Review: the Happiest Season

What, a movie review? What?

(Before I get into this, I’m a middle class white cishet guy. And while I know and love a lot of LGBTQ people, I am not myself part of that community. I’m just an ally, one who wants to see more, good representation of my LGBTQ neighbors.)

That said, here we go.

The wife and I watched a Christmas movie this year, as is tradition, and it was Happiest Season, which was rarely happy but very seasonal!

Basically, it’s a slightly watchable Hallmark movie with gay people, and that’s fine.

Aren’t they cute? Oh, it’s gonna get rough from here, though

The first of two narrative problems is that it’s based on the whole “we don’t talk to each other and thus don’t find obvious solutions to our problems”—that’s a pretty common trope and how a lot of stories mine dramedy. It skirts the line of cringe humor, though it’s a lot less ridiculous than what you’d see in an Adam Sandler movie.

The queer content (mostly lesbians but some other representation as wel) is honestly the best part of the movie. It’s a relief from the stifling dysfunction based on heteronormative deception, and honestly, perhaps that’s the main redeeming factor of this film.

(Seriously, it borders on the edge of Get Out at times.)

LGBTQ people have struggles, and maybe seeing them on the screen will convince a few straight people who’ve never (knowingly) met a real-life LGBTQ person to give it some more thought. Which is good.

Also, Kristen Stewart does a great job with the material she’s given, as does Aubrey Plaza (of course), and they are just utterly adorable.

See what I mean? Also, how is anyone confused about Abby (right) is waaaay into ladies?

As for the movie itself, I want to say it was cute and inoffensive, but… well, there was plenty to object to there. Some of it is extremely silly and some of it might be quite traumatic. (Especially how cruel Harper is to Abby and to Riley, who really should have ditched her and got together, see the Den of Geek review, below.) Though some of it is indeed uplifting, and it ends on a high note.

Its high point—the sapphic perfection of Kristen Stewart, who is just amazing—is also key to the second main narrative problem, which is that she has much better chemistry with the inestimable Aubrey Plaza… but perhaps that’s part of the point. Her character has options that are easier and more comfortable, and it makes it clear that love and relationships are a lot of work. And this particular one exceeds her limits on more than one occasion.

Shoutouts to Victor Garber and Alison Brie, of course, who are both pretty solid in their supporting roles.

Ultimately, it’s a movie. If you like it, great. If not, that’s cool.

Two wreaths out of five.

A genuinely happy photo that the movie sort of earns

Further reading:

Den of Geek review

Roger Ebert review

Final Round(?): FIGHT

Today is the third round of my butt surgery. My abscess developed into a fistula, which had a 50/50 chance of happening, so now I’m going into surgery to get that dealt with.

It should be fine. My surgeon has that sort of god-like confidence you want in a surgeon, and I anticipate everything will be fine.

One thing I’d like to point out, however, is that I had basically a two-week waiting period between every step of this part of the process, and that seems, well, ridiculous.

We KNEW there was a good chance I’d need surgery after the colonoscopy back in October, but I still had to wait until early November to have a consult with a colorectal surgeon, and THEN it was three weeks until my actual surgery could be scheduled.

Why, you ask?

Because our health insurance system is crap.

They left me lingering in near-constant pain for almost exactly a month while “pre-authorizations” had to happen. I started a new job in the interim and couldn’t be at my best because of the pain and/or painkillers. Somehow I managed it, whilst also fulfilling my responsibilities, but this was an unnecessary amount of struggle.

Don’t get me wrong: health insurance is ESSENTIAL. My abscess surgery and hospital stay ran $75,000 or so, of which I’ll have to pay $4,600. (Still ridiculous, but at least I’m not financially ruined because my butt decided to implode.) And now, having met my annual maximum for out of pocket expenses, this surgery will be essentially free for me.

But here’s the thing: we pay these exorbitant premiums for healthcare that lets us scoot by without becoming homeless, and that’s essentially it. We’re still in pain, we still dread actually making a claim, and we still live in terror of needing the doctor.

There’s a better way than this. We have the money, we have the infrastructure. All that’s left now is the will to do it.

Wish me luck everyone, and moreover, wish our COUNTRY would get off its ass and, y’know, fix its ass.

Seriously. Let’s figure this out.

Keep Ruin Fiction

Over the next week, and probably on Election Day itself, I will finish the proofs for my fourth and final (for now) World of Ruin novel.

