Game Review: The Witcher

I was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead.

There are a few alternative steel swords throughout the game, but you probably end up using only two or three different ones throughout the entire game, and there’s only a single silver sword that you can get slightly upgraded towards the end. There is also a total of only three suits of armor and no magic rings or amulets. What you get instead is alchemy. Which really is a very innovative and fun way to handle combat customization. Throughout the game world you find huge amounts of magical plants and monster parts which you can make into potions once you have found the right recipes for them. And there’s a lot of them. You can either make potions that increase your own health, endurance, resistances, and so on, or make oils for coating your blades that deal additional damage and status effects to various kinds of enemies. And since ingredients are extremely plentiful, you are pretty much always able to make any potion or oil that you want. All you need is to rest at a campfire, which are usually found less than a hundred meters away wherever you are. In practice I mostly used the Swallow potion which gives you health regeneration for about 10 to 15 minutes, and the Cat potion that lets you see in total darkness and eliminates the need for a torch. Swallow is one of the shortest duration potions in the game, most others will easily last you through several dungeons in a row. Even though I played on Hard there was rarely any need for other potions or oils, but when it comes to the tougher fights it really is a very fun system. The only limitation is that you always can have only a single oil on each of your swords and that all potions are slightly toxic. Most people would drop dead immediately when drinking them, but witchers are able to handle four or five of them in a row. One time I was so heavily drugged up and in immediate need of a fast acting healing potion that I actually keeled over dead from an overdose of potions rather than from my injuries. The very last thing I did in the game after the big final battle and before the final cutscene ran – which I didn’t know at the point – was to drink my last remaining cleansing potion that ended all my active potion and removed all the poison from my body. A wonderfully poetic way to end a game of drug fueled mayhem.

And finally Geralt has some limited magic abilities in the form of five simple spells. The ones I most almost exclusively are Aard and Igni, which create a blast of air that can knock enemies over or unconscious or create a big burst of fire for direct damage. There is also Quen, which creates a short lived shield to absorb a bit of damage, but even with considerable upgrading I found the added protection not worth the while. Keeping moving and having a Swallow potion ready is usually sufficient and trying to raise a quick Quen spell doesn’t seem to make any difference for more than a few seconds. There is also Yrden, which creates a stun trap on the ground, and Axii, that lets you turn one enemy against his allies. But stunning all the enemies around you and finishing them with your sword or throwing fire at them always seemed much more practical.

The Story

While there is a good amount of fighting throughout the game, I think it really is primarily about talking with people, solving mysteries, and progressing the plot. The game begins with Geralt finding himself in the wilderness near the old witcher stronghold Kaer Moren with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His old master Vesemir and the sorceress Triss are not too particularly surprised by his loss of memory because to everyone’s knowledge he had been killed five years earlier and several of his friends had been there when he died. But now he’s back, appearing in the middle of a supernatural thunderstorm somehow linked to the mysterious Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, there is not much time for Geralt to try to figure out what happened to him as the ruined castle is attacked by a sorcerer and a gang of bandits that find their way into the lab and steal the alchemical books and ingredients that are used to turn witchers into superhuman warriors. The few remaining witchers decide to split up and try to find any trails that might lead them to the sorcerer and his base, with Geralt going to the kingdom of Tymeria. Most of the game takes place in the Tymerian capital Vizima, where the city guard and the knights of the Order of the Flaming Rose are fighting against a criminal gang called Salamandra, and the elven and dwarven rebells of the Scoia’tael who are hiding in the swamps. The Scoia’tael are one of the most interesting elements of the setting, being a militant group that desires to remove all humans from the Northern Kingdoms and reclaiming the lands for themselves. The human monarchs and their subjects are everything but sympathetic to their cause and react by systematically subjugating any nonhumans on suspiscion of aiding the terrorists. On the other side, the Scoia’tael consider anyone who doesn’t support their cause to be a traitor and collaborateur and also deserving death. At the same time, the great Nilfgaardian Empire in the south is well known to give some reasonable degree of autonomy to its nonhuman subjects and has long had great ambitions of invading and taking over the independent Northern Kingdoms. Even though the Nilfgaardian aristocracy conists of humans, that makes them allies of convenience to the Scoia’tael. Everything considered, it’s a situation that just isn’t going to get a happy ending for anyone involved.

