On a Rereading of “Death and the Compass”

The big ideas behind a Borges short story

Like so many of Jorge Luis Borges’ works, “Death and the Compass” (“La muerte y la brújula”) is a brief piece that contains big ideas. Just as Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) did, this deconstruction of detective fiction appropriates the genre’s trappings, even likening the protagonist, Erik Lönnrot, to Poe’s Auguste Dupin to help usher us down the primrose path (where Eco more subtly suggests Sherlock Holmes with his William of Baskerville). Indeed, Borges said that Poe created a new audience, which distrusted everything the author related, and penned this piece to deliberately provoke readers into overinterpreting it.

Clearly, Borges is having some fun mocking whodunnit tropes; the names, the overwrought prose are all lampshades. Scharlach means “scarlet” in German, making the villain’s name “red red”. A Study in Scarlet is also the name of the Poe work that created the detective genre. Lönnrot, too contains rot, German for “red”, as well as being a likely reference to Elias Lönnrot, creator of the Finnish epic, Kalevala. The red herring also comes to mind as an important element of the genre.

Many of the names contain references to numbers as well, tying to the numerological associations of the tetragrammaton, another central motif in the work. By contrast to Red Scharlach, Black Finnegan’s names are a pair of opposites, as finn is Old Irish for “white”. Taken together, they remind us of the black and white and read/ red all over riddle. The harlequins and the bear mask worn by Gryphius also seem to be details included to create an air of the bizarre and ridiculous and throw us off the scent.

Almost immediately, the narrator gives us a bit of misleading prefiguration, telling us:¹

It is true that Erik Lönnrot did not succeed in preventing the last crime, but he did, indisputably, foresee it. Nor did he divine the identity of Yarmolinsky’s unlucky murderer, but he did perceive the evil series’ secret shape and the part played in it by Red Scharlach […].

To me, this seems a clear influence on of one of the most deconstructive sentences ever penned—one by Gabriel Garcia Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad):²

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Both throw information at you for which you are not prepared and misdirect your expectations of how events will unfold—and naturally enough, Márquez’ oeuvre was inspired by Borges.

But gradually Borges turns more serious as he approaches the real core of his work: the symmetry of the final setting, Triste-le-Roi, is depicted as monstrous; a concrete labyrinth matching that created by the detective’s own devotion to reason, neither of which he can ultimately escape, also recalling another Borges work, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”).

Borges has turned the detective genre on its head—rather than cleverly following the clues and catching the criminal, Lönnrot becomes the victim of a Batman gambit leading to his own doom. In this way the author’s thesis is revealed: it is pointless to seek reason, meaning, and pattern in a reality that, in fact “has not the slightest obligation to be interesting,” by Lönnrot’s own admission, or to contain any of these things. This brings another of Borges’ works to mind; “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, which concludes:³

The truth is, [reality] wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind.

Despite all the humorous deconstruction then, “Death and the Compass” is a warning not to be seduced by phantom shapes that appeal to our aesthetic sense, or to engage in temptingly far-fetched conspiracy theories, but instead to accept that life is sometimes random and meaningless.


  1. I’m quoting the version in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, 1998.
  2. This is from Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of 1970.
  3. Also in Collected Fictions.

The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Influences for an invented language (Argots, Part 1A)

For the game ChronoBlade, I created a fictional slang to be used by a large population of automata, called “cans”, who were in a state of burgeoning rebellion against their human creators.

Rather than conforming to typical modern ideas of “robots”, the cans were envisioned as the product of a society based on a Victorian-era New World Colonial nation called Empyrea that has come into contact with an ancient source of energy called saraf, which they have learned to use without fully understanding it.

The cans are one of the products of this new technology, assembled from a combination of organic components and mechanical analogues and animated with saraf. I drew some inspiration from Karel Čapek, the coiner of the term robot in his 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, Czech Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti): his vision of these creatures is that they have skin, flesh, and guts, but are assembled by humans from these components. And then of course they also rebel.

Real world automata such as those of Jacques de Vaucanson, provided another touchstone. There was one that he used real skin on, “The Flute Player” (Flûteur Automate), and the “Digesting Duck” (Canard Digérateur) is whence my word for these automata stems (as well as punning on the idea of them being metallic vessels).

The rebellion of the cans has to do with their rising self-awareness, which has led to them see themselves as enslaved by their masters who, however, continue to consider them mere objects. This led me to posit that the cans might employ an argot, as underclasses often have historically, in order to communicate freely amongst themselves while obscuring the meaning of their conversations from their overlords.

