The heart of the meaning

A few days ago I came across a very interesting discussion on Facebook (who would have thought?) that started with someone complimenting the original poster (OP) for being creative and having “invented” something. The OP then answers that he didn’t actually invent it, since people had been doing similar things for ages and that “the words ‘invention’ and ‘creation’ don’t belong here“. Another commenter chimed in and stated that too often words like “master” and “genius” are used out of context and that supporters/fans/followers/students often use words which are too big and exaggerated, showing both respect, and ignorance. 

This prompted a recurring question in my mind: what does a word mean? I’ve had this discussion with multiple people and it seems to me that a consensus is hard to reach. The purist (and in my opinion, narrow-minded) linguist will stand firmly by the “definition”: a word has a defined meaning, which must be preserved and rules are to be followed at all times. The practical linguist will argue that language is adaptable and that a word means whatever people want it to mean, that language changes over time and dialect. It should be obvious from my remarks which group I identify with.

However, stances are hard to take for me. I often like to dig deeper into such matters. I ask not what is the meaning of a word, but what is the meaning of meaning itself? What does it mean to “mean”? Is meaning something that is inherent to the word and cannot be separated from it? Is meaning something that exists by itself and we attribute a word to it? We can easily dismiss the first definition simply by pointing out the existence of synonyms and homonyms. The latter definition, though, is tricky. Is the meaning equivalent to the object? Philosophy and psychology will tell us that no, they are separate, but that the meaning references the object and cannot exist without it. If you think about a meaning, then that meaning means something (it references an object, even the meaning itself can be an object), therefore that object does exist, even if only in your mind at that point in time. Therefore we could say that all meanings have an object, even if in a restricted scope of existence.

This brings us back to the meaning of meaning. Does the meaning in your head in that specific moment truly matter? It exists for you, but not for anyone else, which makes it useless in communication (but not entirely useless). Now, being useless in communication is somewhat of a problematic situation for a meaning to find itself in. How else are you going to communicate that meaning to someone else? We go back to language. Language is an attempt at communicating meaning. It is a translation that in the best of scenarios will be re-translated by the listener’s brain upon hearing it, and then re-translated into the meaning that exists in that person’s mind. That’s three translations, you might notice. So, you have a meaning, your listener has another meaning, and at best you hope that they are similar enough and that they reference the same object. You both heard the exact same word, but translated it to slightly different (or sometimes very different meanings) that reference slightly different objects (or, again, very different objects).

Now back to the initial question: what is the meaning of meaning? I do not presume to have the answer, but:

  • A meaning is dependent from an object. As soon as a meaning is created, it creates the object.
  • An object is dependent from a meaning in one’s mind. As soon as you perceive an object, you create meaning.
  • A meaning is not dependent from a word.
  • A word is dependent from a meaning, but can depend from more than one meaning at a time.

Is meaning then important? Yes, absolutely. Is the meaning of meaning important? Yes, as long as you want to have clear communication and understanding. Many-a fight could have been avoided had the people agreed on a common frame of reference for the meaning of meaning itself.

Words and language are tools created and shaped constantly by humans. They are an attempt at conveying meaning from one’s mind into someone else’s mind, and therefore understanding that the meaning in one’s mind is not necessarily the same as the meaning in someone else’s mind is crucial to communicate efficiently.

One step closer to paradise

Today I showed my game Of The Ruins (you can play it here) to a friend. At the beginning, he had some problems grasping the concept of the game. He didn’t get the controls right away, even after a huge prompt appeared on the screen. That was alright, I thought, as the game was meant to promote experimentation. I ended up telling him he had to hold the mouse button down. He then proceeded to solve the first puzzle and got to the second puzzle, where he spent some time trying to get a grasp of the mechanics. I spurred him on as he seemed to lose faith. I asked him if he understood how something in the game worked. He answered negatively. I told him to find out. And he did. After some experimentation, he solved the second puzzle. So far so good. When he got to the third puzzle, he again got stuck for a moment and then suddenly realized that there must be something somewhere with which he could solve it. And there was. I asked him to test for some bugs and fortunately they didn’t occur. I was relieved, more than happy. His experience with the game seemed frustrating, he seemed to get stuck, and even if the game was made during a game jam, I could not forgive myself for making such an impenetrable puzzle game.
And then he said it. He said the best thing anyone has ever said about any of my games. He said the one thing I least expected to hear in that moment. He asked me “Have you played The Witness?”
The game was made for the 36th Ludum Dare between August 26th and August 29th of 2016. The Witness came out earlier that year, on January 26th. After playing The Witness, shortly after it came out, I became totally and completely obsessed with everything pertaining to its design, Jonathan Blow’s design principles and Jonathan Blow himself as a game developer and as a person. The Witness was undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life as a game developer. Never had I been confronted with such seemingly unrelated ideas as Pottery and Quantum Physics so majestically woven together by the overall design of a game as in The Witness. I consider it one of the best games ever made, not to say the best and definitely the best use of solid game design principles through and through. I’ve always wanted to write something about it. It had such an impact on me that I could not, even if I tried with all my strength, resist ever formalizing my thoughts on it. But I didn’t hurry, for I knew the time would eventually come to write about The Witness. I’ve been thinking and writing in my mind, arranging thoughts into sentences, tinkering with ideas and pondering how to talks about it without bias.
But fuck bias. Someone just said that a little shitty game I made in 72 sleep-deprived hours reminded them of an object of praise that I have enshrined in my own personal Church as the holy fruit of the divine itself. Today I’m going to bed with a smile.

