Something Good #47: The Salamerta Generation
A version of the following story first appeared in the much-missed publication The Awl.
First of all, I just want to thank everyone for writing in with all their amazing questions and comments. The reaction to my last post, “A Brief Introduction :)”, has been totally overwhelming! I’m delighted, and more than a little humbled.
When I first sat down to start working on the crazy, sprawling, life-consuming project would eventually become Salamerta, I would never have guessed the extent to which it would eventually take over my life — let alone what it might mean to anyone else. So thank you, and while I obviously can’t answer everyone’s questions, I’m going to try to respond to as many as I can.
Let’s dive right in. Many of you wanted to know more about the origins of Salamerta, and how and why I created it in the first place.
It truly has been a labour of love; I’ve spent over two years obsessing over this very special place, staying up way into the night fiddling with every little geographical and cultural detail.
But that said, Salamerta did originally begin as a job for hire. A couple of years ago, a video game developer hired me to create a world for a free-to-play mobile puzzle game. I’d put about three solid months of work into the map when the developer was acquired by another company and the project was killed.
To make matters worse (and to get a little awkwardly personal here) my marriage, at the time, was pretty much on the rocks. My husband and I actually separated the day after I got the news. I found myself with not much to do and a rather strong desire to escape the “real” world. Almost out of habit, I kept tinkering with my little creation.
You wouldn’t recognize Salamerta at that embryonic stage — no Jarascal! No Silver Forest! — but something kept drawing me back to it. Free from the developer’s constraints and endless notes, I could play, actually play, and pour my own personality and pre-occupations into the world. It was weirdly therapeutic to watch my software algorithms combine the base elements I feed into them, add a little spin of randomness, and spit out elements of what feels like a living, breathing universe.
I’ve never been great at drawing, but I’m an artist when it comes to choosing just the right details. I could toss some carefully handpicked features — “rocky fjords,” “coniferous vegetation,” “large predator bird population” — into my software and boom, out came an uncannily realistic and detailed coastline — specifically, in that case, the Sukari coast.
Some of you asked about place names. I thought a lot about the “feel” I wanted them all to have. I had this idea that the world should be vaguely Mediterranean in nature (inspired, I think, by a book I was reading at the time, Jan Morris’s Last Letters From Hav, which is one of my favorite examples of an invented nation), so I experimented by seeding the name generator with huge databases of Italianate, Greek and even Romanian atlas data.
Nothing quite felt right until I stumbled upon a map of Indonesia. Something about the sort-of-European, sort-of-Asian vibe of the names just clicked with me, so I scraped them and loaded them into the name generator. That’s why you have the great capital of Cilija, the Bedeng mountain range, and Lake Abasana. And when it spat out “Salamerta,” I instantly knew it would be perfect for the world itself.
Some of my whims had unintended consequences. Since I have a rather inordinate love for the colour pink, I thought it would be fun if Salamerta’s geologic formations were heavily striated with rhodochrosite, a gorgeous rosey-hued mineral formation. I added a lot of it to the mix when generating the world’s base landforms, but what I hadn’t thought of was how rhodochrosite most often appears in hydrothermal veins associated with minerals such as — you probably guessed it — silver. So as a side consequence of me studding Salamerta with lovely pink crystals, there’s also countless veins of silver. And of course, this led the population to dig for that shiny precious metal, and for Salamerta’s economy to lean heavily on silver production.
It’s no surprise that the Djatii, the world’s most common currency, is a silver coin, nor that Salamerta’s artisans and engravers have created such stunning, intricate works in the metal. But at the same time, silver mines are not exactly the healthiest places to spend your life working, and their environmental impact can be quite profound. I’m thinking of the Astanan forests, a feature which I was really quite proud of, which were heavily logged when a seam was found nearby, its rivers and lakes later polluted with toxic tailings. If I’d had any idea, I probably would have generated the forest somewhere else completely! So my love of the colour pink indirectly made Salamerta all the richer, economically and artistically, but at the same time also led to a great deal of suffering and at least one war over the resource.
