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Sly Cooper and Questionable Children’s Media Heroes

Brion

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(Spoilers for the entire Sly Cooper series).

This one might be a slight bit controversial. Sly Cooper is the beloved star of an equally beloved series of children’s games. It is probable that anyone who has ever played these games has never gotten the impression that Sly is in any way a bad guy.

Children’s media is often given a short shift. There is a prevailing notion that because this art is being designed for children to consume, there is no need to put in a lot of effort. This is a poor attitude that can lead to some ill-thought out story elements creeping in.

I intend on illustrating this problem by taking a look at the progression of Sly Cooper’s character motivations. As deadlines became tighter between games, Sly’s heroism started to fade away and be replaced by unfeeling recklessness regarding his friends. Of course none of this was intentional; that is what worries me.

Like Clockwerk

Sly Cooper has a tragic backstory. Born into a family of career thieves, his parents were murdered by the vengeful Clockwerk when he was a young boy. He grew up in an orphanage, made life-long friends in the form of Bentley and Murray, yet lived every day knowing that Clockwerk was committed to wiping out the entire Cooper family.

So committed to this goal is Clockwerk (yes that is really how to spell his name) that he has encased his body in soulless machinery. Now more robot than man (or whatever evil bird he is supposed to be exactly), Clockwerk is essentially immortal. If left unchecked he will forever exist to menace Sly and the world at large.

What choice did Sly have put to fight back? Determined to live up to his family name, he becomes a master thief and eventually seeks out Clockwerk. Helped all the way by his two best friends, at the end of the first game he succeeds in defeating his great nemesis. At long last Sly can sleep safe at night.

All is well that ends well, right? Sly has gone on a fairly typical hero’s journey, from tragic beginnings to a victorious end. Indeed, if the original game had not spawned sequels, there would be no need to write this article. Yet it did, and the writer’s began losing sight of what exactly makes for a heroic protagonist.

Wikipedia tells me this is an owl. I’ve got nothing.

Round Two

Dropping your nemesis in a volcano is usually the best way to end things, but unfortunately Clockwerk is made of indestructible metal. The remains of his body (hitherto referred to as ‘Clockwerk Parts’) are reassembled and put on display. This terrifies Sly; what if Clockwerk fully reformed?

A plan is hatched to break into the museum and steal the parts. Unfortunately Sly has been beaten to the punch by the infamous Klaww Gang. This continental criminal organisation has split the Clockwerk Parts between themselves and are using them to further their own illegal activities. Sly and the gang resolve to steal the parts from each of the members in turn.

Clockwerk can only reform if all of his parts are put back together. This is a pertinent piece of information which hangs over every following action in which Sly engages. Provided the parts are kept separate, Clockwerk can never be a threat again.

The Klaww Gang have split up the parts and scattered them to the four corners of the Earth. Sly fails to realise that his mission is already accomplished. One could argue that he needs the peace of mind, given that these nefarious types might one day reunite the parts, so it would make perfect sense for him to steal one of these parts. If he could just lay his hands on any single one of the parts and hide it away forever, Clockwerk could never haunt him again.

Obviously he decides to collect them all; otherwise there would be no story and conversely no game. The obvious need for the developers to structure the game around numerous heists means the characterisation suffers. Not only is Sly acting against his best interests, he is endangering his friends by doing so. This is not how you get a player to view the protagonist as a hero.

Sleeping with the Enemy

Sly is somewhat infatuated by a certain Carmelita Fox. This is more than a little detrimental to his safety as Carmelita is an Interpol Agent tasked with bring him and his friends to justice (they are a criminal organisation, let’s not forget that). In Sly 2 his desire to flirt with Carmelita begin to severely endanger not just his freedom, but the freedom of Bentley and Murray.

During one of the heists the gang needs a lengthy distraction so that Murray can be winched into an occupied ballroom and steal some Clockwerk Parts. It is decided (and never directly stated whose idea it was, but this can only be a Sly brainwave) that the best possible distraction is to amaze the crowd with some incredible dancing. Sly will need a dance partner to pull this off. Who better than the also in attendance Carmelita Fox?

