Not really as inactive as I appear.

So, one of the reasons I haven’t been writing much is that I’ve been spending a lot of time learning some new skills.  As we haven’t finished unpacking and getting some new furniture for our larger place, I don’t have a desk so I can finish doing cartography work on the maps for Castle Builder Reforged and have that project finally out the door.  I have limitations on what I can do without a desk as part of an occupational hazard, but rest assured that project hasn’t been abandoned.

To that end, I’ve also been working on a lot of research for a few other projects, which is why if you’ve been dropping by from time to time, you may have noticed the incremental changes to my progress bars for a few things.  There are stacks of index cards I could take photos of as proof that I really am working, but I’m not sure anyone other than writers would be interested in what processes I use to develop my final drafts.

Since I’ve gotten better with creating puzzles, I’m going to start putting a few up occasionally for you to try your hand at them.  Be forewarned though, some of these puzzles are extremely complex and were designed to be as challenging as possible from not only the obscurity of the words, but also the types the clues I’ve used.  If you look at my body of work and some of the things I’ve share through social media and the like, you’ll see how much I enjoy puns.

The puzzle below was my first successful attempt at making a themed crossword.  Some of the answers won’t make sense if you aren’t from the local area I made the puzzle for and I relied on the stock clue bank to help generate some of the answers.  Despite this, I’m presenting it just to see how much you might enjoy/lothe my skills.  Several of my patrons have thanked me for making them despite the difficulty, so I am hoping you find my puzzles as entertaining.

 

This one is called “Around Antioch” and was designed for my patrons in mind.

 

Seeking Sensations in, for, and of the Shadow

When our machines can converse with us and have agency on par with our own, what separates us from them?  This question comes up time and again in cyberpunk literature, but the answer is found as much in the aesthetics as it is in the symbolism embedded in the stories.  It is perhaps the one coping mechanism in the genre that is described emotionally but never stated outright or addressed beyond the sensations the appearances give.  Not doing so makes sense in light of the bleak landscape.  The emptier the interior becomes, the greater the level of aesthetics in the story and the darker the external world appears.  Why, though?

The progress of science works to uncover every secret of nature and to fully understand how it works with the best tools a society can produce.  At some point the lenses of the various fields have to turn towards a central object that is at the heart of the questing: humanity.  When everything else seems on the verge of bending to human will, what else is there left to examine than that very will?  Perhaps this is one of the symbolic purposes of so many camera eyes to remind the audience and the inhabitants of this dark world that they are under the microscope.

Being espied upon so much is problematic in and of itself.  The genre compounds the problem by introducing entities that have the same properties of inner life as their creators—simulated or otherwise.  Does one blend in and become part of the faceless mass indistinguishable from machine life or break free and defy the body of research that has spilled out the contents of that inner world and rendered their former mystery mundane and predictable?  Responsible for all this is the tool that promised to liberate humanity from its bonds of labor: the computer.

The calculating nature of the machine sped up work and helped create art in ways once too difficult to produce by hand at profitable rates.  Thus, art and artifice moved into mass culture in new ways while simultaneously solving other problems, such as creating textiles and labor-saving devices to give people greater productivity, which translated in some areas as free time.  Now, the idea of free time is not new to the industrial revolution, but its enjoyment by virtually all levels of society comes about at this time.  Art and culture flourish in idle time, but until machinery opened it up to a wider audience, most leisure was reserved for the upper echelons of society.

The more machinery took away the need for human labor to do menial tasks, the more time was available for leisure.  We have a tendency to take this for granted, so when the various elements of culture, fashion, art, aesthetics, and sensuality appear in cyberpunk, they often don’t stand out as much as they should for the symbolic and rebellious natures they possess.  It makes sense that it doesn’t feel so subversive or out of place to see so many people express themselves in myriad ways.  What differ are the attitudes and associated reasoning, and these differences matter.

In reality and in this genre, machinery has removed humans from the manufacturing equation for much of the assembly process.  Where they diverge is in the machine’s ability to mimic human consciousness to the point where artificial intelligence passes the Turing test.  Such technology has severe consequences for society.  Barring the fears of the singularity point where machines outstrip our abilities and we’re replaced, a computer that mimics what is considered the providence of humanity is a terrifying thought.  Add to this the continued divorce of humanity from its own labor and the sense of isolation and alienation is nigh complete.

There is a problem with too much free time and not enough work to justify a person’s existence.  This isn’t a social construct, but one of personal meaning.  The psychological implication is what drives people to invent new avenues of being either through new industries (what we would refer to as innovations) or repurposing what already exists to fill in a niche that guarantees gainful employment.  Now, money isn’t the end goal, but it is a reflection of the value of that personal meaning.  The emptying out of the interior leads to the hollow existence that fuels anxiety in the real world and magnified to excess in cyberpunk literature.  How, then, does one combat the intrusion of the machine into the psyche when it can pass the Turing test?

