Back when I was playing League of Legends, I thought it should have a Legends Lite. Several people suggested Heroes of the Storm, but I didn’t play it until I had to in order to get a cool D.Va skin.  Which I don’t use because an even cooler one came out.  But I kinda got a liking for Heroes.

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They could’ve called it Horses of the Storm

Mind you, I’ve almost exclusively played against bots, and I’ve played, I think, eight heroes– two of them ones from Overwatch. Still, I’m a hundred games in, and I kind of know how to play Li-Ming now.

So, if you’ve played League or Dota 2, it’s definitely a Moba. You are on a team of five, you have minions and lanes, you take the enemy’s towers, and you end up destroying their Core.  You got your basic attacks and your Q/W/E/R superpowers, you got more heroes than you feel you’ll ever learn, you got your increasingly long respawn times if you die. You’ve got your tanks and your supports and your assassins.

But it really is a Moba Lite too, for several reasons:

  • The maps are smaller, and go faster.  A game is less of a commitment.
  • There is no item store.  Every few levels you get a choice of upgrades to your powers– there’s not much extra strategy there.
  • There’s no last-hitting and no denies.
  • For now, there’s about half as many heroes as Legends. And if you’ve played other Blizzard games, you know some of them already.
  • Roles are way less important. The laning phase is short anyway, and (so far as I’ve seen so far) people don’t get hung up on the meta.
  • There are neutral camps which you can take over, and then the dudes will fight for you. But there’s not really enough of them to make jungling a role.

There are a bunch of maps, each with a special activity.  E.g. on one you try to control two points, and if you do better at this you get a bunch of Zerg fighting for you. (These are a StarCraft villain.) On another you collect gems dropped by minions, and if you get more than the enemy you get a giant spider fighting for you.  On yet another a demon lord and an angel are fighting, and you are allied with one of them; if you defeat the other, your demigod will join you for awhile.  All this adds some variety to the gameplay.

Of course I tried D.Va, but she’s tricky.  Also strangely off-model. It’s weird that artists from the same company can’t quite seem to match the original art.

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And that’s the closest one. Her other skins are weird

She can bounce around quickly, getting people out of position and causing some damage, and she can create a small shield, but when I try her I feel like she’s too weak, and yet doesn’t hurt the enemy enough.

Li-Ming is fun to play. She’s an assassin, so she has a lot of damage.  She’s fragile, but her attacks are all at range, so she’s very effective against melee heroes. Her Q/W abilities are skillshots, but not hard to make– what I have to remember is to position myself so the minions don’t get in the way. Her E is a tiny teleport– often just enough to get out of someone’s range.  HOTS gives you two possible R’s; the one I choose is a disintegrating laser. The best thing about Li-Ming is that her Q recharges really really quick, so you can spam it shamelessly.

About the only other hero I’ve enjoyed is Valla, who is another ranged assassin.  Her Q takes more time to charge, though, so I will have to practice more.

I have to say, Blizzard’s art direction improved a lot between HOTS and Overwatch. Every Overwatch hero is colorful, attractive, and immediately identifiable. HOTS heroes run to interchangeable-looking humanoids in chunky armor, or weird-looking aliens in chunky armor.

If you’ve played Mobas before, you’ll get the basic idea quickly.   And if you haven’t… well, I can’t tell you how easy it will be.  There’s more to learn than in Overwatch.  But so far I don’t have the sense of a cliff of unknowns as in Legends.  But I’ll report back once I’m playing against more humans.

Hat tip to @jwz here. The technical name for these is apparently Image-to-Image Translation with Conditional Adversarial Nets. Here’s a link to a (currently) working interactive toy. It takes a simple drawing and turns it into a rendered nightmare.

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Well, that wasn’t too bad, if you don’t look hard at the eyes.  Can it handle blonde hair?

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Nnnnnno, I wouldn’t say it can.  OK, got it, dark hair. Maybe a more cartoony image would look better.

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Well, maybe we should play to this thing’s strengths.  If I draw a monster, it should produce a monster, right?

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I dunno, it kind of turned into Orc Gary. I wonder if I could import him into Skyrim.

So, who’ll be first to produce a graphic novel with this thing?

The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.

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This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

Just finished The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan (2015)– an ambitious, disappointing book.