Well, literally anyone. Involving an Interpol Agent who hates you in your heists is generally not advisable. Nor is dancing the best way to distract a ballroom full of people who are also dancing. Really this plan does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny and it only works because presumably everyone at the party was off their faces on hallucinogenic drugs (more on that in a bit). Sly just wanted any excuse to dance with Carmelita.

This is reckless endangerment of his friends for the sake of getting his rocks off. One might argue that Sly is in love with Carmelita and that love makes people to crazy things. Well, if he is in love with Carmelita, then why does he ask Neyla on a date a couple weeks later? This man who just endangered his friends to dance with an Interpol Agent decides to ask out A DIFFERENT INTERPOL AGENT (Sly apparently has a very particular fetish).

There is no romantic way to spin any of this. The developers wanted a smooth protagonist, but actions like this just result in Sly looking selfish and dumb.

Pictured Above: Not the best way of avoiding contact with the police.

The Best Laid Plans…

Where does having romantic dalliances with law enforcement inevitably lead a gang of thieves? Why jail of course! Neyla ‘betrays’ Sly, arresting him and Murray. Though they will eventually all escape (thanks to Bentley, not Sly), that hardly alleviates the trauma Murray was subjected to while imprisoned. Controversial though this opinion might be, it is not necessarily beneficial to the mental well-being of a person to be locked in solitary confinement and fed hallucinogenic drugs.

(Carmelita also ends up losing her job and being imprisoned due to an incriminating photo of her and Sly dancing during the heist. She is then subjected to high-tech attempts at brain-washing. It sure is weird how everyone Sly ‘loves’ keep suffering awful fates because of his actions, isn’t it?)

Soon the gang are back to stealing Clockwerk Parts. Then the inevitable happens. When they have almost amassed all of the parts, one of the members of the Klaww Gang finds their stash and sells them all to the other remaining member. Sly’s master plan of collecting all of the parts to avoid them falling into the wrong hands led straight away to them all falling into the wrong hands.

Which means Sly has risked the lives, the freedom and the mental well-being of his closest friends all in the name of stopping a great threat (which probably would not have emerged) that he ends up ensuring comes to fruition. His recklessness has unleashed a potentially immortal evil being on the world. This no longer sounds like much of a hero’s journey, does it?

Once again the developers just needed some high stakes for their dramatic finale. There is nothing wrong with a heroic protagonist failing; in fact it is a good way of demonstrating their vulnerability. When every action of the protagonist is all for nought, however, and succeeds in achieving the exact opposite of their goal (and this being entirely foreseeable), they do not end up looking much like a hero.

Consequences

Carmelita lost her job, her reputation and was subjected to mind-invasive torture. Murray was also psychologically tortured and even lost the van he has owned since adolescence. Bentley has so far escaped lasting damage. Guess what is about to happen.

After foiling the reanimated Clockwerk’s new master plan (which involved driving the population Paris mad with hallucinogenic drugs. Oh sure, it’s a kids game so they keep calling it ‘illegal spice’, but it is pretty clear the Klaww Gang are running a drug empire), Bentley devises a plan to destroy the menace once and for all. He climbs into the bird’s mouth and rips out the technology that has kept Clockwerk alive all these years.

Then the mouth closes suddenly, shattering Bentley’s legs. Which Murray blames himself for and has a total mental breakdown.

So there we have it. Sly’s grand scheme to pre-emptively stop Clockwerk for a second time (that ended up directly causing his return) ended up permanently paralyzing Bentley and psychologically breaking Murray. Sly, meanwhile, walks away entirely unscathed and immediately does back to flirting with a newly reinstated Carmelita. He disappears into the night without a single lesson learned and the game ends.

All of this assembled proof suggests Sly is a reckless asshole, and these are not even the most questionable acts he has committed. There is a third game in the original series that has not been explored. Surely the developers have learned some kind of lesson by then? Nope, instead they double down on their hero being selfish.

