Passing on Picasso

Cézanne: early proponent of iteration (Creator Styles, Part 1)

One June afternoon in 2007 found me and a few key members of the Gods & Heroes (GnH) content team at the Irish Bank (better known simply as “The Bank” in these parts). While we weren’t not sipping cool pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s in this alfresco alley, that wasn’t why we were here. After many months of attempting incremental improvements to our new player experience (NPX), we had determined to finally tear the Band-Aid off. As soon as this decision had been made, I suggested we repair to this offsite—my instincts told me we needed to stop looking at what we had and instead focus on our goals and create from whole cloth. My other motive, that actually required beer, was that we needed to loosen the hell up.

Far from being a unique occurrence in the game’s development, this was one of the last in a long chain of reworkings that had been set in motion over two years before by the epochal change to the MMO space the release of World of Warcraft had caused.

In response to this 400-pound gorilla’s arrival, we had dug in hard, established a strong and coherent art style, and amped up our gameplay. We redesigned the world and brought in a head writer to drive the creation of our narrative. The content team tripled in size once preproduction had been tackled. We built tools to simulate and tune combat in real time, and to more quickly create items, enemies, and test characters. I researched every aspect of ancient life, warfare, religion, and food, reading Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny, as well as many more esoteric sources. I made a study of the languages appropriate to the setting, writing and directing VO in Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Faliscan, Samnitic, Oscan, Volscian, Gaulish, and Etruscan.

As afternoon stretched into evening at the Bank, the island of Telchinos took shape, together with the story of a hero shipwrecked there, the mythical creatures, pirates, and smugglers that inhabited the place, and the malevolent force behind it all. The picture shown below, of the final area of Telchinos, was actually created in the pub, along with several others. Within a week, we were playing through this new NPX, refining it and fleshing it out.

By E3 in the following month, we were solid. We were the most awarded MMO of the show, racking up a total of seven accolades, all pointing to the excellence of the content we had worked so hard for so long to redo: one Best Graphics, two Best Gameplays, and three Best of Shows. As some of you may already know, this was unfortunately the high point of GnH. The tech side did not come together, the company fell apart, the game was released by another company a few years later and had not aged well.

I’m not sure how common or uncommon this story is in games at large, but in my experience it’s extremely rare. And there are two elements to this rarity: one is the opportunity and the other is the will.

The rarity of the opportunity comes from how game dev studios are typically run. The sunk cost fallacy is alive and well in many companies, to such an extent that they’d rather fail than shift direction. I’ve fought against this several times, and I’m pleased to have scored a few wins, among them this reworking of GnH and the cancellation of Warcraft Adventures, of which I was an early and staunch proponent. I’d say that the latter was an early test of the ethos of quality that was to become a critical element of Blizzard’s brand, later evidenced by such high-profile cancellations as Starcraft: Ghost and Titan.

Then there is the will that’s needed to redo work. I know a lot of you are saying, “oh yeah, management needs to get this”, “producers should understand this”, or “engineers hate this”, but I’ve seen it across every discipline in game development. Iteration, theoretically accepted in most dev houses, is still seldom practiced. Many individuals in dev teams want to close the book—they want to see things as done, they don’t want to rework things, regardless of what lessons have been learned since they were made. I’d argue that it’s a part of human nature to want to turn the page and move on.

In fact, creators fall into two categories, according to David Galenson in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

I’ll sidestep the debate on whether games are art or we are artists, as it’s a pointless one. I’ll try to minimize the use of these terms instead, and use creators so that everyone can feel comfortable with this factually correct label.

Galenson uses Cézanne and Picasso to iconify his two types, respectively, which he asserts exist in every creative field. The Picasso method is to plan extensively before executing a work very quickly, while the Cézanne process involves little to no planning in advance, and the work evolves slowly, based on discoveries made along the way.

The business aspect of game development would certainly prefer that we not be Cézannes. Learning things—and reacting to the things we learn—means more work. It throws schedules into disarray. It costs money. And this is definitely how things, at least in my experience, used to work. When I worked at Koei in the early ’90s, you could only be Picasso: rather than “game designers”, we were called “planners”, and that is what we literally did. We planned everything in advance and then executed it without diverting from that plan. Much of this was necessitated by the long turnaround times in early game dev: I didn’t get a working version of Liberty or Death with enough time to see if it was possible to win playing as the British. History did stack the deck against the British, but it’s important for games to be winnable. And yes, I was also responsible for game testing.

Between then and now, however, the words “iteration” and “pivot” have crept into our collective lexicon. The Agile process, which theoretically focuses development on what the player can do, has become commonplace in games as well. There is a caveat to add here that I have seen teams self-destruct because they continue to experiment indefinitely instead of deciding a direction and moving forward.

But these two approaches to game development are not absolute, just as with creators generally:²

To this point, the distinction between conceptual and experimental approaches has been treated as binary. Yet as in all scientific analysis the true distinction between these concepts is not qualitative but quantitative.

Galenson points out that pure types are actually quite rare, and it is more typical for creators to fall along a spectrum in terms of their methods. Obviously, as Galenson notes, these two styles of creativity are equally valid, just like the two painters that iconify them, but they also have downsides: Being Picasso is hard—it’s hard to have everything in your head before you do anything, ignore serendipities that occur along the way, produce in somewhat robotic fashion. Being Cézanne is hard too—starting with literally no idea what you are going to do, stopping and starting, throwing things away, never being satisfied. So of course we should think instead about where we belong on the spectrum. But where is that?

