Writing On The Blank Slates

So, what do I do when confronted with a semi-blank slate character?

Make up an incredibly ridiculous backstory, of course. Undertale is a good example in point, because of how deliberately vague everything in it is-given my fertile imagination. Obligatory spoiler warning despite the game having been out for quite some time now.

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The main character of the game is intended to be a blank slate. Their low-res appearance is intended to be of an ambiguous gender.

Nearly of my Frisks are girls, based solely on me thinking the sprite looked more like one. But more importantly, all of them have extant human families. The story of the one who climbed the mountain varies a lot-ranges from the child of two wealthy financiers to a struggling parent, to a crackpot “analyst”. But the one variable is that all of them are kind and loving. The worst I got was an unscrupulous and hideously ambitious “stage mom” who pushed her daughter too hard and, post-pacifist end, sees her as a way up-but who is still ultimately caring and not outright abusive.

I tend to dislike kicked-puppy backstories, and for someone like Frisk, it makes even less sense that an abused, beaten child could be as friendly and forgiving as them (to say nothing of their incredible will to live).

One of my crazier, not serious ones is Frisk as a Little Sister style test subject, the antithesis of that. One of my crazier ones is her as a descendant of a Circle Trigon fighter, but that’s just me liking that crazy taxpayer-funded Esperanto empire too much.

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Chara, the other human in the game, is a harder case. A kicked-puppy background is easier to justify for them, as they “hated humanity” and ended up committing suicide.  At first, I made Chara a boy named Charlie, but now they’re sometimes a girl with that as their proper name.

To be honest, Chara never held that high a place in the story for me. They’re long dead by the time Frisk drops into the underground, and that’s that. No genocide route and none of the increasingly twisted “narrator Chara possession” theories.

But I still wanted a backstory, and my most recent attempt at one was surprisingly large. Chara’s father was a war criminal who met a violent end, leaving his/her De’Londa Bryce-esque mother to try and preserve her lavish lifestyle on his dwindling ‘prize money’. When Chara got old enough, reading about their father’s actions and mother’s stress made something in them snap and they ran off to the mountain where it was rumored no one returned from. The rest was history.

Although, the words “war criminal” and “cutesy Earthbound homage” don’t exactly go well together. Oh well…

 

When a scenario is too balanced

Here it goes.

I’ve been having less fun making Command scenarios than I did when I first made a few. They haven’t become unfun, just less fun. I didn’t know why, until a Tasteful Understated Nerdrage (excellent video series, btw) video described it.

The games were described as “too balanced”, and having “too much choice”, and the video explained why that was the case. To me, I emphasized with “too balanced”-and the mindset that made games shift from unbalanced to the opposite extreme.

I missed the original Infinity Engine games almost-OK, totally completely. But in other games of that era, I can see the imbalances described at work-the original Pokemon, with its overpowered Psychic type, the stuffing of “poison” to all but one grass-type, the glitches, and so forth.

So, exploring Command, exploring the editor, exploring the circumstances, and, without the clearest picture, making something, was an experience that was majestic. This was also an experience that could only happen once. Even if I made an unbalanced scenario, it would be a calculated one-one of “Ok, let me handicap the Italians with third-gen fighters”, not “Ok, what do they have, hmm, F-104s, ok, I’ll use those”. I know too much about the context and the game mechanics to repeat my initial experience-and that’s both a good and bad thing.

Languages

I have an interest in conlangs that isn’t matched by my knowledge of linguistics. This, combined with me wanting desperately to avoid the “Garbled English with tons of apostrophes” cliches, has made my actual output slim.

The only non-English languages I have real experience with are small quantities of French and both Mandarin and Cantonese variants of Chinese. Yes, those two rare, unstudied Chinese and Romance languages. (I also have some indirect contact with Hungarian)

So all I have is concepts, that I’d need a lot more experience actually processing to get right (well enough to say this has a weird word order, but would need more to get the word order consistently right. About the only non-English grammar I ‘get’ is grammatical gender.