And that’s not a coincidence.

I started writing the novel that would become the World of Ruin series in the first year of Bush W’s presidency, at age 18. I was writing about our world—the World of Ruin is the world that conservatives want.

I was young and righteously angry and not all that great a writer—now, nearly 20 years later, I’m older, better as a writer, and still just as righteously angry. And I’m tired, but more on that later.

I still see it that way.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting of the World of Ruin is the dark, broken reflection of the world that came before—the World of Wonder. It was, if you listen to the tales in the dusky taverns of Tar Vangr, a utopia, where folk were happy and didn’t have to work and lived lives of equality and luxury.

And then it ended in a worldwide magical war that people could only survive by hiding underground for centuries while they awaited the day the broken environment would become livable again.

Some people misjudged this, listened to their bad leaders, and came out of isolation too early, and the magical radiation killed most of them and warped others into ravenous monsters.

Sound familiar?

If you said “Fallout” or “COVID-19”, you are correct either way. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but neither should any of us be surprised that the least responsible president ever has overseen the downfall of our country and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And of course, the current series is about the impending downfall of the last remnants of civilization, victims of both external threats and internal pressures, and offers a whole host of bad guys who are bad for the same reason they are in our world: they’re sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist pricks who get off on exploiting and harming others.

The World of Ruin series is about the cycle of apocalypse. Here’s the thing: the World of Wonder wasn’t great either. It faced escalating environmental havoc and the loss of resources, increasing economic disparity, and pointless international tension between ethnic groups. Toward the end, its governments rapidly gave way to fascism, as we humans tend to do when approaching an existential crisis. And instead of fixing its problems, they fell to infighting and dysfunction and finally global war. All that technology, privilege, and wisdom, and they couldn’t save themselves from xenophobic, power-hungry assholes who blew it all up.

And that’s the road we’ve been on as long as I’ve been alive. And I’m tired of it.

Book 4 is the culmination of that cycle repeating itself. Of evil people trying to fuck over everyone and gobble up power for themselves. And the resources to oppose them are becoming scant.

Next week’s election is one of our last chances, if not THE last chance, to save our country in specific and the human race in general. We are rapidly approaching the point of no return on the environment, 225,000 Americans are dead of a virus our government continues to dismiss as a hoax, and our economy is on the brink of yet another devastating collapse because of wealth inequality.

We are heading toward the World of Ruin, because that’s exactly what the powers that be want. God knows why—too many people are too tough to control, maybe? They don’t want to share their ill-gotten wealth so much they’d rather kill everyone? Or maybe they’re just too ignorant and driven to satisfy their own prurient needs to look even a LITTLE ahead.

Now is the time to stand up and fight.

Your world needs you.

Don’t let it fall to ruin.

Cover to book 4 forthcoming!

More Butt Stuff (SFW, I promise!)

So in the ongoing chronicles of my butt, I hopped on the colonoscopy train yesterday (I’m 37, so it’s a bit early) for diagnostic reasons and we found… nothing obviously causing my issues, no Crohn’s, no obvious pre-cancerous growths, etc. So that’s the good news!

The prep for the colonoscopy wasn’t so bad, btw. The meds they gave me tasted like really flat lemon La Croix, which, while not great, also isn’t too bad. The worst part was getting up at 4am to do my prep (which has to be finished at least two hours in advance), then driving to the hospital for my 8am procedure… only to realize, right then, that my appointment was actually at 12:30. Woo!

The less good news is that my abscess from September has developed into a fistula (we identified that on an MRI a couple weeks ago), so I get to get THAT resolved with another surgery. Yay…

Anyway, I’m optimistic that we’ll get this resolved and I’ll find some relief. I’ve basically been in varying levels of butt pain for the past few months, and it’s down to the 1-3 on a 10-point scale, but it’s still there and I’m hoping resolving the fistula will resolve the pain.

Right now, I can eat again, and I have a bunch of leftover pizza and video games. (It’s the little things.)

Anyway, thanks for listening, thanks to Chadwick Boseman, and here’s to a pain-free 2021!

The lighting makes it look like I have distinguished executive hair—in fact, I haven’t started to go gray yet, though 2020 *would be* the year…

Final (not female) Fantasy

Y’all know me. I’m a lifelong Final Fantasy fan.


