The World Unbuilt – Vigilia

Vigilia (c. 518-553, by the Thorian calendar, current year 1845) was a Thedanese atheist anarchist thinker and writer. Born to the Gent-Myrie dynasty, she enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and a good education, but was disowned to protect the family’s reputation after her father, Yrinques Asquebateux Serangesse d’Aublix-Gavaque Gent-Myrie, learned of her now lost essay Vridom a Freship (lit. “Freedom of Mind and Freedom of Agency”) in which she discussed two types of freedom for the individual that were incompatible with the all-powerful Law of Faitour, a type of theocratic autocracy which she would later die trying to amend.

Though she lived in the Thedanese city of Colvyr, she worked most often at the academy in Nolleth, a cosmopolitan city which attracted people from the neighbouring lands of Gephala, Aldweyn, and Ruris. As a lecturer she specialised in the in the fields of literature and anthropology, but she spent much of her time teaching literacy to children. She was fluent in several languages and her famous anarchist texts are mostly written in Rurisian, which most closely resembles Anglo Saxon and Middle English, and which she considered the superior literary language of her age.

Despite the shortness of her life, Vigilia’s wealth and status as an upper class lady afforded her a great deal of opportunity from an early age. By her early twenties she was widely travelled, and her detailed observations of culture, society, and state power in Thedan, Ruris, Aldweyn, Gephala, and Ochvad gave her the knowledge she needed to secure her career as a lecturer throughout the country. At the same time, she began to develop the foundations of the anarchist philosophy for which she became infamous after her death, and which would immortalise her and carry her name all the way to the present day, well over one thousand years after the fact.

Vigilia was born Marine Martaresse Yrinqeux d’Aublix-Gavaque Gent-Myrie. According to what is known of naming conventions within the Thedanese aristocracy, the Gent-Myrie naming structure is quite eccentric. The only name by which she would have been addressed in everyday society is simply Marine, or Lady Marine by other aristocrats. Gent-Myrie originated with the marriage of Loussarac Gent and Evalline Myrie, who begat, among four other children, Aublix Gent-Myrie. Aublix married Cybele Gavaque and begat several children, all of whose names end in d’Aublix-Gavaque Gent-Myrie, as those of their children and so forth. The reason for using the first name of the father and the family name of the mother is unknown, and is possibly an arbitrary decision of that particular marriage. Martaresse (Martarée) is the direct matronymic, while Yrinqeux (Yrinques) is the direct patronymic.

The name Vigilia is a later invention, originating with Sax Sicladoun’s Vigilia on Trial. However, Sicladoun’s life as a courtier kept him fairly isolated from the world outside Thedan, and it is highly unlikely that the language from which the name is believed to derive was known to him. Vigilia herself, however, was fluent in at least four languages, and may have had contact with early Thorian settlers during her time travelling in Ruris. In “Church Thorian” (the superficially Latinate orthography from which church figures get their names), “vigilia” is a feminine form of “vigilus”, which means, somewhat boringly, vigilant. The weirdness of Church Thorian is a (probably rather short) story for another time, but it is worth noting that in Vigilia’s day it likely did not exist, at least not in a form we recognise.

When I created Vigilia it was out of simple necessity. Early on in the worldbuilding process I had come up with a group of people called “Vigilantes”, the plural of a word which has a real world etymology, one that wouldn’t necessarily make sense in the world I was creating, since it wouldn’t have Spanish and all. Well, I guess it could have a mangled kind of superficial Spanish, as it has mangled superficial Latin and French and various historical forms of English, but to the point that I got with it, it just doesn’t. Vigilantes, much like in the real world, are people who take the law into their own hands. I had initially planned them to be followers of a worldview set out in a planned epic Middle English poem called O the Virtuous Wanderer by a Eòrnaic poet called Cheshan of Caol Elish. When this ended up not being feasible for a staggering multitude of reasons, many of them blindingly obvious, I started looking for other ways to do what I wanted to do.

For the condensed epic poem, I eventually wrote The Elideiad. Originally it was going to be a sailor’s journal, but having recently read John Barth’s tedious colonial American satire The Sot-Weed Factor, I got the idea to write a maritime narrative poem as that novel’s protagonist tries and fails to do owing to his growing disillusionment with America. But this informal society of vagrants, the Vigilantes, was still in want of an origin and an ethos. I wanted the Vigilantes to be an important part of the social fabric of the world. I think I took the idea from those ancient figures whose names are often reduced to just a single word (Aristotle, Euripides, Cicero etc.), and by simple association ended up with Vigilia, which had a kind of robust feel to it. It was a name that I could imagine seeing on the spine of a volume in the Penguin Classics range.

I decided that she would be an anarchist thinker, not directly related to the Vigilantes, but a point of origin who, like so many prophets, would probably have hated to see what realities her writings had spawned. As Kipling’s poem The Disciple says: “He that hath a gospel to loose upon mankind […] it is his disciple shall make his labour vain.” As I developed the concept of the International Zone, it occurred to me that it had to have had its beginnings in rebellion, and when I began writing I the Judge I saw how well the two fit together. Very quickly Vigilia became the intellectual mother of two major revolts against the concept of the state, and one of the most important figures in the history of the world.

[A little research into creation dates in my lore books folder tells me that in fact I wrote Vigilia on Trial at least two weeks before I the Judge, but looking at the huge “Notes” document I had compiled at the start of my work indicates that I had the idea for both her writings and her trial and execution at approximately the same time.]

Vigilia’s trial and execution came about because I wanted to have a martyr (possibly I was inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s beautiful and harrowing 1928 film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), and I felt that it was kind of necessary to have her ideas be an assault on the society in which she lived, and for that society to overwhelmingly and violently rebuke them and the person who dreamt them up. The context of the trial serves both to exemplify her concept of personal justice, and to show the deep injustice of the Thedanese court. As the prosecution notes, under Faitour there is no law that protects someone from being forced into sex. A reader of our time might be inclined to conclude that this is only true in the case of female victims, certainly it is hard to look at a case of sexual assault in which the victim is punished for defending herself without seeing some kind of patriarchal conspiracy against women at work. I avoided clarifying that point because a) I wanted to avoid political point scoring, if the game came out and caught a wave I didn’t want to have my work turned into a dead frog for social media “intellectuals” to dissect; b) gender politics aren’t really relevant to Vigilia’s philosophy, for reasons detailed later in this essay; and c) the player who would be interested enough in the world to read books such as this one would probably be intellectually independent enough to come to their own conclusions based on the text itself.

Faitour, as noted by the translator of Vigilia on Trial, is a man selected to relinquish his Self and receive the spirit of the Thedanese god Ferren in its place, thus becoming Ferren’s physical manifestation. With this appointment, which is for life, the Faitour is given executive power to establish and abolish laws as seen fit, but he is also kept isolated from the world, and is seen and spoken to only by clerics. Since the Thedanese theocracy is a government of men and men exclusively (as is the court, Vigilia being the only woman present at her trial), and the Faitour is never a woman, a very literal patriarchy does indeed exist in Thedan. For Vigilia this is meaningless because all states are examples of “Man as Man’s Captor” (I the Judge, p. 3), whether or not women are of the captor class is a useless consideration. Note that her use of “he” and “Man” are general, in the way they are in most old real world texts, and do not distinguish between male and female.

Given the patriarchal nature of Thedanese government, the reader may be surprised to note that Vigilia is allowed to speak at her trial. For whatever reason (I never came up with one in-universe, I just liked the character of Vigilia and wanted to write more of her) the accused in a Thedanese trial is allowed to offer comment on statements made by the defence and the prosecution, and no distinction is made between men and women at court. Although I hadn’t planned it at the time, I think it helps to highlight, along with the obvious kangaroo court nature of the trial, at least as recorded by Sicladoun, just how arbitrary the Law of Faitour was. Even the prosecution says, in near enough the same sentence, that Faitour’s Law can only be changed by Faitour, and that it is immutable, an example of Vigilia’s theory of the “mobility of Law” in action. There is definitely a satirical element to the text, maybe I was drawing on Yes, Minister, maybe Preston Sturges (while I don’t like the film much, the commentary on electoral fraud in The Great McGinty certainly made an impression on me), or maybe Chris Morris.

At the end of Vigilia on Trial, Sicladoun sets a precedent for the mythologising of Vigilia. In the final paragraph, as he recounts her last days and execution, he makes her more than human. She tells him, prophetically, that her trial will be her greatest work, and that Sicladoun himself will be the one who ensures this. Then he describes the stoic quality of her face as she dies by hanging. Is it true then that she does not fear death? If so why? Because her death is a vindication of her ideas? Because she knows she is going to be immortalised? It doesn’t matter why, it’s an exclamation mark on the word “defiance”. The real question is: does Sicladoun invent these details for his own gratification? If so, to what extent can we trust in the veracity of his record? In the real world, I often wonder if the obsession some people have with discovering genius is actually the manifestation of a desire to be The One Who Discovers Genius. The ability to recognise genius marks one out as special in some way, not on the same level as if one were to actually possess genius oneself, but special nonetheless. So, too, Sicladoun’s mythologising of Vigilia may be opportunistic, not born out of concern for Vigilia or what may be her importance, but the seizing of the novelty of Vigilia that he may ride her coattails and gain immortality for himself. After all, it must have been pretty depressing being stuffed in his courtier’s chambers all day long, rarely if ever finding himself in a larger space that wasn’t the courtroom itself or some adjoining hall. Whatever Sicladoun’s real intention may have been, his record of the trial made Vigilia into a deity, and his (strongly suspected) covert distribution of her writings was the spark that lit fires of rebellion, revolution, and bloody civil war around the world.


