About erikscottdebie

I write and stuff. Many-times published author and game designer. Professional geek. erikscottdebie.com

The Last of Us Part 2: Empathy by Perspective

(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Seriously, you should play and/or watch the game first before reading.)
This is an odd review for me to write. The Last of Us (part 1 or part 2) isn’t really my kind of game. I get too anxious to enjoy playing a game like this. I’m more of an RPG player, though I’ve flexed a little over the years (it started with Mass Effect, which is a FPS/RPG hybrid, and I can play the recent Tomb Raider games). But the story here really spoke to me, and I feel like I have to talk about it.
So, I haven’t actually, technically played either the original The Last of Us or part 2. I’ve watched them both on YouTube, and the reason I can do that is that I have a good YouTuber to watch: TheRadBrad (link below). Watching this game has been an amazing experience, and it’s also been a fascinating journey watching and listening to his unfolding understanding and interpretation of this game.

So my review isn’t from the perspective of someone who physically played it, but since these games are so much like movies, it’s from the perspective of a professional storyteller who was really, really moved by this story.

I see The Last of Us part 2 as being about pain, coercion, and loss, just as the first one was, and one of its major tools is PERSPECTIVE. The first game forced us to sympathize with Joel by putting us in his shoes—if we’d seen his villainous turn before we played him, it would be just like playing Abby’s story. I could hear him warming to her and figuring out story options that would make her more sympathetic.

There’s this narrative out there where “it’s hard to care about Abby”, and I don’t think that’s true. If we could care about Joel–a person in hard circumstances, birthed in tragedy, who cares deeply about others and forms a particularly tight bond with a child who needs protecting, who then does one really terrible thing–then we should be able to care about Abby, about whom all of that is true.

Abby is essentially the opposite of Joel: whereas we built empathy for him from the beginning only to see his heel turn at the end of the first game, we see Abby’s villain moment at the beginning and can only build empathy afterward.

And the game gives us plenty of grist for seeing Abby as a person worthy of our sympathies. Her flashbacks show her cute, snarky, caring side, establishing real relationships with a bunch of people… people we, the player, have ruthlessly murdered earlier in the game. People we thought were the enemy.

And they were… from that perspective.

Why do we dislike Abby? Because we see her kill Joel, a bad guy we’ve been conditioned to view as the hero, and cause pain to Ellie, who we sympathize with for similar reasons, but in Ellie’s case, she’s relatively innocent. She hadn’t done evil the way Joel did at the end of the first game… but throughout this one, she’s constantly struggling with that impulse, and for entirely understandable reasons.

The reason we love Joel is we played as him for so long, we saw how much he loved Ellie, and we saw how much she loved him. If you assess his actions not in that context, he’s an absolute villain.

The only reason we don’t hate Ellie too is that she’s (initially) ignorant of the terrible things done to and for her, and Joel lies to her to preserve her innocence. (Though we ultimately learn she knows the truth.)

Why do we hate Abby? Because we love Joel, and she kills him. That’s how we meet her. We don’t see the context—she’s just a cruel villain. If we had known about the context beforehand, we wouldn’t have nearly the same emotional reaction, and that was what we needed to have. The game does this 100% intentionally.

I don’t see this as a weakness in the game but a strength—inviting you the player to sympathize with someone who is an utter villain based on our initial introduction to her. At first, we see her as a goddamn monster and we can sort of assume what her vengeance is about, but later we viscerally SEE it. Why she hates Joel so much, and at the end of the day, can you really blame her?

Yes, probably. And no, at the same time.

If we had seen this story from her perspective from the beginning (as Cosmonaut points out in his video, link below), we’d think SHE is the hero, and Joel the villain and Ellie his villainous sidekick. And we’d be right, too.

And if we had, then we wouldn’t have conceived the love for Ellie we needed to make the first half of this game work.

Joel WAS a bad guy: a mass murderer in the context of the game, because of reasons, yes, but he was a violent monster. And his choice at the end of the first game was totally understandable and also totally wrong. He basically dooms the world by extinguishing its one last chance. If you ask utilitarian philosophers (or Spock for that matter), he did great evil, sacrificing the desperate needs of the many for the good of the one. Heck, even ELLIE condemns him from taking that choice away from her, in the flashback at the end of this game.

That doesn’t make us not love him, nor does it diminish how good he is as a character.

What the game is inviting us to see is that these are just people forced into impossible, violent situations. None of them are good, all of them are bad, and what really matters about them is the tiny bits of humanity we get to see as their stories unfold and crash into each other. They are violent and at times really dark, but human.

The game invites us to stretch our empathy.

This was exactly what we got from the first game, only expanded upon. Taken to the next level. The next step.

It’s harsh, it’s brutal, and it’s cruel, and JESUS is it traumatic, but what we’re seeing is humanity. Mostly the darkness and vileness, but sometimes little spots of joy. We’re invited to sympathize with people we thought were the absolute worst.

And at the end, when Ellie doesn’t kill Abby, it shows that she has learned the lesson Joel couldn’t: that the world isn’t black and white, and continuing to brutalize each other only hurts all of us.
tloupii-preview-screenshot-04

This woman is PISSED, for reasons both righteous and wrong, but always relatable

A couple specific things:

1) About Ellie, whose arc in the first game was already great, and this just expands on it in a fantastic way. She is becoming Joel, and sometimes in the game that is VERY clear. It is also remarkable to see a woman who unabashedly loves women, and that being a source of strength for her, not weakness. I am not a woman, let alone a lesbian, but I suspect if I were, Ellie would give me hope.

Also her relationship with Dina is fantastic and core to the story, just as was the he relationship between Joel and Ellie in the first game. Only now, they’re more equal—they’re friends, rather than parent and adopted child. And that changes how it develops and how it ends.

2) About Abby, it is distracting how meaty she is—not because that’s bad (quite the opposite), but because it’s so unusual in a video game. We just don’t see female figures with believable functional strength like hers. Abby looks like a goddamn powerlifter, not a body builder or a gymnast, and she loses not a single bit of her female identity in the process. She’s so much like Ellie (above), and yet so different at the same time. She’s a pretty great character, even more so BECAUSE you hate her so much at the beginning. By the time the stories smash into each other again, you might still be hating her, but you probably can’t honesty tell me you don’t sympathize even a little with her.

3) Lev and Yara: I said earlier that I was reserving judgment on the trans stuff in the game until I saw it myself, and now that I have… mixed feelings. Which I gather is how the trans community views it as well.

On the one hand, having archery badass Lev in a triple A action game with this much hype and cultural resonance puts trans stories on a MASSIVE stage, and that should be applauded. And I find it refreshing that Abby respects his boundaries—one great exchange is when the psychotic cultists are deadnaming Lev, who then asks Abby “do you want to ask me about it?” and Abby says “do you want me to ask you about it?”, at which point Lev considers, says no, and Abby agrees. Only when Yara explains a little more later do we get the context. We shouldn’t be applauding Yara outing her brother as trans, but it’s mitigated by the fact that she asks Abby what Lev has already told her, and they share the understanding that Abby already knows. And still, the word “trans” isn’t used.

On the other hand, I wish they hadn’t gone to the “trans teen cast out of family” narrative. Perhaps they couldn’t think of another way to code the character definitively as trans, like including a gay character with a same-sex love interest, because that’s the most obvious way to say hey “this character is gay” (and not pull a Dumbledore). Also, yes, that’s a common experience for trans people, and a lot of us cis people just don’t understand or sympathize on a visceral level, so maybe the game can offer a way to engage with this story in a way that makes us empathize more.

And yes, obviously one shouldn’t have to see people’s pain on display to empathize, I agree. I’m only looking with despair at the low likelihood of cis people engaging in media that contains trans stories, and this might open up some minds.

Is that the purpose Lev serves? To provide representation and engage the game’s largely cis audience with a narrative they might have heard of but not really understand? Or is it a token inclusion to make us cis people feel better about doing so?

I think the key is the quality of the character: the writing and the mechanics. Which are, generally, pretty great. At no point is Lev a burden or an annoyance, and he is pretty great pretty much all the time, including his contribution to the moment when Abby has the chance but doesn’t kill Dina or Ellie. He is a reminder of empathy, of the growth Abby has made over the course of the game–and of the growth Lev himself has made, even as a relatively minor, supporting character. Whether they did well or not, Naughty Dog certainly took their effort here seriously, and it’s perhaps promising to see a AAA studio taking these things seriously.

And while the voice actor for Lev is indeed a trans man, I wish the industry in general hired a few more trans designers, particularly but not only for trans story content. Indeed, our games could use some more perspectives to enhance and expand their stories, and the trans experience is one we cis people ignore to our peril and, mostly, that of trans people. Trans people need to be included at the table. They need to be not just welcomed but ACTIVELY INVITED to participate in safe, mutually respectful contexts.

