Review: The Witcher, Season One

I liked Netflix’s version of The Witcher. It’s not perfect. I hope there’s more of it.

I’m not a “fan” of The Witcher, exactly. I liked the first game, but it was a weird game lacking in polish, with a difficult-to-adjust-to combat system that was completely overhauled in later games, and it was bogged down with a misogynistic depiction of women and sex. I was hooked by the complicated morality, the bizarre assortment of characters, and the unique lore. That led me to reading The Last Wish, and I truly loved Sapkowski’s character and setting (even if I didn’t love the writing/translation style). I’ve tried to get into the second Witcher game a couple times, and I really do intend to invest myself in it enough to complete it some day so that I can feel free to move onto the third game. I have Blood of Elves somewhere in the house, waiting to be read. It’s an interesting setting with a unique moral perspective that (unfortunately) all too often fails to treat women with respect; it’s fairly unique in its use of Polish myths and fairy tales and classic fantasy to do something darker and more complex, and yet because of its source material, a lot of it feels familiar. It inhabits a unique ethnic identity instead of a generic European-style setting, but it is still a European-style setting, and I could understand readers or viewers or gamers preferring to look for voices and settings that haven’t been promoted as much. I like the idea of what the Witcher is but I see its flaws and can understand why someone wouldn’t like it. And I come to the series as someone familiar with the source material but not overly so; I won’t get all the references, and I won’t know how every adapted storyline originally appeared, but I’m not taking this all fresh either.

It turns out that I knew more of the story than I was expecting. This first season largely adapts plots from the short story collections of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny; most of what I hadn’t read had been referenced in what I’d played. When we get to the titular Witcher facing the striga, cursed heir to the throne of Temeria, I realized I was seeing the third depiction of a particular story, a story that had first appeared in The Last Wish and had then been depicted in the opening cinematic for the first game (while becoming a major plot point of that game). Still, every story, whether I knew it or not, was engaging and moody and prone to sudden bursts of graphic violence, so I never lost some degree of suspense.

I’ve said a lot about what I do and don’t know about The Witcher. If you don’t know anything at all about it, all you really need to know is that the protagonist is Geralt, a “Witcher” who has been mutated through magic and trained to fight monsters; he wanders the land, taking on odd monster-hunting jobs for gold, but his mission is complicated by his reluctance to kill anything intelligent and by the villainy of many of the humans seeking to hire him. As much as he cuts through monsters, he also cuts through a great deal of men and bullshit. While he opts to project the image of an aloof killer, he is typically thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly kind. He especially tends to take the side of outsiders like him, though the bigoted human majority doesn’t approve of this. He hates royalty and wizards, but he frequently becomes ensnared in their schemes, finding himself the ally or rival of many of the powerful.

The show captures a great deal of this. Without access to his unique headspace, however, Geralt often comes off as more of a cold-blooded assassin than a warrior-poet. We see glimpses of it, but he is depicted more in the grumpy, near-silent mold of the video-game version of the character, mostly left to say “fuck” or “hm.” That said, Henry Cavill does everything he can with what he is given, and every “fuck” or “hm” has a slightly different meaning and intent, conveyed through tone and body language. It’s really not that bad, either; Geralt has plenty of moral debates with the characters he runs into, often has to make difficult choices between the lesser of two evils, and occasionally encounters or develops a friend.

Geralt’s closest companion is Jaskier, played by Joey Batey. Even if you haven’t watched any of the show by the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard some of his catchy tunes by now, or seen someone encourage you to toss a coin to your Witcher. Batey plays Jaskier pitch-perfect (pun intended): smarmy, self-assured, arrogant, charming, promiscuous, and worldly yet somehow naive. He’s the emotional soft-boy counterpart to Geralt’s almost parodic depiction of traditional masculinity. And they become best buds! How sweet is that? Jaskier feels like the most accurate translation from book to game to television (fun fact: he was known to me and many other English speakers as “Dandelion” prior to this because his name is Polish for “Buttercup” and the translator apparently wanted to avoid some of the American associations with that word).