Further Reading

I the Judge

Vigilia on Trial


The World Unbuilt – The Question of Language

Fantasy fiction and worldbuilding today is practically impossible to imagine without the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien created a world in Middle-earth which lives and breathes, rich with detail, and in doing so set a kind of standard to which writers, game designers, and filmmakers dealing with fantasy worlds strive. Perhaps the crowning achievement of Tolkien, who was a philologist, is his family of constructed languages, complete with grammars and alphabets. Supposedly all of his legendarium grows from the various tongues spoken by elves, and he ties language and creation together in the creation myth of Middle-earth itself. The question of whether or not to follow suit casts a long shadow. Should fictional worlds have their own languages? How fully realised should they be?

For my work I chose not to invent languages, but rather to suggest them. Language plays an important part in the books of lore I wrote, mainly as an indicator of age. I knew from early on that I wanted to work with a style of English that would suggest a certain amount of remove from our own time and place, but that would be legible enough for competent readers. I based the bulk of the text on an 18th century style, which I had encountered first through Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 historical novel Mason & Dixon. The novel is one of my favourite books, and the ornate style with its seemingly random capitalisation (of course, I know that this is not the case) and odd spellings caught my eye and ear immediately when I first read it. I realised that beyond the act of describing in itself, a writer can establish time and place just by the language they use to contain description. Obviously, this is not so easy with an invented world as it is with a real world time and location, but taking a real world language and playing off its history, if not with pedantic accuracy, gets the point across directly and unfussily without having to explain things that no character existing within the setting would feel the need to explain, if indeed its ubiquity in their daily lives had not made it so obvious and ordinary that they had never bothered to learn about it themselves.

The variation on 18th century English style I used for the modern books of lore is arbitrary. I followed a vaguely German scheme for the capitalisation, placing emphasis on nouns, but I also used capitalisation to highlight words that would be emphasised in speech. In some slightly older books, I made heavy use of em dashes which do not close in the manner we are used to seeing in modern English. I took this from my impressions of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which seems to fill every sentence with complicated punctuation schemes that I have never encountered anywhere else. They struck me as difficult, so I tried to simplify and organise use of dashes in a way that would be intuitive for the reader, but it seems people still had some trouble with it. But hey, if you think what I actually wrote was hard to read, originally the project director wanted Blackletter for all the texts. Yeah, that’s right, Blackletter. Feast your eyes on this ugly shit:

For a time the Kingdom of Arch Sapherion number’d Eleven then — His ten Aspeckts and Himself, but one — shapelesse and unknowable Vantarian did – after a great Period of rest, entreat Arch Sapherion to take stock of His Kingdom, and to thereby realise its Imbalance.

Yep, good old Urch Gapherion needed Bantarian to remind him to tafe stocf of sis ringdom, and to therebn realise its Smbalance. And don’t even get me started on those gosh darned Uspecfts. Sure, you can decode this sentence, but can you imagine reading thousands upon thousands of words like this? It’s like trying to read OCR transcriptions of old newspaper articles

The Blackletter thing ultimately became a kind of in-joke. I wrote one full book, The King of Demons, in Blackletter to make it clear how tiresome it would be, especially in some of the older Thorian styles I wanted to employ in order to suggest historicity of language, to read for long stretches of time. In The Prisoner’s Exegesis, Arizjen dagh Lazular criticises Thorian backwardness, and uses their adherence to Blackletter in a time when most other countries and languages had become expressible via the “generic face” (I basically thought of this as your Times New Roman like serif typeface) as an example of this.

But I acknowledged the awkwardness of the current Thorian style as well. In The New Language, Senatus Oreus speaks out against the current orthography, and suggests a plain style, free from ornament, and gives a detailed argument as to why the modern style you and I are used to is much better. Oreus lays blame for the orthographic difficulties of written Thorian at the foot of the Church, and he is absolutely right to. The Church, acting as it so often does in loco parentis, has designed written Thorian to be exceptionally difficult for the common Thorian to read. Even the much vaunted reform to Modern Thorian, to replace the “Pynchonian” style, which Oreus dates around the 1600s, acts to befuddle the commoner. In The Abridged Caudex Magnus, Archpriest Saphos says that the edition has been created “to deliver unto the Layman a comprehensive yet concise new Emanation”, but as can plainly be seen, the written style is complicated to the point that the layman could not really understand it, if he could read at all. The point may be to emphasise, to those poor bastards who might be desirous of knowledge—and who might, upon learning, start to get funny ideas about oppression and all that Izian mumbo jumbo—that they’re too thick to understand even the simple stuff, so why bother? The Pynchonian style, named after Pynchonius (“translator” of Sphecia), is even harder for the commoner to read, although its difficulties are entirely superficial, owing to unusual and inconsistent spellings.

As I said earlier, I wanted to give the player a sense of history, and while that may be achieved in a perfunctory manner by the simple listing of dates, I wanted to create something that would go beyond simple function, and embrace a kind of realism. In the real world we are confronted with an excess of everything all the time, our minds are plagued by superfluity of narrative, style, perspective, ideology. No fictional world can equal the real world in density of information nor contradictoriness thereof, fortunately, but condensing that into a microcosm is possible, and that is what I aimed to do. It is not just information, but the way in which information is presented that helps our internal systems of processing to determine how to interpret and, perhaps more importantly, how to fit it into what we already know. The curators of our archives of experience are always having planning permission applications for new wings approved, always adding to the sum total of event and perspective stored therein, but it may be the case that something we saw five years ago, now buried under mountains of quotidiana, has to be brought up and situated in the context of new information.

I had always intended that the player would encounter first spoken dialogue, which would be written in a plain modern English style, and be easy to read. The player would then encounter books in the modern Thorian style, which would give some basis for understanding the disconnect between the language as spoken and the language as written. Eventually they would find books like Sphecia and The Elideiad, and gain a sense of the history of the written language, before moving onto stuff like O ye Vertuous Romere, which is written in a pseudo Middle English. I thought it was especially important for the player to gain a sense of history in this way, seeing as the most prominent source of history, the Church itself, would not be forthcoming to one outside its own ranks, and even with its own people only revelatory by degrees, reserving the truest materials in its possession for the handful at the very zenith of its power structure.

The unusual and inconsistent spellings of the Pynchonian orthography are based in my “study” of Middle English, which existed at a time when no real convention of spelling or in some cases even grammar existed. A cursory glance at the excellent Middle English dictionary available at Project Gutenberg will confirm as much. I say “study” with scare quotes because mainly I read The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, in the out of print QPB Classics edition, which has a handy glossary in the back, and that was about it. It should be noted, however, that Pynchonian is not Middle English, and in fact, despite the inspiration for its eccentricities, has no direct real world model. It isn’t even referential of its populariser Pynchonius’s namesake. For me it was both a means of implying history and an excuse to explore the limits of legibility/intelligibility while retaining an essentially modern English grammar. I don’t think I achieved the latter. I was somewhat put off when the project lead told me he had shown some of my books to someone else who had offered to help with the writing. He told me that this person couldn’t make any sense of them. For me this was not something to boast about. Some writers get off on obscurantism, and wilfully try to confuse and defeat the reader, but clear communication of an idea or a feeling has been desirable for me for as long as I’ve taken writing seriously. Now, I didn’t want or need any help writing the books, but I was disappointed, I felt physically deflated by my failure to communicate with this person. Ultimately I carried on doing things my way, because the books were never intended to be required reading, merely optional content for the curious player; because it was better for me to be sincere than to talk down to an imagined audience. Nonetheless, it confirmed my suspicions that my efforts, should the game ever make it to public release, would be appreciated only marginally if at all.

After I had decided that 18th century English would be a loose superficial model for the basic text, my plans and ambitions began expanding almost instantly. Why stop there? Middle English had interested me for some time, ever since I had been exposed to Chaucer. Initially I planned to write an epic poem that would be the basis of an entire counterculture the player could interact with while out exploring the game world. O ye Vertuous Romere ended up being quite short, a series of poems of a romantic grandeur on themes of nature which offered counterpoint to the austere Five Autumnal Verses of the Gephalan poet Uphal, I also applied some licence to the Middle English (Interestingly, as we know Vigilia used Rurisian, which is basically Middle English, we can infer that Thorian was likely adapted from Rurisian by the Eadranites.) I had originally intended to be accurate in following, so that it could take on, the poet Cheshan being Eòrnaic, Eòrna lying north of Thoria on the other side of the massive Tocanum mountain range, a hint of northernness. “To” is replaced with the Scots “tae”, for example. There are a few other examples, but the Middle English base is obscure enough that it would be pointless and tedious for me to try and remember all the imaginary etymologies I made up ad hoc and then forgot to write down for future reference. The most important thing we can glean from the use of Middle English-like languages by both Eòrna and Ruris is that there must have once been cultural exchange either side of the Tocanum mountains, which today are believed to be impassable.

Usage of Anglo Saxon (or Old English) is barely even worth covering. I used Futhorc runes and bastardised Anglo Saxon in the creation of the Iqhvadhgh Fragment, which I tried to read just recently, while reacquainting myself with the material for this series, and was totally unable to parse. The original English text is in a notebook somewhere, but for now your guess is as good as mine! The gist of it is that the Iqhvadhgh, and probably Eadranismus himself, had brought the fragment, or a larger text to which it had originally belonged, to teach the southern tribes literacy. However, I seem to recall that the fragment literally uses the term “Eadra”, so probably it is much later than Eadranismus, perhaps a later copy amended from a now lost original to include terminology of the Eadratic faith, which suggests that the original texts of the Caudex Magnus was also written originally in runes. Curiously The Abridged Caudex Magnus shows the original names of Draxiaic (i.e.: of Draxiaadem) beings in the Iqhvadhgh runes, which bear similarity to the runes which Arizjen dagh Lazular, in The Prisoner’s Exegesis, tells us the Cathedra Magna has declared to be demonic symbols of power. Where and when exactly the shift from the Iqhvadhgh runic alphabet to the modern Thorian (Roman) alphabet took place is unknown, possibly in response to hypothesised Lazulidean ousting of the Eadranites from Iqhvadhgh they developed a new alphabet and made the old one into the language of demons.