This is where sensations come into play.  A lot of flesh is on display in most cyberpunk settings because it is a representation of not only what is real, but also of what artificial intelligence is incapable of possessing.  Machines can record, document, and observe events as they unfold, but the lack of true sensations prevents the machine from the most human of responses: experience.  Artificial intelligence can only describe what its raw data provides.  This is an interpretation of numbers.

Sensations are part of the basis of emotional responses.  As such, the level of sensuality, and thus sexuality, in cyberpunk stories is a direct relationship to encroachment into and alienation of the individual in the work space and the subsequent struggle for meaning.  In other words, it is as much a coping mechanism as it is a refutation of, rebuttal to, and rebellion from the computer’s dominance of human endeavors.  The problem is that the tools that were meant to make labor easier have reached their logical ends and replaced the need for people to perform most of these tasks without the economy shifting to a model that provides the vast majority of the population what the rich and powerful possess: leisure in excess.

Sex, sexuality, and sensory input are the height of human expression in a world where there is nothing but free time.  Cyberpunk literature depicts the poor as having to sell their bodies in some form to make enough to survive if they aren’t smart enough to get by when most of the infrastructural services that would create an equal playing field (e.g. schools, libraries, etc.) are virtually nonexistent.  The world is turned on its head as the poor are more idle than the rich, who have to hustle to maintain their positions and privileges.  And with nothing left but the feasts of carnal delights and their associated sensations, fashion, which is used to enhance sexuality, is used by the rich and poor alike to create an aura of allure.

Most of these displays are subconscious given the drive to use art as a physical manifestation of a person’s cutting edge prowess in an ever-changing world.  They also are divided along lines of class.  High fashion is associated with the rich, who spend their time collecting the fine art treasures of the past.  Displays that leave little to the imagination or are flamboyant/garish have a similar purpose for the poor.  They are meant to invoke feelings and garner attention to use the physical to express the skills and experiences possessed.  In short, they are productions of meaning.

When the view is that work will eventually set the whole of humanity free, the conflation of work and pleasure or work with pleasure is inevitable in the cyberpunk genre.  After all, the haves have more while the have-nots continue to slide into abject states of being and both are driven towards leisure.  However, the discrepancy between the two groups leads one to see leisure as luxury and the other as enjoying what one can with what is easily attainable.  This divide is quite Victorian and is why the dystopic nature of the genre can be disturbing to some as confirmation bias is easily read into the tropes.  Doing so misses out on the truth that these are aesthetic escapes from the artificial intelligence hiding behind the monitors and camera lenses of the digital world.

Sensations and the drive to experience them can be dark.  They are also illogical.  People give in to their impulses freely in the cyberpunk genre because their positions or the technology at their disposal makes it not just possible, but also grants indemnity.  This is a place clearly where the artificial mind cannot follow.  It also feeds into the production of meaning that all this sensory stimulation produces.  The characters aren’t indulging for the sake of indulgence, they do so because it’s not only expected, but also a release from social pressures.

To express the true magnitude of the horror of the dystopian world in the cyberpunk genre, characters have to give in to carnal delights to survive.  The pure decadence serves not only as an escape mechanism from the societal pressures and struggles, but also as the balm that provides some modicum of succor to the psyche.  The broken world and destruction of meaningful employment at the hands of our own machines is a true nightmare and the regression of the human spirit into carnal arts is the self-medication and remedy that holds the social fabric together and builds cohesion since everyone is in this together.  They use sex, sexuality, and sensuality as a means to an end.  An end that has one purpose: identifying who is human. It is in effect a way to turn the machine into the Other.

Last Spark in the Dawning of Night, Part 4

By now you probably have a good idea of how to run your story and keep true to the fear-inducing tale. What might not be so apparent is how to immerse the players in the story. The simplest method for this is to create a sense of dread for the players. You might not be able to get the players to empathize with their characters, but you can make them dread the characters’ fates. Setting the atmosphere in your play space and in your descriptions will go a long way. Moments of terror and horror will leak through.

In both stories the threat must be something combat can’t solve. For terror, this means villains and monsters too powerful for the group to do lasting harm; for horror, the threat is often intangible or outright the characters’ fault. Terror stories are essentially mysteries under extreme duress. Horror is about corruption and hubris. Thus, the option to fight is banished from the equation early on.

