Archfriend: On Writing part one

Last year, I never fulfilled my New Year's resolutions because I never made any. It's my tradition to not try and set goals to achieve, because I like to keep my mind free to move in any direction open to it. Recently I've grown older into the age of boredom. New things don't interest me much as they used to, so this year I'll set myself down and carry over last year's activities, only with more rigid régime.

The first activity was getting semi-serious about learning Japanese. Since 2005, I've been on/off with learning this infernal language, but it's mainly because I've been trying to teach myself through books. I'm too busy to take classes, and I don't know any Japanese speakers who can give me the help I need. After a while, I ask myself "why do you want to learn it anyway? Seems like a waist of brain power in the end." But I have plenty of reasons to learn it. Firstly: about half my DVD collections are Japanese films and animation, and I never feel that the subtitles are giving me the complete experience. There are so many subtleties in the language, even the things that go unsaid. Sometimes, there can be more than one interpretation, and the subtitlist (is that what they are called?) only has one to choose from. Secondly: I have some video games in the original Japanese language, before they were either ported to the Western world, or some that haven't been ported at all. I've managed to play them just fine, and enjoy them on some level, but I think there is more to gain from them if I could actually understand the language. Especially the one game I've been playing a lot lately, Pokemon White. Thirdly: I'd like to get into some Japanese authors, such as Haruki Murakami, or many others I haven't heard of yet, to read their novels as they were written, and not through the filter of translation, which always feels weird when you read them. When I read a book, I like to think I'm absorbing the text, being influenced by it and even discovering new things about my own language I never knew existed. I love foreign books because I'm interested by other cultures, and the underlying humanity from all parts of the globe, but I hate how I have to read them through a translation. The English comes off as really weird and unnatural, and the case is ever more present in Japanese. Case in point: here is an excerpt of "Audition" by Ryu Murakami (not related to Haruki), translated by Ralph McCarthy. Admittedly I only read this book because I enjoyed the movie by Takashi Miike.
THAT NIGHT, IN THE hotel room, they watched a triple bill of Rambo films. Midway through First Blood, Shige declared it a great movie, and he even shed a few tears at the ending. But with the second and third instalments he grew gradually disgruntled, and by the time they got to the final scene of Rambo III he was downright indignant.
 'What the hell is this? It's ridiculous! How's a guy on horseback gonna take down an attack helicopter with a bow and arrow? They must think we're all morons watching this crap. What's he supposed to be, Genghis Khan?'
 It was past two a.m. when the third film ended. Shige said he was going to get online and wanted the room to himself, because he couldn't relax with a computer illiterate looking over his shoulder.
 'Go have a drink somewhere, why don't you?' he told his father.
On the one hand, the book was amazing, and gave a much more psychologically involved account of the story than film could ever achieve. On the other hand, the language is so straightforward and flat, even exclamations like "What the hell is this?" seem somewhat reserved. Lately, I've been improving in my ability to read Japanese by playing Pokemon, and even if I don't understand all the words, I've found that I can easily pick up on the tone. The subtleties of politeness levels and familiarity levels, crossed with effeminate or masculine sounding words, or words with harsh consonants, or extended vowels, or diphthongs, etc. it all adds to a tone. When I read "'Go have a drink somewhere, why don't you?' he told his father.", I can't tell if he's being familiarly impolite, or downright rude, or even casually suggestive, just by the words themselves. I have to rely on context surrounding the dialogue, and if I have to do that, then there's something lost in translation. I know English text can be injected with tone, just go read Moby Dick: read it out loud! You'll know when Captain Ahab is yelling at the top of his lungs, or softly rambling in an almost-whisper.

Then try to tell me what is the tone of "Go have a drink somewhere, why don't you?".

What got me semi-serious about learning Japanese last year was when I managed to import a copy of the Nintendo DS game, My Japanese Coach, which is getting harder and harder to find these days. There are a few things this game does right, which no other interactive teaching aid, be it CD-ROM or activity book, ever did: it has a neat game-flow, which uses a kind of reward-based system. You are locked from any future lessons until you earn enough "Mastery Points" (MP) in your current lesson, forcing you to actually learn your stuff before you can move on. You earn MP by playing mini-games that involve a complete understanding of your words, your grammar and, later on, your kanji. Some mini-games were well thought out, and couldn't be beaten without a complete understanding of the lesson. Others were easily beatable without committing a single word to memory. What's more, is that if you upped the difficulty (which mostly just decreases the time-limits), you earned more MP, thereby getting through the lessons faster, spending less time repeatedly drilling every word into your brain. The game was a good idea, but its repetitiousness, its unappealing (plus limited) design and its reliance on the user to do most of the work themselves made it another boring academic textbook on the Japanese language like everything else I've tried. It became another disappointment that never took into account the user, who perhaps wants to enjoy the act of learning. To laugh, to cry, to fall in love, to be in awe, and so on.