Non-English languages are only ever really hinted at, in the names of places or, as in the example of Cheshan, an ever so slight leaning towards Gaelic. Thedanese was probably similar to French or Old French, and its descendants in Aldweyn would either have a language derived from, or be bilingual in updated forms of Thedanese and Rurisian, being an ethnic and cultural admixture of the two. The supposedly purely Rurisian descended tribes of Lut and Duul might have developed two vastly different dialects of the mother Rurisian, although it seems from their place names (e.g.: Ux Taur) that the old language may have largely disappeared from both peoples. Izians (i.e.: of the International Zone) are typically fluent in multiple languages they refer to as “landward tongues”, Thorian, Ochvadi (which, by the way, appears to be some kind of Eurasian hotchpotch), and Gephalan (probably an east Asian medley), in addition to Izian, the composition of which may be a creole or pidgin of many languages that has evolved over time into a unique language in itself.

I think that just about covers everything. You might be disappointed that I didn’t try to invent new languages for the game. Unfortunately I wasn’t a philologist with a lifetime to do my work in, probably I would have had three or four years at the most. Ultimately it turns out I didn’t have even that many. Such is life. Well, now you know more or less what the hell I was thinking when I decided any of this nonsense was a good idea.


Further Reading

The Prisoner’s Exegesis

The New Language

The Iqhvadhgh Fragment

The King of Demons

Some Thoughts on “David Lynch Teaches Typing”

Note: This article contains *SPOILERS* for a game type thing that literally came out this week. Spoilers also abound for some Lynch films and probably some other things too. Be forewarned!

Inspired by two things, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a classic educational software for children from way back when, and American filmmaker David Lynch, David Lynch Teaches Typing is basically what it sounds like. An affably old school GUI with a pixel art portrait of David Lynch, who is voiced by someone else in what is actually a rather decent impression of Lynch’s “unique” manner of speaking, although more than anything seems to have come from Lynch’s own self-parody character Gordon Cole (Twin Peaks), teaches you how to type. Or at least it does for a little while before things start to get a little weird.

One of the things that tends to happen with a Lynch parody, or anything “inspired by” Lynch, is lots of references to Lynch’s work. Another thing that tends to happen is lots and lots of non-sequiturs, which are “weird”. If it’s “weird” then it is “Lynchian”, there is no difference. After Twin Peaks, anything on TV that was slightly odd was suddenly “Lynchian”. “Lynchian” is a meme. Memes exhibit extreme fluidity of meaning. What a meme means at its inception is probably not what it will mean a few months later, because the meme is subjected to variations over and over, and those variations have their own variations, and so on. Yet the original meaning, at least in the case of something like “Lynchian”, cannot be escaped, so it is sandwiched together with the new meaning. So “Lynchian” is “weird”.

After completing the Home Row exercise—pressing F and J, basically—you’re told to place your left ring finger in the undulating bug to the left of your keyboard. Right off the bat my mind was not thinking of Lynch but of Naked Lunch, the quasi-adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s famous novel made by David Cronenberg in the early ’90s. Cronenberg and Lynch are often mentioned in the same sentence, and it’s easy to see why. They both tend to feature grotesque and strange images and situations, characters may not always be who they appear to be, identity can be fluid or multiple, endings may not be easy to understand. In Naked Lunch, Bill Lee (Burroughs’s proxy) hallucinates (or does he?) that his typewriter is a talking insect that tells him what to do. It may be a manifestation of paranoia, like the Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, but it is not outwardly adversarial, and in fact helps to guide Lee through the strange world of Interzone.

The undulating bug does bear some resemblance to the baby from Eraserhead, yet the atmosphere is at that point far more Cronenbergian (there’s another one!) than Lynchian. In fact, technology in general is far more Cronenberg country than anything Lynch. Technology in Lynch’s films serve odd purposes, and they may not always do the things they’re supposed to do. Telephones in particular seem to literally be a means of communicating with entities in other places. In Lost Highway, the Mystery Man shows Bill Pullman’s character a mobile phone and tells him he is at his house, then asks Pullman to call him, when the phone at Pullman’s house is picked up, the Mystery Man is on the line. Telephones in Twin Peaks: The Return seem to act not only as communication devices but means of teleportation in some cases, which would make sense given the Peaks saga’s use of electricity. But it isn’t a “real world” application. In Cronenberg, a piece of technology is far more likely to be “hard science fiction”, or something close. The titular television channel in Videodrome sends a strange signal which generates tumours in the brains of its viewers. In The Fly, the teleportation pod accident does not turn Jeff Goldblum into a man with a fly’s head, but into a kind of chrysalis man who slowly transforms into a giant human-fly hybrid.

Quite away from science fiction, Lynch is interested in the psychological in an inward looking fashion, his characters’ psyches transform the world around them, everything is subjective. Very often the way these psychological influences manifest is seemingly supernatural. Strange beings appear out of darkness, paintings begin to move, people turn into other people. Cronenberg is conversely a very objective kind of filmmaker, even though his films are often about the intersection of psychology and technology, and the influence they have on each other, sometimes to world altering effect. Lynch could not have made Crash, just as Cronenberg could not have made Inland Empire. A computer game is far more up Cronenberg’s alley, he even made a sort of “update” of Videodrome in the late ’90s called Existenz, about a virtual reality worldspace, one of those science fiction films of that era which was buried under the mountains of praise and hype for the actually-kinda-rubbish The Matrix. In Twin Peaks: The Return, which as far as I’m aware is the only one of Lynch’s filmed works in which they have any real presence, computers are used pretty much exclusively as part of the show’s satirisation of modern crime procedural shows. Their functions are not technologically accurate, they exist in that world exclusively to serve that show’s absurd sense of humour.

So maybe a computer game isn’t the greatest medium for a Lynch parody, but then, is there a great medium for such a thing? If “Lynchian” and “weird” are the same thing, then, as in this game, all you need to do is load it with references and fake glitches and voila, you’ve got yourself a Lynch thing. For me this doesn’t work so well, no matter what format you’re doing it in. In Lynch’s own work, when something inexplicable happens it either has story or character relevance, or it serves an atmospheric purpose. The approach in this game has more in common with cattle prod cinema, or quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG!, to paraphrase film critics Pete Bradshaw and Mark Kermode respectively. Lynch certainly isn’t above jump scares, but he tends to use them as a means of introducing something which will then linger mysteriously in the back of the mind, colouring what comes later.

I know that I’m being very serious about what is intended as a joke, and in my criticism I mean no disrespect to the people who created what is a pretty amusing and well-done thing in itself. To me, David Lynch Teaches Typing in fact teaches—perhaps, through its interactive portions, even more saliently than filmed parodies—that Lynch really is impossible to replicate. It’s one thing to take things he has already done and directly copy them, but it’s something else entirely to have come up with those things in the first place. I appreciate David Lynch Teaches Typing, beyond its competence from a design perspective, as a reminder of this more than anything. Sometimes it takes imitation to highlight just how special the real thing is.

“David Lynch Teaches Typing” was created by Rhino Stew Productions. The game is free and can be downloaded for Windows, Mac, and Linux here. Though it probably goes without saying, I am not affiliated with Rhino Stew Productions, nor am I being financially lubricated in exchange for producing this vaguely promotional piece.

The World Unbuilt – Poetry

I don’t get poetry. At all. Naturally, then, I opted to write several poems to be included among the lore books. The first of these was Selendrius’s truly abysmal monologue about trees or some such for the Abridged Caudex Magnus. I can’t remember if I thought it was good or if I knew it was bad and kept it anyway for effect’s sake. Although it doesn’t show here, my aim with the Church was to contrast its literary offerings, which are typically inelegant, wrong-headed and propagandistic, with NPC dialogue that would show, if not universally, a greater tendency towards the intellectual, and probably many of the higher-ups would have admitted that much of what the Cathedra Magna makes available for public consumption is a far cry from the great literature it keeps locked away in its secret library. Can you see the library? Oh, ha ha ha, of course not. This would have been a convenient out for me: hey guys, I’m a bad writer on purpose! But even so, it is undeniable that, by any standard, the Church is pulling your leg more than a little bit with most of the stuff it comes out with.

Selendrius, no matter how awful a poet he might be, shows a binding theme among all the poems I wrote: man’s relationship with nature.

In Cheshan of Caol Elish’s O ye Vertuous Romere, translated as O the Virtuous Wanderer (for purposes of clarity, I will be using the latter version when quoting), a narrative of sorts is told across seven short poems. Beginning with a vision of the Wanderer, we are shown how the “stripling embryo” he came from was the Townsman, who one day turned his eye from the distractions of city living and sought to create a new life in the wild. In the second and third poems, Cheshan tells us about the Road and Way, which, like the tao and te of the Lao Tzu seem to correspond to way (the immutable thing that contains all things and makes them what they are) and virtue (the embodiment of the way). The road is master and guide of the Wanderer, who goes “upon the Road in his Way”. It is not clear if “his” refers to the Wanderer or to the Road, it may even refer to both, in which case the Wanderer is one who has achieved unity with the Road.

For the second part of the book, which may be thought of as the last four poems, Cheshan switches to the Wanderer’s own perspective, describing what he sees on the Road. The narrative tells of the Wanderer in Summer, Autumn, and Winter, possibly corresponding to adulthood, old age, and death in the Wanderer’s own life. In Summer, the Wanderer takes simple pleasure in the smells of wild grasses and the feeling of the season, which, possibly speaking to the Road, he wishes to be carried always in its heart; that or he is speaking to himself, though as we have seen, it is possible for both interpretations to be true at once. In Autumn, the Wanderer travels through a forest where the leaves “turn Red and launch into Death”, noting that this is but one element of the world’s cycles, contrasting it with the hibernation of the bears and the arrival of the winter foxes. The Townsman’s blindness is contrasted with the Wanderer, who is the “One whose Eyes are open”, thus receptive to nature’s secrets.