Alien and Aliens are great examples of this concept. No matter what the characters arm themselves with, they are virtually helpless. In both films, the character Ripley has to jettison the creatures out the airlock. That isn’t a weapon; it’s using the setting’s landscape to flee the monster, making it a hideous game of tag.

At the end of a terror story, players will be in a daze but when they later recall the story it’s usually with mirth and some version of “remember that time when we….” It’s like veterans comparing scars: harrowing in the moment, but retold in the future with a sense of accomplishment. Once the players solve the riddle, the terror loses its power. In fact, the players might laugh at how they acted before they figured out how to defeat their antagonist.

Horror stories don’t have happy endings. The players often look at each other and say things like “I can’t believe you….” One d20 Star Wars games saw a player force choke his mentor with a critical success. Though that was not the intended outcome, the fact that the player had his character go along with the request is. The action split the group for the story as the choices made by the player led his character down a darker path and a conflict with the Jedi Order mainly embodied by the rest of the group. The gamemaster created a moral dilemma with no easy choices while we tried to each take the least repulsive option for our characters.

This leads to the final thing to note for scary stories. The best tales use elements of both terror and horror. In films you often see someone unleashing the malevolent force on the world and die as a result. This often leads us to revile stupidity and it horrifies and terrifies us that we can be just as shortsighted as the rube we on the same level reply to with the snide comment “nice going, jackass.” All the while we’re afraid that could have been us, even if we can’t admit that to ourselves.

In your games, the horror will shift to terror for the players watching the decision of one of the group. If you spread the decisions out amongst the group, each will get to experience the horror and terror wondering if they’re next, not to mention vicarious horror through shared psychological states. Who knows, the suspense just might kill them only to bring them back for more.

Last Spark in the Dawning of Night, Part 3

One of the things that gives terror its power is its primal nature. You don’t have to think about why it’s so frightful; your amygdala will already have told you. Terror is universal and it hijacks the brain in the same manner for adults as it does children. This stems from two things: the instinct response triggering flight-or-fight takes away our agency and reduces us to the level of basic animal functions; and the awe caused by a world rendering us as insignificant, a position children understand all too well. Terror is straightforward and overt, which makes it easy to see.

Horror, on the other hand, is nearly the polar opposite. It may begin small and insignificant, but it grows in power much the same way as terror. The character always has a choice and continues to do so throughout the entire ordeal. In terror stories, there are choices but fewer in number and less about the character’s humanity.

At its core, horror is about personal corruption. The character knows the choice is wrong on some level, but gives into the vice that feeds the urge. The reason is almost always rationalized as something that leads to the greater good. In both fiction and film, there’s no visual method to show this corruption, so it is displayed externally. The fallout for the character’s choices begin to take their toll on the world around the character. At first, this will be the hurt feelings or minor physical injury to the person or thing most valued (often a combination of the two with the valued object belonging to the person).

The damage at first is transitory, but it must grow in severity and duration. This is why as things begin to spiral outwards the character’s environment becomes all the more tortured. Someone or something must always pay the price, otherwise you don’t have a horror story, you have what amounts to a gross parity of the power fantasy (e.g. Gorean) or political piece about the dangers of X, a form of dystopic fiction.

Now, the cost to undo or contain the malevolent force should terrify the character. This price is what drives the character to find another way to solve the problem. It’s terrifying to the individual and needs to feel a steeper cost than any other choice available. The peril for the choice is deeply personal even if the cost for ending the horror is transferred to someone else. The pain the character faces should be more mental than physical, but it should still include physical anguish.

This leads us to an interesting place with horror—and to a lesser extent, terror. The choices should revolve around a quality which works with the fear to create a sense of overwhelming dread: revulsion. In horror, the choices are always tinged with a hint of revulsion, but the choice that would bring about the end of the horror is the most revolting choice of all. Thus, the character will avoid it in hopes an easier solution is possible. Every choice is a bad one to some extent; this is part and parcel of the genre and adds to the fear of horrific decisions.

When using this in a game, there are a few landmines that can ruin the session in a hurry. First off, there is the issue of player agency. Too much revulsion in the choices and you’re likely going to end up with people feeling railroaded. The horror should come as an outgrowth of conscious decisions. Secondly, there is a line that is too far to cross and offends your players. Additionally, there’s the metagaming issue where the player not only knows the genre, but also his or her own motivations can differ from what the character knows and feels.

The good news is there are a few ways to get around the issues and preserve the horror experience. Stephen King wrote an essay on why we enjoy horror. In it, he describes the motivation that brings us back for more. In game systems like Fate, players are incentivized for taking the hit to their characters foibles. It might not be realistic feeling to the genre, but future bonuses gained from falling deeper into complications provides a hope economy for the climatic showdown when the need to keep one’s faith in the face of supreme evil is most crucial.