Look on my works ye mighty and despair…

Once More into the Breach

The third Sly game sees the Cooper Gang trying to reclaim the Cooper Vault, the lost sanctum of treasure that the Coopers have been collecting for hundreds of years and…

Wait just a Goddamn minute! In the first game Sly’s life was threatened, so he turned to his friends for help. In the second game Sly was (allegedly) trying to stop an evil menace returning to the world, so he turned to his friends for help. Now he is just trying to get a bunch of money, so he turns to his friends for help. One of these things is not like the others. How the Hell does he justify any of this?

Bentley cannot walk because of Sly’s last adventure. Murray left the gang to try and heal his damaged psyche. Now he’s dragging them into another dangerous adventure where the motivation is simple greed dressed up in ‘preserving the family heirlooms’ (which are stolen, just FYI). There is no hint of self-defence or heroic motivations in this quest. Sly is simply risking his friend’s lives yet again for incredibly selfish reasons.

This what I mean when I talk about Sly being terrible. He is very clearly leaning on his shared history with these people and their obvious affection towards him in order to manipulate them for his own ends. It does not matter how much they might suffer, either physically or psychologically. At the end of the day he will always force them into yet another adventure.

Obviously these are all unintended implications and it is clear the intent was clearly always to create a charming hero. Which Sly is, provided one does not consider his actions all that closely. Children are unlikely to consider the implications of Sly’s rampant selfishness while distracted by an exciting caper. Undoubtedly the likelihood of things going over a kid’s head is what leads developers to being careless.

Sly Romance

At the very end of the third game Sly takes an injury to the head. He immediately takes advantage of this turn of events to claim to have amnesia. This is genius plan for finally having his feelings towards Carmelita reciprocated. He knows that she could never date a criminal, so he pretends he never knew he was one in the first place. Now he just as to lie forever and he will be happy.

The supposed hero has resorted to tricking a woman into a romantic relationship with him by deceitfully feigning mental illness. Let’s all say that again. He has RESORTED TO TRICKING A WOMAN INTO A ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM BY DECEITFULLY FEIGNING MENTAL ILLNESS! How can positive consent possibly exist in this relationship? How can this be defined as anything other than serious emotionally abusive behaviour?

Carmelita has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. She genuinely believes that Sly has amnesia, so she tells him that he is her partner in law enforcement, meaning he is finally a proper candidate for her affections, so that she can…

Wait a second. So she comes across a man experiencing memory loss and her first instinct is to essentially brainwash his identity into something more palatable for her tastes? All so she can date him? Okay, Carmelita is also a terrible person. No wonder Sly has always been attracted to her.

By the way, to pull off this plan, Sly immediately abandons Bentley and Murray without explanation. While he does make sure they’re monetarily compensated, he drops his lifelong friends with nary a word to manipulate a woman into loving him through constant lying.

In this case there is no justification for this situation. It is just awful from whatever way you look at it, which is really the logical conclusion for not taking enough care while writing stories for children.

All healthy relationships are built on a foundation of ‘Hey remember that time my criminal plan resulted in you briefly turning you into a gigantic monster and you almost murdered me?’

Conclusion

This whole idea came from a joke I once came up with it cover up some minor plot holes that snowballed once I started finding more and more evidence. Certainly the developers never intended Sly to be viewed this way. These are children’s games starring a talking raccoon whose entire character is basically ripped from Ocean’s Eleven. These games are supposed to be fun romps, not dark commentaries on recklessly endangering your friends.

Yet while intention is important, it cannot excuse all actions. The fact that these are games designed for kids is particularly concerning; I am not one to lose my mind over the idea a child might be exposed to a mature idea, but presenting recklessness and one-sided friendships as heroic is not exactly an ideal situation.

It is up to you to decide whether or not any of this is cause for concern. Personally I think those writing children’s games in particular should put a little more care into not accidentally making their protagonists sort of terrible. After all, the ending of Sly 3 in particular is really hard to explain away. I am not saying developers need be as methodical as George R.R Martin while making games about a raccoon who pulls off heists. I just expect them to not teach children that lying about mental illness is the key to a woman’s heart.