Geralt’s eventual on-again, off-again lover is Yennefer, portrayed by Anya Chalotra. I don’t know Yennefer as much as Geralt, Jaskier, some of the other sorcerers and sorceresses, or even some of the royalty, but I had a general idea of her somewhat toxic relationship with Geralt. I had no idea of what she went through to become a sorceress, however. It took me a while to pick up on, but the story is actually told in three separate timelines, and much of Yennefer’s story takes place farthest in the past, as we see the trials and travails she underwent prior to meeting Geralt. I was most invested in Yennefer’s story by the end. Yet as much time as was spent, it still feels rushed. I never felt that I fully understood her, yet understanding her and her development over the series is critical to a few key moments (including the climax of the season). I would have liked to have even more time with her as a sorceress in training, to see her adapt and improve and struggle and scheme, to see what sort of power she wanted to have and how her decisions brought her closer or further away from that power. We only get glimpses in the end. Most troublesome, the show spends altogether too much time on her transformation from a humpbacked girl to a beautiful woman via a painful magical procedure that starts with a hysterectomy without anesthesia and then a truly horrifying set of enchanted physical changes that put her through agonizing, gruesome pain. The fixation on this woman’s horrific pain to achieve her goals was questionable to me. And while the show has some messaging that the transformation is to appease the royalty sorceresses work with, rather than to correct some “fault,” the show does not escape reinforcement of traditional beauty standards at all costs. (Fascinatingly, it’s paired with moments from the striga fight, and we are left with the impression that her transformation from humpback to beauty is comparable to the striga’s transformation from monster to innocent-yet-feral girl.) Again, more time with Yennefer before that, and more understanding of what she wanted and why, might have made me more accepting of that scene.

As I mentioned, there are three timelines at work. The series jumps between these points. Yennefer’s story is the farthest back in time; Geralt’s story is near the narrative’s present; current events follow the young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) as she flees from the destruction of her kingdom in search of Geralt for protection. I won’t get into the “current” timeline because the whole of the show builds toward it and the significance of Ciri’s story.

All in all, this show pushed my tolerances for graphic depictions of violence, gore, and pain. The fight scenes were often quite brutal. There was weight to these moments, even when the fights themselves were quick. Often, the camera would pan over fallen bodies and severed limbs. Yet the most grotesque gore was typically only shown in flashes; sometimes, a moment of violence would be alluded to but not graphically depicted. I’m not sure that the decisions made ever felt fully consistent, but I appreciated the occasional reprieve.

If you’re looking for a replacement to Game of Thrones, this isn’t it. It’s smaller in scope, focused mostly on four characters (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and Jaskier). There is magic, and there is a feudal society, and there are dragons, and a great war is coming. But it’s typically focused on the smaller moments, as Geralt just tries to make his way through the world. The show is about his beliefs and principles, how they evolve and how they stay the same, how they compete or coincide with the beliefs and principles of others. I’m glad for that. I’m glad for the personal, narrowed focus. I never really got into A Song of Ice and Fire or its television adaptation for a number of reasons, but I think the most useful distinction here is that it was a sprawling alternate historical fiction epic disguised as a fantasy series, and The Witcher is about this one character operating in a strange, alien world. You might disagree with my depiction of Game of Thrones; I only read the first couple of books. But I hope you can at least see the distinction I’m trying to draw here.

I liked the show. I didn’t think it was perfect. I don’t think the source material is perfect. I’ll keep watching if they keep making this show. I might get around to reading the Witcher saga. I might finally get into the rest of the games. But if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s not for everyone.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 3

After a drawn-out journey to the border of Xadia over the first two seasons, the third season of The Dragon Prince sprints to its final destination and the culmination of the plot so far. If your concern was that the show was going too slow, I guess this addresses that. But the relatively breakneck pace packs way too much into these nine episodes. And while the fantasy genre is constantly in dialogue with itself, too much of the big story moments are reliant upon fantasy tropes. In one example, and I hope this avoids spoilers too much for anyone who hasn’t watched yet, an important and charismatic character from earlier episodes does not appear at all until a last-minute cavalry charge at the final battle that feels straight out of The Lord of the Rings. That final battle is all too brief, but this show has always been more concerned with adventure and interpersonal relationships than violent spectacle.

The series ends with a moment suggesting that there will be a continuation, either in a future season or the long-discussed video game. I would have ultimately preferred the slower pace of the earlier seasons, with the promise of a more fulfilling final climax in a fourth season.

Still, the animation is the best yet, the show remains hard-hitting with its complicated morality and depiction of dark themes, and the charming cast of characters continues to meet new allies and enemies of all sorts. This show offers some of the most imaginative fantasy out there, even while drawing deep from what has come before. And it remains as committed to exhibiting one of the most diverse fantasy settings ever. Yes, there are fantasy races and creatures, many depicted in new ways or entirely original to the show. Yet more significantly, the show portrays people of different human races and ethnicities, across a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and with a range of abilities. Disability is only an element of a character in this setting, not a hated impediment or a sign of weakness or villainy. And this season has a great homosexual relationship that is important to the plot for reasons other than the nature of the relationship. For the display of diversity in programming aimed primarily at kids and young adults, that’s just delightful.

