I recently finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and I’m still trying to collect by thoughts before I begin trying to post about it, so I thought I’d take a little stroll off my usually path into the world of video games. L’Arche du capitaine Blood, or Captain Blood as it is known to its English-speaking players, was made in 1988 by ERE Informatique. In it, you control the biotic arm of Captain Blood, a video game designer who go sucked into his own video game. Unfortunately, when that happened, five duplicated were made of Blood, stealing from him vital fluids necessary for keeping him organic. The biotic arm is the first sign that Blood is becoming slowly more robotic. You must find a duplicate, disintegrate it, and reclaim your vital fluids at least once every 2.5 hours in order to maintain your organic body.
Gameplay in Captain Blood is broken into three main parts: locating inhabited worlds on your galaxy map using X/Y coordinates, navigating planet surfaces in your small organic landing craft, and talking to aliens to try to get information about your duplicates, other inhabited planets, and whatnot. Most of your time is spent in conversation trying to get information. Of course, all the aliens don’t speak the same language, so it’s fortunate that Blood’s ship is equipped with a translation device that utilizes icons in place of words.
Conversation, then, can be quite stilted, though the number of icons is fairly extensive. For example, a typical opening to a conversation might go something like this:
Alien: Howdy You. Me Croolis-Ulv Dead Genetic. Me Great Warrior. Me Like Kill Enemy.
Blood: Me Blood. Me Search Duplicate.
Alien: Me Search Information Enemy. Me Know Danger Missile.
Blood: Me Want Know Danger Missile.
Alien: Me Like Danger Missille. (Laugh Laugh). Me Search Female. Odoyante Good Female.
And so on and so forth. Each icon represents a word, so in the image above, the alien is saying, “Me Give You Planet Duplicate 234.” Of course, this nouns, verbs, and adjectives also do double-duty as names, so in the above hypothetical conversation, one might think that the alien was a Croolis-Ulv without any possibility for reproduction, a genetic dead-end, but actually his name is Dead Genetic. Same thing with Danger Missile (though I haven’t actually found Danger Missile, so he might just be talking about a planet with dangerous missiles). Planets can have equally puzzling names: Trap 1, Great Fear, Kill You, Insult 4, etc. It’s often difficult to tell (1) if a name is actually a name, and (2) if that name is a planet or an individual. There are some clues in the verbs: individuals go with the verb “kill” and planets go with the verb “destroy” (so far, I’ve mostly been dealing with the Croolis-Ulv and the Croolis-Var, a pair of warring races who really just want to obliterate each other).
Interestingly, though these aliens do not share a language, the icons suggest a shared culture: the fact that a picture of a skull means “dead” across language says something, I think, about a shared cultural experience. Likewise, the image for “pop”, or father, shows one tall stick figure standing next to a smaller stick figure: a father and child. Yet in that icon is the assumption that across alien races the young are always smaller than the father.
At the same time, words don’t necessarily mean the same things in every conversation, especially as speech acts. Some groups of aliens have to be threatened, some have to be flattered, some need overtures of friendship, and some just need to be allowed to whine for a while about how they can’t reproduce. For some aliens, the phrase “Me destroy planet you” (I will destroy your planet) is a great joke, but it strikes fear in the hearts of others. Additionally, each group of aliens seems to have its own set of commonplaces — the Croolis-Ulv want to kill all the Croolis-Var and vice versa while the Buggols are really more worried about their upcoming presidential election. The game also has its own sense of kairotic moments, moments that are predetermined and not always distinguishable: you c ask the same question five times, but until you get to “the moment,” that alien is not going to give you any kind of coherent answer.
In terms of game play, this game is really unique. For example, in most spaceship shooters, language isn’t an issue at all; in Star Control II, for example, you talk to aliens, but there are no translation issues and you’re given a list of predetermined statements to choose from. Likewise, in most point-and-click adventure games, you are given entire sentences to choose from, with the occasional linguistic puzzle; the one that still haunts me is The Secret of Monkey Island‘s “How to Get Ahead in Navigating.” In Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, you have instances of having to pick up on clues in what the NPC is saying and make the correct response. What you sometimes find out in these pre-prepared statements is that your character knows more than you do (this was painfully obvious when I played The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scapel). Instead, in Captain Blood, your avatar only knows as much as you know (hence the need to actually take copious amounts of notes, because Blood isn’t going to remember anything for you).
Ultimately, Captain Blood provides a immersive illustration of the langue/parole split, making it one of the most frustrating games I’ve played, since you know you’re saying things, but the things you’re saying apparently don’t mean the things you think they mean. Hooray for linguistic uncertainty!