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Waving the Black Flag of Continuity Surrender

Brion

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(Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag).

Readers of my previous article may have guessed that I have spent the past month working my way through Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (hitherto to be referred to as just Black Flag). People might be sensibly wondering what exactly I’m doing playing a four year old instalment of a series with annual releases.

In truth I have never really played an Assassin’s Creed game before, having been thoroughly uninterested by the series since its inception. Prior to Black Flag my only experience with the series is the thirty minutes I spent playing the first game in a friend’s house years ago and my viewing of the movie. I only bought Black Flag because it was a pirate game (the most shamefully under-represented genre in big-budget video games).

Having essentially no frame of reference for anything that occurred in the game posed an interesting problem. Black Flag was the sixth main instalment in the series. Five games centred around four different main characters in as many time periods already exist. This is not the optimum point to join the story.

Yet this industry thrives on sequels. Given that most long-running franchises spawn sequels more popular than their predecessors, it cannot be uncommon for a player to be dropped halfway into a story and be forced to keep their heads above water. Do games as far into a series as Black Flag account for these newcomers? Let us discuss.

 

Basic Set Dressing

First things first. I am about to talk about a whole bunch of things that were not explained to me about the world of Assassin’s Creed in Black Flag. Yes, I know I could have looked these things up, that is not the point. The point is not the lack of knowing the information itself, but rather the game’s reluctance to share it.

From what I have gathered, the Assassin’s Creed series revolves around people in the not too distant future using a machine called the Animus to re-live the memories of their ancestors. Historical settings such as the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the American Revolution have all been the basis for previous games. Black Flag takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th Century.

Former privateer, current pirate, and barer of a remarkably posh English accent for a Welshman, Edward Kenway stumbles backwards into an age-old conflict between Assassins and Templars. Kenway, being more motivated by a desire for wealth, precedes to ignore this global secret war except for when it directly affects him.

As he asks few questions about both organisations, little is revealed about either. This becomes extremely frustrating late in the game when Kenway joins the Assassins, dedicates himself to fighting the Templars and still finds out essentially nothing about the two groups.

“MY name is Edward Kenway and I do not ask questions! Even when it would directly benefit me to do so!”

Evil Fascists V Good Murderers?

Given that a game centred around stabbing people needs a long list of villains, and that the villains are primarily all Templars, by the end of the game I had some kind of sense as to what the Templars were (the film also helped on this front). The Templars want to eliminate free will as a means of creating peace. This is an easy to understand concept.

As most of the Templars are slavers, employees of the British Empire, or both, it is quite clear that this is a group of reprehensible people. They are fascists. I do not like fascists. Therefore I can accept that I should not like the Templars and fully support Kenway in his endeavours to leap upon them clutching knives.

The Assassins, on the other hand, are basically ciphers. I know three things about them having completed Black Flag.

  • Their creed is “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.
  • They stand in direct opposition to the Templars.
  • They murder countless people.

The game frequently paints this order as being nobler than the Templars, but never explains why they should be perceived as the good guys. While opposing fascists and slavers wins them plenty of good guy points, the whole ‘it is morally permissible to murder everyone’ thing is a giant mark against them.

And while the game hints that there is a little more to their creed than a swearing off of all morality, it does not explain the substance at any point. Kenway goes from being a murderous pirate searching for riches to a murderous pirate/assassin fighting fascism. While his goal has certainly gotten nobler, his methods are ultimately unchanged. Being opposed to evil is slightly undermined when your methods are evil in and of themselves.

 

And on my fourth day working for a gaming company I hacked a server and was greeted by a floating digital face

The primary plot of Edward Kenway is couched in a framing plot where a new employee of Abstergo Entertainment researches Kenway’s life for a video game. It is clear very early on that Abstergo is a Templar front and the silent protagonist of this plot is eventually tasked with hacking their databases by the Assassins.

These hacks to not go unnoticed, and the silent protagonist is confined to an underground bunker along with other researchers until the hacker is found. The silent protagonist is convinced to hack the main server in order to remove any evidence of their involvement in the hacking.

Whereupon a giant female face was projected from the server, spoke a bunch of utterly indecipherable mystical jargon and disappeared. Though this plot does reach a conclusion connected to this development, what the hell just happened is never explained.

It is clear that this is linked to other super-natural elements found in the main plot. It is clear the woman was not human, but rather the member of an ancient race that may or may not have ruled humanity at some point. What is unclear is if this face was an agent of good or evil. It is unclear what Ubisoft thought newcomers would think of this out of nowhere moment.

Pro Game Developing Tip: Do not suddenly introduce supernatural elements in the final third of the game if you have no intention of explaining them in any way.

What? I’m sorry, what? WHAT?