All images courtesy of Sucker Punch

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Keeping Kosher In Monster Hunter World

David

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Monster Hunter World is the best selling game in its series, with over 7.5 million units shipped. There are many reasons for this: The game is more accessible for new players, it’s not just on a handheld console anymore, there was actually some marketing push for this game…the list goes on.

However, I personally think one of the reasons the game is so popular is its food eating cutscenes. Before you go on a hunt, you can eat a meal at a canteen that gives you buffs. You’re also treated to an adorable and very tasty looking cutscene of the Palicoes (a cat like race that helps you hunt monsters) making your meal. The details are so lavish and the end product looks so good I couldn’t help thinking about it off and on for weeks. And one question that kept recurring was, “Would any of this food be Kosher?”

Kosher foods, for those of you who may not know, are foods that conform to the Jewish kashrut (dietary law). The word treif describes any food that does not abide by this law. Determining what foods are Kosher or not can get complicated since different groups of animals have different rules. At its most basic though, there are three groups of animals: land, flying, and fish (invertebrates as a rule are treif). Conveniently enough, most monsters in Monster Hunter World could fit under the same categories. We’ll go through each category and examine a few monsters from the game to decide if any (or all) of them can be Kosher.

Before we begin though, I’d like to give major props to one of our editors, Gretchen. Before I wrote this article, I knew next to nothing about what makes a food Kosher or not. Gretchen not only educated me, but did a lot of the heavy lifting, and for that I am grateful.

By Land

The first monster up for discussion is called Uragaan. Uragaan lives mostly in volcanic regions and is identifiable its large chin, its shiny, lustrous golden hide, and the spikes along its back. It consumes mostly bedrock and those large spikes on its back are actually crystals. It produces a sticky, tar like substance on its stomach, which it uses to attach explosive rocks to itself as a means of defense. If someone were to knock down or kill Uragaan, they’d be able to mine the vast mineral wealth on it’s back…but they wouldn’t be able to eat it, as Uragaan isn’t Kosher.

Not Kosher

In order for a land animal to be Kosher, it has to meet three basic requirements. First, it can not be a carnivore or a scavenger. It can not eat meat. Second, it must have a split hoof. Horses aren’t Kosher, but animals like cattle and sheep are. Finally, the animal must chew its cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud and thus are not Kosher. Uragaan meets the first rule, but fails with the second and third. As such, Uragaan can never be Kosher.

The next monster up is Kirin. Kirin resembles a unicorn or (more accurately) a Chinese Qilin. It has a single large horn growing out of its head, with a white mane and tail that seem to stand on end from static electricity. It’s body appears to have fur, but those actually are scales. Kirin also seems to crackle with electricity as it walks. Looking at the picture we can see clearly that it has a split hoof. The game doesn’t tell us what it eats or if it chews its cud, but if we extrapolate what it looks like and compare to say, an antelope or a deer (both of which are Kosher) we can safely assume that Kirin is Kosher as well, right? Wrong.

Also Not Kosher

Kirin fails to be Kosher not by the quality of the animal, but by the quality of its behavior. You see, Kirin belongs to a group of monsters called Elder Dragons and these monsters, in addition to being tougher the ordinary monsters, are immune to traps and tranqs unlike other monsters. This presents a problem, as in order for meat be Kosher, the butchering must happen in one swift action using a sharp knife. Shooting the creature with an automatic repeating crossbow is not the way to do it. Kirin, unfortunately, is not Kosher for this reason.

We come now to the last land based monster in this article: The Kelbi. Kelbi, unlike the monsters mentioned thus far, are not aggressive. They are small, and the males are usually green in color while the females and juveniles are blue. Males also have large, prominent horns while female horns are smaller. In-game, Kelbi horns are medicinal, and players make potions out of them. I’m also happy to report that Kelbi might be our first (possibly) Kosher monster.