I’d argue that in the art world, conceptual and experimental don’t just represent different styles of creation, they are different kinds of art, with different goals. In conceptual art, the marks on canvas are there only to express an idea—in the Picasso case it’s the taking apart and analysis of the 3D shapes of reality and rendering them onto a 2D canvas. In fact, Picasso’s work springboards off the visual interpretation of space into flattened planes and the breaking down of perspective that Cézanne pioneered, so in a way, cubism is a Cézanne clone. On the other hand, the Cézanne process’ experimentation is essentially involved with the visual effect of the work—rather than expressing an idea, a work like this essentially is the marks on the canvas.

Since approaches, as I’ve noted, are rarely pure, there might well be a concept behind a game, but we generally acknowledge that the experience of interacting with a game is largely what it’s about. Returning to methods, the extensive rework that the GnH team took on definitely falls into the Cézanne style, as does the extreme case of cancelling games—some of his works now hanging in museums show repairs from when he attempted to destroy them by slashing the canvasses. An essential element in the personality of an aesthetically motivated experimenter is being self critical: Cézanne’s dissatisfaction with his efforts drove him to continue to strive toward the excellence he is now acknowledged to have achieved—even by Picasso.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Part 3: Closing the Circle


  1. David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, 2006, emphasis mine.
  2. Ibid.


Old Norse inscriptions, religion, and magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 1)

When I was very young Norse Gods & Giants arrived. I can say no more than this factually, but it seems now to have always been with me. Even when I couldn’t yet read the book fascinated me. Some children at this age might have taken up a crayon to embellish the illustrations or add their own to obscure the text, gnawed at the page edges or simply torn them out. I did not. I carefully studied each page, absorbing the D’Aulaires’ work down to the last scintilla. I still own the first-edition 1967 copy that I pored over in this way for endless hours, more or less intact, though I’ve since bought a more recent paperback edition to spare wear and tear on the original.

Having a recently immigrated Scandinavian branch to my family, which included a great-grandmother who would speak only Swedish, I was well aware of the idea of Vikings: iconified into wooden toys, they had horned helmets, shields, spears, beards made of soft animal fur, and sailed long, dragon-prowed boats with striped sails, arriving on our shores together with Kalle Anka comic books and strange candy. But Norse Gods & Giants contained nothing so Disneyfied, cutesy or safe—it held the truth of my ancestry. It was a dark, raw, mysterious world filled with grotesque creatures, a category to which humans, as trees that had learned to walk, clearly also belonged. There were chases, contests, thefts, betrayals, murders—in short: everything.

In this world of perpetual subarctic gloom some things glittered as well: flames and sparks, golden jewelry, Baldur’s (Baldr) strange three-pronged halo, the golden feathers of the eagle guarding Yggdrasil (Yggdrasill), Kvasir, the protean god of knowledge emerging from a divine spittoon, the Mjolnir’s (Mjǫllnir) lightning crackling around the Midgard Serpent’s (Miðgarðsormr) head, the face of the first god taking shape under the warm tongue of Ymir’s cow, Odin’s (Óðinn) disembodied eye floating in Mimir’s (Mímir) well, the fiery warriors of Surt (Surtr) surging through the cracked vault of the sky, made of slain Ymir’s skull, to bring an end to all the nine worlds.

And, when I could read, there were some curious passages about a strange and magical system of letters, words, and symbols called runes (rúnar):

On the ninth night he saw that the twigs that dropped from Yggdrasil fell into shapes which spelled out words and symbols. Thus he discovered the magic of the runic letters, which he would share with the Aesir and wise men on earth. Whoever could master the runic alphabet and carve the magic letters on wood or stone possessed great powers. Through reading and writing men could now send their words to others who were far away. They could even share their thoughts with those who were not yet born.

But the runes were dangerous, too; there were evil symbols that witches and sorcerers sometimes used to put a spell on a man or his cattle.

The “ninth night” referred to here, the D’Aulaires do not hesitate to tell us, is how long Odin had been hanging himself.

Later in the book, Skirnir (Skírnir), servant of Frey (Freyr), is trying to persuade a woman named Gerd (Gerðr) to requite the pining god’s love for her. After attempting bribery and threats (solid strategies), Skirnir ups the ante:

In great anger Skirnir pulled out a stick, and on it he carved the rune þ, a rune fraught with evil magic.

And he then proceeds to cast a spell on her. Now that’s some pretty compelling stuff, especially for an impressionable youth: I sought out more sources of information, more books on Norse myth, legends, history, and eventually broadened that to world history, comparative mythology, anthropology, linguistics. I was able to appreciate all its monomythic tropes when I first watched Star Wars, such was the vat of god-spit I’d been steeping in. And then, of course, I got into making games.

Getting back to the topic of runes, it’s important to note that the reality of their origin differs from their myth. It’s not as cool as a god self-asphyxiating until he sees visions, but still pretty cool: It seems that Rhaetian (from the same family as Etruscan) speakers using the Old Italic alphabet north of the Alps which then was blended with native Germanic sacred pictographic symbols. The common origin of runes and our modern Latin alphabet is why some of them bear a greater-than-passing resemblance to the letters we know. The differences arise from the admixture of native symbols, as well as the likely need to express the sounds of the Germanic tongues for which Italic lacked the graphemes.

Although runes are typically associated with Scandinavia, its earliest form, Elder Futhark, was broadly used by continental Germanic tribes speaking a common language, and inscriptions in this alphabet have been found across much of Northern and Central Europe even as far south as the Black Sea. The names of the alphabets are essentially acronyms of the first six letters found therein: fuþark (where þ is romanized as ⟨th⟩) Elder Futhark branched into the simplified Younger Futhark and Futhork (fuþork), sometimes called Anglo Saxon runes. Runes came into being some time in the first half of the first century. Their distinctive, angular shape is actually a common feature of many early scripts, which were often carved into wood or stone. True horizontal strokes are not used in runes because carving such strokes would run with the grain of the former material, and so tend to cause it to split.