It has made me want to take it upon myself to design a learning game of my own, to single-handedly change the face of edutainment. I want a game that teaches you Japanese, but does all the work for you, and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy. And by the end of it, whether you wanted it or not, all of a sudden you have the ability to read, write and speak Japanese. Who says this isn't possible? Why are all teaching aids half-designed by "experts" who say otherwise? Why can't learning be an adventure?

That's what I have in mind, a kind of adventure game, where the user can dictate the course of their learning, but only through unlocking one lesson at a time. I liked the "Mastery Points" idea of My Japanese Coach, so I want to incorporate that into my game, except I would want to give more substantial rewards, like, say, rare sexy video tapes of your teachers when they were young, and it becomes your hobby to gain Internet cred by giving them subtitles. Oh yeah, I should explain that my game is not entirely kid-friendly. If kids want to learn Japanese, they can go take classes, because it's not like they have a full-time job or anything. Most schools have Japanese classes included anyway.

An idea clicked in my head today about this game idea. At the New Year's Eve party I went to, we were all having a go at Wario Ware: Smooth Moves on the Wii. I was dying of laughter and admiration at the various instructions for holding the Wii-remote, the ones that are read out loud by some laid back sleazy guy who calls the Wii-remote "the Form Baton", rambling on and on about how to hold it for the up-coming mini-game, contrasted with an epic writing style begging for a more Shakespearian over-actor, spoken loud and grandiose. These segments were brilliant, and in some cases, I think most people would only play this game for these segments alone. It crossed my mind that instead of teaching you how to hold the "Form Baton", if he was to teach you how to write hiragana, katakana or kanji.

The game-flow of Wario Ware was also ideal. You are first given a map-screen, then one by one you unlock a new area and new characters to go on a new adventure with. In each adventure, you witness an amusing little story, then you start playing mini-games (more like mini-mini-games), and every now and then you are shown how to use the "Form Baton" in new ways. This game-flow seems ideal for the game idea I had in mind: First off you are open to a shop (for when you earn points), and two areas: one to learn nouns and one to learn hiragana and katakana. You earn very few points if you learn nouns written out in roman letters ("romaji"), so ideally you have to start off with hiragana and katakana. Once you have mastered the syllabary, you can then either move on to kanji for earning even more points, or learn some nouns. Once you have learned some nouns, you are then opened up to two more areas: verbs and adjectives. All of these areas start off simple, but get more and more complex when you have to get through conjugation, particles, grammar, phrases, conversations, and so on. But hopefully all the adventures should be sexy and fun as well as educational. I say "sexy" because language is all about connections: the connection of letters to form words, of words to form phrases and sentences, to form ideas and so on. And let's face it: the word "connection" is also a euphemism for "sex". Heck, every second word in the dictionary has sexual connotation, so I don't see why we should ignore it. We should embrace it! I wrote this down today: it is a simple instruction on how to draw the hiragana あ (imagine it read out loud by the sleaziest voice possible).
To master the hiragana あ, first begin at the left of the horizontal line, then ease your way to the right by motion of an effortless flick of the wrist, thus taking care of the first of three strokes: no more, no less.

The second stroke begins gently above left-of-centre of the horizontal line, crossing over it downwards, finishing off with a slight bend to the right, mimicking the natural endowment of man, and ready to penetrate the open loop of the final pass.

Here, we begin at a point somewhere between the ends of the first and second strokes, and move round clockwise in a circular motion, but moving over past the starting position as if to draw a half-hearted spiral. Hence by now it should have wrapped itself around the flaccid tail of the second stroke, hopefully ensuring a rigid unity once completed.
I mean, that's just a first-draft, coming from my mind just rambling on and on when it thinks about drawing a hiragana, but I've been coming up with some lurid stuff for many others, and can't see why this couldn't be applied to just about every hiragana, katakana, and kanji (all thousands of them). This stuff just writes itself!

I do want to make this game, but the only thing holding me back right now is my lack of completely understanding Japanese myself. I was hoping that making the game would force me to learn it, but I doubt I wouldn't end up lost and confused half-way through development. And so I want to take another crack at My Japanese Coach, only this time go from semi-serious to full-on serious, with exercise books and everything. Over the course of learning, more design ideas for the game should come to mind. I mainly need characters, which range from sexy, funny, to cute. And mini-games, or "Tests" as I will call them. And ideas for stories and adventures. And to stray away from the dryness of textbook examples, to keep myself sopping wet with ideas, new ideas, and fun.

(end of part one, next up: writing, and why I write, and why not?)

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