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Umberto Eco and His Legacy in Open-World Games (killscreen.com)
102 points by Hooke on May 9, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

I'm surprised someone wrote an article about Umberto Eco and his influence on video games and neglected to mention Ultima Ratio Regum [0]. It's a roguelike under development that attempts to simulate an entire world with multiple civilizations and with some kind of conspiracy at play throughout the world's history.

[0] http://www.ultimaratioregum.co.uk/game/

That's an interesting looking game, but I'm a bit confused by the reliance on the ASCII aesthetic. True, many people associate it with roguelike games, but when you are using ASCII generate portraits[1] of the fidelity they are, I can't help but feel a lot of time is being wasted on an aspect that matters little to the end result. It will either be fun or it won't, and ASCII is really just a highly constrained tile-set when used in this way.

1: http://www.ultimaratioregum.co.uk/game/files/2016/05/firstdr...

It's not even ASCII. Blocks and "double pipes" fall out of the 127-character range easily.

I also agree that a lot of the benefits and crude aesthetics is lost on using extra codepages and fancy characters: I enjoy my NetHack on plain ASCII mode as it doesn't depend on any particular font for instance.

A lot of talk about Eco, not much on the article! For my money, it's off the mark. The 'freedom' in open world games is mostly an illusion, and we seem to be getting away from it, as the technological demands increase. Generally the only freedom is the order in which you undertake the pre-scripted missions. Years ago in Morrowind, you could kill quest giving NPCs and wreck the story, but in Fallout 4 all essential characters are weirdly immortal.

Your 'choices' are overblown. For example, in Far Cry 4 you have the option to kill a character or not (on the orders of another). In your report, you refer to them as having been "taken care of". You can't even change the dialogue. Your reward is a different epilogue movie. It's all more choose your own adventure than choose your own War and Peace. You can see the game designers dilemma - why expend massive effort on branching paths when any given player will only choose one? Far Cry 4 also had an amusing bug - you could also choose to destroy a temple or not. However the bug meant the game would show you the non-destroyed model when past a certain range, suddenly popping to the correct model as you approached. The mask literally slipping!

Even non-open world games stuggle to provide meaningful agency. The much acclaimed Walking Dead allowed many choices, from which all resulting divergences were soon neatly resolved funneling the player to exactly one ending.

Honorable mentions : Fallout New Vegas, which offered so many options it almost collapsed under its own weight, and until Until Dawn, an interactive horror movie in which every single character can live or die.

Your examples are all AAA titles, where the expectation is one of voice acting and highly polished animations, etc. It's pretty difficult branch plot lines when you carry such a high cost of production. Perhaps one day, computers will be able to improvise voice acting, plot lines and art. Until then, if we want any semblance of real openness, we have to stick to relatively low-cost of production / algorithmic / generated content, like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, No Man's Sky, etc. These games are all limited in many ways, but at least use the player's imagination to fill in the gaps in creative ways.

For sure, but I would class those more as "sandbox" games, which the article specifically includes. But as always, indies are where the interesting experiments are!

> In his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco had three men feed an unwieldy amount of esoteric trivia—involving Templars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Illuminati, and a thousand other occult sects—into a computer that synthesizes them at random to generate a master “Plan” explaining the course of European history.

Either the author, or I, really misinterpreted this book. As I recall, it was Bembo's word processor that took a few dozen phrases—some of which were about occult sects, some of which were connectives "If this, then", and some of which were garbage "Mickey Mouse is Minnie's husband". And it didn't synthesize anything; it spat back a random selection of them, and the characters then attempted to synthesize the results. Which seems like a minor hair to split, but it really reflected one of the themes of the book, that humans keep trying to find patterns and order in the natural world, and will create it if it isn't there.

However, a similar remark is in the blurb on the back of the book, which has always annoyed me. So maybe it's me that's misremembering (or maybe the author of this article didn't really read much of Foucault's Pendulum.)

No, you're spot on. I just finished this book. The computer was used to generate nonsense, which they used as a creative prompt when they were at a dead end in the 'Plan'.

Oh, good. I liked it quite a lot, and hoped that the misunderstanding wasn't on my part! Thanks :-)

For the non-Italians: Umberto Eco is an extremely interesting figure for Italians.

Everybody admires his extremely deep knowledge of the Italian language and its nuisances, I would even dare to say "unrivaled" in our present day.

On the other hand, certain books he wrote are considered extremely complicated to grok, or too academic.

> Everybody admires his extremely deep knowledge of the Italian language and its nuisances, I would even dare to say "unrivaled" in our present day.

I always found it strange that in the U.S., conversations about, say, Foucault's Pendulum, don't really touch on the fact that people are reading a translation and not the original work. The vast majority of the readers probably wouldn't even be able to tell you the name of the translator.

I always wonder how different the translation is from the original, and how different it would be from other possible translations. I remember looking at different translations of Lysistrata and feeling like they were almost completely different plays.

