Thursday, October 8, 2020

She Bad?

Genshin Impact
opens with a short action sequence before dumping your character in media res without further explanation. About the first thing thing you notice is that you've somehow acquired a choric companion who goes by the name of Paimon.

Paimon took me more by surprise than perhaps the writers intended. It's a name I'd only encountered once before, in one of my very favorite novels, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall, which I happened just to have re-read a matter of weeks previously. Paimon is both a denizen, a kind of quasi-immortal being, and also the butler at Bilskinir House. When first met, he's described as wearing "a blindingly white flannel suit and white patent leather shoes, long and pointy, like loaves of bread". He has tusks and a long moustachio in "a lovely shade of velvety blue".

As she explains in an entry in the Califa Police Gazette, author Ysabeau S. Wilce was "purposely vague" when describing Paimon, "focusing on parts instead of a whole". I pictured him as a djinn-like figure, blue and massive, standing maybe eight feet tall. Graphic artist Lea Hernandez imagined him as a stern, blue, canine Southern gentleman; Tennessee Williams as a dog. 

Actually? Not so much as you'd think.


Although Ysabeau Wilce's works are a palimpsest of research and erudition, filled with found references from all kinds of historical sources, arcane and mundane, it hadn't occured to me that the name Paimon might have risen from anything other than the pure spring of her fecund and baroque imagination. I'd never come across it anywhere else.

Imagine my astonishment, then, to be faced in Genshin Impact by a two-foot high floating toddler with a chipmunk voice and a sarcastic tone, going by the very same name. It seemed too much of a co-incidence to be, well, a co-incidence. And it's not.

It turns out that Paimon was - or is, I guess - "a spirit named in the Lesser Key of Solomon (in the Ars Goetia), Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, the Livre des Esperitz (as "Poymon"),the Liber Officiorum Spirituum (as Paymon),The Book of Abramelin, and certain French editions of The Grimoire of Pope Honorius". That's one hell of a lineage. Appropriately so, since Paimon is "quite obedient to Lucifer".

Oh, I think you know.

Knowing the derivation puts a new spin on both characters. In the book, the denizen Paimon is a somewhat terrifying character. In the game, very much the opposite. And yet, in each the choice is freighted with nuance. 

Flora Segunda is ostensibly a children's book although the greater fictional universe of Califa extends well into adulthood, particular in the exemplary collection of short stories, "Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa". Genshen Impact appears to be a fluffy, cheerful anime-inspired video game that looks and plays young, and yet it has grabbed the attention of millions of adults around the world.

Many children's books and many fantasy-themed video games draw their imagery, inspiration and iconography from spiritual and mythical traditions. It's not especially unusual for demons and devils, even named Princes and Powers, to find themselves translated into cannon fodder or arch-villainry. It is, I would suggest, somewhat less usual for them to appear as trusted friends and helpmeets to the protagonist.

You said it, not me.


And it made me wonder. Is Paimon to be trusted? Paimon in Genshin Impact seems so innocuous, so naive and innocent. She looks like a small child. She talks like a small child, albeit an acid-witted, precocious one. But what do we really know about her?

When the action begins, the Traveller, the character that comes closest in Genshen Impact's asymmetric character design to something that might pass for a traditional player avatar, is already keeping company with Paimon. There's a passing reference to them having been together for three months or so. 

Clearly, some significant amount of time has passed since the events of the opening scenario. A bond of some description has been forged between the Traveller and Paimon but how and why goes unexplained. The relationship is difficult to draw out, not least because Paimon does almost all of the talking, not only in supposed conversations between the player and herself but also in almost all of their interactions with other actors in the game.

Like you really care what I think, Paimon.


Over the years there's been much discussion of the ways a player character can enter into conversation with non-player characters in the gameworld. We've picked over the strengths and weaknesses of silent protagonists, multiple choice responses and branching decision trees. I'm not sure I can remember a game that handles dialog quite like Genshin Impact.

Paimon does most of the talking, most of the time. If there's an open conversation she'll insert her opinions at every opportunity but even when, as happens quite frequently, an NPC directs a question squarely at the player character, it's Paimon who'll reply.

This doesn't feel unnatural becuase Paimon very convincingly replicates one of those friends we've all had, someone who seemingly lacks the self-awareness to realize that not everything revolves around them. 

Um, hello? I'm right here!


