The Nacirema people


The life of the Nacirema people of North America, a tribe with a surprisingly developed market economy, is characterized by rituals and practices that we would consider alien, barbarous, and even going contrary to the self-preservation instincts. The late anthropologist Horace Miner’s extensive studies of the tribe culminated in the “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” paper*, originally published in 1958. Let’s take a look at a few selected parts, the first of them concerned with the ritual visits of the tribesmen to a member of a sacerdotal order:

In addition to the private mouth–rite, the people [of the Nacirema tribe] seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy–mouth–man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy–mouth–men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

[…]One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy–mouth–man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”

Upon reading this excerpt for the first time, an image that came into my mind was that of a sacred mountainous retreat (namely the seat of power of the holy men) and a winding, narrow path, upon which the tribesmen traveled each year on their pilgrimage to the holy-mouth-men. Though never mentioned inside the text, a mountain (or at least a hilltop) is a somewhat obvious locale for the temple: in the text it is strongly implied that the people of the tribe consider the holy men keepers of power and somewhat apart and above them; it is also implied that the Nacirema travel to visit the holy-mouth-men in a sort of yearly pilgrimage; “the people seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year” – “seek out” has a tone of the adventurous, of a quest for something that is not readily available, something or someone outside the daily-life plateau. Even the “naturally occurring holes in the teeth” evoke images of caves and rock formations. As for the sadism and masochistic aspects of Nacimera, they are already established via the horrendous practices mentioned above.

The following excerpt concerns ceremonies taking place in specialized temples named latipso:

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained admission and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body–rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso . A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness.[…] From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

A place closer to the underworld (“that is where you go to die”), an occult temple of a rich religious elite which must be gorged in gifts. Even the removal of the clothes is reminiscent of cthonic mythology (for instance Ishtar’s descent to the Underworld involves the gradual discarding of her clothes and ornaments).

The fact that the Nacirema in everyday life avoid exposure of their bodies and their natural functions (i.e. excretory acts), if taken into account along with their earlier mentioned obsession with the extraction of teeth and the scraping of the face, leads to the image of a tribe that has demonized the body. It considers it shameful and glorifies pain inflicted upon it as purificatory. Note also the largely patriarchal nature of the latipso temple clergy: the vestal maidens assist, while the medicine men are those having a substantial, energetic, leading role in the healing rituals.

The final excerpt refers to the tribe’s reproductive taboos:

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinised, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

As with the other bodily functions, intercourse is taboo among the Nacirema – it is obvious that these people have a deeply instilled fear and abhorrence of their bodies. All things coming out of the body are shameful, even infants, which are born in secrecy and are not even nursed by their mothers in most cases. See also how intercourse is limited by the lunar phases, a clear indication of its ritualized nature.


Let’s change the subject: Palindromes are (among other things) words that read the same backwards as forward. Two of the most famous palindromes are the Byzantine “ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ” and the Roman “SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS.” They usually offer a pleasant sense of fulfillment if someone discovers their palindrome nature on his own. (This paragraph contains a hint towards another layer of the Nacirema peoples)

*Body Ritual Among The Nacirema


Torment: Tides of Numenera


(Here be Spoilers)

Almost two years ago, just after finishing Pillars of Eternity (and its XP-less combat system) for the first time, I remember myself musing over the necessity of combat in cRPGs. For a long time I’ve considered combat to be one of the four main pillars of the genre, along with exploration, story, and character development. Pillars, by removing the XP reward factor (though not the treasure one) from the equation, gave us a glimpse of how one of these four pillars could be diminished without any impact on the whole structure’s stability. Torment: Tides of Numenera (T:TON from now on), the spiritual successor of 1999’s mythic Planescape Torment, takes a grand leap towards this direction, presenting us with a minimal amount of mandatory battles.

Let’s get some things out of the way: The game’s graphics are masterfully designed and materialised, full of wonder and a semi-scifi, semi-exotic-fantasy look. The Mere’s screen paintings are gorgeous. Those into isometric cRPGs will adore T:TON’s visual part, and at the end of the day this is what really matters, for this a game for them(us). The same goes for music amd sound, which nicely and very discreetly frame the environment. Voice acting is scarce, a thing about which I couldn’t care less.

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One of the Mere screens. The Meres are an innovative idea (perhaps implemented somewhat hastily), which are underlined by the question: If you had the power to alter another being’s life course without permission or knowledge, would you do it?

Concerning combat: It is easily avoided in most cases. The inclusion of combat in the super-category of Crisis tones down the former’s importance – it seems that RPGs can do away with it, though their image afterwards may well be different from what we now have in mind as virtual RPGs. Crises are situations which can be resolved by force, but also in one or several other ways. In general they require a bit of thinking, them being organized more as riddles and less as clickfests or optimization/micromanagement challenges (i.e. see the adventuresque Sticha lair). Each one is more or less carefully designed, far away from a random-encounter logic.

