David Stark - Zarkonnen
2013-05-23: Jokes from fictional worlds
I've been talking to David about world-building, and a thought that just struck me this morning is that jokes are an excellent way to do subtle world-building.
A common shortfall in many fictional worlds is that they are heavy on the (official) history and geography, but short on the little details of culture. What are people's attitudes to one another? What rivalries and prejudices exist? Without those details, the world remains stale.
I think making up jokes can help with that. They don't have to be good jokes. In fact, it's probably better if they're the kind told when drunk, or in a locker room:
An Argian and a Bolir walk into a Cenoban bar. The Argian walks up to the counter and says "Give us two big glasses of beer."
This joke tells us quite a lot of things: Argians are stubborn, Bolirs are prone to talking about things in flowery emotional terms, and Cenobans are either painfully literal-minded or sly bastards that like to play tricks on Argians. Probably, Argians have the highest social status, as the Argian is mentioned first and speaks first, while the Cenobans have the lowest - the bartender is either playing the kind of trick you pull on someone who's too full of himself, or he's just quite stupid.
Of course, you can spell that out directly, but I think making a list of jokes allows for a more subtle characterization. Are Cenobans really stupid or just sly? Are Bolirs emotionally incontinent, or smooth operators who try to use fancy language to get what they want? Probably, both perceptions exist, but who has which perception depends on who they are in turn.
As a real-life example, the native inhabitants of Chukotka, a remote region of Russia, are often the butt of jokes that paint them as deeply unsophisticated, but sometimes as quite clever in their own way.
Ideally, you want different kinds of jokes told by different kinds of people. Recycling of jokes can also be an interesting thing: As social mores change, acceptable targets may change too. You can say a lot of nasty things about lawyers that you (thankfully) can't say anymore about Jews - but I bet there's a fair bit of recycling going on. Just dust off that old joke about a greedy Jew and replace "Jew" with "lawyer" and you're ready to go!
So recycle away! Take a joke about a Frenchman, an Irishman and an American and make it about a Be'huxtian, a Lurgix and a Mupp. Just be careful not to set up a boring parallel where Be'huxtians are just French people with extra heads, Lurgixes are Irish with scales and Mupps are tiny winged Americans. So pick another joke with a different mapping, or figure out how to change the joke to conform more closely to what you imagine your fictional people to be like.
If you don't know where to start, the shorter and more off-color, the more punchy. As Lois McMaster Bujold wrote:
What do you call a Dendarii girl who runs faster than her brothers?
I'll leave you to figure out the incredibly subtle message about how people from the Dendarii mountains are perceived.
2013-04-28: I have too many accounts.
So I have a tumblr account now. I've been using it rather more than this site, because for some reason I feel like the site should have "proper" blog entries, whereas on tumblr I just do the whole reblogging and commenting thing like everyone else.
I also have a Twitter account. And two others, the latter of which is private. Oh, and a livejournal account, which I'm not linking to, because it's quasi-private in the way I just discussed in my previous post.
This leads to rather a lot of duplication, though what I post on each site is based on some complex internal logic. I hope my friends don't find the duplication too annoying, anyway!
As it happens, the time for replacing the zarkonnen.com site draws near: the new version is going to be based on Bumble, like my girlfriend's site. The main obstacle is making sure inbound links don't break: over the years, the site has accumulated many pages for hosting stuff, like Dawn or Kobold Pit. These all need to still work after the migration, so there's a bunch of legwork to do.
One really silly reason why I want to update the site is that I want more respectable URLs: For example, I can't post blog posts from here to Reddit, I think because their spam filters take exception at the get parameter in the URL.
The first thing, though, is getting the Patent Blaster House Update out of the door!
2013-04-28: Terrorists on Twitter
Let's compare the Twitter output of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, with Paul Chambers, a UK man who was arrested by anti-terror police for having supposedly made a terrorist threat against a local airport.
Slightly creepily, Tsarnaev's twitter account is still available for viewing. And you know what? His tweets sound... normal. Indistinguishable from the tweets of thousands, millions of other people. He tweets about pop culture, about what he's eating. He uses slang like "dawg" and "da bomb". There is nothing on there that suggests he's planning to blow up a whole bunch of people.
