Twilight: 2000 – A Study in Localization

So, Fria Ligan is coming out with what I would’ve thought the least likely RPG to make a comeback after Spawn of Fashan, and is running a Kickstarter for a new edition of Twilight: 2000. At the time of writing, it’s cleared a quarter of a million dollars with 18 days to go, presumably owing to the allure of its comforting escapism. This gives me an excuse to talk about something I’ve wanted to write for a while.

For some background, the original Twilight: 2000 came out in 1984 from Game Designers’ Workshop, designed by Frank Chadwick, Dave Nilsen, Loren K. Wiseman, and Lester W. Smith. It was a post-apocalyptic war role-playing game, set in the immediate aftermath of an extended nuclear exchange after the Cold War turned hot. There was a slightly edited second edition in 1990, and v. 2.2 in 1993 with an extensively rewritten alternate history, as history had caught up with the old one, what with the Soviet Union collapsing and everything. There’s also a 2008 Twilight: 2013 by an entirely different crew from a company called 93 Games Studio, which has since gone out of business. It is silly, and we will not be talking about it.

Instead, the interesting one here is v. 2.2. It was released in Finnish in the same year, translated by Janne Kemppi and Joona Vainio. It was published by TK-Kustannus Oy under its imprint Finnish Game House. In addition to the 1993 and 1990 versions of the core rules, FGH also released a translation of the Twilight Encounters supplement, as well as three original supplements, ErikoisjoukotPohjoismaat-lähdekirja, and Kööpenhaminaan (all released in 1990). They’re the special forces and Nordic Countries sourcebooks, and an adventure module “To Copenhagen”, respectively.

Personally, I have never played Twilight: 2000, and my contact with the game line is limited to reading the rulebook and the Finnish sourcebooks, and bouncing off the ruleset hard.

Now, Kemppi and Vainio did not just translate the book, but… adjusted some things, slightly. After all, this was a version to be marketed next door to what had been the Soviet Union, in 1993, and you couldn’t peddle just any Hollywood make-believe. So, for contrast, the alternate history’s point of departure in Twilight: 2000 v.2.2, American:

On August 19th [1991], elements of the Taman Guards and Kantemir Motor Rifle Divisions move into the center of Moscow and seize the most important public buildings and radio stations. An eight-member Emergency Committee deposes Gorbachev (for “reasons of health”) and bans strikes, protests, or public assemblies. Defiant protesters gather at the Soviet Parliament building, along with a few dissident military units and a cadre of Afghan War veterans, to defend Yeltsin and the Parliament. On August 20th, elements of the Kantemir Division, spearheaded by the elite KGB “Alpha Team,” storm the Parliament building and scatter the protesters. Russian President Yeltsin, along with an estimated 800 others, die in the assault.

With Yeltsin dead and Gorbachev imprisoned in the Crimea, acting Soviet President Yanayev declares the establishment of a “renewal government.” The governments of Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) denounce the new government as illegal and declare the Soviet Union to be dissolved.

And this is how you get Soviet Union. In 1992, USA elects the President John Tanner (D-CA), with VP Deanna Pemberton (D-OH), and then things roll downhill from there in an escalating shitshow that brings your party of grunts eight years later to a field in Poland with HQ telling you on the radio: “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

The turning point described here was a real event, the attempted coup d’état of 1991. In real life, as in the Finnish edition, it failed, and the American presidential election is won by Bill Clinton. The Finnish edition, pulling a staggeringly cutting-edge move, even manages to incorporate the Russian 1993 constitutional crisis into its timeline. “Constitutional crisis” is a really clinical way to refer to something that saw armoured columns on the streets of Moscow and had a death toll of 187, by the way. There’s a reference to the Soviet OMON (hey, why don’t Russian paramilitaries like mirrors?) activities in Latvia and Lithuania in 1991, which is a pretty deep cut.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific point of divergence in the Finnish edition, which is interesting. It’s more of a cascade of little things. It names real world leaders very readily, killing Deng Xiaoping off in 1995, to be replaced by hardline militarists as the state begins to collapse, and raising Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the position of interior minister in Russia. He eventually stages a coup in 1996 and immediately manages to steer the country into war with China and basically all of the CIS states (except Armenia), but things have been rolling downhill for years at that point. Things are further muddled by incorporating material such as the war in Abkhazia. A small divergence in 1993 is that President Leonid Kravchuk sells the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet to Russia, for fear that if he doesn’t, they’ll take the entire Crimea. According to Janne Kemppi, the writer of most of this, the history also incorporates some material specific to Finland from the first-edition adventure Boomer. He also told me that the license from GDW allowed them to take this kind of liberal approach with the material, with the caveat that this stuff happened around 30 years ago and human memory is fallible.

There are also tonal differences. 1990 in American:

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership in resisting Iraqi aggression, and troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

And Finnish (English translation my own):

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership to secure the industrial nations’ access to oil. Troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

From 1997 onward, the divergence of the versions ends and the rest of the timelines are the same, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact both making liberal use of tactical nuclear weapons, and everything going to hell. Neither version, incidentally, covers Africa, South America, South or South East Asia, or Japan in much detail — though this being Twilight: 2000, the basic assumption is that if it could’ve been nuked, it got nuked.

The Finnish version of the alternate history is, in my mind, the better one of the two. It presents the near past as a muddle, eschewing the clarity of hindsight or an orderly narrative. It creates a mosaic of fact and fiction and raises minor conflicts to the same level as the struggles of great powers. The use of real names of world leaders makes it feel more real. The American version is Hollywood, a war movie set in some exotic elsewhere with weird names, whereas the Finnish one acknowledges that Russia is, like, right there and it’s less than a thousand kilometres to Poland. It’s a starker, bleaker presentation.

I am looking forward to Fria Ligan’s interpretation of the game. Twilight: 2000 has walked a strange path. The first edition came out when the Cold War was still on and played into the very real fears of nuclear war that people had at the time. The second edition came out on the cusp of the USSR’s collapse — which by all accounts came as a surprise to basically everyone — and received version 2.2 soon after to patch over how its future history had become an alternate history in a year. Now, a third edition is on the way, set in that bleak future that’s twenty years in our past. “Whew, glad we dodged that apocalypse scenario!”

But hey, at least it’ll finally have playable rules.