Though the march towards death seems inevitable, Winter, the season of death, is presented as a season of transcendence, and also the most important season. Cheshan uses the last two poems to attack the idea of an eternal afterlife, and instead to promote the notion of an eternal rebirth. The Wanderer beseeches the mountain (most likely Mt. Tocanum) to pierce the Eye of God and smite “the Bastard Heaven” that Man may commune properly with nature, which is “True Heaven”, “Heaven that is with end”. “Heaven” may thus be a given cycle of the Road, and though it ends another will always begin. In the final poem, the Wanderer calls on the snow to “kill all by covering” so that nature can “make ready to give Birth to all Things anew”. The theme of rebirth is established in the very first poem, when the Townsman “chants the Chant of Ressurrecktion” and is reborn as the Wanderer. Whether this refers to a literal ritual of rebirth, or is meant more symbolically, is left up to you. What is certain is that Cheshan offers something approaching a pantheistic view of the world, in which a deeper contact with nature, which is the Road, or the way, is important in leading a life of virtue.

Some seventy years after Cheshan set out his view of man in nature, the Gephalan poet Uphal wrote the Five Autumnal Verses. This is a collection of mostly very short poems, the longest of which is a mere nine lines. We don’t have the original Gephalan verses available to us, because there was no way I was going to invent a totally foreign language, but handily we do once again have the Arlaug’s translation. From the beginning Uphal presents Autumn as a time of great beauty, questioning the depressive attitude which dominates his fellows during the season. Like Cheshan, Uphal sees nature as a thing which contains all and thus outlasts all. “My body is young, the World is old / Yet in its eyes: the brighter Gleam” is probably the most direct example of this reverence. Unlike Cheshan, Uphal does not propose that we leave cities and wander in nature, his vision is one of tranquil coexistence. The narrowness of his focus, a single season, also means that he does not take a grand view of nature’s cycles. Rather, Uphal offers a humble selection of simple Autumnal scenes, and does not confront the reader with a philosophy of the world. While Cheshan’s Road and Way may roughly correspond to tao and te, Uphal’s humility has more in common with the spirit of the Lao Tzu.

Uphal’s poetry places great emphasis on formal logic, variously employing rhyme schemes, recapitulation, and symmetry. Of all five poems, which I think are probably about as elegant as I could ever be in poetry, if not in writing generally, I am most proud of the second, which uses a nine line symmetrical rhyme scheme with the central line unrhymed. Like all the poems it tends towards austere simplicity, but I think it is not dry, rather inwardly and understatedly revelling in nature. I wrote a haiku to end the book. The haiku has been long maligned thanks to its simplicity of form, which has ever made it attractive to smelly baka gaijin who are not pure like mai waifu. “Here by the river / which carries the leaves away / I lie down and sleep” has an unassuming simplicity which I felt was in line with the style exemplified by Kobayashi Issa, at least in English translation, though the form itself is strongly bound to Japanese orthography, and any attempt in English must necessarily be at least semi-fraudulent. But I reckoned that I would do better to liberally apply licence, as I had elsewhere, in my approach. I think the results were probably the best of anything I wrote from a purely technical perspective.

In contrast to the other books of poetry, which are short, and especially to O ye Vertuous Romere, which I had initially intended to be an epic, I wrote the Elideiad. I had known that I wanted to do a book with a maritime theme pretty much from the start, I love the idea of sailing (maybe not so much the act of sailing itself), the smell of the sea, the sound of accordions and all that good stuff. Initially this maritime work began as a series of diary entries written by captains and sailors employed by the Vespeiad Freight Company, which was publishing a book to celebrate its however many hundreds of years’ anniversary. I soon realised that I knew nothing about sailing, but all the documentation I could find referred largely to modern sailing. Anything on the Age of Sail, short of books I couldn’t find, was severely limited and not very informative. I thought about making it up, but unlike my creations via the penhands of Uphal and Cheshan, I couldn’t fake something which, barring a sea made of a substance that does not physically behave like water, would very obviously have a kind of universal logic to it. Either I knew it or I didn’t, and I didn’t so I did away with it. But then O ye Vertuous Romere, where the vocabulary had worn away at me, and, I thought, was sure also to wear down the reader, ended up being a short book, and I realised that, if anything was able to contain an epic, it was the sea.

Now, “epic” is a relative term. At about 3500 words, the Elideiad is about as long as any book outside of the Abridged Caudex Magnus is going to get. Of course, I also wrote an in-universe introduction to the book, which bumped it up to just shy of 4500 words. I may even have written the introduction first. In any case, the actual poem is, I think, the longest concentrated piece of writing in the entire library. That is to say, it is the longest single narrative. I exclude the Abridged Caudex Magnus from the equation because of the huge gaps in time from one section to the next, and because each section, near enough, can function on its own. Each canto of the Elideiad is dependent on what precedes it, and over the course of its 450 lines makes use of a structure where style is altered by events in the narrative. For example, the quasi-modernist style displayed in the final canto only really works in context, where we see that Tenquehort’s exposure to Port Elidea, which is so alien to anything he has seen before, distracts his narration from formal considerations, although by that point the rhyme scheme has been dropped (or rather it was shaken loose by a sea monster in Canto IV), and meter is starting to become less stable. On the back of everything else I had attempted to achieve stylistically with the books of lore, it is the Elideiad which is probably the most ambitious.

Cado Tenquehort (and don’t ask me where that name came from, it just came to me one day, hopefully I didn’t steal it from somewhere) does not share the same degree of reverence for nature that Cheshan and Uphal do. For Tenquehort reverence is owed more to the company of men who sail in defiance of nature’s boundaries, plotting courses across its open oceans, abusing its winds for propulsion, and perhaps even doing some kind of battle, though none can comprehend it, with a great creature of the deep, one of nature’s wonders. There is an awe surrounding nature, but that awe inspires challenge—Tenquehort is the sort of person who would hunt lions and bears for sport. I suppose it is inevitable that an adventure story, which is effectively what the Elideiad is, would be bound up in a love of conquest. In Canto V the men dock at an island to repair the ship. Tenquehort and others go off to explore the island, and take great pleasure in their environs. This is as close to a life of coexistence with nature as Tenquehort gets, and it is quite superficial compared to Cheshan’s way of the Road. Indeed, for Tenquehort and the crew of the Aluad the only roads are the ones they themselves create, they sail “without tether in earth or heav’n”. There is then something transcendent, in Tenquehort’s view, of the human will to conquer nature, to have its seas and coasts submit to humanity, rather than humanity to nature. In this way, although I didn’t necessarily plan it, there is clear contrast to the other major poems in the library.

I think my adventure, such as it was, in writing in-universe poetry, was begun out of a feeling of necessity. Most of literary history is poetry and philosophy, and while it has its ancient ancestors, like the romances Cervantes lanced with Don Quixote, the novel as we recognise it today is a relatively young invention. With verse having had such a long and storied history as a medium for storytelling in our world, it seemed only right that, despite my crude poetastry, this imagined world should have its verse too. But in the condensed literature that I aimed to create there could only be so much space, so that’s all she wrote.

Further Reading

O ye Vertuous Romere / O the Virtuous Wanderer

The Five Autumnal Verses

The Elideiad

Game Journal – Dark Souls

Dark Souls, the Dark Souls of video games. It is impossible to approach this game in 2018 for the first time, or even many prior years, without having considerable baggage just from looking the damned thing up. Even if you’d never heard of it before the very moment you were prompted to check it out, you’ll be plunged into a roiling deep sea of opinions. Alternately I was promised the hardest game ever, rich in atmosphere and full of intense fights, or a poorly designed low budget piece of shit with no story. The truth is perhaps somewhere between these extremes.

First off, the game is challenging. “Hard” would have sent me packing in about ten minutes. I’m someone who has given up on many games just because I couldn’t figure out how to get past a certain bit after a handful of tries. But beyond that, it’s about how rewarding you are expecting the payoff for defeating a particular boss or clearing a certain level to be. I gave up on Mirror’s Edge what I reckon to have been around halfway through, because the combat is so unpleasant that the payoff of those kind of nasty looking cel-shaded cutscenes, and the uninteresting whodunnit they tell, was not recompense enough for toughing out endless barrages of riot gear cops with shotguns. I’m more than a bit of a wuss about having to do “hard” things in games, because I suck at games, but for some reason Dark Souls made me want to play on from the first time I hesitated dropping down to face Asylum Demon, causing him to jump up and one-shot me by smashing the platform I was standing on to pieces. My reaction was not to quit the game in frustration but to laugh, I thought it was hilarious that the developers had put that in there. “No fucking around here, buddy boy!” Or whatever that sentence is in Japanese, I guess.

The game is a process of trial and error. Like learning to play a piece of music, you have to do some things over and over in order to get it right. The difference between Dark Souls and other games where I’ve had to bang my head against a wall to pull off a tricky sequence, is that in Dark Souls there’s a kind of moment where everything comes together, what seemed impossible the first time around becomes somehow manageable on the fifth try, you see the grander design and you feel like you’ve come to understand the structure of it. Following the musical analogy, it was like not exactly mastering, but learning to play at a somewhat competent level a guitar transcription of the fugue from BWV 1001. There is a logic to it, and at its best there can be an almost balletic beauty to fighting something like the Sanctuary Guardian boss from the Artorias of the Abyss DLC. It’s also far less arcane than hearsay would lead you to believe, the essential controls you need to beat pretty much anything are given freely in the opening few minutes of play, mastering them can take longer, especially since different enemies require different tactics to beat, but learning where and when to do which move, and how to combine them effectively feels, for want of a better word, “organic”.