Grimdark man is both grim and dark

From the reveal trailer, I’m not convinced, and I’ll tell you why.

Once upon a time, FF produced games of rich stories, genuine emotion, and—importantly—significant female characters.

Heroines you could play, who had a significant impact on the plot, and either WERE the main character or at least matched and even exceeded them at times. FF games were not just sausage-fest “boys’ adventure” games.

We can debate the quality of those characters, Whether they’re actually feminist, empowered, etc. Obviouslt, FF has had issues with specializing female characters in crass and/or ridiculous ways, but we can say this for sure: women existed in the games, women were important in the games, and women MATTERED in the games.

Can the same be said about FFXV, for instance?

Basically, it was an absent princess who gets fridged eventually and a cowgirl gas station attendant who hasn’t bought clothes since middle school and has grown mostly out of them.

Maybe “boys road trip” was great, maybe the lads had cool personalities (and I’m always down for good male relationships in media), and maybe that was what you wanted. And that’s fine. But it’s just not for me, nor does it honor the legacy of the series. And that game has given me series reservations about the future direction of the series.

It doesn’t look like FFXVI is honoring that legacy either.

In this sense, FFVII Remake is the most final fantasy thing Square Enix has made in years, and that’s mostly because it’s based heavily on a pre-existing, much beloved game. They had no choice, really, but to include these awesome female characters, and to their credit, they amped UP their internal lives and personalities. Which was great.

So we know they CAN write female heroes… the question now is WILL they?

I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into it. But that trailer is NOT promising. I’m very wary.

Eliminate Excellently

So, I had emergency surgery this last weekend, and I’ve come away from it with a very important insight I wanted to share with everyone.

Based on my current experience, I’m gonna be really honest and tell you something that possibly no one told you, which you should apply to your own life and also teach your kids:

Don’t be ashamed of pooping.

Honestly. We all do it, it’s just waste product, maybe a little smelly. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I think a lot of us are in danger of developing shitty habits (pun intended) and they can cause us problems later in life, because there’s this overrriding cloud of shame and “ew, don’t talk about THAT” about pooping.

Heck, stereotypically, a lot of us dudes have terrible cleanliness habits because, well, it’s awkward to talk about so they never really learned any better. We’re just expected to figure it out ourselves.

And, of course, the media is all over us with jokes and routines and BS about how it’s funny and embarrassing and gross and all that has a silencing effect.

So here’s some guidance, based on my own experience:

Whenever possible, defecate naturally. Don’t strain.

Don’t hold it for ridiculously long periods. When you need to go, find an opportunity and go.

DON’T strain.

Don’t be a dick about other people’s butts either. We all fart and we all poop. Don’t shame anyone (including yourself) for being human.


Straining, for point of reference, is how you develop hemorrhoids that complicate into perirectal abscesses, which is why I’m recovering after a stay in the goddamn hospital with a gauze-stuffed hole in my butt. (Go read about it if you want. It’s WILD.)

Yeah I’ll be fine, but it was a LOT of pain and discomfort that led me here. Oh, and during recovery we have to change my gauze plug periodically, and that is HORRIFIC. So.


As a kid, I was an anxious eliminator—a shy passer of the log, if you will.

I didn’t want to do it in public restrooms—I would only go in my home toilet, no matter how long I had to hold it or how hard I had to strain to get it out. I never talked about it with anyone because, well, movies told me it was gross and shameful, and I was embarrassed.

Over the years, I developed intestinal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, a requirement to read and eventually watch Youtube videos while on the John in order to actually go, and going number 2 became even more fraught until, well, I strained myself into the hospital.

Right now, I’d rather I was a little embarrassed than having to fix it with surgery.

(You wanna talk about embarrassing? Try learning to poop correctly after 37 years of developing bad habits. Oh, and having other people stick gauze up the extra hole in your butt. Which, did I mention, is also VERY painful.)

Don’t be a grumpy, gurgling doofus like me. Relax. Take it easy.

It’s ok to poop, and it’s best to poop naturally and without effort.

Other tips:

  1. Eat lots of fiber: the primary tool to fix your stool, including vegetables, oatmeal, etc.
  2. Hydrate: good for your health and good for your cycle of waste management.
  3. Talk with your family and doctor: don’t let this fester. Have an open, honest, awkward conversation now, and it’ll lead to much less suffering over the long term.