Horror is often primordial and ill-defined. The more amorphous you can make the nature of the horror before its effects spill out into the world, the greater the unease in player decisions relying on information he or she doesn’t have. This also personalizes the horror for the player. Take a look at the works of Poe, Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. Much of the horror is left unstated. In film, the malevolent force is kept off-camera save for fleeting glimpses. This plays on the audience’s psyche as a sympathetic echo of the character’s.

The slow build and gentle nudge of revulsion keeps you from passing a point of no return for sensitive subject matter. It also lets your players imagine the terrible details for themselves.  The added benefit of this is that you draw upon two tried and true techniques from film and fiction. With the former, the audience lets the suspense eat at them to cause their own psychic “trauma;” and the latter, the ability to reflect on the character’s mistakes and the resulting corruption eating the soul while the world suffers as both character and audience watch.

There’s one more problem in horror stories that sets them apart: there mentally exhausting. In Call of Cthulhu, this is represented by Sanity. Too much fear and you have the amygdala hijack leading to terror. That leads to an animalistic reduction of the character. Horror, however, gives us two other signs which lead to the inhuman: laughter and crying. Terror is abandonment of what makes us sociable and it’s transitory. Laughter or crying in the face of your own problems inflicted on the world is alienation of the self. It’s much more destructive and lasting.

Here’s the thing, though: laughing or breaking mentally in the face of the grotesque is a natural human reaction. These are defense mechanisms against the horrific. If you look at soldiers and homicide detectives, they develop such a form of humor to hold the horror of their situations at bay. It’s when their behavior becomes constant that the signs of madness and inhumanity manifest. When your players make jokes more often than usual, your story is having the desired effect.

Last Spark in the Dawning of Night, Part 2

Before diving into what makes a good terror story at your table, let’s look at a few common elements that both terror and horror use. As discussed previously, fear is central to these stories, but so is hope it’s always just out of reach of the characters, but is always there. Failing to include that hope is tantamount to creating and exercising cruelty. That single, solitary spark is what keeps the characters (and the plot) moving forward.

From the character’s perspective, terror is everywhere, overwhelming, and chaotic. That includes the unfathomable elements for why this is happening. All of this combined is terrifying. The threat comes on suddenly and builds in power while the characters try to make sense of what is really going on.

The external force, on the other hand knows why it is doing whatever it is committing. It might not be aware of the reasons motivating it however. It can even be an obscure biological process, but no matter how alien, it has a purpose. What deepens the fear and dread is the inability for the characters to get to the root cause. What they find is too bizarre to fully decipher.

Following the standard formula for terror stories, the first few attacks happen to people unaffiliated with the characters. The attacks are usually weak, but odd. The next stage comes after disturbing evidence is found. This is when a friend of a friend of a friend is the victim. The crime is shocking, but it doesn’t elicit fear, just the shivers. The forcefulness also increases.

Having the malevolent force close in on the characters makes the villain to feel everywhere. The first few attacks establish the random pattern and prevents the characters from feeling this is personal —even if it is. And that just magnifies the scope of the terror as it feels indiscriminate. In films, this is when the protagonist first learns what the audience already knows.

From this point on, the attacks are closer because the protagonist attempts to learn what the threat is and how to stop it. This is one of the few points of control the protagonist has in the stories direction: he can ignore what’s happening and what others suffer, or he can intervene and those closest to him suffer. How do you choose the world over family? Fear that they could be next.

Rather than being the hunted, the characters are the hunters. This requires the malevolent force to react to the characters. Growing power brought to bear on the protagonists does double duty here. It not only gives a metaphorical sense of proximity, but also the overwhelming force it can bring to bear. Using these elements to close in on the protagonists gives the impression that they are being singled out and hemmed in.

Terror also requires the universe to be indifferent. The less the cosmos appears concerned with the characters, the more isolated they will feel. The message here is no one is coming to save you. This is why many terror plots are connected to rural settings. The isolation is palpable. “Sorry, kid, you’re on your own” reverberates across the landscape. The more you leverage this, the more terrifying your adventure will be.

Shift the setting to a city and you can amp up the cruelty factor. Now the characters have more allies for their cause, right? Nope. If anything, an urban setting just amplifies the isolation. Not only do the characters have to face the malevolent force alone, now they have to do it with the display of humanities base qualities.

Every vice is brought to bear against the character’s agency. Still want to save the world in the face of willful ignorance? Do you really love your friends and family that much? Answering in anything but the affirmative makes the protagonist just as monstrous as the malevolent force and worse yet, their own kind. And now the terrible choice is truly awful.