Kosher! (maybe)

Like Kirin, Kelbi has a split hoof. We also know that Kelbi are herbivores, but it is unknown whether or not Kelbi chew their cud. Extrapolating and comparing them to real world deer and goats though, we can have more confidence that Kelbi are, in fact, Kosher.

By Air

Now we will discuss birds. According to Jewish tradition, animals that fly and are not insects are birds. Thus animals such as bats are ‘birds’ in regards to Kosher rules. The rules for birds themselves are fairly simple. They can’t be predatory or scavengers. This rule immediately rules out the next monster on the list: Rathalos.

Not Kosher

Rathalos is known as the “King of the Sky” and is the male counterpart to Rathian, another flying monster.  Rathalos are bipedal wyverns, primarily red in color, with sharp, poisonous claws that they use to hunt with. In addition to that, they have a flame sac that they use to produce flaming projectiles from, and their long thick tail has a club at the end of it. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, no birds of prey can be Kosher.

The next monster on the list is one of the oddest in the game. Pukei-Pukei resembles at first glance a giant chameleon with frog like eyes, wings, and green scales covering its body everywhere except around its wings and neck, where it has feathers. The Pukei-Pukei is an herbivore and it will eat poisonous plants so it can produce a poison to defend itself. Despite all of these peculiar traits, Pukei-Pukei appears to be Kosher.

Kosher! (Surprisingly!)

I was surprised to hear Gretchen tell me this, as I thought there would be no way a monster as weird as Pukei-Pukei could be considered Kosher. But as she laid the case out it began to make more sense. Despite some reptilian traits, Pukei-Pukei has more avian traits, and that classifies it as a creature of the air under the kashrut. As a creature of the air, it has to meat a few specifications. It does not scavenge like a vulture, nor does it hunt like a bird of prey. Thus, Pukei-Pukei meets the requirements.

And By Sea

There aren’t very many sea monsters in Monster Hunter World sadly. Only one of them really seems like it would count. And this one is Jyuratodus. Jyuratodus resembles nothing more than a bipedal coelacanth fish. It has two dorsal fins, two pectoral fins, two pelvic fins, and a long, thick tail that it can use to defend itself. It also covers itself in mud and other ooze, to act as another layer of defense and to possibly keep its gills and scales damp. Fortunately for us, practically the only water based monster in this game is also Kosher.

Kosher, and think of all the sushi.

For a sea animal to be considered Kosher, it must have fins and scales that can be removed. This generally means that the stereotypical fish is allowed, but not animals such as eel, lobster, squid or crab. Jyuratodus, despite its size and aggression does have fins and scales and would be Kosher.

The Hunt Goes On…

So what are we left with from this list? Two monsters that could be considered Kosher, three that are not, and one that might be, if it chews cud. And this is only a small sample of the monsters in the game. Not only that, but Capcom has plans to release more monsters as free DLC over the upcoming months. When the PC version of the game is out, I might revisit this article and expand on it. Until then though, happy hunting and bon appétit!


Images Courtesy of Capcom

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Analysis

Hopes and Fears for Deadfire

Michał

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The release of Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire, the sequel to an old-school RPG that’s close to my heart, was pushed back a month. An unfortunate state of affairs, to be sure, but tolerable if it gives the developers the time to eliminate bugs. It also gave me time to undertake another play-through of the original. This time, as a female dwarf druid from the Deadfire Archipelago, just to see if it becomes relevant.

And for those of us who appreciate traditional, yet forward-looking RPGs as I do, I’d like to talk a bit about what I hope and worry about in the sequel. Unfortunately, I was unable to get into the player beta that has been going on for some months now, for brutally fiscal reasons. So while I kept close tabs on the testers were saying, I must avoid making authoritative statements.

Instead, I’m going to cover some big topics that occur to me as I play Pillars of Eternity again and wait for Deadfire. Those are, in no particular order…

Spells: rest or encounter?