4) Last but certainly not least, a very important related point: Naughty Dog has a long-running problem with crunch and an oppressive culture for its designers. We can and should enjoy the fruits of their labor, but we should not lose sight of the suffering that brought it into being. I’ll include some links below.
Further Viewing/Reading:
TheRadBrad’s walkthrough of the game, which has some good insights from his perspective. His game movies tend to be really solid: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLs1-UdHIwbo54PcRVvyoEr6z_jUL6EmYY
A largely spoiler-free review that’s pretty darn positive: https://youtu.be/DPi0VNj9MMI
A video about the game saying many of these same things but in more detail, especially about empathy: https://youtu.be/jmivMh8Dpug
About Lev, from a different trans writer, a bit more positive: https://www.vg247.com/2020/06/23/the-last-of-us-part-2-trans-representation-lev/

Fantasy “Races” Shouldn’t Be Evil

On the topic of WotC’s recent update to eliminate racial alignments, or “Orcs/drow aren’t racist, but maybe we should be more inclusive”
 
Obviously, orcs and drow aren’t racist. They’re not even real. And even as pieces of art, they (probably?) weren’t originally intended to represent ethnic groups in our world.
 
I say “probably”, because I suspect those early authors just didn’t consider their own biases. We’re talking about a time when people though Black people weren’t even human. OF COURSE they made their scary monsters have dark skin.
 
But WE (that is, humans in our world) can and frequently do create things that ARE racist, and we should try not to do that.
 
And drow, orcs, etc… you don’t have to squint too hard to see the racial issues involved in depicting a race of brown and/or black people as “inherently evil”, “savage”, or barbarous.
 
orcs-drow

Orcs and drow respectively. Huh, I wonder what the issue might be…

“But Erik,” you say, “surely evil can be just a force that the good guys struggle with. This is FANTASY, after all!”
 
So, here’s the thing. There IS obviously a distinction, and different people obviously have different tastes.
 
  • Some people prefer stories where heroes struggle against entirely amoral forces: monsters, representations of evil, basically forces of nature, Lord of the Rings, early Terry Brooks, xenomorphs, Predators, that kind of thing.
  • Some people prefer stories where heroes struggle against moral antagonists: other people, who can make a conscious choice between good and evil, the Legend of Drizzt, A Song of Ice and Fire, most of the popular fantasy published over the last forty years.
 
That second moral perspective is much more in vogue these days. Heck, Peter Jackson even tried to introduce a little moral ambiguity into his Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Remember when Faramir talks about the man from the east, and what he was fighting for? That scene.)
 
And seen through that lens, it becomes… iffy to look at those older stories that cast entire peoples as just *innately evil*. When you try to apply that expectation to something like, say, the drow of Salvatore’s work, who have a complex society, culture, language, relationships, expectations, and clearly the capacity to *be* good, once they break free of their acculturation process. Can one in good faith look at the drow and say “these are monsters”, just ignoring all of Bob’s work to make them people?
 
It’s much the same with orcs, though they don’t have a single long story to point to that justifies seeing them as people, rather than monsters. Their evolution has been slower, spread out over various works (including some by Salvatore, but also Warcraft and other games). In some respects, they are *easier* to label as evil than the drow, but the difference is mostly aesthetic. They aren’t as pleasing to look at for most of us, so we’re ok dismissing them as evil? What?
 
This is exactly the same process we human beings have used against other human beings since time immemorial. Labeling an “Other” to define ourselves against, and deciding they are evil and must be wiped out or, better, enslaved and persecuted. And it’s no surprise that this takes on a racialized character, no matter how much we old school fantasy fans argue against it.
 
Racism doesn’t go away just because you deny it’s there. If anything, denying it only makes it MORE OBVIOUS.
 
Depicting characters of the “standard fantasy races” as sharing different ethnic features and traits helps, obviously, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem. Before WotC made the decision to update, we still had multiple “races” of dark-skinned beings who were labeled as “innately evil” or “barbaric” or “savage” or any number of other words real-world racists use about people of color in the real world. This change, at least, says that we can recognize that people deserve to be treated like people (with the capacity for good or for evil) and that we are no longer going to objectify them.
 
fighter-iconic

The 5e Fighter; definitely more like this, please. But this isn’t ENOUGH to make racism not a thing anymore.

WotC is just updating their game to match our evolving understanding and appeal to a wider player base, seeking to invite more players who aren’t white cishet dudes like me. They’ve already got us–we already have plenty to appeal to us in the game.
 
We can share our toys, and when other players show up, we don’t have to shout loudly that the brown ones are BAD.
 
Just let other people sit at the table. Some of them won’t care about any of this, but some of them will, and it’s better to be inclusive than to be exclusive.
 
We’re gamers. Isn’t including the downtrodden, bullied, and marginalized what we’re supposed to be doing?
Let’s be the heroes we look up to.

It All Comes Together: Witcher 7-8

By this point, most of you who were going to watch the Witcher have already watched it.

And I’m not just saying that because it’s been out for over two weeks, but because Netflix has reported that streams of the Witcher were some of its highest of the year in 2019. (According to this article, it’s surpassed the Mandalorian and second only to Stranger Things in 2019, which seems unlikely to me but, if true, marks a huge accomplishment.)

https://www.businessinsider.com/witcher-passed-mandalorian-as-biggest-tv-show-in-the-world-2019-12

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen it, or even if you have, I’m still gonna talk about the last two episodes of The Witcher (2019), because I really enjoyed it and, well, it’s my blog. So here we go.

Yennefer of Vengerberg, Extra AF

And I don’t just mean wearing a rope dress into a battle.

e1f53a4fd2c052038f2dc5d3636af2ae343d906f

Though there is that, obviously…..

The show overall has shifted dramatically among its three characters and their multiple timelines. (Well, Ciri wandering around the forest learning that life is hard for two weeks has been very consistent.) But these last two episodes, they are YENNEFER’s episodes. She gets the most character development, makes the hardest choices, participates in the most action, and is basically the star of the show. And this is simultaneously the least Witcher-like of the episodes and the most, because it is such a great encapsulation of the world and its feel.

Just like with her origin story, a *lot* of this Yennefer stuff is entirely extrapolated from the book material, not actually shown on the page. We don’t see her adventures in creepy Hogwarts in the books, nor do we see her return to Aratuza and the emotions therein contained, nor the battle of Sodden. (Though that DOES happen and it’s a big deal–Geralt *does* go to Sodden, in the wake of the battle, in desperate hope of not finding evidence that Yennefer has died in the battle. No chance she’s dead.)

130c415871641f36866fb069ae00ba8a34040dfb

you messed with the wrong sorceress

We get to see all of Yennefer’s plot-arcs get resolved, with all of her early relationships reflected in subsequent events. We watch her play off all sorts of people she knew before, and how her relationship to those people has changed, sometimes dramatically. And though that actress is quite young, we get a real sense of how old Yennefer is, how much she’s seen, and the keen sense of disillusionment that has shadowed her present life. The scene with her boytoy from early on (I don’t remember his name, and I’m not sure he’s worth looking up) is her full circle moment: she refused the concept of a mediocre life with a fairly handsome but weak-willed guy when he betrayed and disappointed her, and now that she’s had her life full of magical power and influence, and she’s got to see how shitty it has been, she wants to recapture some of that early promise. But it’s no good, and we know it’s no good even as she heads into it. Too much time has passed, too many shitty things were said, and she realizes that only shortly after we do. It’s disappointing for her, and into that disappointment comes Vilgefortz: a moderately handsome, fast-talking, over-confident mage who you just KNOW is going to make life difficult for Yennefer and everyone else.

Now. For those who haven’t read the books, Vilgefortz is a pretty major character in the books, and he becomes essentially an antagonist. It’s a little complicated, but basically he wants what everyone in the books seems to want, which is Ciri. He wants to harvest her vast, ancient power, and when I say “harvest,” I mean that probably in exactly the painful, unpleasant way you’re imagining right now. In the books, he combines magic and science–sort of a mad scientist wizard–and does the “evil experiments on people” thing, which will come up several times in the books. (Also, he fights Geralt hand-to-hand in a pretty memorable scene with major consequences in the books, so look forward to that when it comes up.)

maxresdefault

Vilgefortz, stop making all these charisma checks!

Vilgefortz here–well, he seems like kind of a smarmy, optimistic, overconfident asshole, but not a *villain*, exactly. By the end of episode 8, however, we’re going to see him injured and traumatized by the events of the battle, and one can draw a clear line from “OMG, I really fucked up there” to “I need more power, at any cost.” So really this humanizes him in a way I never expected from the show, and that was cool.