Also organic, for a substantial part of the game’s play time, is the level design. After the opening tutorial area, you are flown by a giant crow to the Firelink Shrine, this is a hub area to which you gradually open up more and more direct paths from other areas. It feels great opening up a door or finding an elevator and realising that you’ve come full circle. The layout of the areas around Firelink feels great. It gives a real sense of accomplishment to stand atop a tower, for example, and look down on the undead infested town you just conquered to get there. It’s also daunting to enter a new area and see it, as you sometimes do, laid out before you, brimming with danger and secrets. One particularly cool moment for me was dying in one area, respawning at a bonfire which, it turned out, was somewhere higher up above it, and looking down to see my souls hanging out on the edge of an abyss waiting to be reclaimed. One of the cool things about the design is how vertical it is, very few areas exist at the same height, you’re always climbing towards heaven or descending to dark and forgotten places.

I’m sure most people know how the game works by now, but since I made mention of souls and bonfires it’s probably worth explaining them a tiny bit. Souls are basically experience points and currency rolled into one. You gain souls by killing enemies or finding soul items scattered about the levels, and you lose them if you die. When you die you leave a bloodstain which, if you can reach it without dying again, will give you the souls you lost on your previous death. If you die again before reaching them, they’re gone for good. You can use souls by going to a bonfire and resting there, allowing you to level up. You can only increase one attribute per level, and like most RPGs, the amount you need to gain a level goes up each time. Resting at bonfires refills your Estus Flask, which is the basic HP recovery item; it doesn’t do anything to alleviate status ailments, some of which can be quite nasty, but it can be upgraded to recover more HP. Resting also resets all enemies except bosses and mini-bosses, so anything you killed before resting will be back and ready to fight you again. Whenever you die, you’ll respawn at the last bonfire you rested at, but it isn’t a checkpoint, Dark Souls autosaves, so any progress you made in terms of killing bosses, activating elevators, getting items etc. is saved, you just have to make it back to where you were to keep progressing.

At the start of the article I said that both extremes of the game’s reputation were true to some extent. I’ve been praising it for the past 1000 words, but now it’s, sadly, time to get into areas where the game falls flat for me. I should note at this point that I played the game fully offline, I had no players helping me fight bosses, no invaders, no notes from other players to guide me when the going got tough. I don’t say that to brag, only to point out that for some people my experience of the game may seem to have been less than complete. When I’m playing a story driven game, I like a singleplayer experience much better than multiplayer. I understand that Dark Souls‘ approach to multiplayer is quite novel, only having access to the support of others or being invaded by enemy players when you meet the specific criteria to do so, and then only for a limited time. There are NPC helpers and invaders in the game as well, and the criteria for accessing them is similar. Personally, I dislike the idea of people being able to enter my game and kill me, stealing my souls, but it is certainly an added layer of challenge, and in the latter parts of the game, where the sense of progression and of connection that once was all fades away into a series of dead end areas, it probably helps to spice things up a bit.

This is my first major criticism. While I had some issues with the game prior to clearing Anor Londo—for me, and, it would seem, many others, the peak of the game—it was only after acquiring the Lordvessel, which allows you to warp around between certain bonfires, and later opens the way to the final boss, that I began to realise I had played through a brilliant, structured two acts which led to a third act of disjointed action, an aimless finale with so many loose threads to tie up and no apparent reason to do them in any order. If the game can be criticised for being esoteric, that shoe definitely fits it here. It was only by chance that I ended up doing the things I needed to do in order to reach the end. What I didn’t understand at first was why. Why had the first forty hours been so much fun, even at their most nerve-racking or frustrating, but now everything I did felt like a “just ’cause I was there”, a mere chancing upon something I hadn’t yet done? Well, it’s precisely because of what I said at the end of the last paragraph, the game goes from being this web of interconnected areas with lots of cool shortcuts and hidden paths to discover and explore, to a bunch of areas leading to nowhere but boss fights of often underwhelming levels of challenge, and beyond them, where before there would have been more to see, or a neat way back to Firelink, a dead-end. The game starts dropping “homeward bones”—these are items you can use to warp to the last bonfire you rested at while keeping all of your accumulated souls—like they’re going out of style, and all you do is warp around until there’s nothing left to do but face the final boss.

There are some lesser issues. In some areas like Blighttown, which has a lot of clustered ladders and platforms and sheer drops, the camera can freak out and send you falling to your doom at a moment’s notice. That area in particular also has, somehow, some frame rate issues which must simply be down to bad porting (I’m playing the Prepare to Die Edition, which was originally a PC port with DLC included). Frame rates also drop in the underground areas Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith, both of which seem to have trouble dealing with the magma and fire emitters they are filled with. The developers acknowledged some of these issues, along with the 30 fps framerate cap (60 fps mods exist, but apparently these can cause serious problems with the game), but also said that basically their goal was just to get the thing on PC—it was a straight port, by no means an upgrade.

I also dislike the way the game handles slowdown from encumbrance. Basically, you can go up to 50% of your equip load (that’s just the stuff you have equipped right at that moment, the rest of your inventory, despite its massive combined weight even early on, is not counted) before you start to get super slow and do the “fat roll”, which is less an evasive manoeuvre than throwing yourself on the floor like a submissive dog and hoping the enemies take pity on you and leave you alone. Below 50% there are two different classes, medium weight is functional in terms of speed and evasive capability, and the fastest is super fast, letting you sprint like Usain Bolt and roll like mad, making it very easy to get up behind enemies and perform a devastating backstab. This in itself is fine, people who equip heavy armour and hold in their right hand a greatsword while wielding an impenetrable tower shield in their left should be much slower than people who wear robes and wield a magic wand, it just makes sense, right? Well yeah, but it would have been great if the game told me what the actual percentage was, so that I could settle on an equipment loadout instead of having to trial every combination to see if I could roll fast or not. Basically: I’m crap at maths and any normally intelligent person wouldn’t have these issues, but like every other moron on the planet I demand that my stupidity be catered to.

In case you can’t tell, I really, really like Dark Souls. I had to pick on some pretty damn minor issues—most of which, I believe, have been addressed in the sequels, although my major issue with the game’s latter third seems to have become more prevalent and commonplace in its successors—to balance my gushing praise with some much needed for balance’s sake criticism. However, it is an imbalanced work. After a climactic high-point it loses the magic that, almost wordlessly, told you all you needed to know. The epic hero’s quest through Lordran devolves into so many chores to be crossed off a list, and while the sense of achievement for beating the final boss may be high, the amount of busywork that must be attended to leading up to it is a less than ideal comedown from the heights both you and the game itself were scaling previously. In spite of its flaws, however, I do feel that Dark Souls is worthy of the praise, if not the reputation for insane difficulty, that it so often gets. An excellent game, and one that even I, a weak-willed gamer who loves an easy ride and balks at even not-so-Herculean trials, enjoyed playing for the vast majority of my time with it.

The World Unbuilt – Selendrius

The poet and playwright Selendrius is a vital human figure in the Eadratic faith. His plays and poetry both are sanctioned by the Cathedra Magna, and the Thorian language editions of his works are among the few Church publications that are not strictly about the Church or the faith. His position in the Thorian world as a literary figure is something like Homer plus Shakespeare, but there isn’t much that is known about him, certainly not much that can be confirmed.

He was born in the Iqhvadhgh city state of Lazulide, at a date unknown to the Thorian calendar. Lazulide, you might recall, if you slogged through The Abridged Caudex Magnus, is the setting of a legendary battle between the forces of Sapherion and Draxiaadem, and is sacred to the Church. Ask any clergyman, he will tell you that it fell long ago, but once stood roughly where Arch Thorian is today, only it was much, much larger. Indeed it would stretch out north to the ‘Wycks, east to the Silvarum, south to the Luctarine hills; an urban sprawl of such vastness and beauty as to be the envy of all nations. Well, Lazulide still exists, the largest city of Ochvad, but if you go around saying that you might attract the wrong kind of attention from the Tribunal.

Little is known about the education of Selendrius. Some suggest that he was an idiot savant, an illiterate who was nonetheless a magnificent orator, who commanded the respect of Lazulidean scholars who would themselves take his dictation, and that this is how his plays were composed. This is in line with the divine depiction of Selendrius in the Caudex Magnus. There he is the chosen speaker of Arch Sapherion, who relieves him of a fatal illness and in doing so inspires him to deliver a poem to the people of the city. Notably Selendrius does not write anything down in this story, only goes before the people and versifies at them. The poem is pretty bad, rambling and delirious, which would surely put paid to the notion that he couldn’t write, and therefore couldn’t structure his work, but it may be the case that he neither wrote nor recited any of those words in the first place.

The Church has a long history of bad record keeping, and many documents older than even one-hundred years have been lost, or at least that is the official story. Advances in pulping and printing technology have since corrected this problem, and assuming the continuation of Thoria beyond the next century it should be the case that an 1845 record of parliamentary minutes is still legible and solidly wieldy. But for many centuries records had to be recopied by hand, and invariably there were not enough hands to preserve everything, so things were lost, and their contents, if they were not forgotten entirely, had to be guessed at. The Caudex Magnus never suffered from that particular problem, but rather of the opposite, efforts to preserve it were so wide and spirited that various distinct forms appeared, disappeared, merged and split from each other. Some of these would have contained only one section, the Historis, which collects in roughly chronological order the folklore of the Eadranites before they came to Omidius, although the fact that they were ever not on Omidius is elided in all extant versions.

How exactly Selendrius comes to be in the Historis at all is probably through the influence of Eadranismus himself. Selendrius was dead long before Eadranismus was born, and it is possible that, in his student years, Eadranismus read Selendrius at the Great Library of Lazulide. Selendrius was not by any means considered a great poet by the Lazulideans, his plays were popular in his lifetime but faded into obscurity after his death, and his poetry was collected and published in several volumes, but never enjoyed critical favour. Nonetheless, the Library then kept, and perhaps still keeps, several copies of the original volumes. Yet Eadranismus is unlikely to have found him remarkable, a passing mention to his loyal faction of scholars probably wouldn’t have survived generations, evolving into a major figure in a religious text. However, it is believed by some, on the basis of Library records dating back to around the right time, that Eadranismus carried texts out of the Library with him when he was forced out of Lazulide; if among these were Selendrius’s poetry, it may go some way to explaining how the text might have survived and become mingled with Eadranite lore.