First things first: since I play a full spellcaster as my main character for the first time, I already can’t wait for Deadfire’s upgrade to spells with per-encounter uses, rather than per-rest. Having spells that only recharge on a full rest stunts the game’s pacing and makes balance very difficult. What we have here is three situations:

  • The caster doesn’t use any of their per-rest spells and doesn’t contribute much.
  • The caster does contribute without per-rest spells, using per-encounter or passive abilities. Each main casting class has those.
  • The caster dominates the encounter with powerful spells.

None of those situations are optimal. If we have either the first or the last, it means two extremes. If the second or the last, then it means those classes’ performance is similar to those with per-encounter or passive abilities, but they also sit on tactical nukes.

There’s really no way to balance it against classes whose abilities are available a number of times every encounter, or entirely passive. It will inevitably swing in the direction of some classes having more impact on the battle than others.

Resting as a pacing mechanic is notoriously unreliable, because the game can’t really control how much we rest. It can dole out camping supplies and make some areas impossible to rest in, but players can bypass it all. In a tabletop game, per-rest encounters will rely on the GM’s willingness and ability to enforce a particular pacing. In a video game…there’s no GM to do that.

This change has met with mixed reception. Aside from those who think it’s dumbing down the game, there have been concerns over insufficient quantity of spells and the fact that they take too long to cast. Meaning the battle might be over by the time you fire off that spell. The latter two are legitimate, and I hope the developers address them.

But regardless of what issues arise from a shift to a per-rest resource management, I really think it’s for the best. Per-rest spells are a relic of old-school D&D that has stuck around by inertia. We can’t be rid of it in D&D, so let’s at least remove it from Pillars.

Health and safety

The health system of Pillars of Eternity is somewhat controversial. Its removal in favor of a more traditional health in the sequel, perhaps more so. The original system measures two health “bars”: endurance and health.

Every time you take damage, you lose both, but while endurance regenerates by itself and through abilities, health doesn’t. You have at least four times as much health as endurance, which means it drops slowly. Once your health becomes lower than maximum endurance, the latter is also lower. Dropping to 0 endurance knocks you out, dropping to 0 health maims you, then kills you.

In theory, I like it. It’s a compromise between old-school unforgiving attrition and a more modern style where everyone gets back to full strength after each battle. But I’m not sure it works so well in practice.

Sometimes it does, and introduces slow sapping of your characters’ strength and forcing you to rest. But at other times, you either avoid damage enough for it not to matter or one character is focus-fired by enemies and their health drops dangerously low. So you have to rest even though everyone else is fine.

This particularly punishes characters who get into the thick of it without necessarily being tough and wearing heavy armor, but also back-like casters or shooters who end up target of enemy attacks. There’s no “taunt” mechanics that would straight-up force enemies to attack certain characters instead of others, either.

Deadfire will remove this duality and simply have health that acts like endurance did. Once you drop to 0, you’re once again knocked out, which results in maximum health dropping by 25%, in addition to injuries. But if it didn’t drop to 0, it will return after the fight just fine.

While I wish they could have tried to strike some sort of compromise and refine the health/endurance system, I can see why they did this instead. The old system was fiddly, random and many players didn’t understand it. Although in the last case I think the problem was with insufficient explanation. The game never tells us in plain terms how it works, so of course it confuses people. But other than that, I can respect their choice of predictable simplicity over continued tinkering.

Matters of romance

We don’t know a lot about romance in Deadfire, only that it will be there. It will also include non-heterosexual relationships, something rather conspicuously absent from the original – with the exception of openly lesbian Maneha and her crush on Pallegina. Whether or not Pallegina reciprocated it is less than clear. She’s flustered by Maneha’s attention, rather than threaten bodily harm as she usually does, so maybe?

This has drawn some ire from people. Some complaints stem from elitism, believing that romances are something from a BioWare game and Obsidian should be better. Others come from a place of homophobia, believing that the existence of non-heterosexual romances are a sign the SJWs are coming.

An actual concern one might raise is accidentally getting our character tangled up in a romance. The developers promise a complex system of inter-personal relationships, where all sorts of interactions will influence them. That’s great…if it works. I expect that they will still be predictable to some degree. But I also worry about accidentally making an NPC attracted to us.