It also makes Frangilla look *really* evil, and that was an interesting viewing experience. Obviously, Nilfgaard are the bad guys (in the show, the books, the games, etc), but Fringilla never seemed quite that evil before the show. (The way she just orders the wizard to create a fireball to catapult? Oh man. And the revelation about the storm? That is Fringilla being a Lawful Evil cold-hearted witch-queen all day and I am here for it.) I like it, and I think the actress did a great job.

fringilla

We stan a witch queen

Earlier I praised the show for presenting us with ethnically diverse characters–you know, the sort of people that the games and right-wingers in Poland pretend don’t exist or actively want to remove, respectively–and Frangilla is, well, black. This isn’t ideal: fantasy (and a lot of fiction in general) often has a problem with presenting black people as the villains, suggesting by association that black people are evil or untrustworthy, etc, while our heroes are lily-skinned and bright-eyed, which supports a subtle, pernicious white supremacist narrative. It’s one of the ways the white hegemony reinforces itself through our stories without hitting you over the head screaming “whites are the superior race!” (Subtlety is often more powerful than direct propaganda.) And in this case, well, it’s still not ideal to make the evil wizard the darkest skinned wizard on the show, but it’s tempered somewhat by several factors: 1) she plays opposite Cahir, who is also evil and basically the whitest guy on the show, and that’s including Geralt’s white hair, 2) she’s a foreign transplant to the nation of Nilfgaard, which is not coded as some kind of middle eastern “savage” race of people (thanks, Tolkien! And Howard! And Abercrombie! And– [1]) but is instead about as white as it gets, including at least one other wizardly type who is briefly there in episode 8 (before THING happens to her), and 3) there are a bunch of other non-white people in this show, so it’s not on Fringilla to represent *all people of color* or anything–she isn’t the token black woman, she’s just *a* black woman.

Anyway, she’s tough and cruel and fanatical and such a great villain.

3598547-screen20shot202019-10-3120at2010.45.5920am

the look of a woman who’s gonna burn your castle down

[1] The construction of race is more complicated in Lord of the Rings, Conan, and The First Law series, amongst others, so I hope you don’t take this as me off-handedly saying these series are horrible and/or racist. (I mean, sometimes they are, but that’s not my point.) What I’m saying is that fantasy AS A GENRE has a serious issue with race that a lot of its readers and many of its writers (especially such right-wing and/or neo-nazi organizations like the Angry/Sad Puppies–f*** those guys) miss and/or argue very vehemently against, I really do like and admire Joe Abercrombie and his work, and I think he presents a grimdark fantasy world full of racism *purposefully* in order to comment on that racism, not because he himself is racist. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog post or series that maybe I’ll write someday. Joe, if you’re reading this (or, more likely, your fans are) I think your work is great, keep writing it, no aspersions from me. 🙂

Anyway, back to #TeamYen

We get huge emotional payoffs in how she interacts with the new students at Aretuza, her evolving relationship with Tissaia (from cautious awe to outright loathing to fiery banter to a kind of daughter-mother respect by the end of episode 8. And in episode 8, she’s forced to work with all these other mages who she has various reasons to dislike or has offended often in the past. Only Triss, does Yennefer like, and I’m glad we’re getting to see them be good friends in this show. (That will eventually be more complicated, to offer the understatement of the decade.)

Like when we saw Yennefer get emotional over the baby she couldn’t save, seeing her supervising the mages at Sodden and then getting emotionally invested in their pain and suffering is wrenching. Yennefer is a woman who feels things deeply and is always trying to hide that fact–most of the time she’s successful, but if you know what to look for, it’s all right there. (She’s like Geralt in that way, actually–see below.)

And when she stops reserving her chaos? (You know the scene.) That is both amazing and horrifying.

the-witcher-yennefer-in-battle

All y’all made a bad choice this morning

You get a real sense for how vicious and horrific magic is in this world, and how much it can pain the mages who use it to kill people. Triss looks like she’s in real pain when she summons poison magic to take out marching soldiers, both physical and emotional. She does what needs doing, but she doesn’t relish it–not by a long shot. I’m obviously #TeamYen here, but let’s just say, I can see the argument.

Also, the show is baiting us with the cliffhanger disappearance, but don’t worry, Yen will obviously be back. #spoiler #butnotreally

Toss a Coin to Your Witcher… or Maybe Just Put Him in Your Cart

Geralt takes kind of a backseat in these episodes. His main contribution is to re-contextualize the fall of Cintra: we realize he was in the city, looking to protect Ciri, but that Calanthe did everything she could to make that not work out. Her hubris ended in tragedy, not that she necessarily could have avoided any of this anyway. Destiny, right? And aside from being an absolute unit with that sword, Geralt doesn’t actually do anything significant in these episodes other than get bit by ghouls and end up in a semi-dying trance for a while.

hqdefault

I hope you enjoyed this scene, because, well, the books have a lot of that

It’s almost like Sapkowski decided sometime during Blood of Elves or possibly the Time of Contempt that Ciri was his favorite character, and he wanted to write mostly about her. Unfortunately, he had this white-haired superhero to deal with, and he needed to do something with him. So… well, yeah.

Healing in this world isn’t like healing in your standard fantasy world. Characters don’t brush themselves off after a battle and they’re fine. Generally, healing magic doesn’t exist, or if it does, it doesn’t function the way it does in, say, D&D or Pathfinder or something like that. The most efficient vehicle of healing is the human body, and the best most people can do is speed its efforts along. Or just let some muscle-bound witcher heal in his own time. And boy, does it take a while.

Anyway, it’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

the-witcher-season-1-ending-geralt

See? He’s fine–one magic potion, and he’s fine

The whole scene wherein Geralt is healed of his wound (or at least the infection gets treated, maybe metaphysically, it’s a whole fantasy thing) is highly reminiscent of the framing device from The Last Wish, albeit with less random hooking up with hot young priestesses who can’t talk, and even in the books there’s some implication that his long-lost mother may be involved in some way. It’s complicated and a little hard to follow, much like this scene. For me, what’s most effective here is seeing Geralt get highly emotional about his memories, his abandonment trauma, and his bittersweet loathing of the mother who left him. We get to see him be vulnerable, which is a rare thing, especially considering how strong Cavill’s Geralt is in so many ways.

And I really like how Renfri keeps showing up throughout the show, tying it all together. The way it’s plotted, the implication is that Renfri was a kind of breaking point for Geralt–she poked a hole in his defensive stoicism, and his emotions have been leaking out ever since. It isn’t that way in the books–she’s just a minor character who shows up in one story, and it’s not even the first story, in The Last Wish–but she was such a great character in the first episode of the show, and her influence on Geralt gives the show an extra level of cohesion it would otherwise be missing.

The Child of Destiny

Ciri… well, we see her magic in its most dramatic, murderous form, and she goes all Galadriel Dark Queen to shout the prophecy, including her foretelling of the Time of Contempt (crikey–sounds like a great name for a novel).

gw5jxkju17oy

It’s like that

Otherwise, there’s not a lot to say about Cirilla. She’s important, but she doesn’t really do a lot in the show. Generally speaking, she’s a very passive character, in that things happen *to her* and she lacks the agency to do much to influence events. The show makes good use of her in certain world-building efforts, such as the forest of Brokilon and way back in episode 2 when she bore witness to the exiled noblewoman mistreating her halfling slave in a *very* Jim Crow white supremacist sort of way, and soon after getting stabbed by that very same halfling (who probably would have stabbed Ciri too, had he got the chance). It’s very much a “princess who thought she was street-smart learns life is harder than she thought and adapts”–the sort of story we’ve got in basically every fairy tale including a princess ever, particularly the ones put out by Disney. It’s neat to see that same resonance in a much darker world.

I also really liked the consistency of her blue cloak–the color marking was a big deal–and how it got dirty and scuffed over time.

2b93186a-fa3b-4e74-a820-524aebb446ae-witcher_102_unit_02536_rt

spoiler: bloodstains never really wash out

There’s one thing in episode 7 that seemed to me like a contradiction on first watch. Here, we see that Queen Calanthe’s fake Ciri is indeed fake, and how do we know that? We the audience can tell immediately (because it’s just a different actress), and Geralt is immediately suspicious (because he’s Geralt), and confirms his suspicions when he witnesses the fake Ciri going up to the real Ciri playing knucklebones with a bunch of commoner kids, gives her a little bow, and addresses her as “Your Highness.” That’s not the contradiction I mean, though–that’s just a convenient plot contrivance.