While the plot itself turns out to be nothing to write home about, the game does an incredible good work at bringing the world of the Northern Kingdom to life. It may not be a great Witcher story, but it certainly is an amazing Witcher adaptation. Many characters from the books make an appearance in the game and both they and Geralt are captured perfectly. There are few things I hate as much as comic relief bards in a fantasy story, but I love Dandelion. I love him in the books and I love him in this game.

I believe not many people have actually finished this game, because if they did the ending would be much more infamous. It’s not so much confusing, but certainly pretty weird and going into completely unexpected directions and coming out of nowhere. While sitting through the final dialogues and cutscenes, I couldn’t help but being more and more reminded about the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Usually I am a big fan of esoteric endings, but here it feels somewhat out of place and something more conventional might probably have been more appropriate.

Technical Things

Back when the game was first released it was notorious for being quite troublesome to getting it work and run well. And while I believe the current Enhanced Edition is a lot better, it’s still partly the case. While many people say it’s running completely fine for them on Linux, I wasn’t able to get it work at all. In the end I had to boot up an old WinXP installation I still had on my computer and that mostly worked quite well. But in about 50 hours of playing I had about the same number of complete crashes. Which is a lot. The game does have four separate autosave slots, but when the game only saves at major area transitions that isn’t terribly helpful when you can stay on the same map for quite a considerable time. Including several major fights. By regularly saving the game manually I was able to play through the whole thing with only minor inconvenience, it’s still very annoying. However, on the positive side, that was the only kind of error I ever experienced throughout the entire game. Not a single time did I have to deal with broken dialoges, a messed up questlog, characters that failed to spawn, or anything like that. I never had to go back to an old save because a quest became unfinishable. For a notriously buggy RPG that is a major achivement.

Visually it looks quite impressing, especially considering that it uses the same engine as the unspeakably ugly Neverwinter Nights. Especially when you can put all the settings to maximum on an average modern computer, the faces and many of the outdoor environments look really very good. The same can not be said for character animations, though. It’s wobbly heads and twitchy arms not much better than what you’d get in the first Resident Evil or Deus Ex. But it doesn’t really hurt the game. The biggest problem I have with the visuals of the game are the colors and most of the lighting. I can get what they were aiming for, but pretty soon seeing nothing but washed out, faded, and dusty colors everywhere was starting to get on my nerves. Especially with the sky being overcast 90% of the time. There are a few spots where the lighting is pretty interesting, but mostly it’s just dreadfully dreary. The environments appear to be heavily inspired by Poland, with the architecture, fashion, and armor being based on 14th century Northern-Central Europe. And as someone who grew up in the German parts of this greater region, it’s really great to see a game that so faithfully draws on the environment and sights of our homeland. And yes, while the weather is pretty accurate too, it’s not working well for a fantasy game. There is such a thing as too much realism and permant overcast sky with slight drizzle is among that. Thankfully the second game went to great lengths to avoid this and uses stark lighting and high color contrast that makes everything look slightly overexposed and I think it works beautifully.

Another thing I feel worth mentining is that the camera work on the cutscenes is pretty amazing. Whoever was responsible for this really knew what he was doing. Lots of very interesting and unusual shots that have various interesting effects on the presentation of the scene. It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve seen in a videogame. It’s actually considerably better than the camera work in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. (If you watch the movies again, try to pay attention to it. They consist almost entirely of the most basic and boring shots you can do.)