Because of how recognizable runes are, because of how graphical they are, and because of their associations with a lost world of barbarian tribes and magic, they have far outlived their original users. The 18th century saw a revival of interest in Norse legends and writing, German occultism focused on the script in the 19th century, and the last century saw its use in both fantasy writing (spurred by Tolkien in particular) and in Germanic Neopaganism. Some of these associations are very important to understand, as I’ll detail later.

Runes are not monolithic; they belong to distinctly different times and places. For the game ChronoBlade, we started the story in the Viking-Age (793–1066) world of Ragnarok, so when it came to using runes, that already ruled out Elder Futhark, mentioned above. It is too old for the period and it was used to express Common Germanic, dying out in the 8th century. Futhorc was also dismissed as belonging mainly to what was to become England. This left Younger Futhark.

Younger Futhark corresponds well in both time and place to the world of Ragnarok. Still, there are three distinct forms of this alphabet: the Long Branch variant, used in what has become Denmark, the Short Twig variant, which was used in what is now Sweden and Norway, and finally the so-called staveless Hälsinge variant, named for the specific region of Sweden it appears in. The names of these subtypes refer to peculiarities in their writing, basically having to do with the morphology of the staves, specifically whether they were full staves (long branch), half staves (short twig) or missing entirely (staveless). Some debate continues as to whether Hälsinge runes were actually a regional variant or whether in fact different alphabets were used for different kinds of writings, or even based on the material being written on. Short Twig and Hälsinge are pretty strange and unfamiliar looking and the latter seems to have been used later than the period of the gameworld. Through this process of elimination, I decided on Long Branch Younger Futhark as being the most commonly used, as well as fitting with the image of runes that people would be familiar with.

When we created a system for modular, customizable equipment upgrades (i.e., gems and sockets), it seemed like a natural fit for runes, drawing on the legends of their magical properties. The process was fairly straightforward: for every property I was trying to create a rune for, I simply searched over the names and meanings of the runes of Younger Futhark looking for a good representative.

For example, the rune corresponding to ⟨h⟩ is named hagall, meaning “hail”. Since we used enchantments corresponding to the four classical elements, having a water enchant use the hagall rune made complete sense. For damaging armor, I used thurs, a rune with the phonetic value /θ/ (in Old Norse, it’s actually spelled þurs, which I normalized per English orthography), whose name means “giant”. Coincidentally, this is the name of the rune þ that Skirnir used in the spell he cast on Gerd. And so we carried on.

I should note that such meanings have been significantly expanded upon and distorted by modern Neopagan systems of divination.

Since runes look cool, the artists were eager to use them, but unfortunately their enthusiasm overtook their knowledge. Wikipedia’s page on runes features a table of Elder Futhark, assuming runes were runes, they put them on a wide variety of elements throughout the game, which needed to be corrected later.

One of the cases that needed to be addressed was that the Elder Futhark rune corresponding to ⟨o⟩ had been used in modernity by Nazis and Neo-Nazis. This one in particular seemed to have caught the artists’ eyes, and they had used it everywhere. In fact, it’s a cool-looking rune, and although there is some degree of “taking back” that you can do, since this was also the wrong alphabet, it seemed best to simply track down all the cases and change them.

Another example was our runegate. The runegate was a magical barrier that was used throughout Ragnarok. While it looked cool, I wanted to make it consistent with the runes being used in the rest of the world. When I was given the file, it looked like this:

They were Elder Futhark runes, in a sequence reading:


Which was also complete gibberish. Instead of simply putting in the appropriate analogues from Younger Futhark, I decided to try to give the inscription real meaning. I adapted an appropriate invocation from a Danish bracteate to use the right number of letters:

houaz laþu alu
high one (Odin) protect!

The ALU sequence seems to have been used to identify an inscription as a runic charm. Old Norse uses a mark that looks something like our modern colon (⟨:⟩) to show breaks between words, and since the charm didn’t line up cleanly, I added those to the image to yield:

Like many things I’ve done regarding worldbuilding, this material is there for those who want to dig into it, which certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea. More than this, it’s about the team’s feeling that there is a consistency and internal logic in the characters, locations, and events we are making—decisions about the things we created got easier as we continued to build because of our shared sense of the world.

You should determine what makes sense to your world: historical runes refer to a specific time and place but fictional ones are also relatively easy to design keeping in mind the rules I’ve presented here. If you do decide to create your own, it’s important to diverge significantly from the real ones, as purists will be confused and possibly even offended.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: Bindunes

Part 3: Magical Staves

Diversifying Game Experiences

Escape from the self-imposed genre ghetto (Wish-Fulfilment, Part 2)

In Michael Chabon’s essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story”, I find that this thoughtful writer, who has been on my reading list for some time, brings into clearer focus some of the things I was talking about in Part 1.¹ He deftly separates the issues of marketing and creation, discusses the ghettoization of genre fiction, and the difference between actual rules and conventions.

Right off the bat, I am clearly the audience he is simultaneously writing to and satirizing—anyone who knows me will see how neatly skewered I am by his admonishment to those who disdain entertainment in literature:

Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from [entertainment’s] productions. They must handle the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs. Entertainment, in short remains junk, and too much junk is bad for you—bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.