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So, my most-developed concept:

Iflinikh-

-Mentioned as being extremely unlike English.

-OVS word order (meaning it sounds ‘backwards’ to English, which is SVO)

-Very few vowels and a ton of consonants, with the inspiration being the now-gone and extreme Ubykh.

-I was originally going to pile on the genders, noun cases, and everything irregular and non-English, but have considered instead having it be an agglutinative language with many affixes like Hungarian.

-Can technically be written in the Latin alphabet but is hard due its ton of consonants, with the native writing system being an abugida.

Now there’s names, which I’ve found are frequently neglected in existing conlangs. When using an existing conlang, I often have to get objects that could be used as names and shove them together. This is unsatisfactory a lot of the time. A lot of names (especially English names) are ‘weird’ in their origins, so I can understand, but it still can be tough..

How I’ve Tried to Fit A Square Monster into a Round Hole

Fiction is an interesting phenomenon. A premise that remains totally implausible from a realistic standpoint can nonetheless be accepted completely, and without protest. The reader can understand that it’s the way the setting is. But some approaches can make a reader more critical.

Like most people who grew up in the 1990s, I had and have a soft spot for the “Pocket Monsters”. I will freely admit to reading and writing Pokemon fanfiction. However enjoyable (in a guilty-pleasure way) the fiction is, I saw a trend. Nearly every attempt to make a ‘darker’ fic seemed to fail. The prototypical example of the trend, Pokemon Master, is illustrative-rather than trying to chip away at the goofy parts for a cartoon, the authors plop hordes and hordes of “grimdark” on top of this, meaning that instead of a yellow Pikachu goofily shocking someone, you have a black Pikachu gorily killing someone.

I thought, with typical misguided enthusiasm, that I could do better. This had huge problems of its own (more to come later), but I was determined to fit the square monster into a round hole. I basically summed up my feelings on a traditional journey (in hindsight, I was a lot harsher than I should have been-I don’t want to reject something entirely due to lack of ‘realism’)-in one forum post.

Then I have to say one of the biggest problems with portraying the Pokemon World as some sort of Darwinian dreamland is that the representations we see of it show modern standards of living and peaceful cities. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that when fanfiction writers try to change that, they almost invariably fail, because formalized battles and leaders being kids in silly costumes are incompatible with a truly rough, tumble, survival of the fittest society (Also, in such a society, no one would send their valuable kid out on a “character-building” journey, there would be plenty of character-building just living.) Another, somewhat related problem with having everyone go out on a journey is that having everyone’s youth go and flop around, then come back to a modern society, would wreak havoc on an economy.

So, the only way I can think of this is to have the number of people who actually go on journeys to be limited, and to make the setting of the games a pseudo-Darwinian dreamland. One version just has a lucky few going on journeys as part of becoming professional trainers and everyone else lives a normal, hard-worked life broadly comparable to modern existence. Another, darker one basically has the area being closer to a Persian Gulf rentier state than anything else-the economy is driven by off-screen commodities, and you have a small “native” population backed up by tons and tons of foreign workers, and the native population small enough and the money great enough that you can have artificial prosperity despite ludicrous inefficiency.

So in my first version, the aspiring trainer is basically the equivalent of specializing in music or athletics for most of their early life, only really going on a journey (as opposed to catching one common Pokemon near their home, etc..) if they show real talent. Even that’s a means to an end-the moment they compete in real tournaments, they stop journeying and start just training.

In the second version, the aspiring trainer’s family has a home with tons of servants, a simple job, and enough money to be contented. Yet because of this bizarre fantasy, they feel that they have to send their kid out into the brush because it’s the only way you can truly build character.    

I fell bizarrely in love with the rentier state model of the Pokemon nation, and my thoughts and development of it continued-not so much for ‘plausibility’ or ‘realism’ as just that I liked the concept-darker without being stereotypically grimdark, and good enough to work.