But if Selendrius predates Eadranismus, how does he come to write of Arch Sapherion and the Aspects in his Thoughts Upon the Living World? Sapherion is one thing, and it could be argued that that realm could be reached before Eadranismus went there. But the Aspects were originally gods of the southern tribes that were folded into the Eadranites well after Eadranismus himself had died. Furthermore, Sapherion was known to Eadranismus as a realm of being, not as a being in itself, so either the entire poem was written much later and attributed to Selendrius, or there was another poet called Selendrius who lived in a later era and the two were merged into one figure by the Caudex Magnus. I intended never to answer this question in the game, especially since not enough would be known of what I have written above for it to even occur to the player, but through a Dark Book encounter I thought it would be interesting to offer some explanation instead concerning another work attributed to Selendrius.

Sphecia is a play about a woman of the same name who travels to Lazulide from her village to find work. On her way she is nearly raped by a man out on the road, shares a drink with an avuncular pub landlord and a ribald young drunkard who teases them both, and finally reaches Lazulide, where she meets Selendrius himself, who makes her free of the play and makes it possible for her to become her own person in the real world. The version available to us is an edition created by one Pynchonius in 1528, whom the histories of Yulud (see The Listorian Reformation, Vol. II, p. 4) tell us was the poet laureate of Haectullus Listor in the later stages of the Reformation. Pynchonius, perhaps under duress from his superiors, lest he suggest that the original work was written in a different language, does not call it a translation. He is credited as an editor, and he says in the introduction that he presents a “correckted editioune” which brings “the language to fitte with us presente idiome”, suggesting that the copy he worked from had already been translated into an older form of Thorian, either from the original or perhaps even from another translation. That is, of course, unless the Two Selendrius theory is correct. Don’t worry, it isn’t.

The play is comic, tragic, and postmodern. It is a narratively disjointed work, which suggests that it may have been cobbled together from multiple sources. Each of its three scenes are connected only in that they share the character of Sphecia, who is not much of a character, but the final scene shows us that this may indeed be the point. As a character she is merely a vessel for the author’s words, he comes to believe that this is a cruel fate for her, and releases her from his control through means never actually revealed.

As many people of my generation are fond of saying, the play “breaks the fourth wall”. Many people of my generation also think that the fourth wall was invented and broken by Marvel’s comedy antihero Deadpool, so make of that what you will. This breakage occurs early on when the Stranger tells the audience about how he will woo Sphecia, and continues throughout the play with asides to the audience from the two men in the pub, and of course plays an integral part of the finale when Sphecia quite literally exits the world of the play and walks out into the audience, leaving the room by the theatre’s front doors. Sphecia herself is always aware of the audience, although she may perceive it as some amorphous spirit that is receptive to her thoughts, rather than a physical body of spectators.

The stage directions and what we would think of as postmodern style raise a couple of problems when it comes to dating the work. Firstly, the Lazulide of Selendrius’s time had only amphitheatres that were exposed to the open air from above and which had entrances but no actual doors. Doors were present in closed buildings, but never in open air structures. The final direction is therefore likely Pynchonius’s own addition. Secondly, and more importantly, the kind of dramatic self awareness displayed throughout the play was unheard of in Selendrius’s time. In fact, Pynchonius himself may have popularised it, at least in the Thorian theatre, in the 1500s. The style in evidence suggests that Pynchonius may even have written an entirely new ending, and rewritten the preceding scenes.

The bawdy jokes and use of rhyme as a comic device in the second scene are characteristic of Pynchonius’s comic style. The Tayle ofe a Gaddaboute mentioned in Yulud’s histories, though I never wrote it (because it seemed kind of pointless to me to have two of the same thing), contains much lewd banter between young men similar to what comes from the mouth of Uartes. Similarly, the themes of rape, control, and free will are more appropriate philosophically to Pynchonius himself, being as he was quite cosmopolitan, and enjoying friendships with artists in the International Zone, such as the composer Huldibane, than they are to Selendrius, who was a populist writing in accordance with the tastes of a largely conservative society.

Earlier I mentioned that this would be revealed by a Dark Book encounter. The player would be able to visit Pynchonius in his old age. The year 1548, to be precise, by which time he has emigrated to Port Elidea, though official Church records of the time declare that he died in a horse-drawn carriage accident in the year of 1535, just a few months after Haectullus Listor’s death. If the player asks about the change of location, Pynchonius will reveal that his high position under Listor gave him some influence, and enabled him to work out a deal with the Council of Aspects: on the understanding that he would officially be considered dead, and that he therefore would never return to Thoria, he would be taken to Oleand, where he would embark south on a voyage to Port Elidea, with a considerable pension that had been guaranteed him in a codicil to Listor’s will.

The player can talk Pynchonius into admitting certain things about the authorship of the play. In what I thought would be a humorous twist, it turns out that Listor had given Pynchonius a copy of the text for Sphecia in what was supposedly the original language, but Pynchonius couldn’t read it so he just made up an entirely new play based on what he knew of Selendrius, including in the final scene some lines from a love poem that had been attributed to Selendrius to offer a sense of authenticity. Fortunately, Listor couldn’t read Iqhvadhgh either, nor could any of his aides, so had no means of confirming the accuracy of the translation. Pynchonius concludes by saying that it is for the best that he couldn’t read it because, knowing what he had read of Selendrius in translation, it would have been “a most dull hour’s entertainment upon which I, and everyone else, would have been forced to lavish praise. It is much better to put my words in his mouth, and to praise them like they were his own, than it is to put his words in your ear.”


Further Reading


Game Journal – Metal Gear Survive PC Beta

This weekend Steam is hosting the free beta of Metal Gear Survive, Konami’s Phantom Pain zombie mod. This is a multiplayer only beta. Maybe I should have read the stuff it tells you to read before letting you play the game, but I didn’t, and it took me a while digging through the irritatingly laid out menu to find the “Return to Mother Base” (i.e.: single player) option greyed out. I should state up front that, due to the game refusing for whatever reason to work with the ordinarily fabulous x360ce, I was forced to play with mouse and keyboard controls, which are not quite as bad as you might expect, but still far from a smooth means of controlling third person action. So whatever you read here, keep in mind that I was labouring somewhat with suboptimal peripherals.

There has been much said about this game. Lots of people think that Konami is taking a beloved franchise and wringing a quick buck out of it by adapting Phantom Pain‘s base resource acquisition mechanics and adding zombies, hunger, and thirst into the mix, and I agree with them. The Metal Gear series has had survival mechanics before. My favourite instalment in the series, Snake Eater, took place largely in woodland and mountain environments and required you to hunt your own food and heal your own wounds, gun suppressors would wear down and break from use, and your radar and other gadgets would run out of battery life. So it isn’t an entirely alien concept.

What is alien is that series creator and “gaming auteur” Hideo Kojima is nowhere to be found. Kojima ended his time with Konami after the tempestuous rushed finish of Phantom Pain in 2015, and is now working on Death Stranding, which will finally see his dream of collaborating in a full game production with Norman Reedus realised. Previously they had worked together on P.T., a cleverly designed little puzzle box of a horror game meant to tease Silent Hills, which Konami promptly cancelled, presumably because it needed to divert extra computing power to its pachinko machine design AI. (I don’t know if they actually have one of those, but would anyone be surprised if they did?) Metal Gear games have been made in the past without Kojima’s involvement, from the infamous Snake’s Revenge to the well-received Revengeance, and often forgotten minor entries like Ghost Babel, but this is the first time that the series itself has been without him. In a way it’s probably very freeing for him, not to have to continue telling the same story, but for fans of the series it’s less than ideal, especially when Phantom Pain was released with its main story in a somewhat less than finished state.

Much has been made of Konami’s decision to make new Metal Gear titles. So far as I’m aware, Survive—which is a spin-off, a what-if based around wormholes opening up during the climactic sequence of Ground Zeroes so that, instead of becoming the Diamond Dogs of Phantom Pain, the MSF are Samurai Jack‘d into a world where zombies with red crystals in their heads mill around trying to destroy mining equipment, or at least that’s what seems to be going on—is the only one they’re currently committed to, whatever that means. Even so, the game is seen by many as an insult to the series and to Kojima himself, although he doesn’t seem to be taking it personally. He has however commented that he doesn’t feel that zombies belong in Metal Gear.

But all this has been discussed endlessly since the game’s announcement last year. What about the game? Well, the game is… Phantom Pain with zombies. Or rather, it’s Phantom Pain with most of what made that game what it was removed and replace with zombies. Also you can spawn fences out of thin air, but I didn’t get a chance to use that mechanic, if indeed it exists in the co-op horde mode, which is the only thing you can do in this beta aside from knifing endlessly respawning training dummies. Horde mode revolves around a “wormhole generator”, which actually appears to be a drilling machine, and which you are suppose to defend. You play as one of a team of four people, all of whom in my matches seemed to prefer to run off to collect resources rather than actually defend the thing, which is under assault from wave after wave of zombies.

Like most zombie games, Survive features a few different classes of enemy. There are the generic crystal-headed dudes who shamble about aimlessly until they detect you, at which point they start running full pelt until they get you. They aren’t very smart though, as you’d expect from people with crystals where their brains should be, and their AI often had difficulty navigating its way around basic obstacles like broken walls to get to me. Stepping up from that is the bomber class. This is the obese zombie that explodes either naturally or after taking too much damage. They can take a lot of hits, be it from knives, guns, or the apparently totally useless punch move which seems to do absolutely nothing to anything, and the only way to stop them is to blockade them.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any more types than that, if indeed there are any in this beta, because I never got past the second wave. I don’t wish to paint the other players as people who had no interest in trying to play properly and were only there to farm mats for the full game (I believe cloud saves transfer from the beta), but they kind of were exactly that. Also unfortunate: the one Steam friend I have who also played this beta was not online when I was playing, so the only potentially good match I could have had, barring the fact that we would need two others to make a full party, was not in the offing. The matchmaking is also quite slow, it took almost four full minutes (the beta has a generous five minute wait time to find all of four people) just to populate a room on the European servers in early evening (GMT) on a Sunday, plus extra every time someone quit.