The seeming contradiction was that this group includes a boy named “Anton” who shows up toward the end of episode 7 in a group of Cintrans approaching Ciri in the tall grass as she’s escaping. He says “I told you it was her in the marketplace.” When I initially watched this scene, I took to mean that he’s going “I had this theory and it seems I was right.” Which of course would be silly, since the fake Ciri called her “Highness” right in front of him (the episode makes it seem like it was just a few hours, but these timelines aren’t the same, since this is actually the end of her wanderings).

But on second watch, I realized that he’s talking to the other dudes in his entourage, who weren’t involved in the knucklebones games, and have no immediate experience of Ciri. When he told them about her, they probably laughed him off, and now he’s doing an “I told you so moment.” So it *does* make sense ultimately, but it’s a subtle thing I missed on first viewing. I really like things you can and should watch multiple times to pick up more.

the-witcher-geralt-meets-ciri

also the brightest, most bucolic moment of this show

I’m glad Ciri and Geralt FINALLY found each other, in a way that is reminiscent of the book and games. It represents a sort of respite for them–this tranquil, bucolic forest glade where they meet–and a respite for us after the relentless darkness of the show. It is seriously the most fairy tale thing that happens in this show which can be described as “grimdark fairy tales,” and it was one of my favorite parts of the show. I guess we’ll see where it goes in season 2, which is obviously in production now.

Other Things about the Show

A fun detail about Episode 8 is the intro sequence, where all the various images we’ve seen in the previous 7 episodes come together to become the Witcher symbol. This is showing us that everything is going to come together in this episode, and sure enough, it does.

Check the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3U_LIMpzlMY

I really enjoyed seeing the explosives. Bombs are a big part of the Witcher games, particularly the Witcher 3, and seeing them presented in a logical visual format really made the whole concept for me. Maybe I’ll do more with bombs if I ever get around to finishing Blood and Wine.

Also….. MARK HAMILL FOR VESEMIR! C’mon, Netflix! Make it happen!

embed-5e0e4a67a1f2d

It’s time… for the Witchers… to end…

Witchers Gonna Witcher (ep 4-6)

I had originally planned to write a single review post for each episode of the Witcher TV show, but two things happened:

1) A lot of these episodes spark the same sort of reaction (i.e. more of the “who is the monster, who the human?” theme.

2) I really enjoyed it, so I just watched it.

So I’m going to write a post about episodes 4-6, and then I’ll follow it up with a post next week about episodes 7-8.

Also, since chronologically this show is so wonky, here’s a link that might help clarify: https://www.vulture.com/2019/12/the-witcher-timeline-in-order-chronology-explained.html

100witcher-4-1200x900-1

Life is hard when you’re in a grimdark fantasy world.

Toss a Coin to Your Witcher

Much like the anthologies upon which the first season of the show is based, Sword of Destiny and The Last Wish, the show’s plot is a timeline-agnostic look at Geralt’s life. Some of this is intentional, as Geralt is such a long-lived individual (though Yen is older), and the older you get, the more time flows together. What we’re seeing are the highlights of his “glamorous” monster-hunting career, though they are, indeed some highlights.

Dragons? Check.

Djinn? Check.

Hot, dangerous sorceress to whom he’s bound by destiny? Check, check, check.

Doppler? Che–wait, that was Ciri, never mind.

Seriously, I did not expect to get this much world building in terms of the monsters and political figures and such. I imagine it’s a bit hard to follow for folks unfamiliar with the books and games, and I’m sorry for that. The books and games are *also* complex–they’re more like an invitation to learn about the world of the Witcher than a guide to that world, and honestly, you might want to read the Wikipedia about it to get some more context. The show, as a lot of fantasy/scifi shows are, is mostly intended as a way to get you emotionally invested–to go “wow, this is cool!’–and thus engage with it as much as you want to. It’s not going to give you an instruction course in the world, just a glimpse of that world, which you can explore as you choose.

Was this the best approach? Should they have attempted a more comprehensive exploration/guide? Maybe, but I suspect that would have bogged it down in a lot of exposition that wasted a LOT of time. It’s all about balance, and I think this series is a little closer to the “figure it out” end of the scale than the “welcome to the wonderful world of XX” end. Did it throw you enough bones to hook you? I suspect everyone will have a different answer.

opjmf3f7u8hcru9wiiwvtn

I don’t always hunt monsters, but when I do, it’s clothing-optional.

Steel for Men, Silver for Monsters

As I said in the first review I did about this series, one of the major themes of the Witcher is whether the “monsters” he encounters are any more monstrous than the humans he encounters, and vice versa. The world Geralt occupies is populated with fairy tale creatures and magic, and fairy tales are frequently seen as black and white morality plays with clearly defined “people” and “monsters.” Not so the Witcher, where not only does our main character live in both worlds (human and monster) but so do his supporting characters (except for Dandelion/Jaskier, who is the most human character in this story). It is a world of greys and moral ambiguity, where the “monsters” are often the most moral and relatable characters, and the humans seem like the monsters.

The story of the knight and the hirikka (a creature from the books, albeit a bit different on the page) is a minor but direct nod to this theme, where “noble” Sir Eyck of Denesle (bit of a prick, honestly) “nobly” kills this starving “monster” that they could have just fed and it would have gone away, and the most we get out of him is a rehearsed “for glory!” line. Yeah, who’s the monster here, you big doofus? (Also, he passes up a chance to canoodle with Yennefer? Clearly there’s something wrong with him.[1])

And of course, the reveal in episode 6 is DIRECTLY ON THE NOSE of this theme. This was one of my favorite stories in the anthologies, both because of what happens and because it’s about Geralt and Yennefer, and I’m pleased with how it manifests in the show.

[1] Yes, yes, I know, it’s a toxic expectation of men to be always DTF–my joke here is not intended to be taken seriously. Eyck is a weirdo for a lot of reasons. The thing about refusing Yennefer’s advances (in a very condescending, patronizing way, btw) is explicitly showing how bound up in toxic masculine attitudes Eyck is. I’m just pointing out he’s a toxic dick.

thewitcher_106_geraltyen2-1014x570-1

Yen: You came on this job just to spend time with me, didn’t you? Geralt: …… fuck

The Last Wish

(Caveat: The relationship between Geralt and Yennefer is one of my favorite aspects of the overall Witcher story–I am here for the rancor–so please forgive me for dwelling on this a bit.)

The destiny binding Geralt did with regard to Yennefer deserves some discussion here, as is their volatile relationship. When I initially read that story in the books, I thought it was generally “ok, I guess this is a thing that happened,” but it wasn’t until I saw Yennefer react to it in the show that I came around to her perspective on it. He basically forced himself on her against her will–his presence, that is–and that has some troubling implications as regards consent and the establishment of a relationship between them. Particularly with Yennefer’s emphasis on self-actualization through freedom of choice.

(The way she fights to save that baby in episode 4, then the emotional outpouring–the hate and bitterness and sadness–wow. Ok. If she wasn’t already best girl, she definitely is now.)

Now, let’s be clear: Geralt did not wish for Yennefer to *love* him. He didn’t enchant her or compromise her choice in that regard. His wish is never *exactly* spelled out, but the best summary we get comes from Borch (what a badass, honestly): that he wished for their destinies to be tied together. It’s a bit unclear why that “saved her life” and such, but I speculate that the Djinn couldn’t just kill Geralt, so it couldn’t kill Yennefer either, so it left. Was it the best solution? Nah, definitely not, but Geralt was in a situation where he had to think quickly and under duress, so he went with his heart, as damaged as it is by his mutations. And I choose to believe that he sincerely had deep feelings for Yennefer, which is saying something, considering his low emotional affect.

And so begins one of the strangest, most fraught, and volatile relationships in fantasy fiction: Geralt and Yennefer essentially get married blind in their first encounter, and they only afterward build affection, trust, and romance. And like you’d expect of an essentially forced marriage, it’s difficult and awkward, prone to fits and starts and messy break-ups. Geralt and Yennefer dump each other many times over the course of their lives, as well they should, but they always seem to find their way back to each other, the way they do in episode 6, for example.

Are they good for each other? Yes. Are they bad for each other? Also yes. Do they change each other? Absolutely.

And I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m just assessing it as a major plot element, one that introduces a huge amount of narrative tension in the story. (Personally, I feel binding someone to you without so much as consulting them, and indirectly against their wishes, is a profoundly immoral thing to do. It was a bad choice Geralt made, but I think ultimately a lot of useful, intriguing story came out of it. You are, of course, free to make your own judgments or not.)