At times I tried to imagine the author’s elevator pitch. It doesn’t match the subtitle: it starts with Alexander the Great, so it’s already leaving out half of history. It barely covers Africa or the Americas. It’s very roughly about “East-West relations”, mostly involving trade, though it’s not very strong on China or India. It more or less focuses on the countries at the crossroads of Eurasia: the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia– only it never really tells their stories coherently. It sort of promises to retell European history with a focus on how it involved those regions, but then it has long detours into pretty traditional European history and contemporary US politics.

The last chapter talks about sudden evidence of wealth and grandiose architecture in Central Asia… but doesn’t bother to explain where it came from. The previous chapters were a quick retread of recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. He states that ancient history from the Silk Road on illuminates present concerns… but falls far short of demonstrating how. It is relevant to understand the early history of Islam, and he does go over that, but earlier chapters on, say, early Christianity east of Syria don’t tell us much about why they’re building spectacular airports in Astana, besides the wan truisms that trade is important and the lifestyle of rich countries affects people thousands of miles away.

There was probably a better book buried in here, but it needed a lot more focus and a more consistent theme. An out-and-out history of Persia and Central Asia, for instance, probably would have covered what he wanted to talk about, with far more coherence and depth. It can certainly be argued that Westerners could learn more about this part of the world… but for long chapters he ignores it himself, instead giving resumes of Viking raids, or Hitler’s mountain retreat, or the Spanish conquest of Mexico, or Zheng He’s expeditions.

This isn’t to say it’s terrible. Any traipse through history is likely to turn up something new, and he does have some interesting stories and theories. I did find the bits about early Christianity interesting; the link between the EIC and the American Revolution is a good point for my book; he also mentions that the Islamic concern with the direction of Mecca stimulated advances in geometry and astronomy. Which is a good reminder for conworlders: seemingly trivial bits of doctrine can have unexpected and unintended secular effects.

If you don’t know much about early Islam, this would probably be a good introduction… though there are better ones.

A couple more complaints, though.  One, the maps are less than helpful. He likes maps with lots of arrows showing movements of things, and the results are hard to read.

Plus, I think he’s too credulous about reports of riches and high living. Whether today or millennia ago, big buildings and the lifestyle of the rich get a lot of attention. But these are perfectly compatible with near-starvation for the 9/10 of the population that works the fields. Azerbaijan, whose airport so impresses Frankopan, and which has significant oil reserves, has a per capita income less than that of Peru. He also talks about the luxuries of ancient Rome (most of them imported from the east). But other books I’ve read emphasize that, the mass of people lived on the edge of disaster, and urban life never put forth deep roots anywhere west or north of Italy– which is why the west couldn’t survive the shocks of civil war and barbarian wandering. Similarly, his accounts of Silk Road traders neglect to mention that the actual number of merchants and the amount of goods privately traded was pretty small.

 

 

 

I finally got around to something I wanted to do for awhile… find out what some of the signs on the Hanamura map in Overwatch say.

In the arcade, there are intriguing posters of a lanky woman, not D.Va, who may have a mecha of her own.

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Super マシン2 = Super Machine 2

音樂! = Ongaku! = Music!

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ルパンター X = Pantā X = Hunter X

パワーガー  = Pawāgāru = Power Girl

The sign on the door of the outside door of the castle:

花村城跡地。立ち入り禁止。

Hanamura-jō atochi. Tachiiri kinshi.

Site of Hanamura castle. No trespassing.

The Rikimaru shop is labeled, not very excitingly,

ラーメン屋 Rāmen-ya = Ramen shop

Finally, the van outside the arcade says

うまさ世界 デリバリ = Umasa sekai – deribari = Tastiness World – Delivery

Thanks to alert reader Hirofumi Nagamura for corrections!

Edit: And also for providing translations for these signs inside the castle:

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Left: 七転八起 = Shi chi ten hakki = “Fall seven times, rise eight times”— i.e. “Don’t be discouraged by multiple setbacks.”

Right: 竜の心で気合全開 = Ryū no kokoro de ki ai zen kai = “With a dragon’s heart, go all out with your fighting spirit.”

First, check out this article on endings in video games. tl;dr: Dude thinks that open-world games should let you down gently at the end. They should provide some aftercare.  He wants to be able to go back and see how you’ve changed the world, see how the quest givers are faring, maybe pick up some grateful plaudits.

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But then what happened?

My overall response: no you don’t, dude.  You think you want that, but it’d be a shit-ton of work to provide, and you’d be bored of it in ten minutes.