A brief look on some things that bothered me:

-There are secret timers on a few quests, which timers are tied to the party rest count (this could be considered an asset for a lot of people, and it does make the game world more realistic – though there is a journal bug for failed quests of this type).

-Its short duration (T:TON took me roughly 31 hours to finish on the first playthrough, without any walkthrough, and completing all the quests I could find. Several of the areas are underdeveloped, especially on the later half of the game – the Maze being one of them).

-Not being able to return to previous areas and deal with any unfinished quests.

-Several minor bugs.

-A game engine thing: when the camera is at a place of an area far from your party (and the PCs do not appear on the camera) and you click so as it starts moving towards this area, the camera forcibly resets back to the party.

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One of the Bloom’s Maws, a definite homage to Sigil’s portals

Moving on to the juiciest aspects of the game, I must stress here that T:TON is not a game for people who do not like reading (in games or otherwise). There are many thousand dialogue lines in here, with the word count reaching a whopping 800.000. If at some point you feel that you cannot read more, then don’t; better save and quit til your mind is clear (speaking from personal experience I wasted several conversations this way – on the bright side, more things to read on the second playthrough). Reading is the single most important player activity in T:TON – if you remove the dialogues from the game you’ll be left with a grotesque monstrosity, an incoherent collection of lovely graphics and slightly underdeveloped mechanics.

Protagonist-wise the story has a definite Gnostic hue. The whole Changing God and Castoffs plot is a catalyst for questions you may already have asked and dilemmas you may have faced if you ever had a brush with the occult idea of humans being the cells or experience accumulators or sensory organs of the Divine. In what ways can one’s individuality and the value of it be compared with that of a greater whole? Can a cell rebel against the organism it is part of? Is the modern human able to change his perception focus from the scale of person to another grander or more diminutive scale? There is much food for thought and contemplation in here, theological-, occult-, and social-wise.

Still, T:TON’s story is less about the protagonist (and this is why I can accept the almost complete absence of character creation cosmetic options – you only select the gender), and more about fragments of other characters’ (NPCs’) stories. The game is a Sensate’s (I could not resist including an obvious reference to my favourite Planescape faction) paradise, with tidbits all around to taste and immerse yourself in. It is like being thrown in the midst of an immensely varied banquet of lives and experiences, which you can sample. One could say that the Protagonist/Player is an Interface; this actually leads to the interesting thought that this may be what a being a god feels like – being an interface for a multitude of lives, fragments of which stay and are lived through you. A few such stories that particularly impressed and will stay with me are those concerning:

-A man who apprentices his young self.

-A special kind of adoption, in which the foster parents adopt children born centuries ago, reaching the current era through time portals.

-A vehicle that crashed years ago, the guilt-ridden AI of which keeps alive the memory of the passengers that died in the crash by projecting holograms of them.



Sagus Cliffs, a city that will probably stay with me in almost the same way Sigil did

As in the original Torment, Numenera is characterized by the absence of an area with the essence of “home-base” throughout the game. Sagus cliffs serve as a sort of home town (or rather as the Only town, as Sigil was in PT’s first chapters, since the whole of the first part takes place in it (starting area aside)) but after leaving it there is no going back. This is true for almost all areas (apart from the Maze) – they are like beads on a string: once you pass one you cannot return. The Maze is a kind of home, you can visit it somewhat voluntarily, but it is not a place you can share with your companions (thus camaraderie is lost), and it also is never completely safe in the sense of the explored, mapped, and devoid of menace. This linear approach, akin to that of a strict narrative, deprives you of experiencing a place a-temporally, of having a city as home – for home is strongly characterized by its always being there, of being able to return to it, of never abandoning you, despite what you do. It would be nice to be able to see the consequences of your actions shaping a place, and not just see some old faces appear in new spaces.

In the end T:TON is a sprawling modular interactive narrative, a rough glimpse towards a possibility of what a combat-less cRPG could look like. I say rough because non-combat challenges could definitely be more challenging and not just depended on trivialized character skill checks; more challenge for the player (and not the characters) would be welcome. Where T:TON really shines is not in the framework but in the content department. This is a game to make you dream about its world and denizens, an artistic creation whose stories you may revisit in reveries, an entity that sows delicious seeds. A journey which may bring tears in your eyes and goosebumps on your skin, just as Planescape Torment did. From this point of view, Numenera is a worthy successor to what is one the most acclaimed RPGs of all times – though it would be best to let it carve a place of its own.

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