Whether the bond between them is real or not is a major theme of the books and the games, and is explored in some depth. Toward the end of the Witcher 3, there’s even a side quest where Geralt directly confronts this question: he and Yen catch up with the same Djinn (or possibly a different Djinn, I could be misremembering) and wish to break the bond of destiny between them, thereafter to see if the bond between them was “real” or was just inspired by magic.

And what’s the verdict? Well, it depends–the games give the player agency in this regard, and whether Geralt and Yennefer stay together depends on your actions regarding her throughout the game and what Geralt says to her at this point, essentially whether he loves her or not. It feels sort of organic, where her feelings aren’t strictly based on button prompts but more your actions, which you don’t always know are relevant, but still basically you the player decide whether they really do love each other or it was all just magic. (And I know a lot of you sneaky dastardly broke Yen’s heart and went with that red-headed home wrecker, Triss, don’t even play. #teamYen)

For me, I went into the Witcher 3 fully intending to go with Yennefer, and every encounter I had with her just reinforced that perspective (like I said, I have a type). But I never felt like it was really *right* until I helped her break the Djinn’s magic, finally freeing both Yennefer and Geralt from their bound destiny. Only then, when she was free to choose, could they truly be together or part, and they *chose* to be together. And that made their relationship deeper and more real.

(For specific values of “real” and “choice” as regards characters in a book and a video game, of course, but YMMV.)

If the show will ever do something like this, well, I guess we’ll see, but in the books, Geralt and Yennefer remain bound together by destiny up until the end, so we never really find out.

the-witcher-tv-series-ciri-coat

Don’t mind me, I’m just wandering through the woods, like I have basically this whole time.

What about the Child of Destiny?

Ciri is getting some short-shrift in this show, but that’s fairly true to the books, too. She’s barely in the anthologies–she only really shows up at the very end of The Last Wish, which I suspect will happen at the end of season 1. But then she’s a BIG DEAL in the actual novels, where she plays double-duty as the overall McGuffin (seriously, everyone is trying to find Ciri basically the entire time) and the main character/narrator. Yes, these books are called “The Witcher”, but it’s like Sapkowski got to this point and decided Ciri was his favorite character, a bit like Martin deciding Tyrion and Dany were his favorite characters.

Amusingly enough, the anthologies are where you get the most Witcher action. It seems like the rest of the books are a LOT of sorceresses plotting things, Ciri doing stuff and/or suffering, and Geralt either injured or traveling overland and being worried about running into a company of soldiers.

(She literally narrates most of one of the books to some old guy in a swamp. No lie.)

Also? Ciri is a badass. At some point in the books proper, she has a degree of Witcher and magical training, though her magic basically progresses as the speed of plot–it does what it has to do when Sapkowski needs it to do something. The show has basically followed suit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily–this is a fantasy story–you should just be aware.

the-witcher-geralt-third-last-genie-wish

Geralt: ………………….. FUCK

The Verdict?

Strap in, episodes 7 & 8 are the Battle of Sodden, and it’s gonna be a doozy.

A Sorceress’s Tale (The Witcher, ep 2-3)

I held off on the next review until I had watched what I expected would be the fulfillment of Yennefer’s backstory, both episodes 2 & 3. And I was basically right, though she still has some development to do–getting her “sexy” body isn’t going to be the end of her journey, not by a long shot.

Or at least it shouldn’t be, let’s see where the show goes.

And that’s what I want to talk about this time–the main character of these episodes, Yennefer of Vengerberg.

anya-chalotra-as-yennefer-of-vengerberg-the-witcher-netflix-43143164-540-314

Yes, that’s… that’s what I said.

The Witch in the Last Story in The Last Wish

I don’t have a copy of The Last Wish on me (I’ve given most of the books to my equal-intensity fantasy fan of a father, who I credit with turning me into the geek I am today), but as I recall, we see NONE of Yennefer’s backstory.

Indeed we aren’t introduced to her with all that much dignity or sexy mystery, as Geralt comes upon her when she’s sick and/or drunk abed, hoping to get her help for dealing with a Djinn (and not Robin Williams or even Will Smith). Of course it’s more complicated, because Yennefer wants to bind the Djinn for herself, but she can’t take control of it because Geralt is technically its master, and he has one wish left and, well, I’m not going to spoil it further. This might come up in the show. I hope it does.

The only real hint we get about it is Geralt’s observation that most spellcasters have dramatically changed their appearance upon acquiring their power, and he wonders what she used to look like. It’s something about her eyes, I think–he sees this cruelty and self-loathing spawned of decades of abuse–and he makes the connection that she was a hunchback (I guess they have very specific eyes?). That’s it. We don’t see her as a hunchback, she doesn’t much talk about her past, and she’s all volatile-and-somewhat-wicked sorceress all the time.

I love her. Team Yen all the way.)

(Again with me gravitating toward the complicated bad girls. I must have a complex.)

vengerberg-1566802049786

The Piglet Worth 4 Marks

In the Witcher TV show, however, we see Yennefer from an early age, before she knew anything of magic, let alone had her transformation into the long legged temptress who has a thing about unicorns. We see her here as a beleaguered peasant girl with a twisted spine–clumsy, little loved, and constantly abused. Not something we saw in the books or the games, but rather than simply be told about this, we see it.

I’m not going to weigh in on how they treated her prosthetics and appearance, or on the ethics of portraying such a disabled character on screen (that’s a whole other topic), but I will say this gives us the viewer a rare insight into Yennefer’s character. We get to see her being, well, human, and not just in the context of occasional displays of warmth toward Geralt or later Ciri. The long drawn-out backstory invites us to inhabit her perspective and see exactly how much she’s struggled with, even if it’s only two episodes wherein we see her, mostly at weird/kinky Polish Hogwarts.

And I suspect we’re meant to see her conversion into the symmetrical beauty we get at the end of episode 3 as triumphant–she does suffer and sacrifice and cheat and deceive to get that reward–but the show did a pretty good job making her sympathetic as her normal self that when we finally get to the finish project she seems oddly diminished. She has lost something–some measure of fundamental humanity that we saw her fight to assert in the previous episodes. This is a new person, one who is turning her back on what she managed to pull together for herself: even as she thinks she’s got what she always wanted, she’s lost just as much.

Which is, of course, thematically right on the nose, because…

The Worst Monsters are the Pretty Ones

I don’t think it’s a coincidence Geralt faces Foltest’s Striga in the same episode that Yennefer undergoes her transformation. Remember, this show is about the line between human and monster, and that question infuses both the story of the Striga and Yennefer’s ascendance.

(Oh, and Geralt does a thing with a Sylvan and some elves and a bard who for some reason they don’t call Dandelion near a city that looks like something out of a video game. It’s not a big deal, other than it being thematically on the nose and an interesting discussion of imperialism, colonization, and racial oppression. But I digress.)

witcher-triss-1179538

Oh and Triss is there too. More on her in a subsequent entry.

The Striga is about a monster who thinks she’s a monster (and she is), for whom Geralt fights really hard to break the curse and turn her into a human. And it works, though, I mean, she still bites, so watch out.

Yennefer’s story is about a human who thinks she’s a monster (which she isn’t–yet) and so she does increasingly cruel and inhuman things to become the human she always wanted to be, but once she gets there, is she really a human at all?

But of course Yennefer has AGENCY in her own evolution, whereas the Striga is just following her own instincts and actively tries to AVOID having Geralt forcibly change her. And making one’s own choices and fighting for what one wants is a distinctly human trait…

Anyway. This is a fascinating dynamic, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

What am I missing…

1573940459ciri

Oh yeah, Ciri’s in this show, too.

The Lion Cub of Cintra

Though Ciri is mostly running through the woods, lost and confused, the way a princess who’s only a *little bit* prepared for the world would be, there’s still plenty of room for her to advance the “monsters vs humans” narrative, too.

She’s befriended by an elf boy, who is literally the only other decent person in her whole story arc at this point. We shortly thereafter see her enter the camp of some humans, who seem nice but very quickly are shown to 1) kill elves and wear their ears on a necklace–yikes, and 2) bully the shit out of a halfling servant (slave), who gives up his shoes so Ciri can have new shoes. This is presented as a kindness on the part of his human masters, who reassure her, “don’t worry, he’s one of the clean ones.”

(Don’t worry, halfling slave bud stabs the hell out of his owner eventually, and there’s a bit of catharsis there.)

So… this show is dealing with race in a pretty big and specific way, which is to use the fantasy peoples (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc) as stand-ins for human ethnic groups. (Which is, of course, a big part of the books and the games.) There’s nothing surprising or even uncommon about this, as fantasy has been doing that since Tolkien’s day. (And Tolkien wasn’t the best about it, see greedy dwarves that are Jewish caricatures, “the dark men from the east,” etc.) But Sapkowski, from the beginning, went quite far into the racial metaphor, and it’s good to see this show honoring that.