So, the external threat is made more monstrous in that it’s attacking the very soul and character of the protagonist. Choosing not to fight makes them just as callous and humane as the rest of the world. This should be a frightening concept writ large enough the setting and story display it without it needing to be said. Thus, you can do this by describing the way the world looks and showing it through the nonplayer characters’ actions (“show, don’t tell,” as writers’ references say). It also shows the setting—no matter how cruel—isn’t the enemy, it just won’t help you.

How do you provide a sense of hope in such a bleak world? The characters’ agency. Protagonists have the power and wherewithal to overcome the source of terror, they just don’t know how to—yet. And that’s the thing you want to maintain for as long as possible. It’s the climax of the story. This is where elements of the mystery genre will serve you well. Characters find clues over time that help them figure out how to defeat the monster, ofttimes at the cost of someone else’s life.

Each new encounter with the malevolent forces a crisis, but it’s the dangerous opportunity to try out a new strategy that feels plausible. The characters should suffer as a result, but ultimately come out ahead for all their efforts. Even if there’s a setback to their efforts, they should gain some future advantage.

Part of the scope of terror stories is how much the world appears to thwart the character’s efforts. When they get close to the truth, something should happen to prevent a full understanding of the way to stop the malevolent force leaving them with just a little bit more information. This lets the players and characters know the story is on the right path to conquer the challenge. The closer they get, the more they’ve learned and the harder it is to get the last pieces. This only helps to magnify the sense of power the villain has.

Finally, while terror sources can be defeated, they always leave something behind the keeps the fear in the back of the mind for a brief period of time. The physical damage hills quickly, but the spiritual and psychic trauma can last for years. Feel free to use coincidental echoes of the encounters in future sessions just to keep the fear alive. The evil men do lives on long after they’re gone and this is a good way to let the players see the trauma reflected in the eyes of the survivors.

Last Spark in the Dawning of Night, Part 1

Summer is winding down in the leaves are beginning to change if not make their way to the earth. It is slow, but inexhaustible the coming of crisper weather, the slow dying of the light of days. The season of mortality is upon us and so are the stories that remind us that all must perish. Night is inevitable and with it comes the hunter’s worst fear: the loss of sight, that sense of all primacy to predators. That sense of helplessness and fear give rise to the stories which hold their greatest potency in the gathering gloom.

This is the season of the witching hour and the tales that make people cling all the tighter to one another. If you’re writing fiction or telling ghost stories around the campfire, this is easy to do compared to the issues roleplaying games pose, not to mention problematic structures in entertainment definitions. The problem is rooted in the confusion of terror and horror into a single genre.

From the studios’ perspective, it makes sense to conflate the two. For one, they both induce pathos in the audience. They also focus on the negative emotions that feed into our primal fears. But there’s a fundamental difference between terror and horror. Visually, terror is easier to depict. The stories are about external elements that can’t be comprehended in full nor can they be placated or mastered as a result. Hence, the proliferation of the slasher film. Terror is visceral.

Horror, by contrast, is the internal made monstrous. Horror stories are about characters with agency haunted by the knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Horror involves the character’s willingness to perform such terrible acts for good or ill. Thus, it is often contained within the character and ripples out or undercurrents emanate from the character into the surrounding world. Horror is subtle and disturbing.

Subtle and disturbing is hard to do on film successfully. The medium is too quick and the flood of imagery too intense to let the mind register every detail. In fiction, however, there’s more time to process these details and get a true picture of the horrific moments. Unfortunately for RPG players, this is hard to replicate in a game. Each person at the table has his or her own views on what should happen in the story. This makes it hard to incorporate real horror into a game. While easier, terror is also difficult to harness.

Roleplaying games have two disadvantages going against them: characters are assumed to be possessed of their own agency, and thus more capable than their fellow beings; and it’s a game, so players can walk away at any time. On the surface both of these reasons create barriers to experiencing terror and horror. They also happen to be your strongest weapons against disbelief and a slide into melodrama or camp.

Roleplaying games are interactive multimedia play spaces. If you have a group and they already know the genre or various tones in your campaign, you have several advantages going into a horror session. You can set the environment and create the atmosphere. I’m not in your home, but I did what I could do set of mood with the opening of this piece. Your gaming area is like a film set. Use it to establish mood and tone viscerally.

The next part is a little tricky. Roleplaying games borrow as much from film as literature, but you can’t force players to fit the narrative. They’re here to have fun however they define it. This is where a little knowledge of genre tropes can go a long way. For terror games, you need only to intimate that the villain is larger-than-life and overwhelmingly powerful.