The resulting nation is kind of like a weird cross between the Roman Republic and a Gulf oil-state.

One decision, undoubtedly controversial even to me, was to “wall off” the capabilities of the monsters. The answer is contrived, a sort of “GM says so” argument, because I wanted them there without it turning into a civilization ruled by warrior-kings controlling their legendary and final-stage evolution Pokemon. The most controversial handwave was to say that Pokemon cannot be used in large-scale armed conflict among humans.

The justifications are as follows-

-The previous Pokemon-training human civilization destroyed itself, along with many, many Pokemon in a cataclysmic war.

-This left a psychic/aura ‘imprint’ on the remaining ones (and the hidden legendaries, assuming they exist).

-Thus, they’ll just disobey and run off if ordered to fight in a battle bigger than the 1986 FBI shootout, and even something like that requires incredible discipline.

-The League, whose base consists of the descendents of the few survivors of said cataclysism, has a gigantic revulsion to using Pokemon in battle for that reason. They also have warehouse-loads of Master Balls at the ready in case they face anyone who does not share that objection and has somehow managed to weaponize Pokemon.

The nation has a population, of, at most, 10-12 million people. Of those, slightly less than half are native-born citizens, and the rest are foreign migrants. (Cardona has favorable geography mixed with a psychotic immigration enforcement). Only citizens are allowed to be trainers.

The economy is a petro-state, completely dependent on resource revenues. They also are blessed with good enough isolation to spend very little on conventional defense. This means they can get away with a lot of inefficiency.

That was the easy part. The hard part was making a story, since all this focused worldbuilding was taking away from the fact that it’s still ultimately a setting where kids run around and chase monsters. So enter the League’s Special Intelligence and Investigation, which I could use as a crossover bait. Their job is to do both the League’s dirty work and keep the possible dangerous consquences of Pokemon in the bottle. Lavishly funded, they have cross-dimensional transport capability that they take full advantage of.

SII had various forms, from a somewhat realistic agency to an outright XCOM-esque force. The biggest problem was that they were so thematically alien to the setting-evil team leaders being “Gerald Bulled” by a ruthless force that doesn’t play by the cartoonish rules is just nihilistic and munchkiny. So that seemed like a dead end as well.

Then it hit me. The “doesn’t play by the same rules” applied to SII as well. They’re used to dealing with rabble-rousers and ‘ordinary’ antagonists who can have their lairs overrun by commandos. What they’re not used to dealing with is (to give an example from just the second movie) hideously rich collectors who have giant flying castles that would require a lot more than a single missile to bring down.

Suddenly, it goes from a grimdark munchkin-stomp to a story about the interactions between a grounded and “leaping” setting, with the former not always the best. I could even have SII enter a world with total anime physics as a joke and watch their commandos go flying into the sky after they attack ineffectually. But except as a humorous bonus, I don’t think I’d go that far.

What I would be aiming for is something like a scene in, of all things, the first Mortal Kombat movie. Sonya draws her gun on SubZero, and he just nonchalantly freezes it, showing the game is changed. Under my earlier concepts, the whole scene would be just a repeat of the infamous swordfighter ‘clash’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now-it’s the cue for the ‘rationalists’ to redefine their definition of ‘rationality’.

Certainly going to be a lot more fun to write.

“This Pikachu is a Class Hexa threat.”

“But it’s just a Pikach-wait, it what?”

“I told you.”
Oh, and that horde of Master Balls the League thinks is its ace in the hole? Well, let me just say that the enemy gets a vote…

Ripples in the Sandbox

Playing any sort of sandbox game, I can’t help but think of the ripples that might move on from it. Both Automation: The Car Company Tycoon Game and Command: Modern Air Naval Operations are, thanks to their gigantic arrays of details, excellent at this.

So, in Command, I think of what effect the battle will have on not just politics, but on force issues.

One battle may lead to the accelerated retirement of certain obsolete units. One may either boost the dominance of a certain platform or bring a new one into vogue. Economic ripple effects may cause stronger or weaker defense spending, with the side effects that exist from that. Almost all never amount to more than daydreams, but they’re fun daydreams.