It may have rushed its big climax, but The Dragon Prince isn’t out of ideas yet and remains a joy to watch. Now, maybe it will be free to go in some really weird directions…

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Ninja Theory released Hellblade in August 2017. Earlier this month, a sequel was announced. And this Thursday, oblivious to the sequel announcement at that time, I played the original. That has become one of my favorite gaming experiences in 2019, and I anxiously await the follow-up title.

I haven’t played any of Ninja Theory’s other games. I had only heard of Hellblade because of the general praise for its depiction of psychosis in a video game. I didn’t have any set expectations going in. I found myself sucked in very early.

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To begin, let’s acknowledge that Hellblade is a very pretty game. That it manages to preserve so much of its graphical fidelity in this Switch port is impressive in and of itself. It’s interesting to look at–I say interesting because it’s often more fantastical, horrifying, or grotesque than beautiful.

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Combat is easy to pick up and feels good, too. It’s simple enough: heavy and light attacks, dodge, block, a headlong charge useful for disrupting certain opponents, and a focus ability that charges up over time and slows enemies down (and makes certain enemies stagger or become corporeal) when used. The formula doesn’t get mixed up much. And while new enemies are introduced over time, there are less than a dozen enemy types altogether. Sometimes battles can be trying, with multiple opponents wielding mixed arsenals. There are also several boss fights against larger, unique enemies; these fights required the most precise use of the combat system and felt uniquely desperate. If I sound muted about the combat, it’s because I am. It’s engaging most of the time, but it’s nothing special. Thankfully, the game is not combat-focused; it’s just one of three major play modes. The other two play modes are exploration and puzzles.

This is a game designed around levels, but they can often feel vast, with many paths to wander. You don’t level up in the game; Senua is Senua, and her equipment is her equipment. This isn’t a quest for gold or glory, and so there’s nothing to collect. At one point, Senua has to get a new sword, but the process of obtaining that sword is deeply tied to narrative; it’s not about fetch quests for materials or finding treasure chests with new weapons. While you do have many paths to pursue, few are truly unrelated to the narrative of the game, and the main “resource” to locate consists of the runic monoliths that, when focused on, unlock a voice-over narration about some aspect of Norse myth (as told by a deceased mentor of Senua’s). In short, exploration is part of the narrative.

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Puzzles are varied but typically revolve around the use of Senua’s focus to change her perception of reality. You might be called to detect the natural presence of a rune in the environment, or to line up symbols with the shape of a seal on a door, or to reconstruct a bridge or set of stairs by viewing the ruins from a particular angle. It’s often mind-bending, though thankfully seldom frustrating.

More than anything, this is a game about story. Senua is a Pict from Orkney in the late 8th century. She experiences psychosis, which is mainly represented in the game through delusions and hallucinations, though also through interesting use of visual phenomena and a certain sort of pattern-seeking behavior, among other things. Senua is plagued by voices, which can be hurtful or helpful. The worst of the voices is representative of the Darkness, a destructive force that she believes kills everyone she cares about and is slowly rotting away within her. The game kicks off in the wake of a Viking raid in which her lover was tortured and killed as a sacrifice to the Northmen’s gods. Senua is under the delusion that if she can take the decapitated head of her loved one to Hel and bargain with or defeat Hela, she can restore him to life. Her personal journey, and her past life, are secrets to be uncovered by the player, and I won’t get into them much more here. Suffice it to say, one of the greatest successes of the game is that it presents the journey as a fantasy narrative that the player can buy into; while you’re playing, Senua’s goals seem like reasonable objectives, as they must seem to Senua herself (in fact, she sees them as the only options). In this way, more than any particular visual or auditory device (although the use of light and color and sound is unnervingly effective), the narrative itself does a remarkable job at placing the player within Senua’s mindset. It all seems so reasonable, so plausible, that we can easily forget that we are playing a game of historical fiction, not fantasy.

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Death and fear of loss are central concerns of the game. Senua fears her own decay and death. Senua cannot get over the death of her lover. The death of her mother becomes an increasingly prevalent trauma. The game’s narrative literally sends us to Hel. But the game design also makes that fear of death part of the gameplay. Early on, Senua is infected with a variant of dark decay that creeps its way up her arm, advancing at key story moments and every time she “dies.” Death unwinds events a bit, but it has still “occurred,” and the cost is the advancement of the rot that threatens to permanently end her. She can die many times, but once the darkness reaches her head, she will die her final death. The game presents this as a risk of permadeath. This threat reinforces the fear of death in the player’s mind, but the rot progresses so slowly that it is not a primary concern, and there are so many opportunities to surge to your feet after a fall with enough button mashing that death is rare anyway, at least on the auto-difficulty that I played on. In fact, some sources I’ve seen indicate that the permadeath is all a bluff, not something that can actually happen within the game, and yet another example of game design used to reinforce the psychosis and unreliable narrative/experiences of the protagonist.