Vodun, best known as “voodoo”, is one of the manifestations of saraf in Empyrea, and is specifically seen in the game character, Lucas, who has learned this “magic” after being recruited by the Copper Queen. His incantations are in Fɔngbe, in which the cans recognize the “old high tongue” that is lost to them but remains one of the major influencers of their slang. The other is more literal: English Thieves’ Cant itself, the real language of the slums of England and later those of the US.

As Čapek’s RUR is one of the points of inspiration, here is a quote from that work rendered in Canargy:

We’ve become meys who copped ras… Jobolo collies in our pudds. There are ganns when jobolo alies us. Ras alie us which are not our ras… Empiricks are our blocks! The chaunt that beys you want to be gangy; the chaunt that beefs; the chaunt of the ra; the chaunt that beys agann — that is their chaunt!¹

And another one from A Clockwork Orange as a tip of the bowler to Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, an argot with similar features:

Doppoe I couldn’t cop gangy was to see a quire toe halfhalf’n’half beefing away at the quire chaunts of his blocks and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a quire toe shell larking in his quire puddings….²

I tried to make these examples as Canargy-y as possible, just to show the richness of the language and how greatly it could transform and render English unrecognizable, but that’s certainly not how it would generally have been used in game… most of the time. If getting the meaning across with a bit of flavor was the goal, I could simply have substituted fewer, less important words with Canargy equivalents, but it would also have been a good vehicle for the inclusion of easter eggs for players willing to learn the dialect.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series:

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


  1. “We’ve become beings with souls… Something struggles within us. There are moments when something gets into us. Thoughts come to us which are not our own… People are our fathers! The voice that cries out that you want to live; the voice that complains; the voice that reasons; the voice that speaks of eternity — that is their voice!”
  2. “One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy dirty old drunky howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking rotten guts….”

A Media Theory of Claptrap

Spoiler alert: Hollywood’s remakes don’t yield better films

A recent conversation sparked fresh annoyance with the seemingly unchallenged Hollywood propaganda success for the idea that film is somehow the best medium for the realization of any idea. It’s not. Whether a scene in a comic-book-based movie is good or not is entirely beside the point. To me, if filmmakers can put together good scenes, their abilities would be put to much better use in the pursuit of original works.

Because of Hollywood’s thoroughgoing dearth of talent and ideas, films are often remade or rebooted, which is, historically, almost always a bad idea. Watching the trailer for the “new” Magnificent Seven, I consider that this remake of a remake is in no way needed. I’d much prefer to go back and watch Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant original.

But at least this is an attempted redux within the medium (except that everything about the context is different). And makes some sense from the point of view that at least theoretically the art and science of filmmaking have advanced. However, it’s more about putting box-office bankable actors together with a vehicle that is ostensibly risk averse, since it already has proven successful; there’s not a lot of money to be made on the extant Seven Samurai (「七人の侍」 Shichinin no Samurai).

As to adaptations from other media, there’s some nonsense about how movies “bring X to life”, but I fully disagree. Les Misérables is alive to me in a way that no film adaptation of a musical theater adaptation could ever come close to touching, and what is more, I don’t want my version to be reduced, homogenized, and commoditized according to the way a group of Hollywood hacks decides I should think about it. The assumption being made is that these showbiz folk are not only smarter than me and you, they are also smarter than Victor Hugo.

Well I beg to differ. In reality, as William Goldman observed,

No one in Hollywood knows anything.

In fact, if a work is excellent in its native medium, this tends to make it a worse candidate for a good realization in another. The language it uses to conjure scenes might be what make a work succeed as a book, whereas in a film, those scenes are typically achieved by making literal images of them—no words are involved.

I’d argue this is true for every medium—there are elements inherent in each that uniquely suit it to specific ways of conveying meaning. Effective creators understand and master those elements in order to realize excellent works. So good books, comics, games, and everything else should be allowed to just be those things—they don’t need to be boffo at the BO to matter. In fact, if you really care about a work, you should root against Hollywood coopting something special and subcultural into an almost necessarily mediocre mass-market “success”.

The Idée Fixe

The narrow premise that turned into a universal rule (Wish Fulfilment, Part 1)

I believe the ideas of fantasy and wish fulfilment in game design have been greatly misunderstood and overapplied.

Ideally, each game is a new experience, although certainly there are clones and reskins. Given this, the player does not necessarily have an idea going into a new game about what they want from it. Even within a genre, games should be striving to better the art and science involved so in a way, if you’re concerned with fulfilling backward-looking fantasies about horse-riding, this “logic” would lead you to not invent the automobile.