They’re not necessarily doing it very WELL (that’s a whole other topic), but they’re going with Sapkowski’s original vision, and it’s definitely relevant to the grimdark world on the screen. We’ll see how it unfolds going forward.

The other thing I want to say about race in the Witcher is that the games had a not-undeserved reputation for including only white people (some darker complexions, sure, but all of the folks on the continent were basically white people), and a lot of folks defend this decision as “historically accurate”… as though the Witcher is about an actual historical period, or that a fantasy author isn’t 100% on tap for what they choose to include or ignore about the world, or that black people weren’t around in Europe during the Middle Ages (they were), etc., etc. (And of course it connects to modern Poland’s increasing move toward right-wing racial purists and nazis-in-all-but-name, so…) Heck, there are fake geek boys all over the internet RIGHT NOW screaming about how Yennefer isn’t white enough or whatever bullshit they want to spew in their racist idiom.

Also, isn’t it frankly INSULTING to think so little of Poland as to limit it to an all-white ethnostate for its entire history (even the grimdark fairy tales period)? The ignorance that is white supremacy must be laughed out of the building when it can, or stamped out when its marching in the streets with swastikas, JESUS CHRIST…

Oof, I’m gonna have a heart attack.

960x0-1

Hold up, is that sorcerer BLACK? I think he is. 🙂

The point is, the show isn’t doing that all-white-everywhere BS. This is an AMERICAN show (or possibly a BRITISH show), and we frequently at least make an effort to cast diverse actors. Often, all our lead actors are lily-pale, but that isn’t the case here: Yennefer has a very dark complexion, and Triss has an even darker one. Frangilla is DEFINITELY a woman of color. We see a range of skin tones, and that is fantastic, and I’m glad it happened.

So… suck it, racists.

The Verdict?

Still quite fun, and I will definitely keep watching.

GERALT_HILLSIDE_008.jpg

I’m sorry these weren’t your episodes, Geralt, but I’m sure you’ll be the focus later!

 

 

End of the Beginning aka “Snow Red” (The Witcher, episode 1)

Hail and well met, readers!

As a fan of both the books and the games (well, specifically The Witcher 3, I didn’t actually play the first two), I greeted the announcement of The Witcher TV series, based on the best-selling Polish sword-and-sorcery fantasy series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski (yes I looked up the spelling of his name, I was mostly right the first time) with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

I’ve spoken about adaptations before, and the long and short of it is, adaptations are never going to give you the same experience as you had with the initial story.

Games turned into movies aren’t the same thing as those games. Books turned into TV aren’t the same as those books. And vice versa, of course. Novelizations, games based on movies, movie tie-ins to TV shows, video game movies… all of these things have a not-entirely-unearned reputation for often being mediocre at best, pretty terrible most of the time, or offensive to fans at worst.

And why is that?

Well, they’re a fundamentally different thing, now aren’t they? They’re a fundamentally different genre, with different rules, different storytelling strengths and limitations, and very rarely does something survive the adapting process. (For confirmation, I offer you the Resident Evil movies, The Golden Compass, E.T. the video game, and let’s not forget… you know what? Nevermind, you’re welcome.)

The Witcher (the show, I mean) has a unique heritage, because it has seen three adaptations (yes, three), not counting the books or this new show.

[1] For a dissertation on adaptations, see my review of the erstwhile Tomb Raider movie, a movie I thought was ok, though it could be better, as if you needed further confirmation about my garbage-tier taste.

lxce99x67yfuusubprqint-1200-80

Ah yeah, let’s do this! Witcher! Wooooooooooo!

A Brief History

The books, which are a point of national pride in their native Poland[2], consist of two anthologies of short stories about Geralt and his adventures, as well as five novels which tell a cohesive story, then a standalone novel (I admit I haven’t read that one). They acquired what we in America would call a cult following, because they are essentially telling the folk history of Poland in a cool, exciting, and compelling way. (Apparently, the language Sapkowski uses and his authorial voice are particularly lovely in the original Polish, and very clever.)

The books were popular enough to see a movie called Wiedźmin (or ‘The Hexer” in English) created and, eh, it wasn’t a rousing success. Then a Polish TV show of basically the same name which is mostly an expanded version of the movie (I think you can find episodes on YouTube if you really want to).

It might have stayed that way, with the Witcher being a hit in Poland but largely unknown outside the country, except that the game development company CD Projekt Red (I know, I know, that sounds like three random words, one of them describing a style of listening to music that was very popular in the 90s and early 2000s, for all you Gen Zers out there) purchased the license to make a video game based on the book. Their games would be set AFTER the 5 books had ended, rather than being based on the books themselves, allowing CDPR to tell an all-new story with the bones Sapkowski laid down in his books.

Allegedly, Sapkowski was not keen on video games (still doesn’t like them, it would seem), and he chose to take a lump sum, rather than royalties on the games, which is a pretty good deal if you expect the game to flop.

Which is the opposite of what happened.

The Witcher, the Witcher 2, and especially the Witcher 3 were MASSIVE successes, that third one a console generation-defining open world RPG that really pushed the limit of what games could accomplish. I know, I know, some people don’t like them (you know who you are, my English-Canadian friend), but the games were extremely popular, and their popularity translated to book sales in translation in English-speaking countries. It’s not like the books were *non-existent* in America before the games, but the games led to a massive upturn in sales, and The Witcher is now an international bestseller with some 33 million copies sold.

To what do we credit this rousing success? Sapkowski’s clever work and sharp authorial eye? CD Projekt Red’s coding skills (well, as of The Witcher 2, anyway) and plotting ability? That, through Geralt, you can hack apart armies of smelly pseudo-polish dudes and monsters and also sleep with practically ever female character in those games with a few button prompts?

It’s a mystery.

 

Anyway, when the time came around to make the show (hey, we’re America, of course we’re going to make a TV show, and with British accents, obviously), CDPR isn’t involved, Sapkowski is a consulting producer, and the show is based on the BOOKS, not the games. And we’ve previously established that Sapkowski wasn’t too keen on how the games played with his world–he considers his vision the pure and true Witcher story. (And arguably, he’s absolutely right.)

 

And if the first episode is anything to go by–which adapts material pretty faithfully from The Last Wish and the Blood of Elves–the show is definitely weighted toward the books, but it has been created under the long shadow of the games, and that’s where the bulk of the audience (English-speaking audience for an English-speaking show with an English main actor) knows the story from. So clearly, there’s going to be some influence, right?

 

[2] Seriously, Polish students get to read these books in school, which is a fair sight better than English classes where they force you to read Shakespeare–no one should be FORCED to read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is intended to be experienced on the stage. No quicker, more effective way to kill a child’s interest in reading than to make them read something they don’t want to read.
the-witcher-trailer-final

So I went a little hard on the monster killing juice, ok?

So How About That Show?

Well, I watched the first episode, and generally speaking, I really liked it. It’s like Game of Thrones, but more fantasy, less rapey, and you get the sense good things might eventually happen to someone at some point (unlike GoT).

The first episode is pretty well plotted, I think, or at least it worked well for me. You get a very comprehensive look at what you can expect from the Witcher: grimdark, visceral fighting, some sexytimes, and tough, agonizing choices.

I’m going to talk about Geralt specifically, since the first episode is about introducing him, his character, his story, his style, and his aesthetic. (And to a lesser extent Cirilla, Princess of Cintra, but more on her later.)

First it’s the eyes. Witchers have cat eyes, which is more noticeable the closer you get to them. The eyes here are pretty nice, subtle when they need to be, but they flash at certain angles. The way Henry Cavill carries himself works with the eyes and his natural size (mustachioed Superman is a beefcake) makes him stand out from the people around him. He looks and moves in a slightly alien way, but not enough to trip the Uncanny Valley. He seems like a real person, albeit mutated.

The voice is pretty great—reminiscent of the games but also its own. Cavill is, apparently, a big fan of the games, and he’s playing up the gravelly, slightly Batman voice to good effect here. He sounds like Geralt but also like himself. It’s effective. The dialogue seems right, too—Geralt is taciturn, droll, but clearly has some heart. You could see the Geralt from the books saying these things, as well as the Geralt from the games.

The most striking dissimilarity is that the show doesn’t use the two swords conceit that the games do, which is more true to the books. Geralt doesn’t need two swords in the books, but in the games, it makes for good game mechanics. (And more opportunities for item customization, you know how video games work.) Also his amulet is different from the iconic ones he has in the books, but meh, no big deal.

The music I found kind of distracting at the beginning–loud and brash and not the recognizable, iconic stuff I like, but it cools off and becomes much more subtle and atmospheric.

