Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Mysterious Thingummy of Whatsisname

So I wrote this long blog post and I somehow deleted the entire thing, and now I'm too frustrated and unhappy to write it all again. So here's the highlights.

I have written before about valuing incompleteness as an aesthetic -- or not incompleteness, but unfamiliarity, the kind of incompleteness that suggests the presence of some deeper system or at the very least an overriding aesthetic principle. The first place in gaming that I encountered this was, where else, in Glorantha, specifically through David Dunham's East Ralios campaign, which was written up in Peter Maranci's old Interregnum APA back in the day. It was a major swipe-source for my own Dragon Pass game.

When I first read something like this ...

As Halvar Stormeye raised his hands, a powerful whirlwind rose around them, blurring their vision. They were swept into the air, finally coming back down in a valley that looked much like their own, but greener and brighter, with taller hills and a fast-flowing river in place of the stream.
Between them in the spot the stone had been was an odd person with legs as long as a man is tall. Aidin recognized him as a Flint Slinger, a spirit which often punishes initiates who break their vows. They gave the Orlanthi Greeting. He answered and introduced himself as Left-Stone Shouter, and said he would be their guide.
The valley contained no steads, but Left-Stone Shouter pointed them towards some trees. Sitting in them were two winged men, arguing about who had first spotted a bag of sand. Konall suggested splitting the sand, but they told him it was the bag that was magic. Minara proposed taking turns using the bag, and drawing lots to see who would have it during Sacred Time. They agreed to this, then brought them to their tree-top stead where they were greeted by the thane and given meat and water. The thane, who had magnificently dyed feathers, asked them to entertain the assembly. Konall played his flute, Harmast and Jornast told stories, and Una made whirligigs for the children. The thane was well pleased, and gave them each a feather bracelet.
Left-Stone Shouter leaped into the air to the height of 20 men, and described the green-skinned lady he saw. When they got to her, she asked them to rescue her herd, which had been stolen by men of darkness.
... it blew the top of my head right off with its suggestion of a mythology that was actually, well, mythological.

Now, in the case of Glorantha, it so happens that there is a huge underlying depth and complexity to all this, one that until relatively recently you had to be some kind of initiate to get full access to. But I'm not completely convinced that that really matters.

When I was younger, the other place you came across this was in video games. Consider Street Fighter II, for instance. If, like me, you were 12 when it came out, you were enthralled by the graphics and the different fighting styles and the characters. Some of them were easy to figure out, but like Dhalsim and M. Bison and Blanka -- who the hell were these guys? And most of all:


Of course I know what it means now -- new versions of the game have him saying things like "you must defeat my Shoryuken" or whatever, and there's even a little joke about Gouken sometimes being called Sheng Long, which I think is a callout to this old hoax: 

But at the time it was a mystery for the ages. And that sense of entrancement came from the fact that the whole "story" aspect of the game consisted of maybe a few garbled, contradictory, half-translated lines here and there, and that "story" was an aspect of the game considered so unimportant that no effort was made to make it consistent or comprehensible. 

And we liked it

For me, the pinnacle of this is Rygar. Inspired by a friend's writing about old games, along with my recent trip to the Centre for Computing History, I have been thinking about old video games even more than usual (can you tell?). And I keep coming back to Rygar. Maybe it was the bitchin' soundtrack: 

Or maybe it was the insane enemies: 

More here and here.
Or maybe it was the fact that your only guide around the game's weird (and surprisingly open) world were a bunch of weird giant hermits: 

Thanks a lot, Muscle Beach Santa. If I knew
where the fuck either of those places were,
that would be super helpful. 
But that game had the sense that you were right on top of either a surprisingly rich mythology or a Kirbyesque fever dream, and without an internet there was no real way to find out what in the Samuel Langhorn Hell was going on (which was kind of why they never bothered to come up with anything).

I miss that game. I started playing it again recently and it turns out I'm still terrible at it after all these years. 

Anyway, what all this adds up to is that I think I have a tendency to do this in my own game writing -- to try to create worlds that seem like if you studied them for a long time they might make sense, but which don't necessarily do so at first glance. In fact, I think a certain amount of alien incomprehensibility is desirable in any non-historical setting, especially if the characters treat it as no big deal. That's the secret to the success of Star Wars, after all, but that's a story for another time.


  1. You've put words on something I've been feeling for ages !

    I loved that part of mistery, of untold, of secret in thos egame sof old, The backstory we could elaborate from th efew pieces of intel we had made it so attractive.

    I like the oldschool pieces of gaming art for that reason too, look at the old drawings from John Blanche, Ian miller, Adrian Smith and the like and you'll always find something in th ebackground, a tower or castlle, a flock of birds or a strange forest, but you'll always find one little thing which doesn't give you anything but which adds depth to the world th epictures takes place in.

    Lovecraft's novels mainly work on that system of letting the untold do the work and it's brilliant. Even a TV show like Lost worked a lot on that and it's os urprise thend disappointed so much fans with all the question being answered (not debating on how well or bad they were answered).

    Yes, I like incompleteness even when it is the consequence of a low budget and time spent, a few open doors, question unanswered (or even translation mistakes) can give a tremendous depth to a setting.

    This is a VERY intersting subject, thaks you for raising it.

    1. Yeah, 80s 40K had it in spades, partly because there was no Lexicanum but also partly because the material was hard to come by. I got into 40K just on the cusp of the transition between 1st and 2nd edition, and there was nothing out there in the US -- all the old books were out of print but there were no new ones, and everything was fragmentary. But even if you have a complete run of White Dwarf there are still things you don't know -- like ...

      ... somewhere there's an illustration, maybe on the cover of the old Imperial Guard boxed set, of a regiment advancing with their colours. And one of the flags has a thing on it that reads: "Amidst the wailing and the woe, accursed daemon, do thou remain and rot. I know, thee, filthy as thou art. I know ... ".

      What the hell is that all about?! It sounds amazing whatever it is, and it's stuck with my all these years, but I don't think it's a thing. It's just that John Blanche is a genius. But your chances of seeing anything to surprise or intrigue you in a piece of modern GW art are pretty slim.

      But gaming companies have a bad tendency to try to explicate every tiny detail, like those books about what all the different weird aliens in the Star Wars cantina were doing there.

  2. I think Dark Souls has reached the platonic ideal of this 'under lying mystery' phenomenon in gaming.