Touché, Chabon. But he is actually pushing to expand the definition of entertainment, just as I was suggesting we should endeavor to broaden the focus of our medium of games. He provides a list, which he says is partial, including:

[The] engagement of the interior ear by the rhythm and pitch of a fine prose style; the dawning awareness that giant mutant rat people dwell in the walls of a ruined abbey in England; two hours spent bushwhacking through a densely packed argument about the structures of power as embodied in nineteenth-century prison architecture; the consummation of a great love aboard a lost Amazon river boat, or in Elizabethan slang; the intricate fractal patterning of motif and metaphor in Nabokov and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; stories of pirates, zeppelins, sinister children; a thousand-word-long sentence comparing homosexuals to the Jews in a page of Proust (vol. 3); a duel to the death with broadswords on the ancient coast of Zingara; the outrageousness of whale slaughter or human slaughter in Melville or McCarthy; the outrageousness of Dr. Charles Bovary’s clubfoot-correcting device; the outrageousness of the outrage in a page of Philip Roth; words written in smoke across the sky of London on a day in June 1923; a momentary gain in one’s own sense of shared despair, shared nullity, shared rapture, shared loneliness, shared broken-hearted glee; the recounting of a portentous birth, a disastrous wedding, or a midnight deathwatch in the Neva.

Of course, based on the media integrity ethos I’ve discussed previously, the types of entertainment to be found in games would be different, but I’d argue they can and should be just as varied.

But Chabon also finds the conventions within genres of fiction are tightly restricted. He finds himself bored as a reader and bored as an author. Carefully codified, decades-old rules and formulae for the creation of works of genre fiction have left them tired and stagnant.

And this was where the essay began to resonate with my thoughts on examining our medium’s rules, seeing which ones actually serve us and our audiences, and looking at advancing the form in terms of the ways it can deliver meaning to an audience as well as the types of meaning that can be thus conveyed.

In Chabon’s definition, rather than a rule, wish fulfilment can clearly be seen as merely a convention of a certain genre of games. The lack of clarity on this point, coupled with the fact that until quite recently a primarily male, young adult audience was thought of by many as essentially the audience for games, and that this also coincides closely with the marketing of such games, it’s easy to unravel why it came to be held as such a sacred truth. In fact, I don’t want to nullify the idea: if you are trying to make a story-driven action game intended as a power-fantasy for members of this demographic, it is clearly worth consideration.

But wish fulfilment is a “rule” only as much as any element set forth by How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way constitutes a rule for all two-dimensional art. I also think that taken to its logical conclusion, the result—and one that we can certainly see in games—is very limited types of characters, particularly protagonists, being created. To draw a parallel to yet another medium, this is what has led to the recently criticized lack of diversity in film.

As for games, I had to fight hard for the race and gender mix of playable characters in Diablo II: many players and team members said they did not want to play female characters or characters of color. My feeling was that presenting people with a variety of backgrounds and motivations was important to the creation of an expansive, rich, and well rounded world, as was a sense of inclusiveness for players. In fact, this might be called wish fulfillment, just not in the commonly understood way that panders to a homogeneous demographic.

In ChronoBlade, sadly, I lost this fight: Lucas was supposed to be Asian, Thera was supposed to be both brown (Minoan) and a tough warrior; none of this came to pass. We still wrote Thera as we had envisioned her but there was some cognitive dissonance because of her stereotypical appearance. The characters were still decently varied, just not as much as I’d have liked. Certainly a large number of other factors were involved in the greater success of the former and the lesser of the latter, but I’d argue that this is essentially the first choice the player was presented with in both games, and so of major importance to the player’s decision to engage with them or not.

Regarding Chabon’s feelings of the stifling of genres, another thing to note is that there are two axes of “growth” in games, one being the content and the other being technology. I think it’s easy to see the technology progress and feel that change is occurring, but this can also be a trap—using the analogy of literature, moving from a scribal copy of The Canterbury Tales to a Kindle edition changes only the delivery; the content is essentially similar.

Another element of stagnation Chabon finds in his own medium relates to the arbitrary and ossified definition of what is literature, and so worthy, versus genre fiction, and therefore junk. Basically, the powers that be—critics, academicians, etc.—decide what is lauded and what is trashed. The forces of marketing reinforce this, leading to what he calls the ghettoization of the bookstore, corresponding to what is labelled literature versus the bookshelf slums that genre fiction is consigned to. Although I enjoy bookstores, I believe one benefit of online sales is that these barriers will tend to break down over time.

This at least is a problem we don’t have to deal with in games. In brick-and-mortar game stores there has for some time been a shelf war that has denied some games a place, but with online sales, tech-savvy gameplayers generally have no problem finding whatever game they are looking for regardless of where or how it is made available. Players can also define the genres themselves on outlets such as Steam. There seems to be a general trend in this direction which I think will continue, where creators and audiences engage more directly. Also, pointedly, Steam has a tag for Female Protagonist, suggesting that players want to move away from the types of main characters gamemakers have focused on in the past, and this was just one easily identifiable element. Indeed, games are one of the more successful categories on crowdfunding venues such as Kickstarter, allowing players to directly influence what gets made, rather than just choosing from what’s available.

Another factor that holds back ghettoization in games is the constant change that keeps stagnation from taking hold. For example, looking back at early game titles on any given platform, there’s very little homogeneity, but later, “best practices” begin to emerge. However, things loosen up again when a new gaming device like the smartphone appears. Although there are occasional changes to film and literature, they are much more incremental (with a few exceptions), and so do less in terms of the freeing up of forms.

Therefore it seems very much up to us as games creators to decide if we want to hew closely to the conventions of whichever genre we are working in, or instead to understand clearly what those rules are and choose to break them in order to transcend that genre. Hybrid games clearly do this and it’s a great luxury—if a novelist writes an SF/ mystery, marketing folks have to choose which bookstore ghetto to put it in, while for us this choice might affect marketability, but not much.