A Theatrical Interlude

One might be wondering how I could end up being so confused about all of this lore when I said up top that my first real experience with Assassin’s Creed was watching the movie. Anyone who is wondering why my knowledge is so lacking has clearly never seen this movie.

The film experiences the exact same problem as Black Flag. While it cannot stop itself from painstakingly explaining the motives of its Templar villains, the motivations of the nominal heroes are entirely undiscussed. Assassins exist only to be in opposition to the Templars, which coincidentally puts them on the right side of history (anti-slavery in Black Flag, anti-Spanish Inquisition in the movie) despite their propensity for murder.

The movie is thus unable to stand on its own, as the arc of its main character is entirely undercut by the lack of explanation. Michael Fassbender’s character turns away from a life of aimless criminality to join the Assassins and fight the good fight. This should be a quiet existential triumph for which to end a movie, and it would be if he or the audience knew anything about the Assassins.

I understand that these are plot elements that must be explained in earlier instalments, but any attempted defence of the lack of context falls apart with a simple riposte; If the movie and Black Flag were able to find the time to explain the Templars, they must also have had the time to explain the Assassins.

(Incidentally, I kind of loved the movie, great dumb beast that it was).

 

Plot Twist! And?

Having won some kind of victory in the Caribbean (everyone who ever annoyed him is dead, so it seems he achieved something), Kenway returns to England to care for his daughter. The game ends with a brief flash-forward showing a much older Kenway in rich attire, attending a theatre with his now adult daughter and his young son, Haytham Kenway.

Shock! Horror! Oh what a twist! Can you believe it! All along our heroic protagonist was the father of Haytham Kenway! This is world-shattering news! The series is changed forever! What a twist, what a twist, oh in the name of all that is holy WHAT A TWIST!

The confusion being felt by those unfamiliar with series is an exact mirror of how I felt upon learning this information. The game presents this as a plot twist, but as I had no earthly idea why the name Haytham Kenway was important, my response to this EARTH-SHATTERING TWIST was to shrug and go to bed. Presumably this was not the intended reaction.

For those with as little knowledge as I had before Googling this, Haytham Kenway is the main antagonist of Assassin’s Creed III. The fact that Edward (somehow) found redemption through the Assassin Order only to father a future Templar Leader is a tragic note on which to end his story. Or rather, it would have been if I had played the previous games and understood what I was being told. Instead the tragedy was marred with confusion and ambivalence. Some context for newcomers would have gone a long way.

Pictured Above: Apparently the future most evil man in America.

Better Than Black Flag

Black Flag is a very good video game (I wouldn’t have written two features about it otherwise). Its primary problem is entirely a failure to provide the necessary context for much of its characters and plots. This is a problem that many games can run into this deep into a series. There are, however, examples of games that handle this significantly better.

While I have criticised the Uncharted series numerous times on the website, this criticism comes from a place of fondness. Uncharted 2 is a classic, and it was also my first experience with the series. Despite having missed the beginning, there was never a moment where I did not understand Nathan Drake as a character, or his history with Elena and Sully. The game works as both a standalone and a sequel. Black Flag almost works as both, but just about fails to work as either.

The Elder Scrolls series are also good at continuity. Many people began their experience with the games by playing Skyrim, yet not having played its immediate predecessor Oblivion does not take away from the experience. The main plot of the older game is referenced in the new to provide context. Plot elements such as The Blades are re-explained in Skyrim for the sake of first time players.

Other AAA Games are perfectly able to provide the explanations that Black Flag lacks. While it can be difficult to get all necessary information in, the fact remains that the main story takes roughly fifteen hours to complete and there was still enough time to teach me how to hunt lizards for no real reason. It is not too much to ask that the motivations of the heroes be explained at some point.

 

Conclusion

Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Are these the arc words of the series? Are they a deeply philosophical motivations for all the series’ protagonists? Is it the case that they are a self-righteous justification for heinous murder? Are they merely stolen from actual history and shoved into a video game series because they sound cool (I strongly suspect this is the case)? I do not know the answer, because Black Flag would not tell me.

Perhaps this complaint is unfair given my priorities going into the game. I freely admit to not caring in any way about the Assassin’s Creed series outside of this game, and only bought it because it was cheap and I wanted to play as a pirate. Well the last month has been filled with high-sea’s adventures. Perhaps there is no need for complaints.

The criticism comes from a place of knowing that video games can and should strive to do better narratively speaking. This medium has advantages that no other comes close to regarding the connection which can be fostered between player and player-character. Games should be held to a high standard for their own sake.

I wanted to know more about Assassins because against all the odds, Black Flag made me interested in them. Why it refrained from explaining itself after working hard to capture my interest is beyond me.


All images courtesy of Ubisoft

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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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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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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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