Final Thoughts

Making a final judgement on this game is difficult. There is a lot to praise about this game, but also a very great amount of reasons to complain. The story is not great, the gameplay is mostly rather poor, and it doesn’t really look great either. The main selling point of the game is that it is a Witcher game, and as I mentioned, I think the adaptation is done really well. The way that people think, talk, and behave in this world is quite unique and probably the most interesting part about the whole game. If the game were set in any other generic fantasy world, I don’t think anyone would have taken any notice of it because it would be just plain boring. I played the game again because I am a big fan of the book and really enjoyed the second game a great lot and plan to play it a second time soon. So I wanted to finish The Witcher at least once, mostly for the sake of completeness and because I wanted to experience the strange ending for myself instead of watching a video of it. And I don’t regret that I played the game. But I feel very certain that I won’t be playing it again another time. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t really see why I would want to play it again. The best thing about it is the world of the Witcher, and you can experience it even better in the second game, which is so much more fun and enjoyable in every way. And given that the story of this game neither ties in directly to the book nor the other games really doesn’t make it a big loss for anyone who doesn’t play it. It’s not a bad game and I won’t tell anyone to avoid it. But for anyone who is only now getting interested in the Witcher, I would actually rather recommend starting with The Witcher 2. I would say there is a good chance that this game won’t be fun to play for many people and you have to bring some already existing enthusiasm to it to properly enjoy it. If you’re not already fully on board with The Witcher, I really recommend starting somewhere else. Either with The Witcher 2 or the books.

Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Awesome future novel idea #3: Pirates of the Baltic and Kraken!

George Martin described his Song of Ice and Fire series as being basically the War of the Roses with dragons. So when I was checking some facts on the 14th century German pirate Klaus Störtebeker, I very soon realized that someone should write a fantasy series inspired by the whole regional situation in which he lived and was active. I always considered the Baltic Sea a region where nothing really ever happened after the times of the Vikings was gone. A rather boring and insignificant part of the world. There was the time when Sweden send troops into Germany during the 30 Years War and that time when the Fins repelled two huge Soviet Invasion during World War 2, but that appeared to have been pretty much it.

But, oh boy… At least for the last decades of the 14th century, shit was getting seriously real around here. The king of Sweden and Norway had split his kingdom between his two sons and the new king of Norway married the daughter of the king of Denmark. After the deaths of the kings of Denmark and Norway, the Danish princess manages to get the nobles to elect her son as successor of both her father and her husband. This angered her sister, whose own son had been meant to become king of Denmark, but that had been overruled by the Hanseatic League. If you’re not familiar with them, think East India Trading Company. But probably even more powerful by quite a bit. These super wealthy merchants ruled over several of their own independent city states. The prince who had been denied the throne of Denmark was also the Duke of Mecklenburg in Germany and now understandibly upset with the League.

 

The Swedish nobles saw an opportunity to get rid of their king by making an alliance with Denmark-Norway and start a kind of civil war. Since Denmark had the Support of the Hanseatic League, the Duke of Mecklenburg joined in on the side of the Swedish king. This lead to the creation of a serious force of mercenaries/privateers/pirates who are lead by impoverished nobles from Mecklenburg and came to aid the besieged Swedish capital Stockholm. These pirates quickly became a serious disruption of sea trade and so the Hanseatic League send its own troops to fight them and eventually occupied Stockholm. The pirate army gained control of the island Gotland, which is the largest island in the entire region after Great Britain and Ireland and sits right in the center of all the Baltic Sea trade routes. This annoyed the knights of the Teutonic Order, who originally were crusaders in Palestine but then went on another crusade against pagan Slavs on the Baltic coast and established their own independent country in Lithuania a hundred years earlier and was regularly at war with Poland. So the Teutonic Knights invaded Gotland, which forced the remaining pirate leaders to flee the Baltic Sea entirely. And they ended up in East Frisia, a region that previously had been an egalitarian anarchy but after several desasters fell under the control of several warlords. From there the situation gradually calms down as Sweden gets integrated with Denmark and Norway into the Kalmar Union and the remaining pirates are eventually hunted down and executed. There’s no big finale or ultimate showdown to the real story.

But, damn! This is wonderful stuff for a big fantasy novel! It got everything. Various kingdoms, succession conflicts, dynastic struggles, merchant lords, exiled nobles, pirates, warrior monks, island fortresses, barbarian chiefs, sea battles, sieges, public mass beheadings of known outlaws. Instand awesome, just add magic. And probably the best part: You got two sisters who both fight over whose infant son will become the ruler of the whole region.

