All Similarities to Real People Coincidental

Vladimir P.: Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the opposition wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.
Vladislav S.: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.
Vladimir P.: Opposition leaders aren’t complicated, Aslambek. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
Vladislav S.: With respect, sir, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in three months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Vladimir P.: So why steal them?
Vladislav S.: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

I’ll get back to ranting about games soon, I promise.

On Skyrim and Hype

Recently I’ve been unnerved. The pre-election craze left me to spend two evenings doing nothing but reading about recent political events, and it seems that no matter what scenario unravels — a more peaceful or more violent one — the common people will be the ones who lose.

Anyway, still bitter after the My Little Pony hype — a show that I would just ignore otherwise, but which I got to utterly hate despite never watching it because of its obsessed fandom — I decided to finally take a peek at the next big thing, well, you know, that game with number five which is a sequel to the big thing of five years ago, more or less the same thing but with number four.

Hype has its downsides, and I’ve learned to set my expectations low by default when taking a look at big things, because a lot of the hype comes from blinded fanboys who refuse to see any fault in their precious franchise and from mainstream critics, who basically have to write positive reviews lest they lose the press benefits. But that’s just repeating the obvious banalities by this point.

Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised. Often I don’t. I thought Mass Effect was a genuinely great franchise despite my initially low expectations (I expected a bland KOTOR clone with silly implausibilities galore), and I thought Dragon Age was solid but needlessly dragging, unforgiving, and retreading on BioWare’s earlier grounds that had become cliche by that point. Certainly not the avatar of perfection on this sinful Earth whose very piss smells of nectar and makes flowers blossom. On the other hand, I installed the much-maligned Dragon Age II fully thinking it’d be good but not my kind of game, and well… it’s actually good, story-wise and presentation-wise, and my greatest issue with the game is the patently ridiculous and unfair encounter design: somehow they managed to make combat even worse than in DA1. (I’m expecting inquisitors with stakes and bonfires any time now.)

Even Portal, which I would call the overall best game I’ve played (first game, not second), would probably have ended up in my blacklist had I not had the fortune to play it before the hype wave started. But I was fortunate to play it when it was still not a big thing. I was looking for something to play while taking a break from Episode Two, and I thought I could as well try this puzzle game bundled with it. It was before the cake and companion cube craze started. The rest is history. Portal 2, on the other hand, was a big thing from the very start. I preordered it knowing exactly what to expect — more of the same, more puzzles, more portals, more Chell, more GLaDOS, more black humor — and that was exactly what I got, no more, no less. I don’t really have a problem with Portal 2 — it’s Valve’s best executed game from a technical standpoint. But story-wise it’s a sequel to a game that didn’t really need a sequel, and one that made the story of the first part retroactively impossible to take seriously, turning all of Aperture Science into a cartoonish farce.

Anyway, the great and bountiful Skyrim.

I’ll be brief. It’s atmospheric, yes. The music especially captures the mood from the get go. As a sightseeing exercise, a sort of fantasy Google Street View, or for someone who wants to actually pretend to be a denizen of a fantasy world — as opposed to realizing they’re a real person playing through someone else’s story — it may be the way to go.

Let me reiterate, Skyrim is not a bad game. It has its players and I think they deserve the right to enjoy a game they like. But it’s not my thing. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t capture my imagination or instill a sense of awae in me. To my eye, it’s just unmemorable, in a “so okay it’s average” way.

One thing BioWare and Obsidian games in general did well is inspiring you to care about the world even in sequels. I’ll be honest: I started Skyrim completely new to the TES franchise. The earlier big things, namely Morrowind and Oblivion, passed by me.

I can start a BioWare or Obsidian game and immediately feel engaged, even when I don’t know anything about the setting. Here, after ten minutes of a scripted scene where I ride a cart while listening to small talk without being able to do as much as turn my head — a scene that would make Valve scratch their heads, then scrap the prologue and start over — I’m suddenly dumped into the world as ye olde Adventurer Classic, the one that fetches bear asses to ungrateful villagers, and I just find it hard to care, or to even understand why I’m supposed to care about these empty forests and bare hills, with bland and unmemorable NPCs in between.


I heard that the focus is on immersion and exploration, but well, to immerse yourself into a setting and explore it, you first somehow have to start caring about it, which brings me back to square one.

And I’m probably a minority on this one, but to me, a game (except for little timekillers like Tetris and Minesweeper) is first and foremost a work of literature — like movies and TV series, but with different media possibilities and conventions in each form. And I prefer a game to have a story: a clear beginning, end, and a suitably complex storyline with a fleshed-out cast of characters in between. The TES series is… quite different and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I like in games.

Speaking of conventions, Skyrim deserves a special award for quite possibly the messiest video game UI I’ve seen. I’m not a designer by any means, but I’ve read essays and saw quite a lot of desktop software, and my experience as a programmer has taught me to distinguish good UIs from bad UIs. Bluntly, Skyrim doesn’t have a good UI. It breaks too many principles to count, the most important of which is the principle of least surprise. Conventions don’t exist for this game. Keys do unexpected things, widgets behave in an unexpected way, and just about every screen — trade, inventory, spells, you count them — is done in a “new and improved” way that goes completely against existing RPG traditions. I understand developers’ need to feel original, but originality shouldn’t get in the way of usability. Conventions exist for a reason: they let users easily get used to a new interface. Bethesda instead preferred to confuse the heck out of the user in the name of looking “trendy”.

With that said, I’m back to hacking and fireballing my way through the remainder of Dark Messiah. This game might not have been gushed by critics and fans, but I would prefer even a bad game (not that this is a bad game) that at least tries something interesting, anything at all, to a game that appeals to reviewers with form while feeling trite and hollow on the inside.

A Quote

This is why different people have different truths. Understanding of the world is always subjective (only subjects think, but objects don’t) and depends on random factors of life: on books you stumbled or didn’t stumble upon in childhood, personality, psychological type, birth traumas, family influence…

Worldview depends more on the view than on the world — that’s the paradox.

This is why completely different worlds are reflected in people’s heads. People cannot agree with each other on everything in principle. But since people need to coexist somehow, they have to compromise. And as there is no such thing as Absolute Truth, there is no need to forcefully bring it to the blind. The advanced political thought in developed countries has come to the conclusion that, since everything is relative, and everyone is right (or not right — same thing), it is pointless to battle for Truth. Let there be pluralism. And those citizens, parties and states that haven’t understood that yet are psychologically located at the level of the medieval crusades — in the romantic youth of humanity. This is why romantics are dangerous, both in politics and in daily life.

Alexander Nikonov. “Upgrade of the Ape.” Translated from Russian.

The Self-Reinforcing Binary

The late 20th – early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with “post-“. Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism… The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren’t. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say “death of the author”, you can’t abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, “it has always been that way”, is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to “God decrees so”. Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it’s not your business to try and “save” them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the “post-“: not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.

And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.

So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, “medved'”. It literally meant “honey eater” in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and “medved'” became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters.

Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae.

It’s like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.

What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”, I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences — was dangerously “phallocentric”. But one does take the point that boys’ stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls’ stories like Middlemarch really don’t. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device”. In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.

Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know – some of us, anyway – that it’s merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.

And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien’s Arien and Tilion.

Sometimes, it’s not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared “masculine” or “feminine” were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a “masculine” career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the “hairy-legged man-hater” stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.

What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies – ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.