Let’s talk about Path of Exile

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I have long since been an unconditional fan of Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile, the small indie ARPG out of New Zealand that has been gathered a strong cult following since its inception. I’ve been playing on and off since Closed Beta and words cannot describe the joy I felt yesterday when, after much teasing, the studio announced that their 3.0 update would bring not one, but six new acts to the game.

If you’re unfamiliar with ARPGs, the currently accepted definition is mostly based on Diablo 2. Diablo 2 is divided in acts: each contains a town with NPCs and shops, a few zones with monsters to hunt, a handful of dungeons and of course, bosses. Being the godfather of the genre, many recent games have taken inspiration from Blizzard North’s masterpiece.

Usually, though, ARPGs tend to be complete packages (with the occasional expansion) and contain only a couple of acts. Diablo 2 had four acts plus the one in the expansion. At the time of this writing, Diablo 3 follows the same structure. The progression revolves around playing through these acts multiple times with increased difficulty to seek bigger challenges.

Until yesterday, Path Of Exile – a game heavily inspired by Diablo 1 and 2 – comprised four acts and three difficulty levels, before making it into the huge endgame portion of the game.

Grinding Gear Games CEO Chris Wilson had expressed the company’s desire to eventually reach ten acts in the game, which would make it feel fresh year after year with more content being released.

Well, Chris Wilson’s dream came true a bit sooner than expected as the studio announced not only the release of the previously confirmed act five, but also the inclusion of what they are calling “Part II”, which is a re-imagining of the first five acts for a whopping ten act, single-playthrough experience. Yes, Path of Exile is breaking away from the New Game+ formula and throwing the old Cruel and Merciless difficulties out the window.

You might have noticed, though, that Part II is stated to be a “re-imagining” of the game, but that doesn’t mean you replay the game. So far, the story in Path of Exile has the player exiled from civilization and sent to Wraeclast, a forsaken land overgrown with monsters and corruption. It’s sort of the dumping grounds of society. At the end of act four, the player defeats the big baddie who’s been causing all the trouble. So far, that was the end of the “Campaign”, from where the player gravitates towards endgame maps and expansion content (this is where the meat of the game is nowadays).

According to the development team, after the player beats the final boss in act four, they find a way to get back to civilization, from which they were exiled. Enter act five, where players must fight a corrupt government and even awakened gods to exert their revenge. After this the player must, for some reason, return to Wraeclast. But unlike previous iterations of the game where the content would be exactly the same, Part II continues the same timeline. After the events of the previous acts – including the taking down of the governing forces in act five – the land is changed. The zones, while familiar, are different. Some NPCs are gone while others have replaced them. Towns are deserted, the monsters the player relentlessly killed are replaced with tribes of refugees from the war in the mainland, previously used paths are blocked. And the player’s actions have awakened the gods, which are posed to be the big bosses of Part II.

This is, of course, in addition to a ton of new features, skills, items, quests and of course, a long due balance patch.

The studio had talked about bringing about changes that would set Path of Exile aside from other games in the genre by solving problems that the genre as a whole has been unable to solve. There’s no confirmation, but this is likely what they meant.

Besides, an Xbox One release of the game was announced last month and the company seems to be in no hurry to stop improving their flagship game. This might just be the push that Path of Exile needs to stop being a bit of a niche game to being a mainstream hit. Is that good? Maybe. The brutal difficulty of the game will still be present, I hope, but seeing great decisions being made gives me immense confidence for the future of one of my favourite games of all time.

So, to sum it up:

  • No more difficulty levels, no more replaying the same exact content.
  • New act five that finishes the main story of the game and contains none less than 24 bosses.
  • Part II, comprising five new-ish acts that take the player through the first five acts, but with vastly different content.
  • Balance patch.
  • Xbox One release.
  • Globe girls HYPE!

I remind you that Path of Exile is a free to play game in the purest sense of the term. The only thing you can pay for are cosmetics and it seems to be the fairest model around. The game is so good that people can’t stop throwing money at the screen. And the expansion, like all previous expansions, is free as well.

So yes, you should pay attention to Path of Exile in the upcoming months.