Finally, of his favorite authors, Chabon says that they,

[…] derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting or following to play.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Idée Fixe


  1. The essay is collected in Maps and Legends. I’ve been reading Chabon since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, though I do confess disappointment in his Telegraph Avenue, mainly because, as a local, the title was inseparable in my mind from the several blocks of Telegraph that end at the main gate of UC Berkeley, where it is simply referred to as “The Avenue” or even “The Ave”, even featuring in the title of the Green Day song, “Stuart and the Avenue” (Stuart being one of the cross streets in the locale). The book was not about the crazy scene there.

Canargy: a Cant How-To

Cryptolect creation strategies (Argots, Part 1B)

Have you ever wanted to create your own argot but didn’t know how? I made one called Canargy and discussed why I did so, as well as presenting some of the results in Part 1 of this series. This time, let’s look at the details of its production.

First, for those wondering why I thought a conlang was needed at all in ChronoBlade, I’d point to their history of adding depth and richness to worlds, particularly in SF and Fantasy, across media, from Syldavian to Dothraki to Al Bhed. Second, each of the heroes in ChronoBlade’s multiverse came from a different reality: we started in Ragnarok, where Old Norse was spoken, and Thera’s world of Minova used Mycenaean Greek, while Uruapkal, Lophi’s place of origin, used Ancient Sumerian, so a distinctive idiom for Empyrea seemed in order in terms of maintaining parallelism if nothing else.

Returning to argots, they exist around the world and have for some time. Apart from the English Thieves’ Cant (which I’ll refer to simply as Cant going forward) I mentioned in Part 1, there are others: Rotwelsch, Germanesco, and Šatrovački (шатровачки), to name a few. They share some properties of pidgins, creoles, jargons, and slangs, but there are a few things that distinguish an argot from these.

The first is the argot’s crypto-ludic function, or how the language disguises meanings; this is also done as a kind of linguistic game—many words are jokes or puns. Another, more important function has been described as connivance, but drives at group belongingness and exclusion of others. A third distinguishing feature of argots is their changeability: essentially, as one of these languages’ words become absorbed into the mainstream language, as they typically do, they must continually be replaced or the argot loses its connivance function, and so, ultimately its usefulness.

Because of the unique character of argots, philologists, linguists, writers, and many others have been very interested in understanding and documenting them for some time: Cervantes includes words and phrases of Germanesco in his short story, “Rinconete y Cortadillo”,¹ around the turn of the 17th century, and Victor Hugo researched the French argot of his time extensively for Les Misérables, placing it into the mouths of Gavroche and others of the Parisian lower classes, as well as including a proto-Tolkienesque digression on argot in the book.²

Linguistically, an argot is a variant of a language, somewhat like a dialect, where syntax remains intact but vocabulary is transformed. Words in an argot tend to take on the phonology and, later, orthography (which in turn can further alter phonology) of the parent language. They are voracious borrowers from other languages—clearly a good way to disguise meaning—and use words of the parent tongue as well, but in unusual senses. An example of the former in Cant would be:

  • Cosh (Romani košter, “stick”): a club or blackjack

The mutation of the foreign term into Cant involves several features: Initial ⟨k⟩ feels slightly foreign to English, so it is replaced by ⟨c⟩ (likely unless it precedes a front vowel, when it would tend to be softened). Obviously ⟨š⟩ is also strange, but the phonetic value /ʃ/ is common, and typically rendered in our language as ⟨sh⟩. The last syllable is simply elided.

An example of the latter would be:

  • Cackling-Fart: an egg

The transformation of these already-English words is only in meaning. This is obviously an extended joke: a chicken is a cackler and an exemplar of what is produced from the nether regions is a fart. In Canargy, I took this still further by applying the Cockney rhyming slang (another argot) for fart, raspberry (with raspberry tart being the rhyme), then applied the often-used short form razz, so egg = cackling-razz. There’s a bit of anachronism involved, but I plead the crypto-ludic function of argots.

Examples of words in standard, modern English generally agreed to have derived from Cant include (with their Cant meanings noted here remaining more or less intact):

  • Nark: police spy or informer
  • Pal: brother
  • Snack: a share, a part or portion
  • Tip: to give, to pass

One can see some of our modern uses are themselves extensions of the Cant meanings: “snack” is a portion of a meal, a “tip” is money or information given.

Words like angler, bamboozle, boozebunco (as in “bunco-squad”), cute, gibberish, goon, jockey, lift (in the sense of “steal”), musty, neat (in the context of booze), qualm, slang, sot, swank, swashbuckler, swig, swill, tippler, twig, underhanded, urchin (as a child rather than a hedgehog), and whippet, whose etymologies are either missing or conjectural are ones I’d venture also derive from Cant based on my own research, and I’m sure there are many more of which I’m unaware.

As noted previously, syntax is also provided by the parent language, as can be seen in a few examples:

Flick me some panam and caffan.
Cut me some bread and cheese.

Twig the cull, he’s peery.
Observe the fellow, he is watching us.

The mort’s frenchified.

The last comes from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), which, interestingly, contains a great deal of Cant. Frenchified refers to the “French disease”, syphilis, and is timely as 19th century Cant, however mort (woman) initially struck me as suspicious as it is already present in the Cant of the 16th century, and as I’ve noted above, argots are defined by their changeability. However, just prior to the movie’s setting, in 1811, Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published and became a huge success, particularly in the US, explaining why a relatively common argot word would still be in use some 200 years later. Also note the remark is addressed to Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), an argot outsider, and so might be deliberately done in terms he would understand. In any case: props. The work on which the film is based, Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, appears to also have captured Jorge Luis Borges’ imagination as he penned a short work about one of those portrayed therein, Monk Eastman.³

Moving on to the production of a fictitious argot, you basically decide what the influences are. Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat⁴ uses a combination of Cockney rhyming slang and Russian, with some minor influences from other, mainly European, languages as well. These made sense to the fiction he was creating. In Part 1, I also detailed my reasoning for choosing the influencers of Canargy; Victorian Era Cant and fɔ̀ngbè (also known as Fon).