Good luck, and remember: Eliminate excellently, my friends.

Hey, at least it’s not a picture of my butt.

How Chadwick Boseman Saved My Ass

In the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s passing, I just want to share a personal story about it. I don’t want to center myself—if anything, this is to THANK Boseman for one last indirect act of heroism.

You see, Friday night when I saw the announcement, I had been in significant anal/rectal pain for around a month and a half. At first, back in July, my GI diagnosed an internal hemorrhoid, which I thought was fair enough. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my intestines for most of my life, and it’s only got tougher over the last decade.

I was diagnosed finally with IBS, I aim for a low FODMAP intake, and recently I’ve been having a good deal of trouble avoiding straining to eliminate. So hemorrhoids seemed like an embarrassing, self-inflicted condition that “might as well happen.” Even though I’m not yet 40, let along 50, we also scheduled a colonoscopy for September 10, just to see if there’s some underlying issue and to get to the bottom of my IBS stuff, see if I have Crohn’s, etc. Why the delay? Well, I’m doing some traveling to accommodate a bathroom reconstruction, and having a working toilet seems like a good thing for all this.

The thing is, even after the course of treatment, even after I drove the 12.5 hours down to California, they didn’t go away. Or, more accurately, the PAIN didn’t go away, and I (foolishly) thought “hey, it’s probably just the hemorrhoids—I can make it to my colonoscopy on September 10.”

Wow, was I wrong.

But hey, I was tough. Resilient. Stoic. I’m a guy, I can deal with my shit (no pun intended, but welcome). I try not to be toxic in my masculinity, but every guy out there will be able to relate: you want to maintain some control over your own body and your own choices. And I figured, “I got this.”

The pain, however, had other plans. It just got worse and worse, especially this last week. On Friday, I was in really bad shape, and that’s when I saw the news about Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman’s last tweet

Our King had been fighting an all but hopeless battle against Stage IV colon cancer for four agonizing years. And during that time, he produced such art of such beauty and power as to place him among the rising, shining stars of our era. He wasn’t that much older than me, and I was proud to have a role model like him. And colon cancer ultimately claimed him, long before his time. He should have had so many more years to develop his talent and climb to new heights. He has left a bright mark on history even as it is—imagine what might have been without that dragon, cancer.

Chadwick Boseman, role model of non-toxic masculinity. Absolute legend.

Anyway, the announcement did something particular to me. Made me sad and angry, yes, but it also reminded me of something. Something I had realized twenty years ago, but had apparently forgotten: sometimes, there are challenges in life we simply cannot defeat, and if we can defeat them, sometimes we can’t do it alone, no matter how tough or willful we think we are. We need to be able to ask for help.

And so on Saturday, when I woke up in more pain than ever, when I could barely stand or walk or sit, when I had to lean on things and my legs shook and I soaked in sweat from the pain, I did it. I asked for help. I asked my parents to take me to the hospital.

Where they discovered, though digital assessment and a cat scan, both good news and bad news: my hemorrhoids (assuming they were ever really there) had gone away, but I also had a perirectal abscess that would need surgery to resolve. No amount of warm baths and willpower would have fixed that. Also, if I’d waited just another day or two, that abscess could have burst—it was apparently already starting to open up when they got me in the stirrups at the surgery yesterday (Sunday).

(Hey, uh, maybe this is obvious, but don’t try to tough things out. Get checked and sorted early. It’s always the better call.)

Anyway, I’m on the mend. I have a new hole in my butt—well, a temporary one—stuffed with gauze that needs to be changed every day, and it’s gonna be painful and embarrassing to deal with. But I am alive, I am healing, and I can finally let go of all that pain.

Hand IVs are pretty cool, btw

So thank you, Chadwick Boseman. Thank you for your art, that inspired me and so many others. Thank you for your strength, to do what you loved despite impending doom. Thank you for being a light for so many in a world that seems to get darker by the day.

And thank you for saving my ass.

You’ll always be a hero to me.

Chadwick Boseman Forever

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.


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:
A largely spoiler-free review that’s pretty darn positive:
A video about the game saying many of these same things but in more detail, especially about empathy:
About Lev, from a different trans writer, a bit more positive:

Curio’s analysis of the game and the discourse:

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 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.


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.)

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.


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.)


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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:

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!


It’s time… for the Witchers… to end…