At one point I realized I could go even further, and stitch some of my favourite shapes and designs deep into the fabric of the universe I was creating. I’ve always been fond of the hamsa, an ancient ward against the evil eye, which appears as the image of a hand with an eye in its palm, so I seeded the “ingredients” for it into deep into Salamerta’s physics engine, so it would naturally occur throughout the world.
Look close and you can see it on every level, from the micro to the macro. The lomita, a tiny sea crustacean found off the shores of Karah, the constellation of Cipatat, and the hills of Minda all share the same basic contours, and I’m sure there are plenty of more examples I haven’t yet come across.
At first I worried this was going to feel kind of artificial and on-the-nose, but when you think about it, it’s actually quite realistic. Throughout the greater universe, the spiral form is just as prevalent as my hamsa, found everywhere from tiny snail shells to unimaginably large galaxies.
I had some ideas of the kind of a society I wanted Salamerta to have, but executing them was a little more complicated than I had first imagined. I have always been fascinated by the Vienna of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries — a sophisticated imperial capital, where writers and playwrights thronged wintry coffee houses and had wonderful, melancholy love affairs. So I turned the “café slider” way up (yes, I built in a café slider), and fiddled with the base dimensions of the café model itself, until most of them turned out big, picture-windowed, high-ceilinged and smoky, just like the way I remembered the Cafés Sprückel, Central, and Schwarzenberg from when I backpacked through the city one summer during university.
This little detail had quite a few unintended effects: it altered the political climate of Cilija, making it prone to radical groups and breakout political movements, who clustered in the coffee houses’ back rooms to plot their revolts and uprisings and whatnot.
Things eventually got so out of hand I had to program in a political unrest slider and keep it somewhere in the middle, or otherwise I’d end up wasting too much of my time rebuilding. But if you ever wondered why there seems to be a minor revolution every decade or so, it’s basically just because I really liked Vienna’s cafés! I’m glad that so many of you seem to enjoy them as well.
It’s also why Jarascal exists at all. Originally I had no plans to generate a resource-rich rump zone to the south of the main province. But I realized for Salamerta to have a self-sufficient, semi-sustainable economy that its goods would have to come from somewhere. (I never liked the idea of just “airdropping” them as needed onto the map somewhere — it felt like cheating.)
What I’m trying to say is that all the coffee that was going to be consumed in Cilija’s coffee houses had to come from somewhere, and there was nowhere on the continent that had the proper climate. So what began as a small island to the continent’s south quickly grew into a large, connected land mass of its own. I fed Colombian place names into my software: hence Jarascal, but also the capital of Pojita, the verdant hills of Aguates, the mighty river Lula.
As with the silver trade, I wasn’t entirely happy with the quality-of-life impact, particularly among the population that actually farmed the coffee beans and sold them to the often-greedy Mindan brokers (setting the greed levels any lower and they never ended up importing enough), but at least I had my cafés.
I kept sprinkling in new details here and there, often just on a whim. Some of you asked about superstitions. Ever wonder why Cilijans never go out in groups of seven? Why babies aren’t allowed to hear the hum of a beehive before their naming-day? Those were all just combinations my superstition algorithm spat out, but I really liked them. (The cool part is that they’re actually real! So don’t eat a rabbit’s leg in front of a widow any time soon, haha.)
The more I added, the more the various elements of the world interacted with each other, and the more lifelike and organic Salamerta and its inhabitants began to seem. It started to feel like there was a really society there, and I often just sat back and let it run on its own.
There was the question of language. I toyed with the idea of creating my own bespoke lingua franca for Salamerta , but in the end I decided to stick with plain old English. It was ultimately a practical decision, and one I’m glad I made.
Because now I can understand what you guys are saying.
I can communicate with you; I can even read the emails you sent me, after I what I know must have been a rather startling announcement one sunny Saturday morning.
Overall, I’d say the reaction has been largely positive, all things considered. There are of course always going to be haters, but I want to say again that for the most part the response to my call for feedback has been incredible. Your questions were so insightful, and I’m so glad that most of you “got” what I’m trying to do here.