In order to find the direction of phonological and orthographic change, the best source is English words derived from fɔ̀ngbè. Unfortunately, there are relatively few:

  • Dahomey
  • voodoo

However, even these start to give us clues: Dahomey comes from homè, so we can glean three properties from this word alone: there is a compounding of two words into one and an orthographic normalization of the final ⟨e⟩—always in danger of being interpreted as silent in English—into ⟨ey⟩, and a dropping of the tonality represented in ⟨ã⟩. Voodoo, deriving from vodun, shows the characteristic of vowel agreement, as well as normalization of a long /u/ sound into an ⟨oo⟩ spelling. So this is actually a pretty good start, and fortunately, we can simply cast a wider net, looking at English terms deriving from the whole linguistic group fɔ̀ngbè belongs to get more complete information. We find our word yam derives from the Fula nyami, which lets us know what to do with the problematic consonant cluster ⟨ny⟩ as well showing the elision of final ⟨i⟩. And chimpanzee, coming from Bantu ci-mpenzi, points to ⟨c⟩ (with the phonetic value /tʃ/) being normalized as ⟨ch⟩, and a movement of final ⟨i⟩ to ⟨ee⟩.

Furthermore, you can simply invent changes that seem sensible to you. Burgess seems to have done a lot of this for the Russian words he added to Nadsat, e.g.:

  • čelovék (челове́к) → chelloveckveck: “person”
  • khorosho (хорошо) → horrorshow: “head”
  • golová (голова́) → gulliver: “good”

These last two are essentially mishearings or even puns of the Russian words in English.

Continuing this process for Canargy, eventually a picture begins to emerge:

Some common word endings can also be handy—you can take English words and append them with these to alter their meanings and give them an unfamiliar look. Take these two agentive suffixes:

  • -sy (fɔ̀ngbè -si): agentive suffix
  • -no-non: bearer

They can be applied very easily to a common English word like hat to get the pair:

  • Hatsy: hatter, a hat maker
  • Hatnon: one who wears a hat

However, you can’t just take the lexicon of a foreign language, normalize the orthography and pronunciation, use the parent language’s syntax and call it an argot. That’s more of a pidgin (although grammar would also have to be simplified). One of the important choices is which words you want to bring into your new language. For example, I toned down some of the emphasis on bodily functions for Canargy as it seemed out of character to the cans compared to a lexicon of the Cant of humans of a different era (~1600s) I had compiled for a different project, for which I broke down the main taxa as:

  • Unsavory Folk
  • Descriptions & Actions
  • The Body
  • Tools of the Trade & Descriptors thereof
  • Food & Drink (mostly drink)
  • Money
  • Places
  • Worthless, Diseased, etc.

At this point, it is time to read dictionaries. Take the words you like, or think you will need, apply the transformations you have created, discard words you don’t like, find new ones to replace them, etc. until you have a lexicon.

Next, do some trial runs: take passages, as I did in Part 1, and render them into your language. See how it feels, tinker with it, add words if you feel it lacks richness.


I recently ran across a thorough investigation of how tip came to mean the money given to reward good service. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman explores many conjectural etymologies, most of which he discards.⁵ Two such canards worthy of note are: it derives from stipend, and it is an initialism for To Insure Promptness. He also runs through some great Cant uses of the term on the way to disproving its origin from the previously extant meaning “to tap”:

Colloquial and slangy phrases with the verb tip were frequent, and some of them are still around: “tip me your daddle or flipper” (hand), “tip me a hog” (shilling), “tip him a wink” (advice), “tip the traveler” (humbug a guest at an inn with travelers’ yarns), “tip the double” (decamp),“tip the grampus” (an old seafaring phrase: “duck a skulker for being asleep on his watch”), “tip a stave” (sing), “tip one’s rags a gallop” (run away; thieves’ slang), to mention a few. It is the predominantly “low” sphere in which this meaning of the verb tip flourished and a sudden explosion of its use in the second half of the 16th century that make the idea of a straight line from tip “touch, tap; turn over” to tip “give” suspect.

The association he does endorse is with the words tippler and tipsy. And he points out that tipple is derived from tippler, rather than the other way around. These words, along with terms like Trinkgeld in German and pourboire in French, imply the money given will be used by the server to purchase themself drinks. I’ll add that Cant’s extension of this specific use of the verb into other fields of endeavor fits entirely with how such languages work.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Read Previous Posts in This Series

Part 1A: Inventing an Argot for Automata


  1. Miguel de Cervantes, “Rinconete y Cortadillo”, collected in Exemplary Novels (Novelas ejemplares), 1613.
  2. In later editions—like mine—this section was removed from the main text and included as an appendix.
  3. Jorge Luis Borges, “Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities” (“Eastman, el proveedor de iniquidades”), collected in A Universal History of Iniquity (Historia universal de la infamia), 1935.
  4. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, 1962.
  5. Anatoly Liberman, “Everything is Tiptop”, The Oxford Etymologist, March, 2009.

Driving Character Voice Differences

Tools and approaches for engaging dialogue

Many games rely on a simple system of dialogue cutscenes as their main story-delivery method. The most recent game I worked on, ChronoBlade, also used this device and my direction was it should deliver the information as succinctly as possible, as players can quickly grow tired of it, while still including a great deal of the uniqueness of each character. Now you might be saying, “Conflicting goals! Noooooooo!” Well read on.