Relationships developing in a way we didn’t expect or plan for is natural, of course. In fact, that’s what the supposed complex network of influence is meant to accomplish. But when it comes to romantic or even sexual matters…I feel it’s different. Having someone suddenly display such interest in your character can be uncomfortable.

We’ve seen it in RPGs before, particularly those from BioWare. That studio eventually adopted a system of making it absolutely clear we’re pursuing a line of dialogue that may develop into a relationship. What will Deadfire do here? Regardless of how they handle it, I do look forward to this new way of tracking relationships and influence among our companions.

Class relations…

One of the major features in the sequel is the ability to mix and match classes. Or, well, not mix and match, really. You can pick two classes and get abilities from both, but at a slower pace. While you will have a broader repertoire, you will get new tiers of abilities later than a single-class character of the same level would get.

I’ve been excited and worried about it ever since its announcement. It has so much potential for customization, but also for breaking the game. The balance team certainly has their hands full with it. By some accounts, single-class characters feel not so much weaker as constrained, compared to multi-classed ones. There’s just not enough abilities to pick from, or ability points to use. There have been some hints on how they plan to fix it, so I hope they do. This is a tremendous opportunity and I look forward to playing a greatsword-wielding Fighter/Rogue.

…and many more

There’s a good deal of other innovations Deadfire will include, but it would really take me a while to discuss them all. The new system for damage reduction and penetrating it, managing your ships, exploring the vast archipelago… this game promises to be huge, and what I discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg,

Whatever happens, Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire promises to stay on the same course of marrying old-school gameplay with innovative, fresh design. I have high hopes for it, with the usual trepidation over their getting dashed to the ground. But that’s just how it goes when a series doesn’t just repeat the same things over and over.


Images courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

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Gaming

Dialect is an amazing game that asks if dying languages should be saved

David

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Greetings readers! Today will be the first of hopefully many reviews of tabletop role playing games. Some of them more mainstream, and others somewhat obscure. Today’s review is going to be about one of the more obscure titles. The game is Dialect and it is made by Thorny Games. Dialect is about language. Specifically, how languages are born, can grow, change your way of thinking, and how they can die. The team working on it has quite a pedigree, and includes people like David Peterson, who created the fictional languages on Game of Thrones.

Now, full disclosure: This game was on Kickstarter, and I did back it. My review will be based on the initial digital copy of the game I was given after the crowd-funding campaign was successful. I played Dialect with three other people: M, T, and V, none of whom backed the crowd-funding campaign.  

The Game

Dialect itself is different then a lot of “traditional” tabletop RPGs in that there are no dice, and no GM running the game. All you need are index cards, the five different decks of language cards that come with it, and the rules. Dialect requires three to five players as well, counting yourself.

The first thing the players do when they begin a game of Dialect is picking a backdrop for the game. The backdrop (called an “Isolation” in-game) is what separates this group from the wider world. These Isolations range from the physical (A new colony on Mars) to the cultural (A thieves guild). The Isolation is what lets them develop their language. The language also changes with the Isolation as well, as the next step is to define three different “aspects” about the Isolation. These shape the language, and will vary from game to game. In one example from the book, an aspect for a colony on Mars might be the ever present dust storms. After that the players have to answer questions about their community. These are smaller than the aspects, but still can define how the language will grow and change.

Once the players have answered all the questions, they draw three “archetype” cards, choosing one of them to use. These cards define a role in the isolation, and range from Innocent to Zealot. Leader to Jester. Each archetype has a different relationship with the different aspects. Some relate to only one aspect, some relate to them all. After selecting an aspect, giving a bit of backstory to the character, and determining their name and what others call them, the meat of Dialect can begin.

Each player starts with three cards from the first language deck in their hand. These cards have different word ideas on them. They range from ‘Greeting’ to ‘Bad Omen’ to ‘Filler World’. The player then ties this word to one of the aspects, explaining how the aspect gave rise to this word. It’s at this point that the players can discuss what word fit the best. In the end though, only the person who played the card can decide what the word is. After that, the final step is to have an in-character conversation either using or conspicuously not using the word. The final step has the player draws a card from the second language deck, and play passes to the next person.