While I obviously cannot talk about how it will work in the final release, the game’s emphasis on resource gathering and crafting, which is definitely a mat grind timesink, feels at odds with the immediacy of the horde mode’s fast, action oriented gameplay. You have a couple of minutes to run around getting materials before the “wormhole generator” begins generating wormholes drilling and thus attracting zombies, and the zombies hit it and then you shoot them and then you run out of ammo and then they all blow up for some reason and then the fat ones show up and explode at you and it’s over. Whatever emphasis on survival style gameplay the final game will have, what I played in this beta feels like an action game laden with mechanics which only serve to hamper the action itself.

I thought Survive was a dumb idea from the very first time I heard about it, but I tried to go into this experience without too many preconceived notions of what it would be. After all, trailers are rarely if ever an indication of what the actual product is going to be like. It’s often true of films, where the “best scenes”, whatever that might mean for a given film, are excerpted and cut together in a 90 second reel, but it is inherently the case for games. There is no way to know what something plays like just by watching someone else play it, much less a member of the dev team, who has been living and breathing it for the past however many months or even years. Had I just gone by the trailers, or even gameplay footage from third party companies, I might have thought that Survive was going to be another dumb zombie game. It isn’t. Zombie games, no matter how mindless or derivative, are usually at least a little bit scary or overwhelming, this is just confused and unpleasant.

The World Unbuilt – Iridius Barquentine

Stories about wizards fucking things up for the sake of fucking things up are not very interesting, unless you go into why that darn wizard wants to fuck things up. The grievance that led me to create, for the core of my story, the subject of this essay, comes from The Elder Scrolls. In Oblivion, the fourth main entry in the series, Mankar Camoran, a devotee of Mehrunes Dagon (no apparent relation to just plain Dagon of the Lovecraftian mythos), through his Commentaries on the Mysterium Xarxes, really a mediocre acrostic puzzle written in rambling purple prose, seeks to initiate members of the Mythic Dawn, a cult devoted to the summoning and physical manifestation of Dagon in Tamriel. Eventually, you travel to Camoran’s paradise realm, through the use of said Mysterium Xarxes and the magical powers of one Sean Bean, and ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Well folks, it turns out he’s doing something because of reasons. And then you kill him.

I knew that I wanted above all else to avoid having a Camoran for a main villain. Our initial main villain was “The Lich”, a generic undead superbeing type entity who would be, Frozen Throne styles, sending his rotting plague hordes and abominations to destroy the realm. In practical terms, the final result wasn’t far off. The undead guy commands undead legions, but he has also brokered a deal with demonic forces of another realm, who will serve as his generals until his aim is achieved, whereupon they will saddle up for a rematch with the gods who long ago bested them. For the game’s purposes, you have a clear set of bad guys to go and take care of, but from the perspective of telling an interesting story, one that ties into the lore of the world you’ve created, it’s a tiny bit bland. Cue the psychological turmoil of one 16th century Thorian parliamentarian.

Iridius Barquentine is a Thorian hero, best remembered as a politician and prosecutor who punished blasphemers and traitors to the realm many centuries ago, and ensured that the empire would ever be impervious to acts of treason. Ask who exactly was punished, and for what—never mind how—and you’ll not get an answer of any substance, only a rephrasing of what has already been said. The Cathedra Magna’s great tradition of censorship, which followed immediately in the wake of Barquentine’s “Shiedaric Trials” and surrounding events, and has been kept up now for some three-hundred years, effectively prevents the loosing of such knowledge upon the public. Try though they might, the Arlaug has only been successful in acquiring a handful of disjointed documents, relevant and related, though not complete enough in themselves to present a solid case against the myth of Barquentine.

So who was he? In The Life of Barquentine, a “Great Thorians” series pamphlet containing all the nice bits—including some made up stuff to patch over the wounds where great chunks of controversial detail has been cut out—of his life’s story, we are told that he was born in 1508, and was a child prodigy, selected for a career in the Cathedra Magna at the tender age of six years. But a document containing what purport to be the last entries in Barquentine’s journal prior to his disappearance tell us otherwise. He was an illegitimate child, sent away for fear of scandal to live with the Quithians, a working class family of farmers, only returning to Arch Thorian to be at his biological father’s side when he was twelve years old. Iridius was presented to society as the adopted son of Victor Barquentine, who had rescued him from poverty, a gracious and well-received showing of philanthropy. Despite the confusion the young Iridius faced, he accepted his position, never seeing the Quithians again, and attending throughout his teenage years the academies at Arch Thorian, where he received a fine education, preparing him for ascendancy to the Hierarchy. However, he left the Church so that he could marry Floella Agon, which he did, and sought a career in politics.

The Life of Barquentine, if we take Yulud’s histories to be accurate, which in broad strokes it is, has to dance around the Reformation and the Council of Aspects. The former is ignored completely, the latter is transposed to seventeen Hierarchs “observ’d speaking Blasphemies”. In this way, it actually makes quite a weak case for Barquentine’s notability. In a theocratic state the prosecution of blasphemers is par for the course, and in the kind-of-but-not-quite-Mediaeval-ish setting it would have been a matter of routine for someone in Barquentine’s position to sentence them to execution or tortures, most likely to undergo the latter until the former has been achieved. Barquentine’s real significance in this period is in leading the way for the restoration of a broken empire by destroying the ones who broke it; if Thoria’s situation at that time is now shrouded in fiction, then the hero himself is rendered lesser. On a personal level, however, it was a resurgence of a bloodlust that had been brought out in him when, in his teenage years, an insult was thrown his way by a fellow student. He had bloodied the student’s face and been imprisoned in solitary confinement for a week as punishment. The resurgence was far worse. As Radolphus Lantulla tells us, writing from Barquentine’s dictation, in the Record of the Shiedaric Trials, Part I, Barquentine ordered the brutal torture, execution, and dehumanisation of the Council of Aspects. (For an example of dehumanisation, at least two convicts were to be eaten, either alive or after death, by animals, and the dung of those animals to be burned, in effect denying the elevated status of humanity in Eadratic doctrine.)

The Journal of Iridius Barquentine does not acknowledge the political situation in Thoria either, but expresses regret for the punishments he devised in the Trials. The author appears to be describing a state of mental breakdown, possibly of schizophrenia. Perhaps driven to despair by his violence, he becomes reflexively attached to a voice that only he can hear. It is implied near the end of the journal that he has discovered this voice through “books”. Throughout the journal “books” seems to mean other journals, which he “speaks to”, in the sense of writing in them. It’s possible that he is writing his journals in books possessed of corrupted magical energies (and the implications of that would be huge), or, more likely, that he uses “books” interchangeably to mean journals and Dark Books. As someone of high standing in the Thorian government, and as a former student of the Cathedra Magna, who left in excellent standing, he would undoubtedly have had access to Dark Books, many high quality examples of which exist in the Secret Library of the Cathedra Magna. Whatever the case, Barquentine leaves for Eenwyck under cover of night.

The player, in travelling from Arch Thorian to Eenwyck, will note that, far from taking Barquentine’s recorded ten days, it takes probably the better part of ten minutes on foot (I’m guessing). Obviously, a world in which it takes ten days to walk from one city to another would be insanely time consuming to construct and and populate. But the dramatic weight of the character of Barquentine walking for ten days, presumably without food or sleep, drawn on by the voice, is extremely useful in conveying the consumptive power of his sudden obsession. Is it madness, or is Arch Sapherion actually reaching out to him? When the player arrives at the final sequence of the main quest, a huge twelve-level dungeon crawling with tough mobs and tougher bosses, the answer to that question begins to unfold. Scattered throughout the levels, a sequence of fragments, which seem to pick up where the Journal left off, tell the story of a wanderer’s descent into the abyss, where either he falls victim to madness or ascends to godhood. The Dungeon Fragments, comprised of seventeen (and don’t go reading too much into that—whatever the “divine mathematics” of the Numeris may be, I certainly didn’t plan nothin’ ’round no number seventeen) short pieces in total—a theoretical eighteenth could be thought of either as a blank page or even nothing at all, if that weren’t a far too on-the-nose reference to the “remove the page” mantra (or maybe it could be a Samuel Beckett reference?)—were an attempt to do character development, which I think is the main thing that had been missing up until that point from the in-game literature, and do it entirely from the character in question’s perspective.

I think it came out sort of Lovecraftian in its overall effect, but Lovecraft tends to use his main characters as symbols of humanity and human fragility, and in doing so does not treat them as individuals so much as figures that would be inanimate were he not there to move them about the alien landscapes he envisions. I was focused entirely on the individual nature of Barquentine, his inner violence, desire for status, dislike for external authority, his paternal and familial issues. The notion of “removing the page”, which I take to be a metaphor for removing one’s physical form, is reminiscent of, or rather directly parallel to the supposed transformation of Arch Sapherion in the Caudex Magnus when, after having created the Aspects from parts of his own body, he sheds his physical form entirely. Is what Barquentine records in these fragments reality, or is he just going mad with hunger, possibly amplified by his use of Dark Books? Don’t look at me. This is one of those things I wanted the player to decide for themselves. You have the Journal, the Fragments, and, following the gruelling dungeon series, the final battle with “The Lich”, an extremely powerful entity which may or may not be the ascended form of Barquentine. If it is Barquentine, does it even matter? Players who choose to RP as a patriotic Thorian might well have significant qualms about the whole situation, or their faith may compel them to ask no questions and fell the abomination where it stands. (…or floats…? I had the idea that The Lich’s body, which he would take so as to have terrifying combat presence before his enemies, would be made out of hundreds and hundreds of bones, human bones, animal bones, maybe even the bones of extraterrestrials, bound together by the sheer force of spiritual power he has attained, and would be able to split apart, form and unform limbs, and maybe even weapons, attack from multiple points etc. That would have been a programming and animation nightmare, so it’s probably for the best that my continued involvement in the project didn’t work out, but I can’t help thinking: man, that would have been cool!) For the non-RP’ing player, he’s just another big dude to take down, but for RP’ers, and particularly for readers (well duh) I wanted to think about what kind of effect the idea that he very likely is a god who used to be a human being, and an important one at that, one that through official histories they know as a legend, one that through the narrative of his journals they know as a deeply troubled man, would have.