I should acknowledge my fellow narrative folks on the team: Mel O’Connor was the main narrative designer, and did the bulk of the writing, while Jordan Patz and I did some of the writing, but mainly made directorial and editorial contributions. A rule of thumb is if you like any of the writing samples below, you should assume I did them, and if you don’t, it was one or both of my colleagues.

OK, now remember when I said my direction contained conflicting goals? Well, guess what? These are almost always the same conflicting goals that exist for any writing for video games. Interactivity is the core of the medium, and dialogue is almost necessarily less interactive. Players want to play, so we need to give them the basic information and let them get back to it, or they’ll just skip the dialogue altogether, and if we try to force them to read, they’ll probably quit. This was my reasoning for how quests and dialogue worked in Diablo II—the story was there if you wanted it, but you could also skip it and easily access the information later.

And then there’s the other side of my direction; if the dialogue is not engaging, it doesn’t matter how short it is, players still will be uninterested and annoyed at its intrusion. If, on the other hand, you can get players to care about the characters, the world and the narrative, then they can come to see these cutscenes as a reward rather than an annoyance.

And on this last topic, at least somewhat resisting the temptation to be snarky, there is what I would call the standard fantasy role-playing game voice (SFRPGV) you can find examples of in many games, and particularly ones that use this type of dialogue cutscenes. It is a formal, sometimes vaguely ye-olde-tea-shoppe voice. Dungeon Runners won me over with a hermit character who sounded like Oscar the Grouch, appearing early in the game, mocking it thus:¹

You know that town where they all pretend they’re in the Renaissance? Yeah, those guys suck.

When SFRPGV is used ubiquitously, it leads to characters feeling very generic and one-dimensional. This is ultimately what we were trying to avoid.

Dungeon Runners also reminds me I should note there are other ways to create engaging dialogue, one of which is the use of humor—it’s very easy to overuse it. If everything is always jokey, it’s hard to arrive at a sense of any sense of depth or realism, and Dungeon Runners ultimately succumbed to this. Dave Sim, creator of the Cerebus comics, noted great, deep humor is ultimately based on developing strong characters:²

Once you catch the rhythm of [your characters’] speech, you’re halfway home to the kind of interaction that sells comic books. Someday I’m going to do a story with Cerebus, Elrod and Lord Julius locked in a closet. It’ll write itself.

In a later issue of the comic, “Exodus”, Sim actually did much as he describes here, but in a ship’s hold and with more characters.³ There was also an episode of Frasier where the writers seemed to have run across the same idea and taken up the challenge: the entire episode took place in a café with the various characters coming and going, and was awesome.⁴

So we created distinctive characters with well-defined backgrounds and tried to keep those in mind when writing their dialogue. The results, however, were hit and miss—sometimes there would be bits of dialogue that would showcase one or another aspect of a character, but there was still a muddy sameness to the voices. What I was striving for was a level of characterization so strong players would be able to identify the speaker just by reading a line—even a fairly bland line should at least allow players to narrow down the speaker. Obviously, more extreme measures were needed.

I decided what was needed was a tool that broke down the most essential elements of how character comes through in voice. Looking back at the SFRPGV, I already identified some distinctive elements: a Register: formal, and what I’d call a Quirk, as it differentiates it strongly from normal speech: archaism. I went on to identify two more elements generally missing from SFRPGV: Attitude and Topics. I defined these four elements thus:

Register refers to a scale of formality in speech. This is a real linguistics term I borrowed, but I defined a nonstandard scale better suited to the purposes of the game:

  • Formal/ Grand
  • Semi-Formal/ Grand
  • Normal
  • Semi-Colloquial
  • Colloquial/ Informal
  • Insane

Attitude means a character’s outlook, which tends to find expression in speech. This is a major element of their personality.

Topics means the subject matter characters tend to care about and therefore mention with some regularity.

Quirks are distinctive elements of speech or personality. These elements are probably the most varied of all.

Another intent in choosing these is they work as separate axes and, therefore, are able to be combined in a variety of ways. Characters can share a register, for example, but if the other elements are different, their voices will still be quite distinctive. I created a matrix using these elements, and we filled it in to yield the following:

When writing dialogue lines, this was a great reminder of the elements that make up each character’s voice; we could essentially use it as a checklist and try to tick as many boxes as possible while still delivering the information and keeping things brief. The desired differences in character voices began to emerge:

Portia: We’ve got a strong lock on that signal, Aurok. It’s proximal to you up ahead.
Aurok: Then I shall proceed in the search for those left untainted among the Laxmenni survivors.

Conflicts also would arise between characters based on some of these traits:

Lucas: Come now, old man. You’ve obviously heard of Draugar; they can’t be that uncommon.
Launstig: They are things of lore, little else. An honored warrior becoming one is unheard of.
Wattsworth: Most interesting! I shall create an entry in my databank. We should attempt to gain a live specimen for additional study—
Launstig: These are our hallowed fallen, ripped from the glory of Valhalla—to do so would be a great offense!
Lucas: Then I suppose I ought not mention our intent to spirit one away to sell?

And finally, Huld, an Odio boss, threatens Lophi and Knot, who roundly ignore the creature in this bit of magnificent nonsense:

Huld: Toi et tous friends are but insects in nostra vis. You will make keinen Unterschied.
Knot: Lophi, doesn’t he remind you of that one big Khul’ngal?
Lophi: Ha, yeah, we sent that guy’s smoking soul to K’ik’allak’alla quick!
Knot: And he had that hilarious look on his face, and he was like, ‘Tukkatstsakin khekatskaaaaaaats!’ Hahaha!

If nothing else, we definitely took a big step away from the SFRPGV.