The one thing with my Sword & Sorcery setting that I was always a bit unhappy about is that it developed into something that really wasn’t suited to have a lot of Baltic Sea culture integraded into it. But this would be a perfect opportunity. And many of the key locations are right where I grew up. Lübeck, Hamburg, Mecklenburg, Denmark. That’s right outside our front door. (And I am currently planning to return back North later this year after several years in Southern Germany.) 14th century is a bit late when it comes to my personal taste to fantasy aesthetics, but transfered into a fantasy world the basic political situation should also work quite well in something that looks a bit older. Can’t really have a super powerful alliance of merchant lords in a true dark ages setting, but there’s plenty of room to wriggle. But then, I think the world as shown in the Witcher games seems very much inspired by pretty much the same peroid and region and I enjoy that quite a lot.

Though I really have no idea yet how to turn that into a story. Because I am actually not a fan of these huge epic series with millions of words. But it feels to me like an idea that I should seriously keep in mind if I one day feel the need to take a break from my Ancient Lands stuff.

Book Review: Night Winds

Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.

Just like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.

Undertow is the first story in the book and I think an excelent choice to start with. It was the first time I’ve read a Kane story last year and it’s a great introduction to the character. Somewhat unusually, Kane has only very few and short appearances in this story. Instead we mostly follow other people talking about Kane, who is currently the sorcerer king of the city. This works surprisingly well and does a great job at establishing Kane as a really mysterious and dangerous character, because they are all completely terrified of him. It worked for Sauron and it works for Kane.

In Two Suns Fading we have Kane just after he got fed up with his last empire and simply walking out into the desert, leaving all his advisors and generals to figure out what to do next by themselves. It probably will all fall into chaos and bloodshed, but Kane doesn’t care. In the desert, Kane encounters a lone giant who is on a quest to find the tomb of an ancient giant king, and with nothing better to do Kane decides to join him. It’s a relatively short story and not one of Wagner’s best, but still pretty entertaining.

In The Dark Muse, Kane has made himself an underworld boss in some desert city, where for some strange reasons he has become a good friend and generous patron to a famous poet. This seems rather uncharacteristic at first, but so what? It’s Kane! He’s lived almost forever and is a highly intelligent man who can be quite cultivated when he wants. Surely he has been doing much stranger things through the ages. The two come into possession of a strange sorcerous artifact that has the power to send a person into the realm of dreams, and also nightmares. Kane’s poet friend really wants to try it out in hope to finding inspiration for an incredible masterpiece, but when they begin things do turn very strangely and dangerous.

Raven’s Eyrie takes place in wintery forrested hills, where a badly wounded Kane and the few surviving members of his recently destroyed gang of bandits are running from a band of bounty hunters close behind them. And it is also the night of the Demonlord’s Moon, so they have little choice but to take refuge in a small and isolated inn that Kane had previously raided some eight years ago. The owner is one of the few survivors who didn’t get masacred by Kane’s men and senses an opportunity to get her revenge. This is one of these great stories where there aren’t really any heroes but instead you have just a group of terrible people doing horrible things to each other out of hate and greed. But Wagner manages to still make it a strory that is very enjoyable to read, as he generally doesn’t go overboard with the violence and gore. It’s a dark tale and a somewhat bleak tale, but it doesn’t revel in unnecessary suffering.

Lynortis Reprise is probably the creepiest Kane story I’ve read so far. The plot is very simple and there isn’t really much happening, but the real star of this story is the location where it takes place. Lynortis and the surrounding area are the remains of a battlefield where thirty years ago tens of thousands of soldiers had laid siege to a city for two years. It is overgrown with weeds and bushes and littered with broken siege engines and mountains of skeletons, and riddled with craters, trenches, and tunnels, and the ruined remains of what once were farms and mannors. It really reads like Wagner had just been working on a World War I horror story before writing this. Kane encounters a group of old mercenary companions who are looking for a treasure they believe to be hidden somewhere in the ruins of the city and Kane eagerly accepts the offer of joining them. There is probably more gold and jewels than they can carry and they also need to be quick as there are others hunting for the treasure as well. However, treasure hunters are not the only people in the area as there are still some survivors of the battle living in some of the ruins and there are also things in the tunnels below the ground that one character refers to as the half-men. That’s already an ominous name, but the meaning behind it is even more disturbing than one would probably expect. In many ways the story feels somewhat experimental and is presented different from the other stories in the book. Sometimes it works quite well, at other times not so much. But it’s still a very interesting read. The following is probably one of my favorite paragraphs I’ve read:

Spewing tentacles of incandescent death blossomed over the roadway. Where it stuck, men flamed into cinder. Searing fragments reached out like lethal fingers, burning all they touched. Men and horses shrieked in pain and terror, bolted over the outer wall in blind panic. Flaming bodies pitched over the edge, falling like stars into the darkness far below.

This story also surprised me by having a simple but really good twist that I totally did not see coming. And the way it is presented you have several opportunities to figure it out yourself instead of having a character step forward and saying it directly, which I think makes it hit a lot harder when the pieces suddenly come together in your head. Only when I caught it did I realized that I had already missed two previous hints that could have given it away. Putting this story close to the end of the book was another good choice in organization as you really have to be familiar with Kane to make it work. If this were the first or second Kane story you read, it would probabaly just be strange and look like poor plotting. But this way it was a great wow moment when I made the realization.

The last story is Sing a Last Song of Valdese, which again is relatively short compared to the others. It’s a nice little spook story about a group of seven travelers spending the night in a small inn in the middle of a wilderness haunted by bandits and ghosts. It’s really a pretty straightforward horror tale rather than an adventure story, but it fits the world of Kane. Nothing amazing and it probably could have been expanded into something much more refined, but I like the idea behind it.

Not surprisingly, I really like this book. It’s just as good as Death Angel’s Shadow and a step or two above Bloodstone. If you like Kane you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read any Kane stories but want to, this one is a very good pick to start with as well. I very much recommend it.

Movie Review: Interstellar

I’m a huge fan of Nolan movies and beside Inception my top list of favorite movies of all time consists of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Empire Strikes Back. Yet somehow I had not seen Interstellar until now, even though it was a foregone conclusion that I would love it. Even with just knowing that it’s a Nolan movie about space and wormholes. Once I heard that much last year, I didn’t watch any trailers or read any preview articles about it, knowing that I would eventually see it, almost certainly love it, and love it all the more the less I knew about it in advance. But somehow I never watched it when it was released or got it on DVD when it came out until now. It was actually just me wondering out of the blue how the music for the movie would be and looking it up it sounded really quite amazing. This had me think about a technical question on how it was done and suddenly I found myself being only 80% blind to the content of the movie instead of 95% as I had been before. That convinced me that I had to actually watch it and to watch it very soon! Which I did yesterday.

And I should have watched it last week! It would have been so much better going into the movie completely blind, not even knowing what the story is about. Not knowing about the setting, not knowing about the underlying conflict, not knowing about the goal. Many people consider Nolan movies to be confusing, but I personally think the one way in which they could be better would be being less predictable. And even just knowing a few basic things about the plot lead to me not really being surprised by the story of Interstellar. So in this review I will not be talking about the story at all but instead about why I think you should really see this movie. If this kind of movie is for you. Of course there is so much to talk about in this movie and I think I will do another post in a near future where I will totally nerd out about all the things I’ve seen and discovered.