Such a big part of the writing as I envisioned and hoped to realise it was getting the player to question the world they were exploring. I wanted them to question religion, history, perspectives of NPCs, of writers in their books. If I could get them to question whether the final battle has meaning beyond being the final battle—that is, does it imply something for the character, for the world that hopefully was now very much their own, or is it just the last big fight, the dramatic climax that gaming convention demands?—that would be putting a great big interrobang at the end of one long sentence. In the broader scheme of things, if it is Barquentine, that suggests that godhood of the sort possessed by Arch Sapherion, is possible to attain for human beings, and I guess any living being capable of ratiocination. But who knows—you see a flat hedgehog out on the road, think about it, maybe it wasn’t using that body any more anyway.

Further Reading

The Life of Barquentine

Journal of Iridius Barquentine

Dungeon Fragments

Record of the Shiedaric Trials, Part I

The New Fear Effect Is Not Fear Effect

Probably a cause for confusion more than anything, Sedna, the even-more-obcsurely-than-usual named third major entry in the Fear Effect series, is coming out next month. It looks exactly like its two predecessors, both released on the original PlayStation console way back around the turn of our glorious abysmal millennium, it’s got the cel shading, the in-your-face sexuality, the lesbian fanservice, and the strong gore, and yet it looks nothing like Fear Effect. The classic Fear Effect look and feel is somewhere between old school Resident Evil and full CGI anime, and you might be thinking “well thank fuck it isn’t like that!”, but what they’ve gone with for the latest instalment might not be any better.

“What’s popular right now? MOBAs, squad tactics, Infinity Engine inspired RPGs… Yeah, let’s do that!” Though I have just made this quote up for illustrative purposes, it could well have been transcribed from a preliminary meeting of the dev team. But why not do that? Can tank controls and fixed-camera perspective really offer anything but a nostalgia trip for jaded young oldsters who just want to see cel-shaded underboob again but in 4K, like it was for the first time? In all likelihood they’re just going to become frustrated by the frankly awful controls and look-up “The Movie” supercuts on YouTube instead, wherein minimalist accounts of gameplay serve as transitions between one cutscene and the next.

So then, in an age of remakes and reboots and remasters—a treatment which, by the way, the original Fear Effect is currently undergoing (also slated for release this year)—shouldn’t we be glad that the developer has decided to brave a different path in order to give the player something new? Well, “different” and “new”, much as I might nominally prefer them to “same” and “old”—and disregarding the fact that in marketing terms they are largely synonymous with each other—don’t guarantee “good”. A cursory glance at Sedna‘s pseudo-isometric real time tactics gameplay can be added to the Everest-sized mountain of supporting evidence for that statement.

It’s not that tactical action is a bad idea, or that old series can’t be reinvented with radically new gameplay, but feast your eyes on this demo footage and see what comes to mind. People of a certain age, old enough to remember the PlayStation 2 as an exciting new thing, will probably be reminded of the curious quality possessed by a good many of its more cut budget titles, especially the slew of superfluous and terrible character action games such as Tekken’s Nina Williams in Death By Degrees (and yes, that is the actual title), in which impactless hits and slow gameplay made slower still by bullet sponge enemies were the stale bread around a rotten meat filling of badly written, acted, and directed cutscenes every bite of which delivered a story that actively disincentivised continuation of play.

Obviously Sedna is not a character action game from the mid-2000s, cheapo or otherwise, and more’s the pity, for the campy high-octane style of a Devil May Cry would suit Fear Effect‘s B movie silliness to a tee. Alas, our oversexed assassins/secret agents/softcore idols are to be contained like ants (and they are about the size of ants on the screen) in an isometric farm. The tone is appropriately clinical and rote, and while the dialogue aims towards the knowing daftness of its predecessors, it too is rendered clinical by the presentation, consisting of two or more light-up cardboard cut-outs like the very worst movie tie-in games.

Even though the old games could not really be called good as games, what they did have was great visual style and fully animated cutscenes that helped bring the characters and story to life, in turn making the often tedious action or obtuse puzzle gameplay less intolerable. Sedna does appear to have some proper cutscenes, but either I’m overestimating the quality of Fear Effect‘s presentation, or the simple passage of time has made what was once novel and interesting far less so, because it just seems kind of bland. Without a doubt, something is very off about the proper cutscenes in this demo.

Looking back at the old games, the real problem seems to lie in the 3D models and skins. Previously, characters’ facial expressions were handled through manipulating the skins themselves to create less fluid animations that had a sort of Harryhausen-esque charm to them, offsetting the smoother 3D animation of the models while static camera work contained the action like a comic book, each shot its own panel. Sedna‘s cutscenes look like they could have come from just about any game of the “cinematic” era, they’re slicker and of a much higher fidelity than those of the originals, but what they have gained in overall image quality has come at the unnecessary expense of character.

Now, the demo footage I’ve seen came out going on a year ago, and a lot can change in a year’s development. Games get cleaned and polished, stodgy mechanics are reworked and fine tuned, look and feel is made snappier, at least in an ideal world. But the games industry is not an ideal world, it’s an industry, and like any industry its focus on profit and machine-like creation of product often means that a game which starts off being developed misguidedly keeps on sucking because there simply isn’t enough time to fix problems tantamount to the game itself. Politics may lead to some minor, superficial changes, like JonTron being removed from the voice cast of Yooka-Laylee, but that’s all. In terms of game design, if you start off going the wrong way you will end up in the wrong place, not necessarily because you didn’t realise you were heading in the wrong direction, but because even if you did realise it, trying to turn back is like trying to change the course of a ship on an ocean that has suddenly turned from water to molasses.

It comes as little surprise then that the trailer for Sedna published today looks exactly the same. The characters move around the isometric space slowly, shooting things which seem to be able to take a lot of bullets, fire damage, and whatever else, no matter whether they’re some beast of Chinese mythology or just a regular guy in a shirt, before even getting hurt at all, let alone being killed. The cutscenes on show also offer no hope of improvement in terms of direction, they all have the same bland “cinematic” feel, and for all the facial contortions the character models are forced to make, they do not have anything of the expressive quality of the simpler, lo-fi aesthetic of the older games. The classic Fear Effect games were not masterpieces, but they were unique, and having the latest addition to the series throw away almost everything that made them what they were seems like such a waste.

Game Journal – Toribash

Although I’m really very bad at them, there’s sometimes nothing as exhilarating as a fighting game. Whether it’s a round of Street Fighter IV or Smash Bros. Melee, beating the crap out of your friends—or, if you’re like me, getting the crap beaten out of you—is among the most fun you can have in a video game. The challenge of mastering Akuma, which I never really succeeded in, is still one of my best gaming memories. But what if instead of learning move sets and combos, you could actually design entirely unique moves with a high degree of granularity? Cue Toribash. Toribash is a martial arts “simulator” in which you control a ragdoll by manipulating its joints in a turn based battle. Each joint has four modes, and used in a well-orchestrated manner you can get your ragdoll to do pretty much anything. You can grab and flip and twist and turn and punch and kick, potentially dismembering your opponent, or more likely yourself.

My first experience with Toribash was some years ago. The game was released in 2006, and I must have played it around 2009. Two things I remember: 1) It’s obtuse, 2) Everyone else is better at the game than you are. Both of these were confirmed when I returned to it in January. If you’re the kind of person who likes a pick-up-and-play level of simplicity or tutorialising, this game might not be for you. Then again, I’m someone who gave up on the fairly straightforward Ratchet & Clank, and I really enjoy this game, even if I’m no good at it. There’s something incredibly satisfying, even when your plan goes horribly wrong, about watching your ragdoll execute your instructions. However, in my experience this is not the kind of game where watching replays is especially instructive. Even watching high-level play only really serves to attack your own resolve to keep playing.

So the game is obtuse, yes, but an even bigger barrier to entry is the small and dedicated community which remains to this day, some twelve years after release. Like classic Counter-Strike, the only people who are still playing today are phenomenally good, so for a newcomer for whom even Uke, the training bot, is intimidating, having your head ripped off by masters of the game in a dazzling tour-de-force of balletic kung fu over and over is maybe not such a great incentive to continue. But for me, at least, the beauty of movement that is attainable with mastery is appealing enough that I keep coming back for more punishment.

The game has amassed a vast collection of mods, which include everything from rule sets (e.g.: disqualification for touching the ground with body parts other than feet and hands), to modes with weapons, to environments such as obstacle courses, which require you learn how to run and jump and climb. On some level modes like this seem to be spiritual precursors to Gang Beasts, although that game has nowhere near the same level of granularity. Unfortunately trying to load these mods seemed invariably to cause the game to crash, so I can’t relay my experiences with them beyond that.

Despite the issues I have encountered, I still feel like Toribash is novel and well-designed enough to deserve a bigger following than it currently has, and I’m not just saying that because I want to play against people who suck as much as if not more than I do. It costs nothing, the learning curve is a steep but a rewarding one, and it’s still actively supported by the developers after all this time—check it out!