Now, there is something unsatisfying about having to save the world, then never getting to explore what happens afterwards.  Fallout 3 and Fallout NV are like this: you do a huge thing and then you’re just told what happened later in a slideshow. And half the time this isn’t even very well thought out.  (E.g. in my ending of Fallout NV, I have a frigging army of upgraded robots, but I’m told that the neighboring suburb has become even more lawless.)

But really, to get what this guy wants, you’d have to add multiple hours of content (because who knows what part of the open world the player wants to check up on), and almost by definition, what you’re adding won’t be game-like. The big bad got impaled on something; you killed all his lieutenants earlier; there’s not going to be much to do. NPCs are not actually people; during the main plot they got a little simulacrum of being real because they had problems you could solve. It’s not at all easy to make them seem real when the plot is over.  “Thank you, Champion of Cyrodiil, things really are better now!” is not really going to be a compelling interaction for long.

This isn’t to say the game can’t let you down gently.  I think the later Arkham games are good at this.  You can wander around for many more hours doing all the side quests, and finding Riddler trophies.  Or you can spend another hundred hours polishing your skills on the combat maps.

The game I just finished, Bayonetta, has a nice approach, I think. You don’t get a lot of “what happened next”. But you do get an explicit denouement scene that brings back the major characters (and offers an easy fight), then a credits sequence that includes a couple more fights, and then an extended dance scene.  So you move from some emotional closure, to some low-key interaction (sprinkling the credits with fights is a brilliant idea), to just sitting back and enjoying the dance.  It’s like stretching after strenuous exercise, it calms you down and makes you feel good.

The thing that most bothers me about the article is that it doesn’t seem to recognize that the plot’s ending is not the game’s ending. You may read a novel straight through and then put it back on the shelf, but games don’t generally work that way.  If you liked the game, finishing the plot may just be the start of your adventure.  You play it again, just for fun or to experience different approaches or to challenge yourself on a higher difficulty setting. The real ending is the point where beating up one more thug, or finding one more space durian for the helpless peasant, suddenly strikes you as boring rather than fun.

Besides, it’s a rare game where the actual plot ending is really the high point of the game. I’ve said several times that the best part of Bethesda games is the first 10 levels– the part where everything is new and scary, you’re half-bewildered by all the quests available, and a single stimpak/health potion is a rewarding find. Most game endings are variants on “fight some dude with a lot of hit points”, and often you only use a small subset of the skills you’ve learned. (E.g. many a stealth game offers no opportunity to use stealth during the last boss fight.)  If the game explored some darker or more nuanced ideas, that was probably in earlier sections.  So while the last fight should be cathartic, it’s a hard ask.

Of course, there are a few games that completely upend our expectations.  My go-to example is Fable 3: you have the final boss fight, murderate your evil brother, and become queen… and then find out that you’re facing an even larger problem, the one your brother failed to solve, plus all the promises you made to secure allies along the way now come due.  It’s a ballsy move– far more than (say) Fallout NV.

Finally, though it’s true that the devs could say “what happened” for each of the 153 side quests, I’m not sure the article author realizes that an author can always add More Story; the art is knowing when to stop. As Neil Gaiman remarked, in real life people’s stories don’t end until they’re dead. You can’t really ask of a piece of art to let you keep asking “what happened next” indefinitely. At some point the character dies, or the author dies, or you die. If you want more story, get the season pass.  Or just learn to appreciate closure, the artistic technique where author and audience agree to leave things be for a time.

 

So, Bayonetta (1) is finally out for the PC. It sounded fun back in 2010 when it was released for consoles, and it’s only $20, so I picked it up.  It is fun. Also one of the weirdest games I’ve even played.

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Punch punch kick is like a big evil kiss

I can maybe imagine a Western studio basing a game on the traditional Catholic hierarchy of angels.  But it would be a little eyebrow-raising that these are the game’s enemies.  And that you play a witch allied with Hell, fighting your way up the hierarchy, and the final boss fight is with the Creator.

Well, that’s Bayonetta.  Partly mitigating the weirdness of the concept, but also adding to it, you have the fact that the makers know no more or care about Christianity than, say, the makers of Assassin’s Creed know about Islam. It’s just a source of ready-made symbols for them; it has nothing to say about actual religion. It’s not even blasphemous– the ‘Creator’ here certainly isn’t the Christian idea of God. The “angels” are accompanied by heavenly music and have an appropriate white-and-gold color scheme, but they look far more like aliens than angels, especially as they get battered up and their masks literally slip.

