Dispatch I: Memetics, Blog, Confessions

A bit of a bonus post – dispatches are meandering stories about the process behind the scenes, so-to-speak. They’re informal, they’re not quite opinion posts or game update posts, they’re just a peek at who I am and what I’m about.

So yeah, hello there!

One of the challenges of writing a more official blog like this is that most of my ideas didn’t develop in this official, almost sterile way, right?

Like, sure, here you see my ideas presented as a complete package, but when I was actually thinking about race or class or how to make combat fun or what counted as a culturally common idea, it was amidst the frenzy of obtaining a physics degree, being on a dance team, having personal life problems, you know: life.

Dispatches are thus a good way of being more sincere. I think it’s important to be upfront about the fact that my process was, like most processes, messier than you might expect.

As an example: how do you think my whole focus on memetics came about? It wasn’t meant to be this game design thing at all, originally. It evolved from one of my friends, let’s call him Mini, talking to me about world-building, which is basically what happens when you want to create a world for a project and then you never get around to the project since making the world is so fun.

We’d been talking about this for some time already in an online chat community, and the problem we were running into was that his worlds were always really hard to get into. He would go off about something and I’d have no idea what he was talking about. Only like one or two others could follow what his world was about, and even they failed to explain it – making mistakes, needing to double-and-triple-check details, et cetera. We wanted to talk about why his world was this insurmountable obstacle that no other fantasy world was…but more important, we wanted to talk about it in an actionable way, so that he could work on making his worlds easier to understand (or not, but at least he would understand what was wrong with all of us).

This is an excerpt of the segment he sent to me, the segment pertinent to the discussion:

…there is no greater beast than the kokhąfkhesh, the “eldest hunter”. Taller than an aurochs at the shoulder and longer than three horses from snout to tail. It roams on four clawed feet, with brilliant plumage sprouting from the back of its legs. Scaled and smooth, it is swift on the sands and rocky outcroppings alike, easily scaling the sheerest of cliff faces. Other times it shows astounding flexibility, taking shelter in crags whose openings seem impossibly narrow. This is a great fear of the hunter, for the kokhąfkhesh hunts man and beast alike. Its jaws crush both bone and iron, I am told.

The Fenk do not hunt the kokhąfkhesh, for the Nerakan was its kingdom long before Fek, their god, gave rise to man. Instead, they show it every form of reverence. We came upon the remains of one, a very old one I am told, perhaps two centuries, though there is no true way to tell. There is legend of an undying kokhąfkhesh, a creature of white scale and mane of gold spawned from the iris of Fek at the god’s fall. Whatever the case, we buried the remains, a task that took the greater of a day as we hacked at the unyielding dry earth. A kokhąfkhesh requires a large grave, and the sun had long set before the king beast was laid to rest. Ląmfekąnk, a young vąra  I came to be friends with, gifted me a sliver of the kokhąfkhesh’s mane. I have sent it to you, so that you might wear it and think of me. It is of a rosy gold, such a rarity, yet the Fenk seemed unimpressed. The beast’s mane was poor, they told me, patchy and dull. What a sight a healthy kokhąfkhesh must be.

You no doubt wonder how a feathered lizard the size of many horses might also have a mane of metal. Truthfully, I only know the little Ląmfekąnk is willing to share, and only after my repeated insistence. Even now, after these many years, the taboos bar me from much of what these people know.

Their is a fungus, he tells me – stoneleech, they call it. It grows upon the open veins of ores, entirely odorless and inconspicuous to man. Yet the kokhąfkhesh finds it without fail, travelling weeks to feed on the stoneleech, yet always careful to leave some small piece of the fungus to continue its work. During its short feeding which I presume to be little more than a licking, like elk drawn to a salt block, spores are released and catch in the kokhąfkhesh’s mane. These spores are carried onto the next patch of stoneleech.

Come mating season, the kokhąfkhesh seeks out a mate, and any encounter with the same sex results in fierce combat. I remain uncertain whether they mean to kill one another and thus lower mating competition, or merely a show of force. Whatever the case, both male and female manes become host to stoneleech during season. This is key, since once the female is fertilized and gives birth – a very quick process, I am led to believe – the offspring is deposited in the male’s mane where they feed on the stoneleech. The female wanders off, her own mane depleted entirely during gestation…

So you can immediately see that 1) my friend Mini is a ridiculously creative person and 2) that he writes fantasy which is not at all trivial to dive into.

We actually argued a lot about this little passage. Harsh words were said, even if none of us particularly meant them to the full extent of their harshness. I think at some point I got particularly upset and I said “none of this has any meaning to me” and several other people effectively said “well, git gud”.

And you can see how that might make sense. It’s not useful for me to just report that “none of it means stuff to me”, because that could be diagnosed as any number of things. I could be a bad reader. I could be putting in low effort. I could literally just be throwing a tantrum. Or there could be a genuine problem, but of course my statement put forth 0 effort into identifying that problem.

I think the idea of “memetic stability” came about around at that time.

The beast didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t picture it, and when we tried to describe it in private messages to each other, none of the folks in the discussion were able to really get a strong imagery for it. Sure, we had the descriptive text, but it didn’t create this consistent mental image between us as readers. More importantly, because there was no common image, the lizard-thing existed in the abstract. We didn’t have this understanding of it that we could draw from at all. We certainly never called it the kokhąfkhesh when talking about it, because to do so would require looking up the word every single time.

It was actively resisting our attempts to categorize it or to recognize it, and so were many other parts of that worldbuilding snippet, in ways which cumulatively formed a barrier, no matter how intriguing the tale being told was.

Because we each interpreted parts differently and we had such an imperfect sense of the context, all of us readers were in slightly different worlds, even though Mini had so carefully built only one world.

That was how memetic stability became a topic: it was important for us to have some common ground in our ability to picture and explain what was happening. But then we hit another dead end in terms of “how” this might be achieved. After all, Mini’s writing wasn’t bad. Inaccessible, sure, but it was carefully crafted to be so, and in the process it had a unique tone to it that we didn’t want to accidentally subvert in this process.

The resulting discussion was not necessarily one of solutions, but merely one of reflection. I talked about how comparison with existing animals was helpful – “feathered lizard” was one of the most useful grounding elements for me. Someone else talked about how Mini’s world made more sense if you had a lot of the pieces of it already, and was incredibly hard to get into if you read a snippet on its own. We talked about why this was.

Mini suggested that reading more of his work and also drawing parallels to real things (like lizards) both helped to “anchor” a reader more, to give the reader some ground rules from which they could comprehend the weirder aspects of his writing. He explained that this “anchoring” wasn’t a huge priority for him, but the idea of that anchor was one which I kept thinking about, and I began to use the term when critiquing works of fiction, or other “built worlds”.

That idea of “anchoring” eventually became the “memetic weight” that I talked about in the past two articles, and have drafted in a third, upcoming article.


Featured Image is a Boga, the closest thing to Mini’s creature as I could find without a commission, from the Star Wars Databank.

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