I always wonder about this too. Sometimes you get lucky and the original author translates it themselves (Waiting for Godot) or there's a translation that's endorsed by the author. But other times the best you can get is a widely-accepted translation, and even that's not always enough to assuage any fears that you're missing sometime.

I do think it's funny when the translator makes a point of shitting on other translations in the foreword. I think the version of Aristotle's Politics I read in college did that.

I really can't tell for certain, but I feel fortunate that Michael Kandel translated Stanislaw Lem's works; they read so well to me, I can't imagine them not being what the author meant. The fact that the poetry in "Cyberiad" works so well (in English) makes me feel he's a good and honest translator. You're right on Eco, though: I can't name the translator for Pendulum.

Funny. Lem, Eco are the two I always wonder about re: translations, because of their wit and wordplay. And of course all poets

I would add Murakami to that list. In my experience, Japanese doesn't translate all that well to English - although some Murakami's works, like "South of the Border", feels very close to Fitzgerald. I'm now a little surprised to realize that "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" was actually written before both it, and "Norwegian Wood".

At least for "Norwegian Wood", I found the translation to Norwegian to "feel" better than (the excerpts I've read) of the English translation. It's hard for me to say if that is because Norwegian is my first language, and I learned Japanese from living in Japan, or because there are some parallels between terse Nordic prose and poetry and Japanese. I could certainly see the Nordic sagas working "better" in Japanese than in English.

Re:saga-like literature, I first read Lord of the Rings in English, then the recent Norwegian translation "Ringdrotten". Ringdrotten feels almost more like a work on its own than "just" a translation, since it uses a wide range of Norwegian dialect features to convey the various species and social classes of LotR (making the language differences much more pronounced than in the English). Rather tough read though, due to archaic word choices.

Well, speaking of Italians, Dante is another great example. Reading a translation of the comedy that attempts to preserve the meter and/or rhyme is completely different from reading a prose translation.

If I'm not mistaken, Eco had a good hand in translating most of his works, or at the very least he was on good terms with, and selected, most of his translators. Given the character of his work, I'd find it hard to believe otherwise.

Well, why else would somebody bother making a new translation of an already-translated work unless they thought that existing translations were flawed?

I'm not just talking about acknowledging improvements; I read one introduction where he spent the majority of the time more or less calling a previous translator an idiot.

But another reason I could see to re-translate something besides previous translations being flawed is them being old. If a particular obscure work only has on English translation, and it's 100 years old, it seems pretty reasonable to want to translate it into more modern English.

For better or worse, anything sufficiently subtle or complicated can't be translated 1-1 across languages. There are too many problems of context, meaning, etc. For a strange example - the Intuit have 50 words for snow. How much subtlety would be lost translating that into English? It just wouldn't work.

[0] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there...

> have 50 words for snow

Untrue, but widely circulated and accepted myth [0]

[0] http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4419

Fair enough, but the point still stands. Languages don't map 1 to 1.

I guess if you live in SV you might not have direct experience with this, but English has a lot more than one word for "snow".

In Seattle we have 50 words for rain

Rain, stupid rain, fucking rain, miserable rain...

In Seattle we have 50 words for surprise at the lack of rain.

Really? Like what? I can think of things like snow (sleet, flurries, blizzard, powder) but not any direct synonyms. We can't hold a candle to the Inuit.

Maybe not official oxford dictionary words for snow, but as a skier, I can think of: Powder, pow, fresh, fatties, corn snow, crud, corduroy, slush, champagne powder, wet snow, ice coast snow, flurries, whiteout, etc..

Some words describing how it lays, some describing how it falls, some describing what it turns into, moisture content, flake size. This is how you get to "50" (or just multiple) words for snow. English does it too. It's not just generic "snow" that gets described with 50 words... (but some are just flavor: pow, fresh whateveryougetthepoint)

Why would you have multiple words for the same thing, that don't carry different shades of meaning or uses? What do you imagine these 59 words are used for? Cute little nicknames?

I wouldn't say you should! I imagine the Inuit have a much more sophisticated understanding of snow than someone from Massachusetts.


tl;dr: they modify words by adding suffixes (e.g. instead of adjectives). So they have (can make) 50 words out of anything

Intuit (sic) actually have fifty words for different types of _taxes_, the snow thing is a myth...

Sometimes things go well if the translators are good enough.

I read Neuromancer both in English and Catalan, in there there were programs called ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, so a firewall) and the programs to break them were called icebreakers.

The catalan translator (Joan Fontcuberta i Gel) managed to translate ICE to GEL (I don't remember what the acronym mean, but it made sense). "Gel" is "ice" in Catalan, also is one of the translator's surnames. And so we could have "trencagels" as "icebreakers" (literal translation).

So, yes, most things are not easily translatable, so when they are they stand up and show us the craftmanship of the translators.

> I always wonder how different the translation is from the original, and how different it would be from other possible translations. I remember looking at different translations of Lysistrata and feeling like they were almost completely different plays.