Bayonetta starts out almost as unsettled as the player: she knows she’s a witch, but has forgotten her history and doesn’t know why angels keep appearing and fighting her. When she collects their haloes, however, she can turn them in to her demon friend Rodin, who works as a bartender in a rundown US city and makes infernal magic weapons on the side, which he sells for haloes. Oh, and part of the exposition is given by a comic-relief character– a short, cowardly guy named Enzo, with a New York accent. (I’d love to know what he sounded like in the original.  I’m guessing he had an Osaka accent, as Japanese comedians tend to come from there.)  Soon she’s traveling to Vigrid, an isolated European country which is positively infested with angels to fight.

Combat is a remote relation to the Arkham games, or Remember Me: it’s not based on aiming and shooting, but on building combos while evading attacks (with Shift). The simplest combos are based on mixtures of punch (LMB) and kick (RMB), but there is plenty of complexity, and you pick up new moves and abilities at an alarming pace. There’s a large variety of angel types, each of which has attack moves that you must learn to recognize. If you can evade at the last moment, you get “witch time”– time slows down so you can get in some good combos. Some enemies can only be defeated this way.

Along the way there are several (fairly simple) puzzles and (less forgiving) platforming sequences. There are things to collect along the way, and you can build candies, the game’s equivalent of potions.

The Steam page suggest that you should use a controller, but PCGamer said you didn’t need one, which is good because I don’t have one. It’s certainly possible to play with keyboard and mouse.  (The main complaint I have about the UI is that the game doesn’t always orient the camera usefully. You can move the camera yourself, but it moves slowly.)

I found playing it on Normal to be too frustrating, so I switched to Easy. I’m not that good at twitchy timing, and there are some nasty QTE bits (though not as many or as annoying as those in Tomb Raider). It’s not always clear what to do.  But then, the game is intended to be replayed multiple times; as you do, you can easily dispatch enemies or find routes that were a complete bear the first time. (I just went back and finished a couple of chapters on Normal that I couldn’t the first time.)

The cosmology isn’t the end of the weirdness. Bayonetta quadruple-wields guns: one in each hand, and one on each heel. How she fires these is not explained, but it seems to work for her.

The game has been updated and perhaps retextured for the PC; it looks great, and often gives you astonishing vistas:

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In paradise, gravity is merely local

Bayonetta is a little like Catwoman, and not just because of the black catsuit. She’s sexy and flirty, and yet cocky and superheroic. The player may marvel at the huge and strange boss angels, but she doesn’t– she just makes fun of them and jumps into the attack. Some things puzzle her, but nothing seems to faze her. She has oodles of agency.

The single weirdest thing about the game– well beyond fighting the cherubim– is that Bayonetta’s catsuit is made of her own hair, and for special attacks it unravels and turns into weapons or monsters.  That’s… not something I’d expect DC or Marvel to ever come up with. If it helps, it’s not as pervy as it sounds: it occurs in the middle of a furious fight, so what you actually get is a split-second fairly PG-rated view.  Then the hair monster eats the defeated angel.  It’s just part of the general insanity.

I’m about 3/4 of the way through, so I can’t say much about where the story ends up. Suffice it to say that you learn a lot about where Bayonetta came from and about the line of witches that taught her, and that she’s nowhere near as antiheroic as she seems as first.

The game is from the same studio as Nier: Automata, which I’m eager to try next.

Edit: Finished the game. The whole story is about 14 hours, but (as I said) it’s designed to be replayed till you can combo your way through like a boss. The ending is not as weird as the rest of the game– it makes a valiant effort to make sense of the rest of the game. Nicely, the game lets you down gently at the end: after the final boss fight, there’s a denouement at the cemetery which features a small fight, and then there’s a couple more little easy fights during the credits; then a dance sequence. So you’re eased down from the adrenaline high.

Edit edit: Replayed the first 5 chapters on Normal, and it’s pretty frustrating. Being able to do something I couldn’t do earlier is nice (e.g. defeating a Fearless without Witch Time).  But then they throw enemies at you which are basically tests of reaction time, which is not fun for me.

Edit³: Trying some more: if you hate finishing a chapter with a Stone award (generally meaning you died too much), the best thing to do is replay it a few times. Then you remember how to fight its particular bosses and what QTE keys to press.