Each time the characters encounter the villain or an aspect thereof, the encounter should be near fatal for at least one character. Also, these brushes with death should have something in common and intensify visually if not in ferocity or cruelty every time. Doing this will tell the players how close to losing their character they are. This, in a nutshell, is the basic formula for terror.

Horror stories are harder to implement because they are internal. Even roleplaying game that uses a lot of literary devices only go so far in letting the audience inside the character’s head. One of the best examples of internal conflict in RPGs is Wraith: the Oblivion and its use of the Shadow to develop internal dialogues everyone at the table can witness. Thankfully there are a few ways to get round this if the game system isn’t built around such a concept.

Players aren’t important in terror and horror games, the characters are. You still want to be respectful as these are your friends, after all. But the emphasis has to be on character development, not player development or maximizing the power fantasy fun. Horror is about choice and the consequences.

Good people often make bad decisions with disastrous results. This is something everyone will eventually experience. What horror does is amplify the tragedy caused by unintended consequences. The problem here is the issue of player knowledge versus character knowledge. It is also the reason you don’t want to focus on players. The players get the tropes and conventions of genres, but character should never be aware they are in a genre, though their dialogue can allude to that if it’s setting appropriate. Otherwise, how do you amplify the consequences of actions to monstrous proportions without players circumventing the genre?

You always want to give players a series of choices, but here’s how you drive forward horror games: Orson Scott Card calls it the terrible choice. The characters presented with two equally bad (or good) choices. No matter the choice, the outcome sucks. Either something equally terrible happens, or the character has to wonder what could have been. This dilemma will increase the sense of dread the players fill not knowing which choice will eventually make the nightmare end. This is why horror isn’t the prevalent form of scary films and why some writers’ stories don’t translate well.

 

In the next two installments we’ll look at how to get the most out of these genres at the table.

Anatomy of Game Design: An Unbridgeable Divide, Part 3

Speaking About Tongues

 

The issue of how language works was alluded to in the last section and in previous blog entries, such as Precision Games.  If you are a grammarphobe, this section might bore you or drive you crazy, but I assure you that it has a significant bearing on this discussion and the definition of the catachrestic dichotomy.  Such as where games, like programming and other forms of information theory, use a controlled vocabulary, study languages though I am nowhere near as well versed in this region as Saussure was, I know enough about linguistics to make some general observations and point this out as an apology in advance for any linguistics majors reading this.  The difference here is that game rules are not descriptive about the role of their mechanics, only in how they are applied; thus, a pawn in one game is a token in another without describing the fact that these are the same device to show players positionality in the conceptual framework of the play space.

While we can apply general rules to describe classes of functions, each game must be studied on its own as one would any language.  Grammar is the linguistic equivalent of the rules of the game.  Tokens and pawns, being objects which have actions applied to them are the nouns/pronouns of games.  The ways in which they are affected make up the verbs.  Modifiers can thus be viewed as adjectives and adverbs based on how the modifiers are applied (e.g. +2 to hit, a king in checkers).  The analogy begins to break down when it comes to individual words.  Words do not necessarily belong to subclasses based on related definitions the way rules can often be categorized.

Here is where languages get weird.  They are not quite semiotic despite being an arbitrary assignment of sounds and letters to represent the object, concept, or quality being represented and bound to each word.  Yet, the words remain just fuzzy enough that by themselves they retain multiple meanings that represent shadings within the symbolized value.  The word “play” for example can be a noun, verb, quality, or concept.  By itself it becomes a symbol as it stands for itself and the multiplicity beyond its form.  It is only when placed in a sentence that it loses its ambiguity (perhaps even its liminality).

Language works to form a picture that is a cohesive whole.  The gaps left in the details allow enough room for interpretation by the message’s receiver.  Whether an outgrowth of evolution or conscious effort, language has been shaped to allow the core message to be transmitted without the need for exacting details, ensuring the concept is transferred.  The rest of the details are left to the receiver to fill in.  For example let us use the sentence “the boy hit the ball.” How much information did I give you?  Very little.  How much information is concrete?  Again, very little.  The only real information given is the gender of the child, what he does, and the object he interacted with.  Other than the gender, even the other details are not very concrete as no information for how (or with what) the ball was hit or the type of ball described.  However chances are very good you supplied all of the details to make the concept into a complete picture, down to the clothing and age of the child.  You also supplied the ball and the manner in which it was struck.  This is how words are fuzzy but come together to form a concise picture.