After each player has had a turn, the “Era” changes. Now the isolation will have to deal with hints that their way of life is ending. There are three eras. By the end of the third, the Isolation has ended, and the language (Or at least the culture that spoke it) dies.

THE GOOD

One of the goals of Dialect is to create a language based on what the players want. And in this, it succeeds spectacularly. The language cards are clear and concise. The round table nature of the game also makes sure that every player has a say. As ‘V’ puts it: ”The floor is pretty much always open for discussion, but it prods every player into the spotlight so nobody gets unintentionally left out. The ‘this is 100% your choice’ questions make you feel more attached to that element of the game.”

Another, smaller aspect of Dialect I particularly enjoyed was how the book (and by extension, the writers) were concerned about player’s comfort levels. They stress repeatedly how the group should know it’s limits, and to avoid situations or scenarios that might be triggering to other players. A lot of games do this nowadays, but few do it as frequently or as early as Dialect does.

Dialect is also open ended enough that it can be useful when used with other settings to define specific cultures. ‘M’ agreed with that sentiment, and added: “I feel like it was less a game in and of itself than one of those generators I see every now and then, to help build a setting or a space marine chapter or whatever else.”

One of the strongest aspects of Dialect is the re-playability. With the randomness of the cards, the different selections of Isolations, and even the contrasting moods of the players, you will have a totally different experience each time. ‘T’ put it best, saying: ”A lot of the games will be different each time. Between the scenarios and the players and the cards, everyone will have a different perspective.”

THE BAD

Dialect is not without its faults. The most prominent of which is the very thrust of it’s premise. A game about how languages die can be very high concept, and that can scare some players away. Another thing that can scare players away is the group role-playing and decision process. Some players are just naturally more timid than others. In ‘T’’s words: “as it stands someone who isn’t comfortable at the sort of ‘rping’ it out probably wouldn’t get the same enjoyment’

Another fault with Dialect that stems from its focus on language is that nearly all it’s focus is on the language. There is very little to help new players get used to roleplaying. There is also very little that helps distinguish between the language creation and the roleplaying aspect. ‘V’ had a bit to say on this: “I think the game’s biggest weakness, from what I played, was the actual roleplaying part. It’s 90% meta, OOC [Out of character] discussion of your language, then you suddenly have to scramble into character and improv on the spot.”

The final criticism I have with Dialect is that there are places in the rules where there is ambiguity. Some rules errata will fix that issue though.

FINAL VERDICT

Before I give my opinion on the game itself, there are a few things I would like to mention. The first is that the Isolation does not have to be literal. It can be as simple as a boarding school, or even a website where people go to congregate. I even noticed some parallels to a few of the Isolations and the early LGBT movement. Not that the LGBT movement is dead, but that the language of it has changed since the early days.

The second thing I want to tell you about is a story from the test game I ran before writing this review. The players were members of a thieves guild in early 19th century London. They were con-men, swindling rich aristocrats out of their money by selling them ‘Mummy dust’ that was actually just dirt scraped up off the side of the road. One of the words the came up with was the word ‘Stone’ to refer to a bad omen. Named after the newly discovered Rosetta Stone, the word took on new meaning in a few turns, and began to be a term for anyone who wouldn’t fall for their tricks. It became one of my personal favorite words that session. When the game ended, I realized that the word was dead. Only a game like Dialect could make me feel that way about a simple word.

Dialect is an amazing game. I highly recommend it for people curious about language, those who are looking for a tool to help flesh out their own worlds, or for anyone just looking for a unique, fun game that doesn’t require a lot of set-up. Everything from the art design to the rules to the cards all helps bring the main focus of Dialect into perspective: What is lost when a language dies? Are dying languages worth saving?

Having played Dialect, I can tell you the answer to the second question. Yes.


Images courtesy of Thorny Games

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