The Heart of Darkness

But for now I’ll try to keep it strictly to the merrits of the movie aside from the plot. To outline the story just in very broad strokes, it takes place in a future where the world is in terrible shape and the hope for the future of huminity lies in the exploration of distant planets in space. However, the physics involved that allow humans to reach other planets do extremely strange things to our perception of time and space, which results in a very weird and bizare experience for the astronauts. A lot of talk about the movie has been about how much actual hard physics and space technology is in the movie and how much more accurate it is than any other movies that have been made before. And that is true. But Interstellar is not a hard science-fiction movie! This is a really funky movie. Much more than Dark Knight movies and even Inception, this movie is all classic, oldschool Nolan mindfuck. Or, as I would rather think about it, classic Nolan cerebral lovemaking. Nolan’s movies are often considered to be postmodernist or existentialist, and Interstellar certainly is weird. But there is absolutely nothing humorous, ironic, or mocking about it. It’s not a crazy fun ride or a space adventure or anything like that. This is a seriously heavy philosophical and emotional movie. One might even be temped to call it spiritual, but that term probably would create the wrong impression. It is in fact one of the defining aspect of Existentialism that it sits firmly on the blurry part of the border between philosophy and spirituality. It is concerned with issues that are traditionally considered religious while at the same time rejecting the concepts of the supernatural or the divine. All of Nolan’s movies touch on this spehere, but Interstellar dives into it much deeper than ever before.

And I think this is the main factor that will determine if this movie is for you or not, and how much you’ll enjoy it. The Batman movies are somewhat unusual superhero movies, but they are still superhero movies. Inception left many people confused about the plot, but it still entertains as a popcorn action movie. Interstellar just won’t do that. It doesn’t really have any action scenes and a narrative that is pretty simple. (While it’s very deep, it’s not complex.) And it’s almost three hours in length. Almost everyone is used to movies that run 120 minutes, but adding 45 more minutes to that makes a big difference. And since it isn’t packed to the brim with plot development, it also is pretty slow paced. Oh, and yeah: It’s also very bleak. It’s not a violent movie or an agonizing movie, but it’s dark. I’ve been thinking about elaborating on this a lot, but everything I come up with feels like it would give away too much. I think a comparison with Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell is really quite appropriate here. If you can get something out of these kinds of movies, I think you’ll also enjoy Interstellar.

Blah, blah, something about wormholes, blah, blah

One of the most amazing thing about the movie is the sound. It is, how we would say in Germany, a very brave attempt. And indeed, lots of people hate it! Dialogue is very often really hard to understand and the music often gets extremely loud. I am not exactly sure if it was the right call, but I understand why Nolan insisted on doing it and I very much enjoyed the final result. But I am unceartain whether much would have been lost if the voices were more clear and the music less intrusive, but probably a majority of viewers would have greatly appreciated it. It certainly was no accident or oversight. People have complained about Bane in The Dark Knight Rises being bad to understand in test screenings and Nolan argued that he wants it that way. And just look at the care and detail that he always takes with everything else in his movies. When you can’t hear what people are saying, he wants you to not hear it. I admit, I probably didn’t understand even half the sentences of what is being said in the entire movie. And people who did understand it often complain that the dialogues are bad. But I don’t think he is trying to cover up the fact that the things people say are banal and artificial. I think that’s really the entire point. Dialogue in this movie consists of two types: People talking about physics and technology in terms that most viwers won’t understand anyway but is there to set the scene, and people talking about their emotions and relationships. In either case, it really doesn’t matter what anyone is saying. Their mouths are moving, but nobody is saying everything. Almost the entire communication in this movie is done nonverbally. There is a wonderful quote from the old TV show Babylon 5, by its most strange and enigmatic character: “If it is understanding that you seek, you have to listen to the music, not to the song.” I think that’s what this movie is really all about. In real human communication, the things that come out of our mouth are full of data junk. So much of it is redundant or reflexive and does not actually contain any new information, and then you have of course all the stuttering and mumbling as well. When listeing to people talking you are missing words or whole sentences all the time, but the brain automatically filters those disruptions out and cleans up the message before it enters our consciousness. We’re not normally aware of it, but when you try to type down a recording of normal speech accurately, it immediately becomes obvious what a total mess it is. Almost no movie, TV show, or videogame ever does that and instead you get every single line that was carefully prepared and recorded as often as it took to get it just right. (The Big Lebowsky being a notable exception, but it may not immediately be noticable as our brain automatically does the usual cleaning up process.) By making the dialogue in Interstellar unintelligible the viewer have to rely on other cues to figure out what the characters have just tried to communicate to each other. And for me that worked perfectly well. I was not always completely sure what was actually happening according to the script, but there was never any ambiguity about the interaction between the characters. There are a few scenes of exposition talk where I think that might not have worked so well. Even with just picking out only every third or four words my knowledge of what these words mean was enough for me to figure out what physical principles they are talking about. If you don’t have this preexisting knowledge, I think there are many scenes where it seems like they are explaining very important things that will be necessary to understand the next parts of the plot, and people just won’t have a clue what they just said. In the end, all the science and engineering is not important for the story. But when you think it’s important and try to figure out the puzzle with half the pieces missing, it probably is going to feel very frustrating and confusing. The movie does not tell you “This is technobabble, it’s not important for the plot.” I think it’s a neat idea, but the potential to backfire is huge. And I think backfire it did, at least for most people.