There was one topic that kept coming up again and again though, and for obvious reasons. So many of you wanted to know about the possibility of an afterlife. It was a very popular question. I’m going to do my best to answer it, but haha, this is such a tricky one.
Short answer: no.
Let me explain, though.
There are a bunch of purely technical problems involved in creating an afterlife for you guys. First of all: uhh… where to put it? First, I’d have to create a whole new map, in its own separate project file. Then I’d have to find out how to automagically move your final save state to that map the moment you die (no way I could do this manually), “resurrect” it there and repair/heal whatever it was that killed you.
Then there’s the question of space. As you’d presumably wouldn’t be able to die again in the afterlife map, you’d fill it up crazy fast. The map would just have to keep expanding constantly, and the server load would be ridiculous. I don’t want to stress you out, but I’m already kind of at the limit of my resources here. Right now I have Salamerta running on an Amazon cloud server, and it’s starting to feel like a very expensive hobby.
Oh, and if I wanted it to be any sort of conventional afterlife, I’d obviously need two maps. And that would introduce a whole complicated sorting issue I don’t want to get anywhere near lol.
I know this is going to be a disappointment to a lot of you, but until I figure it out, there’s nothing much I can do. I’m definitely not ruling it out, and I do have some ideas, but it’s going to have to wait for a later iteration.
Speaking of which, many of you probably aren’t going to be wild about where this is going either, but I’ve learned so much about this whole process in the last little while that some of my more obvious, newbie-ish mistakes are starting to really bug me. Ever wonder why there are basically thirteen identical mountains in a row in the northeastern province? Well, that was just me cutting-and-pasting lazily when I was trying to finish the map, and by the time I got around to doing something about it, there were a bunch of (really cool) towns already there. It still makes me cringe, no offence.
And there are subtler problems, stuff only I can see. I know with some “under the hood” tweaks I can do something about Jarascal’s chronically low birth weights, and by fiddling with some of the personality algorithms I can even lower rates of infidelity globally (some of you actually wrote in complaining about this). I can put in less rhodochrosite, haha.
I just have a huge list of fixes. I admit it: I’m a bit of a perfectionist, for better or worse. Basically, when I look at Salamerta, all I can see is all the flaws, and it kind of drives me crazy.
The good news is I have tons of ideas of how I can not just fix all those issues, but make the world even better and more robust. I want more cultures, more resources, a lot more history and fun stuff for its inhabitants to discover. A way bigger map! The next Salamerta is going to be awesome, and I know some of you will appreciate what I have in mind for it. But yeah, for any of this stuff to work, it’ll have to be seeded in from the very beginning.
I know some of you see where I’m going with this. I’ll more or less have to “reboot” the world and to start the instance from scratch.
Before you freak out, let me also say that I’m not just going to shut the whole thing down unceremoniously. I’ve thought about it a bunch and that just doesn’t seem right. So here’s my compromise, and I think it’s a fair one: I’m just going to pull the fertility slider down to zero. You can live out the rest of your lives as Salamerta’s last generation, have fun, do whatever you feel is meaningful, and when you’re done, I’ll start over from scratch. (From my point of view, it’ll only take a few hours.)
I know a lot of you are really attached to Salamerta, and trust me, if anyone understands where you’re coming from, it’s me. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but this funky continent I’ve created has basically taken over my life. But that just makes me more excited about what’s coming next. The next version of our little world is going to rock. ;)
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This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes all the way from Italy, courtesy of reader Ilaria Vigorito. I urge you to submit your own by emailing me at email@example.com; if you do and you include your address I will send you a Something Good zine at my own expense, no matter where you are in the world.
As it turned out, demand exceeded supply, so I printed up a new run of zines. So even if you don’t have an unjacketed discovery to share, if you want one, send me your mailing address and I’ll pop a copy in the mail for you.
Special thanks to former Awl editor John Herrman for first running the above story. I used a variety of online name and place generators in its creation, mostly intended for helping people run RPG campaigns; every name in the story was devised this way. For the maps, I used Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator and Donjon. If you are inspired to do anything interesting with these tools, please send your creations my way.
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