There's a great Radiolab episode that covers exactly that: http://www.radiolab.org/story/translation/

I'm reading Foucault's Pendulum right now, and even though I'm absolutely loving it, part of me feels like I'm missing out by reading a translation. The other part of me wonders whether those who read the original work missed out by not reading this translation.

> part of me feels like I'm missing out by reading a translation

In general I often feel the same, but in this particular instance it might make you feel better to know that William Weaver's translations are widely lauded.

Eco famously said Weaver's translation of The Name of the Rose was "much better than the original". :) And I've always found it pleasing to wonder if that might not even be true. One thinks of a translation as being necessarily inferior to an original, but depending on the two writers involved, there's no ab initia reason why it might not be better (for some given definition of "better", anyway - clearer, more accessible, more profound, etc).

Well I can easily see how great translators, could improve on top of the shoulders of another author's book.

Particularly if you start with a book centered about plot, structure, and other "macro" properties of good literature, and apply an author that excels on the "micro" structure part.

Jorge Luis Borges, or Vladimir Nabokov, with their great command of vocabulary, come to mind. They are also great authors that dealt with several translations. Borges, particularly, stated that translations could improve the original, and modified his translations where he deemed appropriate.

Good interview of William Weaver in the Paris Review which discusses some of his early days as a translator in post-war Italy: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/421/the-art-of-tran...

Eco would probably point out that even a work in its native language is a translation of a deeper language inaccessible to all but the writer.

Whether he said it or you did, that is a really lovely statement

In general translators are almost anonymous, but actually in Eco's case, the translator of FP and many of his other books was William Weaver, who was kind of a "rock-star" among translators. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Weaver

My copy of Foucault's Pendulum doesn't even name the translator, I had similar thoughts to you on reading the first comment and had a look.

A contrast is with the works of Stanislaw Lem, all the English translations were done by the same person.

The translator[1] was apparently pals with Eco and translated several of his books. I got curious and ended up finding a paywalled diary of his experience translating the book[2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Weaver

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/43470168?seq=1#page_scan_tab_co...

Not paywalled. You have to create a free as in beer account, then you can read 3 articles every 14 days.

Weaver did excellent translations for much of Calvino's work, too.

There have been several different translators for Lem. Michael Kandel, Louis Iribarne, Jean-Michel Jasiensko + Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, Marc E. Heine, Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, and probably others.

Of these, Michael Kandel seems by far the best.

As a Muslim, I've noticed the same when it comes to the Quran. People think that they've read the Quran when in fact a large of its beauty is in the structure of the Arabic text.

There are many reasons to read the Quran aside from aesthetics. But I wholeheartedly agree.

I would say that is like the difference between the KJV and other translations of the bible. KJV is just plain wrong a lot of the time but the writing is very good.

Uh...no, it's like the difference between the original Greek/Hebrew and the translations.

It's funny you should mention translations as different: when Umberto Eco translated Queneau's Exercises in Style he had to rewrite more than a few. Many would consider all translations of that book as rewritings, new exercises. Some don't even have the same number of pieces.


Translator, traitor; or translator, trader?

Check out Douglas Hofstadter's essay on just this topic.

This was the essay that got me thinking about translation not being a 1-1 exercise.

I would also recommend Eco's own Mouse or Rat: Translation As Negotiation.

He has a full book on this subject too:


I had this brought into sharp relief recently when I was reading Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (which has become one of my favorite books, coincidentally). There was a passage about how the "formal you" became an "informal you"—something that doesn't happen in English.

This passage, no matter how it was translated, would inevitably be jarring in English in a way that it wouldn't in Italian or even when translated to some other language which also makes that grammatical distinction.

Not that I'm complaining: if anything, it fit perfectly in a book as meta as If on a winter's night. It certainly made my experience deeper. But it also made it different than it would have been in other languages which makes you think...

I think, asked to make that translation, I'd have resorted to making all the characters in the play say "thee" and "thou" at appropriate moments, just so I had something to talk about.

You may be interested in Douglas Hofstadter's writing about translations of the poem Jabberwocky in <em>Gödel Escher Bach</em., excerpted here (at least in part, I thought there was more in the book):


It's interesting how translators decided to handle a poem that consists of so many nonsense words that are meant to evoke specific ideas in an English-speaking reader.

> deep knowledge of the Italian language and its nuisances

Did you mean nuances? If so, this is the second humorous freudian slip I've seen on HN today....

That is interesting.

As a book lover, I would say that any self-respecting reader would have at least heard of, if not read The Name of the Rose. Eco was been a great writer and is extremely famous. And I say this as an Indian.

I was looking at his Wikipedia page earlier just this morning and I didn't realize he passed away in February. Synchronicity.

Truly a sad day when Eco passed. While all his work is well worth reading, his writing on lists should be of particular interest to people on this board. If you are looking for a good art book, a good coffee table book, or a good bathroom book, you could do a lot worse than History of Beauty, The Infinity of Lists, or On Ugliness.

P.S. On Ugliness might be the most metal book ever published.

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