LIKE-A-ROGUE: metaphor and metonymy

i meant to write this post a week or two ago but i got so busy! my friend Liber Ludorum (twitter, blog) pointed out this game to me one day to ask my opinion as an overzealous lacanian. here are my thoughts on LIKE-A-ROGUE (link) by @4illeen (twitter).

ohmygoshthisissocool. LIKE-A-ROGUE has you play the role of a linguist investigating the Forbidden Library, a dungeon "filled to the brim with dust-covered books and beasts of horror and myth". throughout the game, you scry letters:

  • roll for a letter from the d66 table (if there is not a letter at the index, create a new one or reroll)
  • interpret the letter given the context in which you have rolled it

for example, the letter D might stand for "Dance" when you are scrying for one of your character's skills. however, it might also stand for "Dragon" when you are scrying for a monster that appears in the dungeon. this is such a creative way to handle randomization, by relying on the linguistically-guided imagination of the players.

and it's this meta-linguistic vantage which dictates the interpretation of language that i wanted to talk about in my post. the scrying table only provides letters, but it does not provide any context for them. it might as well give you totally random symbols, except for the fact that, as someone who uses the latin alphabet, you arrive at the library with preconceived notions of how those letters can be interpreted.

a week ago i was thinking about writing like an essay zine about the concepts of metaphor and metonymy from a linguistic and psychoanalytic perspective, and how this can illuminate the way we play role-playing games as generators of meaning. i ended up having to trash that because what i wrote ended up being useful for my thesis. whoops! but i'll explain all this now, where it's very relevant.

roman jakobson was a linguist in the early 20th century who was very interested in semiotics. semiotics is the linguistic study of what is called the sign, which fellow linguist ferdinand de saussure defined as the relationship between the signifier and the signified. think about how when you're driving, a green light means "go" and a red light means "stop". here the different colored lights are signifiers, and the instructions they represent are called signifieds.

owing to this, jakobson came up with a general definition of language insofar as each language is composed along two perpendicular poles: metonymy and metaphor. although there's a reason as to why jakobson names them after the two common literary devices, i'm going to call them by another name if that baggage makes it harder to understand: let's call metonymy "combination" and metaphor "selection."

"combination" refers to the ordering of signifiers, like when you combine letters to make a word or when you combine words to make a sentence. lacan points out that combination does not really generate meaning as much as it restricts it: by situating a signifier next to other signifiers, you prevent the signifier from having alternate beings by virtue of the context in which it is found. for example, for a human to bear its teeth versus a dog to bear its teeth mean something totally different. we understand the former's teeth to be in the shape of a smile, whereas the latter is a show of strength. this is the way in which context restricts meaning.

"selection" refers to the... selection of signifiers. saying "the sky is blue" versus "the sky is dark" causes different meaning to emerge, depending on whether you select "blue" or "dark". using the earlier example, swapping out the human for the dog causes the meaning of the other signifiers to change completely. we can see here how combination and selection work together: it's hard to actually have one without the other when you have a system with multiple signifiers that are meant to go together.

back to the game, LIKE-A-ROGUE takes advantage of these base linguistic operations to guide the players' creativity. anything you scry comes from the same limited pool of letters, but by virtue of an individual letter's selection and the context in which it was selected, the player can then scry the letter.

what's interesting, though, is that the context which assigns the letter meaning is not another letter. instead, it is the very mind of the player herself. lacan's work as a clinical psychoanalyst involves how our unconscious shapes our desire and perspective. we do not necessarily know why we desire things, but underneath the language of our desire there is the system of the unconscious which basically metonymizes the upper layer.

i won't talk about this in too much detail (research 'the master signifier' to learn more), but this principle is absolutely at play in LIKE-A-ROGUE when the player interprets letters. the vantage of the player, especially the player's linguistic and literary background, dictates the interpretation of letters scryed.

go check out LIKE-A-ROGUE (link)!!!


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