It seems like Paimon never stops talking. The sheer amount of voice work is staggering. If she isn't making snap decisions or snippy observations she's monologuing her own thought processes. She talks exclusively in the third person and at a pitch that verges on the excrucuating, either or both of which may or may not be an intentional alienation device.

With all this going on it's easy to slip into the belief that Paimon is merely a cute mechanic inserted in the game to make it even more child-friendly than the colorful graphics and funny creatures already suggest. And yet...

Why call her Paimon? Why do so many NPCs pass comment when they first encounter her, apparently never having seen anything like her before? What's with the running joke about Paimon being an emergency food supply? That's "being" not "providing". The Traveller, Paimon herself, the master chef Xiangling, they all make jokes about eating Paimon. Xianling even refers to Paimon as "it". 

"Friend". It's such a strong word, isn't it?


Paimon in Genshen Impact reminds me strongly of the Black Spirit in Black Desert Online. They both facilitate the player in numerous ways within the game, specifically in providing a lore-supportive conduit for meta-actions like opening game windows and manipulating UI elements. As I understand it, the Black Spirit goes on to play a significant role in BDO's storyline. It seems, even at this early stage, that Paimon may do the same.

At a glance, the two have little in common. The Black Spirit is sinister from the outset. It's openly parasitic, amoral, opportunistic and scary. Paimon is the exact opposite, cute, bubbly, friendly, unthreatening. Do I trust her? Hell, no!

Genshen Impact is one of the best-written video games I've played. I'm mulling a post on why I believe that's true. It's a hard one to pin down because the quality of the writing resides above all in the tone, the very thing so few video games get right. It makes it surprisingly tough to tease out what's happening when one does.

What's wrong, Paimon? No smart remarks?

Paimon is a great example. Nothing about her is explained. It's all implied. Or suggested. If it wasn't for the deft way some of the more explicit plot twists have revealed themselves already, I'd think I was imagining it. The things I've seen so far, though, they give me confidence the writers know what they're about.

I hope so, anyway. Writing as fluid and effective as this is a rarity in games I play. It'd be nice not to be disappointed for once.


  1. Interesting thoughts. I'm one play session into Genshin Impact - probably coming back to it. I know she (Paimon) irritates me!

    The only thing I wonder is whether the name derivation is different in the original Chinese? Since the names seem to have survived translation relatively intact.

    1. Yes, about the only obvious remnant of whatever the original version may have been seems to be the names. Other than that it's probably the best translation I've seen - just about flawless in idiom and expression, as is the voice work.

      I kind of wax and wane on Paimon - sometimes I find her endearing, other times I wish you could swat her like an annoying fly. That in itself is a tribute to how well-realised she it, I think. About the one thing I would change about her and indeed about many of the characters is the pitch of the voices. I find it hard to believe some of them haven't been speeded up, Chipmunks style. I'd like an option to change the pitch to something less grating.

  2. Oh, that's... very much not an alienation device. Anime Culture finds that endearing.

    1. Yeah, I was being kind of ironic, although I'm pretty sure whoever directed the voice acting would have to know Western gamers might not find the screeching all *that* endearing. It happens in almost every imported game I've played, though, so I have to assume it's popular with someone!

      The third-person dialog definitely does work for me, though. I've always found that cute. Well, either cute or terrifying, depending on the context.

  3. I've never trusted fairies since a certain RGP came out some years ago...
    Also, how are we to know the Traveler (or rather, Travelers) are a benevolent force themselves? At least the PC seems nice enough, but "nice" doesn't mean "good," especially when you're talking about beings that can travel between dimensions seemingly at will. And even being morally good doesn't necessarily mean they leave the world as a better place than when they came, at the power scale that will fight gods for merely impeding their journey.

    1. With most imports I always find it hard to work out how much is really there and how much I'm reading into the fractured, idosyncratic translations. Dialog in Genshin Impact is indistinguishable from anything you'd get in game produced in an English-speaking country, though, so when something feels like it might be a hint or a nuance or ironic foreshadowing I'm tending to go with it. Also there have been a couple of plot twists that suggests there's a lot going on that has yet to be explained, so I'm hopeful. Definitely one of the better-written games of its type that I've played, anyway, however the plot turns out.

  4. I also was immediately reminded of the Black Spirit by the first half of your post. :-)

    We'll play Genshin Impact for the first time after work today, very much looking forward to it.

    1. I'd have to say it's scoring highly in all departments with me so far - writing, plot, graphic design, gameplay. I even like the combat, which is not something I often say about action rpgs.


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