Here Episode 1 Spoilers Begin

I found the opening very unexpected, and I didn’t much like how the first monster looked, and the struggle lasted longer than it needed to. But the resolution was dead right, and Geralt’s interaction with the deer was absolutely dead on. I came out of that scene going, yeah, this is definitely The Witcher.

I’d have thought they’d go for the iconic striga opening, which is a story from the books and also the opening of the first game, but maybe they’re working up to that. It’s a good story, about a cursed princess who… oh, wait. No spoilers.

Speaking of female characters, I was worried there wouldn’t be female characters involved other than the main ones (you know, Ciri, Yen, Triss occasionally coming to moon over Geralt, etc), but fortunately they not only included female characters right off the bat, but really good ones.

The Renfri subplot is both straight out of the book and very true to one of the main themes—the greatest monsters look like humans. Geralt has a hard choice, with two compelling stories. It hits you right off the bat with the “dark, brutal fairytales” aspect of the Witcher story, as Renfri is, of course, a dark mirror version of Snow White. She’s even got the red color associated with her, which is very striking. She’s damaged, not quite right, but really compelling. Man, I thought she was great.

(But then, I *am* the guy who wrote Arya Venkyr, Ilira Nathalan, and Ovelia Dracaris, so yeah, obviously I thought Renfri was great.)

960x0

Renfri, you will always be MY Snow White

The early scene at the pub was very efficient at telling us about Geralt. We understood his oddity, how others view him, his taciturn nature, his strange appeal to certain folks like Renfri (who is drawn to him like a moth to, um, another, older moth that’s on fire?). There’s a LOT of world-building here, some of it overt, a lot of it subtle. We see Geralt having difficulty reading emotions, because he has such low emotional affect himself–a low empathy score, if you will, because of the Trial of the Grasses.

But I digress.

Oh, it’s Blaviken. I’m sure some such butchery will happen here.

I love the evil speech. Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling. All the same. He follows up with that if he has to choose the lesser between evils, he prefers not to choose at all, but as we will see, that won’t always be his choice.

The sword fighting, oh man, it’s stylized as all hell, but it’s fantastic. And I’m pleased to see a lot of techniques, including the half-sword, ie gripping the blade to maximize thrusting power. You rarely see that in fantasy. My friend Joe Brassey could probably say more on this subject, being a swordsman by trade—maybe I’ll chat with him about it.

thewitcher_101_unit_06900_rt.fk3ph4dhp-1-1014x570-1

You made a BIG mistake drawing steel against Geralt.

About Cirilla

No complaints, she’s great. She’s a kid but also dealing with some *very* grown-up stuff.

Her magic was interesting in how it manifested. I don’t recall the book well enough to say if it fits, but it seems in keeping with her character. Barely controlled magical potential.

I remember a big to-do among certain fans (ahem) who were concerned Ciri might be portrayed by an actress of color, and they obviously didn’t do that. They could have, but they didn’t—missed opportunity? We’ll see. This actress seems capable and engaging, and I look forward to seeing how it goes. Her eyes are really intense.

The casting of Calanthe was interesting. She seemed worn and tired, more of a real person than the legend people tell. Very compelling.

One thing about the Cintra subplot was the extremely rough suicide-by-poison/etc scenes. Jeez, don’t spare us any details.

This is a DAAAAAAAAAARK show, just in case you were curious.

freya-allan-as-ciri-in-the-witcher

Sorry Ciri, it’s not gonna get much easier for you, uh, ever.

Verdict for Episode 1?

Solid effort. 8 out of 10. I will keep watching.

Random Identity Table, draft 1

So here’s my *in-progress,* *first draft* of my FR Randomized Identity tables. This takes into account how I view the Realms and also the novels and stories and games I’ve consumed.
 
This is for when I’m building an NPC on the spot, usually an NPC adventurer (hence the inclusion of the class and background columns)–or if you want the full experience of being born with no control over how you’ll turn out, you can roll on the table, potentially offering an interesting experience analogous to how people in our world deal with their identity.
 
But the most significant part of this table (other than how common fighters are compared to bladesingers, for instance, about 20x as common) is the bit about sex, gender, and orientation.
 
Looking at sex-assigned-at-birth shows that most members (90%) of humanoid species are assigned either male or female at birth (with a slight imbalance favoring female people), but fully 8% of people in the Realms are intersex, and 2% of people are naturally shifting (as in their physiology literally changes).
 
When we get to gender identity, though, my Realms’ rate of cis people is only 70%, with genderfluid being 10%, trans being another 10%, nonbinary 6%, and agender 4%.
 
In my realms, it has always been the case that bisexual/pansexual is the *most common* sexual orientation, considering the panoply of creatures of various gender orientations in the Realms. On my table, you’ll observe it’s about 40% likely. Comparatively, about 15% of the population is heterosexual (that is, mostly or only interested in a different gender than their own) while about 15% of the population is homosexual (that is, mostly or only interested in a gender that matches their own). People view those orientations as interesting and unusual, without any stigma about it–in the realms, you like what you like.
 
That leaves 30% of the population who are omnisexual (defined here as “attracted to a wide variety of not necessarily compatible beings), demisexual (“attracted to certain beings under certain circumstances”), and asexual (“not sexually attracted to any beings) in just about equal numbers.
 
That is to say, 10% of beings in the Realms are omnisexual, 10% are demisexual, and 10% are asexual. Dramatically higher rates than what’s reported in our own world, but hey, that’s the Realms for you.
 
Finally, when you get to races, classes, and backgrounds, you are most likely to be a human (27%) fighter (20%) or wizard (18%) or possibly a cleric (10%) or rogue (10%). Your chances of being a drow (2%) are nearly as low as being a deep gnome (1%) or a Yuan-ti Pureblood (1%), and slightly lower than being a tiefling of some extraction (3%). Half-elf is a full 10% (half the chance of being a human). The rarest classes are Bladesinger, Diviner, and Thaumaturge, but Wizard itself has an 18% (it’s just split among the various schools).
 
At 9%, soldier is the most common background, while you have only a 5% chance of being a knight, while it is only 2% likely that you will be a noble (either of the Noble background or the Waterdahvian Noble background). I thought that was a fairly reasonable spread.
realms priests

Pretty sure these are all priests, but you get the idea. Copyright (c) TSR

 
As I said, this is a WORK IN PROGRESS, and I would be most pleased to receive some feedback on this, particularly regarding terms and concepts. Feedback very welcome.

Gaming Logic: Perception and Investigation

“How do you adjudicate passive vs. active Perception checks?”
 
Passive Perception is for noticing things out of place, hidden creatures, secret doors, traps, and other clues. It assumes the character is just moving along, being aware of the world at average capacity, which might be very high for high Wisdom or trained characters.
It also assumes the character isn’t rushed or distracted; if the character only has a few seconds to peer into a room or see a useful handhold before the cliff collapses, I’ll call for an active Perception check.
 
My threshold is about a minute: if a character has a full minute to notice something, I’ll allow Passive Perception to kick in; otherwise it’s active checks. Likewise, if the character is in combat and ends up in a new room, I’ll let them look around with an active Perception check; passive Perception doesn’t apply in that case, unless they’ve been fighting in the room for about a minute.
Perception and Investigation

Original artist unknown (Wizards of the Coast?); Meme from Hack & Slash: http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2014/08/on-5e-perception-and-investigation.html

 
“What about other passive skill checks, like passive Investigation or Insight?”
 
Passive Investigation isn’t a thing at my table. Though having a high Passive Perception can clue you in that an Investigation check might be useful.
 
Similarly, Passive Insight isn’t a thing at my table. If a player expresses some doubt that an NPC is telling the truth or is hiding something,
 
The only skill that can be used passively at my table is Perception. Even on the frequent occasions when my characters are being passive-aggressive, that’s still an active check. 🙂
“What does it mean to *fail* at a Perception check?”
 
