my major changes would be:

  • More expansive levels– comparable to a Dishonored level– where staying in or regaining stealth would be a viable strat.
  • A slower start that really builds up your experience in Night City.
  • Way less emphasis on guns. I haven’t played Watch Dogs, but maybe CDPR should have? I think “corridors filled with gun-toting mooks” should have
    been stricken from the level designers’ toolkit.
  • Tell the story with gameplay. If you can’t do that, maybe your story needs work.

If that would be hard to do… make the game smaller. I would rather have a smaller number of well-crafted levels than a huge number of half-assed ones.

Edit: Thoughts later on; final thoughts on finishing.