With Automation, given its bottom-up build-a-car mode, the question is often reversed-not “how will this car affect _____” but “how will ______ affect this car?”. Some examples are fairly ‘easy’-Kyoto or another climate protocol means a forcibly efficient car that uses a lot of exotic gimmicks to boost mileage faster than a “natural” and gradual efficiency gain. Others are tougher (I’ve thought of designing hypothetical cars in an existing alternate history setting where A: machine tools are decades behind history, and B: Japan’s car industry is not an international one. Needless to say, the cars would be a lot different).

Sometimes I answer those style questions in Command, pointing to Empire State lobbying as the reason for adopting the Super Tomcat (F-14s were built on Long Island), or greater naval air losses in the Gulf War forcing a stealth carrier unit (The F-117N or more capable A/F-117X, adaptations of the classic stealth fighter with far superior avionics taken from the cancelled A-12).

Then the question goes all the way around again, and I ponder the fairly short service lives of these stealth attackers (they’re a stopgap developed from the F-117, which was a bare-bones stopgap in and of itself).

Little comes of this, but it’s fun.

My Spacebattles Velocity History

My Spacebattles Velocity History

Sometime in 2006, I typed in a Google search for “M2 Bradley” and began clicking through page after page of results. Little did I know that this IFV would end up changing history. I went to a page on Stardestroyer.net, a “Star Trek vs. Star Wars” site. Then I saw references to a spacebattles.com, and signed up for that.

For most of my early time on Spacebattles (starting with my signing up in December 2006), I hung out in the Vs. Debates section. In hindsight a silly attempt to quantify the inherently arbitrary, it nevertheless appealed to me at the time-especially given the choices.

Then I sort of burned out and reverted to lurking, not posting very much. I was still active in viewing, just not in posting. At the time, I didn’t really see the huge change in the site. Now I can see it. Basically, by 2008-2009, the old sci-fi standbys of Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, and even Warhammer 40,000 had started to run out of steam. In Stardestroyer.Net, this meant the site itself (though there were many other factors involved) began to just fade and drop in activity. But Spacebattles changed.

Huge amounts of roleplayers signed up, as did fanfiction writers. The center of the site shifted to the relevant subforums. Creative Writing, once a sleepy little board, became gigantic. Space Battles General was so overloaded by quests and RPs that a spinoff had to be made. And-then the server woes began.

Space Battles only remained in business because a programmer acquired it as a guinea pig board for vBulletin. Said owner was-to put it mildly-an absentee landlord. The latest server upgrade under him was done with the assumption that its growth would continue at the same mild rate-instead of increasing eightfold (!).

Naturally, the server became overloaded as the board grew. Changing board software to XenForo helped somewhat, but everything was only a temporary reprieve as the post swarms continued. Then in 2014, the slog became a breakout.

In April came the Athene Incident (named for the moderator’s name). Athene, a longstanding and loved moderator, was dismissed in the worst possible way. The board administrators tried to cover-up with a statement about “retiring”, but didn’t consult Athene on the coverup to see if she would agree to it (!). Page after page of flamewars and anger continued, and that’s when the split occured.

Several members of SB launched a spinoff board, named Sufficient Velocity. I stated at the time that I viewed the Athene Incident was a catalyst-it would have probably blown over had it not been for the server issues. (Also, there was a definite culture split-I think the incident was the ignition, the server issue the powder, and the shell was the different user culture).

I saw no problems with the creation of Sufficient Velocity. Although I spend far more time on Spacebattles, I have no problems with being a member of both boards.

On Spacebattles itself, things changed. The administrators apologized, there was a semi-coup with supermods becoming new admins and the older ones settling into technical roles, and (after a while), the site itself was taken under new ownership and upgraded. Now I primarily stay on the Creative and Spacebattles General boards, not going into Vs. Debates any more.
Quite the adventure.