Now the other thing is the music. I love the music. I wasn’t a fan of the older Hans Zimmer stuff, but many of his most recent works are really quite great. I think to a good degree he is delivering his customers the kind of music that they want. And yeah, you don’t expect anything highly unique or creative from the developers of the Call of Duty games. But when Christopher Nolan orders something really extravagant that is highly tailored to his vision of the final movie, then Zimmer is able to deliver that as well. The music for Inception was certainly unique, but for Interstellar it’s much more extreme. When you go all the way down to core, the entire music for the whole movie is just slight variations of the same very simple tune. Which is only five notes. And it repeats over and over in various very different but recognizable variants. Sometimes it’s very quiet. And sometimes it’s incredibly loud. I have a nice 5.1 sorround sound system set up here (one of the best investments I’ve ever made 12 years ago) and it’s just mind blowing. Rumor has it that one IMAX theatre ruined their sound system because they set it too high to make the dialogue more audible. I would not outright dismiss this story as a hoax. Good things my neighbours are on vaction or I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it at it’s full glory in the middle of the night. It’s kind of creepy and certainly very haunting, adding hugely to the often bleak and sometimes desperate atmosphere. Oh, and the main instrument is a massive church organ. Another ballsy move was to make space silent. In many shots there just isn’t any sound at all. You only hear things when ships are docking together or landing on a planet or when stuff is moved around inside them. When the music goes completely quite as well, it’s just fascinating to experience.

Where no man has gone before

As I mentioned in the tiny fragment of summary before, this movie is about using wormholes to reach distant planets. The movie is eerie and haunting from the very beginning even back at Earth, but once they start exploring outer space it just gets totally weird. Most of what they find looks normal, as it was shot in real places in Iceland or inside a full scale model of the spaceship, but it all feels completely wrong. It’s really hard to not give away too much here and I think it just needs to be experienced in person to full appreciate. But as I am concerned they might not just have been traveled to a distant point in space but just as well have been gone to a different universe or different realm of being. It’s all totally surreal. It’s all like a dream, but you might not really be sure if it’s a good one or a bad one. It’s creepy, but beautiful. Amazing and terrifying. It’s transcendental. Which again goes back to the core elements of existentialist philosophy.

They also do happen to find planets that are similar to Earth. Similar in some ways, but also very clearly not Earth. Doing the entire movie in space probably would have gotten boring pretty soon, but the planets are just as weird, beautiful, and unsettling. While they make for a nice change of pace of environment, they seamlessly maintain the overall atmosphere of the whole movie. It’s a truly bizare journey, but that’s really exactly what you’d expect when you follow Christopher Nolan through a wormhole into strange and distant corners of the universe.

So yeah, I enjoyed this movie very much. It probably isn’t going to become a regular member of my collections of amazing movies to constantly watch again, and I dare say I like Inception better. Simply because it’s much more digestible. But at the same time, Interstellar is even more amazing. I feel like I can not much better understand my dad’s love with 2001. Not that I feel like I understand or appreciate that movie any more now than I did before, but if someone who doesn’t like Interstellar would ask me to explain why I think this weird clunky movie is so amazing, I also would have a very hard time to even explain what about I like. This is a movie to keep staring into until one day it maybe stares back at you.