By relying on the receiver, a message works with the loose collection of data to create what Saussure refers to as the signifier and signified.  These two items together create a sign, but keep in mind that the information is going from the signifier to the signified.  Thus, without an actual object present, no one can say they are observing the same object.  This is why words from multiple languages for the same object do not look nor sound alike.  Hence words are arbitrarily assigned to objects and concepts, just like the components in games.  This is in part where the fuzziness of the words comes into play.  The aforementioned sentence of the boy hitting a ball is a prime example.  The sign I envisioned is not necessarily the same as yours.  Chances are that you uses a child you know to concretize the image, just like I did.

Games do the same thing.  The difference is that the sign generated is unique to the play session.  You may recall the meanings generated from each play experience, but that by no way means the signs of different instances will be the same.  However, they are related by the context of the rules.  The signs of the events are akin to definitions.  Sessions of Risk have similar outcomes.  The same is true of Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, and so forth.  Such “texts” grow out of the experience; this is similar to what leads to new definitions that are appended to existing words.  With games, however, there is a liminality to the sign that cannot be fully rendered in words or symbols to express it to anyone who was not present.

So, this is how language grows and functions.  We start with the strings of arbitrary sounds and imbue within them meaning.  As our range of experience increases, we come across new items and situations that fall outside our descriptive powers.  How then do we encode these new experiences and concepts into language?  For one, we have to incorporate the change to nature as we understood it in our psyche.  Once we have accepted the existence of the change we need to find a way to speak about it in a manner that will be acceptable to all parties involved.  The process involves abusing language by making it bridge a gap in our knowledge we now know exists.  This can be messy, political, and confusing.

Forcing language to accommodate anything disrupts the social balance.  This is in part due to the inherent power ascribed to defining concepts.  We can see this in such phrases such as “estate tax” being referred to as a “death tax”, “illegal immigrants” as “undocumented immigrants,” and the terms used to describe various ethnicities that have replaced the unquestioned racially-charged monikers of the past.  There are clear feelings closely bound with these words and that colors the perceptions of the speakers and the audience.  That is how potent language can be.  When we force this shift in view that comes with new words and definitions, we engage in catachresis.  This is the act of “abuse” that seems to pervert nature and language.  The power to view the world as however we choose can shake society to its core.  Though it is we who undergo the paradigm shift, we experience it as an abuse of the status quo.

Without catachresis, however, we have no way to express new ideas in a relatively compressed manner.  Words are already filled with compressed content.  This is why we have multiple definitions assigned to words.  What are being transmitted are the concepts embedded in the words used.  For this reason, language has to grow in order to allow us to save time while transmitting meaningful messages as efficiently as possible.  This allows us to cut down on tedium and the drudgery our brains do not want to deal with when executing routine tasks.  Seriously, try concentrating on the individual steps needed for tasks we do every day and see how quickly it frustrates you.  It also explains why language acquisition is harder for adults and children.  Our brains do not want to learn new ways to express concepts we have already mastered.

The inherent problem in all of this is that it leaves plenty of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation to occur.  Catachresis and the eventual arrival at consensus for incorporating these concepts into the lexicon is how we try to resolve these issues collectively.  This leads us to a point where we are always striving to close the gaps between what we observe and experience and how we share that information through mutually accessible signs.  All the while, the terms used to convey the same information work like game tokens and relate the social positionality of the speaker, which further aids in miscommunication and misunderstanding.  These types of shifts lead to the development of dialects and language splits.  For games, this is not all that far removed from the concepts of house rules and new games designed in response to a community’s needs or isolation.

The fuzziness that leads to a concrete whole is a precarious communication method.  It is also very versatile.  The divergent methods that allow us to reach the same sign speak to the resilience of language and its rules along with why it, and not math, has become the preferred communication tool.  Thus, going from an abstract, emotion- and experiential-laden collection of words to a single idea with little to almost no mistaken identity is what gives language its power.  To further the utility of language, it can grow and morph by the actions of the speakers to co-opt areas of nature never before encountered.  Compare this to the structure of math in the following section.

Work Stoppage

I know it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted anything.  The reason this has been the case is that my day job has put quite a dampener on my time.  Working in a library isn’t about reading books all day.  I only wish that were the case.  This time of the year is one of our busiest periods for libraries since we’re essentially tasked with the job of preventing the summer slide as much as possible for our school-aged patrons.

Having to do double and sometimes triple duty these last few weeks to make sure everything’s in order means I’ve had to either spend time working on writing, cartography, or this blog.  Given the choice between the three, I went with the two that helped move projects forward.  My burden should be lightening in a bit, so that means I’ll be able to pick up the pace on several fronts.