Remember too that skill checks are rolled to determine if something happens in the game, when the DM and/or players aren’t sure how something will resolve. They are not exactly a measure of your character’s aptitude, though obviously that plays a part. Having a high modifier makes something more likely to happen when you attempt it, which is always through a combination of skill, circumstance, and luck.
When we’re talking about Perception, failure doesn’t mean you’re clueless or that you never pay attention. If you fail a Perception check, that can mean one of several things: 1) the thing you didn’t notice is hidden well enough to escape your keen eye, 2) you looked away at exactly the wrong moment, when you would have otherwise seen it, 3) you were distracted by something else, so you didn’t notice the thing, 4) you saw the thing but didn’t understand what it was or that it would be useful (i.e. you briefly glimpsed the candlestick but didn’t put together that if pulled, it would open a secret door).
In that last case, an Investigation check might give you that information. If you had succeeded on a high Perception check, you might notice that something about the candlestick seems odd, but you’re not sure what it is. Maybe it’s shinier than the others or there are small scratches near the base. This would be a situation where you’d follow up the Perception check with an Investigation check (possibly with advantage, depending on the clues you noticed) to figure out the connection between the candlestick and the secret door.
“What is Investigation?”
Investigation is a new skill in 5e, and it causes a bit of confusion, particularly for us old players. I’m not sure I understand it either, and I spent a lot of time ignoring it, since it overlaps with Perception a lot in my head. But I’ve been making an effort to call for it more in my games, with some success.
Perception picks up data. With Perception, you might notice a clue, but you don’t necessarily understand what it means. For instance, a room is unusually clean, even though you’re in the heart of a dungeon. Or a faint acrid smell, like something astringent. Or faint squelching sounds like something viscous burbling against rock. Any of these might be useful clues, but you aren’t necessarily going to be able to put them together.
Investigation takes the next step, putting together the data and formulating a conclusion. It also fulfills in 5e what the Search skill did in previous editions of the game: you spend some time searching a room or place and, if your check succeeds, you find what you’re looking for or at least something interesting. Investigation takes time–generally at least one minute at my table, sometimes upwards of ten minutes or an hour.
Perception, by contrast, determine if you happen to notice something on a brief glance; see above. Passive Perception might see a hidden item that you would have found with Investigation, but the DCs to find hidden things are usually high enough that few characters have high enough passive Perception to find them.
Insight does the same sort of thing, but usually it’s specific to interactions and RP. Figuring out if someone is lying to you or conveying information that isn’t on the surface. Perception might set up advantage on one of these checks as well, such as if you noticed signs that a person might be desperate or their heart is racing.
(You know, the way Daredevil does it.)
daredevil-radar-sense-640x353

Passive Perception 30? Jeez! (Daredevil Copyright Marvel Comics)

“Skill Synergy: How do Investigation, Perception, and Insight interact?”
There is some overlap among these skills, and that suggests we should use them to complement and support each other. Perception can feed clues to support Insight or Investigation checks, while Insight and Investigation can feed each other in either order, For instance, if you use Investigation to turn up incriminating evidence against an NPC, that might aid your Insight check when you confront them, or if you observe something off about their clothes with Perception or get a weird vibe from their mannerisms with Insight, that might aid your later Investigation.
Now, do I insist that you use Perception or Insight to find clues, then Investigation to come to a conclusion? No. You can use Investigation by itself to search an area by itself without ever making Perception checks, and you can use Investigation based on a previous conversation to glean some information you didn’t have before.
But, and this is important: if you’ve made successful Perception or Insight checks that are relevant to your Investigation, you might gain advantage on your Investigation check (or vice versa).
Of all of these skills, Perception is the least supported by previous work. Doing Investigation or making an Insight isn’t necessarily going to help you notice something, unless that previous legwork has told you what to look for, such as a signet ring or red mud on the NPC’s boots. In that case, you might have advantage on your Perception check.
This serves two purposes: 1) to reward characters you make good rolls or are very thorough, 2) to encourage multiple characters to participate in a meaningful way, since Int/Wis builds aren’t especially common, and you’re likely to have one person who is very perceptive, one person who is very insightful, and one person who is very deductive (with a high investigation modifier).
cumberbatch-holmesjpg

Sherlock Holmes undoubtedly has both high INT and WIS stats. (As well as a decent STR stat; I see you, fellow book geeks!)

Happy gaming!

 

Adventuring on the Spectrum

Come with me for a second.

So, I’m putting together a new D&D campaign. It’s got everything D&D usually has: orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc., etc. Violence, destiny, romance, epic quests, magic swords, fireballs, and all that good stuff.

In this campaign, though, you can only play one of two classes: Fighter or Wizard

I know that seems arbitrary, but hey, those are the classics, right? If you look back at 1e D&D, there were three classes, Fighting Man, Priest, and Magic-User. Combine those second two into a single class, and you basically get the Fighter and the Wizard.

Oh, and ability scores are rolled straight down the line. None of this “assign as desired” business. We’re old-school. 3d6, straight down the line.

img_2963

The only acceptable fighter is a hulking brute in heavy armor with arrows sticking out of him.

What? Didn’t get a high strength or a high intelligence? Not my problem. You can play a less effective character. Just pick the path with the lesser bad score. The one you resemble *better,* so maybe your character could at least *pass* as a competent fighter or ok wizard. Like a high Dex or high Con Fighter could be useful, and a Wizard with high Wisdom and high Charisma? Fine.

What, you rolled a 16 Dex and an 18 Cha? Um, well, I don’t know what to tell you. No rogues in my game.

15 Con and 17 Wis? No, no clerics either.

No, no, no, let me be clear: No other classes. They’re just distractions. Bastardizations of the core concepts.

I mean, maybe that’s ok. Maybe you like Wizards or you like Fighters. I mean, in a world of only Wizards and Fighters, if you’re a Wizard or Fighter (preferably a decent one), that’s probably cool.

Here are a few more things about the setting:

Culturally-speaking, the only acceptable Wizard school is Evocation, and anyone who picks a different school is considered a lesser Wizard. If you aren’t great with evocation spells or, worse, can’t cast them at all, people WILL shame you. A lot.

Same with Fighters and Battlemaster. NPCs will constantly rag on you about what tricks and feats you can pull off in battle.

Certain races are assumed to be one but not the other. For instance, in this particular setting, most people assume halflings are wizards because they don’t think they have the strength to be fighters. A halfling fighter is generally considered pretty weird. Most people laugh at elven fighters, telling them to stop dressing like strength characters, and most people assume half-orcs aren’t intelligent enough to be wizards.

Also, you can play an Eldritch Knight, but every NPC in the game will get confused and attack you on sight. (You get pretty much the same result from taking any class features or subclasses not in the PHB.)

sorceress

Only evokers, please.

Sounds fun, right?

I agree. That’s super fun. In fact, all of the D&D I run is going to use this, from now on. (I wonder if I can petition WotC to make this the case with all their game books?)

Wait a second, hold up, where are you going? You don’t want to play in my game?

What if I were to tell you that you didn’t have a choice? Because this is D&D 6e, when the only choices in the game will be fighters and wizards–no other classes. No other options. Just those things.

Why are you frustrated?

(Hold onto that frustration, by the way. It’s gonna be important.)

This is just the way it’s always been: fighting men and magic-users.

Because when you boil it down, isn’t it really just those two? It’s Conan vs. the bad guy cultist of the week. It’s the 12 members of the Fellowship of the Ring plus Gandalf. It’s a guy who solves problems physically, and a gal who solves problems with magic. A girl with a sword vs. a boy with a wand. The male fist and the female somatic component.

Guys and gals? Boys and girls? Male and female?

(Hold up, when did we start talking about that?)

But you know, now that you bring it up, this does seem a little like the gender binary. I mean, if you live in a world of fighters and wizards, and you’re a fighter or a wizard, I suppose that’s cool. In much the same way, if you live in a world of men and women only, and you’re a man (as I am) or a woman, that’s fine, right?

Remember that frustration you were holding onto a minute ago?

IMAGINE IF THAT WAS YOUR WHOLE LIFE.

Imagine if you aren’t a man or a woman, or if you have the stats/equipment for one but you identify as the other, trying to navigate this world, where you have to be one or the other… and most of the time, your choice is made FOR YOU, based not on what you say or how you act but HOW YOU LOOK.

About 1% of human beings are intersex, that is, possessing characteristics commonly associated with male and female genders; intersex people are much more difficult to characterize as male or female, and it’d be silly to even try. 1% is same percentage of people who have green eyes, but we don’t run up to green-eyed people, shake them, and scream “there are only brown and blue eyes!”

No, I’m not trolling you. I’m not trying to upset you. I’m trying to open up your perspective by attaching it to something that’s deeply relevant to all of us–D&D. Gaming. This is a sacred thing we’ve been doing, some of us for decades. You have an emotional connection to it, just like I do. You love it, you value it, and of course you feel uncomfortable when it’s perverted. You argue, you rant, or you walk away.

But in the real world, trans people, enby people–they don’t have those options. If they argue, they get hated on. If they rant, they get attacked. And they can’t walk away.

And they shouldn’t have to. They have every right to live in this world that you or I do–just as all of us have every right to play the games we love.

So maybe next time someone talks about trans rights or fighting transphobia, or about we should be more respectful with gendered language, think about the frustration and irritation you felt reading through this.

Because limitations are shitty, and life is too short to be limited like this.