  1. Dungeon Runners, 2007.
  2. Dave Sim, Introduction, Swords of Cerebus, Volume 1, January 1982.
  3. Dave Sim, Cerberus #51: “Exodus”, June 1983.
  4. Season 1, Episode 24, “My Coffee with Niles”, Frasier, May 1994.

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.

Inventing an Argot for Automata

Influences in worldbuilding for Empyrea (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 had come into contact with an ancient source of energy called saraf, which they learned to use without fully understanding.

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.¹ His vision of these creatures is that they have skin, flesh, and guts, but are in some way assembled by humans. 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, Flûteur Automate (“The Flute Player”), and the Canard Digérateur (“Digesting Duck”) 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 fɔ̀ngbè, 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, as I dubbed this argot:²

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!

And another one from A Clockwork Orange as a tip of the bowler to Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, an argot with similar features:³

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….

I tried to make these examples as Canargy-ful as possible, just to show the richness of the language and how greatly it can 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. Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots).
  2. “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!”
  3. “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

The Fakes that Launched a Thousand Ships

Umberto Eco’s “Legendary” work

In my twenties I turned my back on much of what I had been reading to that point. Comic books, Fantasy and SciFi novels, and indeed nearly any sort of fiction started feeling disappointing to me. Instead I pored over topics like history, comparative mythology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and media theory. I rifled through books that friends and family had left over from esoteric university courses, and searched lonely corners of libraries.

I would still occasionally read fiction, but only if it had been highly recommended; things like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault) by Umberto Eco was one of these.

Although some of the other novels I’d read might connect with one or another of my other interests, none did to quite the degree of  Eco’s. Moreover, whereas the nonfiction I had been reading typically ran the gamut from somewhat stuffy to challengingly dry, he had managed to weave this same matter into a compelling work of fiction. Still more remarkable, even though it wasn’t at all dumbed down, this thriller was by turns funny, mysterious, sad, suspenseful, and many other things besides. Finally there were numerous pop-culture references placed on an equal footing with all its lofty topics rather than being treated with disdain.

Of unabashedly arcane and dense books such as Foucault’s Pendulum, for which the internet provides annotations and concordances, Eco commented:¹

I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. […] So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.

He was less sanguine beforehand with some of his essays pondering who his audience was and even whether such readers existed. Regardless, I agree with his more recent sentiments in my own case. His unusual last name, handed down from his foundling grandfather, was apparently so dubbed by an inventive civil servant as an acronym for ex caelis oblatus (L. “offered by the heavens”), which is certainly how the author seemed to me. I read everything by Eco I could get my hands on; novels, nonfiction works, essays, interviews, as well as many of the works he made references to, leading me down still other rabbit holes.

When Umberto Eco died in February of this year, I was pretty broken up about it. As part of my mourning process ,  I searched my local bookstores for anything of his that wasn’t already in my bookcase, and wishlisted the rest on Amazon—that’s not where I prefer to buy books, but it’s a good reminder of those I’m looking for. In any case, this is how  I came upon The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari). This book contains a few disappointments but is amazing in other ways.

It’s important to note that while the book’s title seems to suggest it’s some sort of fantasy roleplaying supplement, it’s anything but. It actually makes up a trilogy with History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza) and On Ugliness (Italian: Storia della bruttezza). These may seem unrelated, but in the original Italian titles you can see they are all “histories”, though beauty and ugliness are certainly a more closely related pair. The Book of Legendary Lands actually is about places that never existed but were nonetheless obsessively searched for by explorers over decades, centuries, and even millennia in the case of Atlantis.

Some of these “legends” relate to limited and misinterpreted information, but quite a few relate to tall-tales, forgeries, and outright lies. Eco explained why such topics intrigue him:²

As a scholar I am interested in the philosophy of language, semiotics, call it what you want, and one of the main features of the human language is the possibility of lying. A dog doesn’t lie. When it barks, it means there is somebody outside. […] From lies to forgeries the step is not so long, and I have written technical essays on the logic of forgeries and on the influence of forgeries on history. The most famous and terrible of those forgeries is the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion].

One downside is that there’s not much of Eco’s actual writing in it. Of course, as a fan, I missed it. The book is really an extended bibliography: each chapter covers a grouping of legendary places, which he discusses the history and context of, and the writings that contributed importantly to each legend. Quotes from some of those sources round out the chapter. All of this (at least in my edition) is accompanied by amazing historical illustrations, which unfortunately is another place the book falls down: These really needed to be explained much more than they were in the brief captions they were afforded.

The positives definitely outweigh these issues. In many ways this book acts as a key to Eco’s works—it’s a journey through his source materials, the writings he himself was fascinated by. One encounters The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the sewers of Paris which are central to the plot of The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga), The theories of the Antipodes and sympathetic magic of which appear in The Island of the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), the false Grail conspiracies on which Foucault’s Pendulum hangs, and many more. On this last point, there is also a thorough debunking of the historicity Dan Brown claims of his idiotic oeuvre on the topic, together with those that the overrated sham artist drew upon (not to say plagiarized wholesale).

Just as a sourcebook, this is an impressive piece. Some of the works Eco references I was aware of, but there are many more that I’ll need to explore after reading this. Basically it’s a list of cool things to go learn about. I’d give fellow enthusiasts of signore professore dottore a solid recommendation, but a more cautious one to those with an interest in the legendary worlds discussed but who have not read Eco unless you’re up for something quite dense and scholarly.

If anyone were to look into my sources, many are traceable to Eco. A notional concordance of Diablo II, for example, would show significant overlap with that of Foucault’s Pendulum.


  1. Stephen Moss, “Umberto Eco: ‘People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged’”, The Guardian, 2011.
  2. Ibid.