Figurative Magnifiers and Maguffins

bladerunner 2Cyberpunk is a genre that relies on a lot of details to communicate a world at once strange and eerily familiar–a world that we know is right behind the corner given the prevalence of technology in our lives.  This is deliberate and forces the reader to ask some damning questions: how much humanity do we retain if we let the machines dictate how we live because of our own choices to let them do the hard work for us?

Bladerunner 1Malmart 2090 is no different in this regard.  If you’re familiar with my previous building guides, you know I like to develop a lot of tables–seriously, a lot of tables.  I’ve used this technique for Malmart not only as a way to help me price items that do have ad copy, but also to give the reader the tools to create thousands upon thousands of objects to fill their game world to overflowing.

bladerunner 7Just look at the screen captures from Blade Runner I’ve included here and you’ll see insane levels of detail.  Visually you take this all in and your brain tells you everything you need to know.  But, guess what?  You can’t get away with that in storytelling.  Nope. Nada.  Ain’t going to happen.  You know why?  Because everyone’s seen this damn movie already and if you don’t add details that makes it stand apart while adhering to the genre, you’re dead in the water and nobody’s going to be impressed or remember a damn thing.

Harsh, isn’t it?

Judge Dredd (1995)
Judge Dredd (1995), just to change it up a bit

Well, that’s cyberpunk.  It’s unforgiving and humanity’s been reduced to an insignificant mass while being the biggest thing in history at the same time.  This dialectic needs (dare I say wants) resolution.  Do we just shrug it off and join the nameless ranks; or, like our devices, do we rise above and become one of the few destined to change the course of history?

The overwhelming amount of detail is crucial to capturing the feel of the genre in ways that might not stand out right off.  Why do you think William Gibson spent so much time in Neuromancer detailing how brutal and shitty street life was?  There’s a reason the opening line describes a sky the color of a

Adam and Eve reference
Adam and Eve reference

television tuned to a dead station.  That visual tells you everything you need to know about how bleak the world is and the grotesqueness of the sky back when cosmic background radiation filled our TVs with slushy images of neutral colors and a roaring hiss.

Ever stop to ask yourself why so many of the signs in the city streets are in Japanese in what’s supposed to be Chinatown with a hodge-podge street language cobbled together from a dozen or so others for a film that came out in the early 80s?  No?  Well, if you didn’t, you’re not thinking this out.  It has everything to do with what the Internet means today and what not having a global network did to how artists depicted the future before the advent of the World Wide Web that allows you to access this blog from any point on the globe with a connection to the global village.

And then there’s this little gem:

Bladerunner 3

Why is there fire and an entire cityscape reflected in Harrison Ford’s eye?  Because the eyes, being the windows to the soul show how much humanity has consumed itself just to find an ounce of solace in this monstrosity its created.  The soulessness of the bleak urban landscape is constantly in search of something to consume.  It burns with desire and a deep search for meaning that isn’t there anymore because it’s been replaced with material goods to the point of crowding out every aspect of nature.

There’s no balance.

Authentic synthetic snake license number
Authentic synthetic snake license number

To replace it, there’s replicants out the ass in this film: people, animals, toys that think they’re alive, ads selling dead dreams in the guise of a better tomorrow.  All of them rendered as empty shells of the things they represent.  Platonic forms desecrated until the illusion of safety is reflected in the mirror.  That’s what’s in his eye and throughout the film, and thus the lingering question of whether Deckard is human or not.  Even his name is a twisting of Descartes and hearkens back to the brain-in-a-vat problem.

Everything is magnified to excess in cyberpunk.  It’s too big to take in at once.  That’s why the level of detail is so friggin’ high.  You want to know how to solve this dilemma?  Examine the finest of details, that’s why the eye is so important in that one, brief scene at the beginning of the film.  It, and the Voight-Kampff machine zero in on that one feature above all others while we, as viewers try to take in the entire aesthetic.

bladerunner 4
Running through sex to kill desire?

Authenticity, then, is captured in the minutiae.  It’s these little details that let people find ways to stand out and be different.  For this reason, the snake scale becomes enormously important.  It at once authenticates the world and shows how bereft and full of debauchery (or “sin,” if you prefer) the world is.  Hence the Adam and Eve reference with the snake.  The garden was the balanced world where urban and rural landscape meshed and escape was possible, which is why at the end of the flim, what do you see, Deckard and Rachel fleeing the terror of the cyberpunk world for the unknown of a “lost” paradise in green wilderness.

So, while the overwhelming number of choices in Malmart might seem excessive, they give you the ability to replicate the feel of the dystopian world of the genre.  And that’s why some of the tables generate more choices than you’ll ever need, like well in excess of 100,000 electronic devices.  Because everything’s a plot device and the biggest change can be contained in the smallest item.  Just like the snake scale’s serial number.