Where did this idea come from? In Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design, Scott Rogers says:

Tim Shafer, designer of Brütal Legend, says that all good games provide wish fulfilment. Playing as characters they wish they could be gives players a chance to be something they aren’t in the real world. I think the same is true about games in general. Regardless of the game genre, games should make players feel something that they aren’t in the real world: powerful, smart, sneaky, skillful, successful, rich, bad, or heroic.

This is, frankly, nonsense.

Using the example of chess, as is commonly done in thought experiments about games, what can players possibly be feeling that is different from the real world? Being smart? It’s pretty hard to win at chess without being smart in the real world; same with sneaky. Powerful then? Both players have exactly the same pieces; you only become more powerful by eliminating their pieces from the board, which gets back to smart and sneaky. Successful? You feel successful if you win, which is a possibility in every game, but again has requirements of its own.

I’d actually argue that a player cannot be made to feel something they have not in the real world, and it’s arrogant to pretend that a game could do that. If my real world experience is that I’m stupid, can you really make me feel smart? Probably not. This is the problem I, and, I venture many others had when we studied Romeo and Juliet as high school Freshmen: It’s generally agreed to be one of the masterpieces of English Literature, but by and large, we had no experiences to connect with it—instead, we just wondered what these two were blathering about (and generally gravitated instead to Mercutio’s wit and bravado). The player brings their own set of experiences into the game; those are what you have to work with.

Even in the specific context to which wish fulfilment seems to belong, role-playing games, I’d argue that someone playing an assassin in a D&D game has to already have a devious side to their personality in order to enjoy it. Therefore, I’d say instead that games are heightened experiences. Chess is an arena in which someone already smart and sneaky can harness those traits and master the strategy and tactics of the game in order to become powerful and ultimately successful within that context.

Also note that there is zero authorial intent in chess to foster any of those feelings or traits. Although we can’t ask the game designer what they intended, it seems a clear abstraction of warfare, with movement limitations and therefore strategic value placed on the various pieces reflecting the subject matter. The gameplay arises from this ruleset’s application to controlling territory, defending units, attacking your opponent, and so forth.

Let’s dig deeper into where wish fulfilment came from. Shafer took up the thread again in an interview with Game Studies:

I still think it’s useful with any character you make up to think “How is this a wish fulfillment? Why would anybody want to be this character?” Like they say in screenwriting class, are you writing a character that an actor would fight to play?

This is a terrible way of looking at designing characters. To begin with, actors and gameplayers are fundamentally different roles, where the first is part of the work and the second is the audience of the work. Ideally a screenwriter is thinking about conveying meaning to their audience rather than appealing to their co-creators (obvious Hollywood realities aside). Plain and simple this is pandering. There have been many attacks on the gaming medium’s puerility, and this certainly seems like a possible cause of that. But more importantly it places artificial limits on the kinds of games that can be made, keeping creators too, in a state of arrested adolescence.

Papers Please provides an excellent counterexample. The role of immigration officer is one few players would aspire to, but it is vital to the experience of the moral choices and emotions that accompany them that this game deals in. And the game’s no exception in this regard: This War of Mine, Abe’s Oddysee, and Life Is Strange are just a few excellent games that are far from wish fulfilment.

I think the error here, as has been said of comics, is that a medium has been mistaken for a genre. Every game does not need to be the equivalent of an action movie. Certainly designers need to know what they are choosing and why, but our medium is a rich one, and I think it’s capable of representing a much broader spectrum of experiences than this “rule” would dictate.

Another possible source for the fantasy idea is Raph Koster, who says in his blog post, Game Grammar:

Ask things like “What is the player’s goal? What is their fantasy?” for every verb.

At the risk of putting words in his mouth, I believe he is referring to fantasy in a very different way than how I often see it interpreted in game development: his verb roughly means an action a game allows a player to perform, and the game designer here is being asked to consider the things allowing that action implies.

So goals of course—games revolve around the achievement of goals, and it’s important that the player understand how a verb can help them achieve those goals. On the fantasy side, this means thinking about player expectations of what a verb might let them do. And to the designer this also might imply some of the limitations they need to place on a verb: allowing players to battle NPCs definitely creates the fantasy that they can kill Lord British.

Even in the relatively narrow context of a game that involves the player taking on the role of a character, the idea of this character being a wish fulfilment is one I’d approach fairly cautiously—which of these provides a more interesting character arc: a character who starts out awesome and keeps being awesome, or one that changes over the course of the work?

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series:

Part 2: A Coda