Now take Paul Chambers, who posted "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" This led to him being arrested, charged, and found guilty of making threats. This ruling was only finally overturned on the third appeal. The conviction lost him his job. He had no intent of actually blowing up that airport. He was making a joke because he was worried that he was not going to be able to fly out to visit his girlfriend.
A lot of people, especially non-Twitter-users, thought that he'd been very foolish to make that kind of joke publicly.
But was it done publicly? If he had made the same joke in private, let's say at the dinner table, no one would have thought it was a serious threat. On the other hand, if he had written a letter to the local newspaper, or stood on a soapbox in the town square and shouted it, it would come as no surprise if the police took at least some interest.
But is Twitter public? The assumption the law made, and the assumption a lot of non-users make, is that it is public, because everyone can read the tweets.
Now let's say Chambers had been walking down the road with some friends, and had made this comment to them. Not in a voice loud enough to be heard far outside the group it was intended for. Still, a passerby might have heard it. Would this have qualified Chambers for a visit from the police? Of course not. He would have been saying this to his friends. He would have been in public, but his joke wasn't for the public.
This isn't a distinction really recognized by the law, but it's one that is - or at least used to be - quite well-understood. There's a difference between saying something and announcing it to the world.
And I think this is how most of us use Twitter - as this in-public thing not intended for public consumption. We just use it to talk and joke to each other. But the powers that be don't understand this. They want to treat every tweet as if it were a letter to the editor, as if it were shouted from a soapbox on the street corner. They want to do this because they think that if they just snoop on our conversations thoroughly enough, they'll catch the bad guys.
But, listen: They didn't catch Tsarnaev in time, because if you plan to blow something up, you don't idly tweet about it. All they caught was poor Paul Chambers, and they put him through the wringer.
2013-04-28: Magic from Bargains
I just read a pretty neat Escapist article that argues for more interesting forms of magic in computer games. One idea I really like (because I'm horrible) is having to pay a permanent price for each spell cast. (The spells, in exchange, being very powerful and useful.)
Here's some ideas for what each spell cast could cost you:
Not all of these may be a good idea, or applicable, but it's food for thought. What kind of magical side-effects would you find cool in a game?
Addendum: Come to think of it, this really doesn't work as stated. Making you worse off each time you cast will just make the player play in a really conservative style to avoid having to cast spells - which makes the game really boring.
Instead, it might be better that you gain new spells or improvement to existing spells as part of a bargain with some dark gods. Want to be able to cast Blinding Flash? Well, the Eyeless One is happy to oblige, but it'll cost you a third of your vision range.
There could also be bargains which don't take anything away but constrain your actions:
2013-04-28: Glory to Arstotzka!
Papers Please is an upcoming indie game where you play an immigration inspector at a recently re-opened border checkpoint.
You have to check paperwork and look for fakes and smugglers and terrorists. You have to support your family, so if you move too slowly or get it wrong and have your pay docked, they have to starve and freeze.
But is following your job description always the right thing? Do you let in vile traffickers and deny entry to refugees? The human cost of your decisions is shown subtly but clearly.
The gameplay controls are awkward: you need to drag around paperwork on the too-small desk, align stamps on visas, manually compare information. But the awkwardness works: you are an untrained cog in the machine madly shuffling paper, under pressure, and trying to do your job.
The unusual nature of the gameplay also means that there's a level playing field. This is a game non-gamers can and should play. So often, you hear about some amazing new indie game with some really amazing story, only to have that story locked away behind some twitch gaming or platforming that might seem easy to frequent players of the genre, but stand as a brick wall for others. (For example, I'm sure that Braid has a lovely story, but I got stuck a few levels in because I just cannot do timed jumps. That's what happens when you grow up without a game console.)
I absolutely, wholeheartedly recommend you play the alpha version of the game. Yes, the gameplay is unpolished and sometimes awkward. But it manages to do one thing better than any other game I've played: it makes you feel, and then it makes you think.