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The cinematography and direction of the game are also fascinating. There are a great deal of cutscenes, though the distinction between cinematic and gameplay is often blurred. While we almost always experience the game from the third-person perspective, despite sharing in Senua’s hallucinations, most cutscenes feel oddly second-person. A good deal of the game could almost be described as second-person, as one of the primary voices often narrates the story and the past to us, often speaks to or about us as if we are one of Senua’s voices, and comes close to breaking the fourth wall in its engagement with us. We are Senua and yet we are apart from her; you are always a “you,” not an “I” or a “they” but a tag-along presence directly connected to the events. The cinematics can be especially disconcerting, focused so much on Senua’s face and reactions; we are often forced to take the perspective of a monster or abuser or similar predator/dark force. It’s a disorienting effect that I’m still thinking about, coming to terms with. We are Senua; we are the forces that oppress her; we are an observer; we are an aid. The focus always on Senua, even though perpetually outside of her immediate perspective, reinforces that the external world as we see it is merely a representation of Senua’s inner reality, that we should always be questioning what is “real” or “unreal.”

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The use of historical and psychological research, considerable interviews and involvement with academics and those who have experienced psychosis, and innovative game design creates a truly compelling, unique, and authentic experience. It’s more than the fantastical monster-slasher that it may seem at first glance. I would strongly recommend this game to anyone, except that it is a deliberately disturbing, uncomfortable experience. I was often on-edge, uncomfortable, distressed, and even terrified while playing. If you have experienced psychosis or have an aversion to disturbing images, graphic depictions of suffering, or violence, you should pass on the game. My wife was fascinated by it but ultimately had to abandon viewing the game because of the disturbing sound design. Hellblade actually comes with a trigger warning, the first I’ve seen in a game and hopefully something the industry will start to pick up more and more in the future. It also offers a website for those suffering from mental illness, to tap into mental health resources in their own country. It’s a smart, thoughtful, empathetic touch.

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If you can’t play the game, try to look up the documentary about its making that comes with Hellblade. It’s fascinating to learn more about the historical and psychological research that went into making it. And while virtually every game has dozens, if not hundreds, involved in the creative process, the documentary really drove home to me that this was a game that uniquely had an auteur guiding its creation, development, and vision: Tameem Antoniades, the game’s writer and director (and a founder of Ninja Theory). I have considerable respect for his vision, the work of his team, and the insight of those involved in aiding the project to ensure an accurate and visceral representation of psychosis.

I hope that we can see more games willing to go to such depths to portray a challenging subject like psychosis. To have mental illness in games as more than a simple threat, debuff, or sign of villainy would be amazing. And Hellblade shows that games are uniquely positioned to place their audience within the mindset of minorities who are otherwise Othered.

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That’s a wrap: The Mandalorian 1.8

Hoo boy, that was a good finale. Plot threads dangling throughout the season were resolved, there’s a clear sense of closure for this season, and there’s a clear and direct focus for next season. The Mandalorian and the Child are bonded like father and son, and they have allies who may come to stand by them again in the future (while unfortunately losing other allies in this explosive climax). And this final episode brought in a lot of elements from The Clone Wars and Rebels, in particular regarding the Mandalorians and one very special weapon.

I dearly hope that The Mandalorian honors its narrative promise to pursue the homeworld of Yoda’s species in this new season. But at the very least, the Mandalorian now believes he must care for a child of a culture (the Jedi) that has historically been an enemy of his adoptive people. That’s meaty enough to warrant another season or more by itself.

The Rise of Skywalker, on first impressions

My first impression of the final chapter in the Skywalker Saga can be simply summarized:

 

I could rest on that. Just a few additional thoughts for the moment, though:

  • This actually felt like a satisfying conclusion to the sequel trilogy. It directly addressed a surprising number of the questions I wanted answered following The Last Jedi.
  • Critics are right. J.J. Abrams plays this film incredibly safe and attempts to appease as many fans as possible. I could see some people being angry about various elements of the film. I can imagine that most people will find something to like and will grudgingly accept some of the events in the film that feel like compromises between warring camps of fandom and ideologies about what Star Wars is. Turns out, though, in catering to fans, there’s a lot of fan service, and while I’m normally frustrated by fan service, I’m also (as it turns out) a pretty big Star Wars fan, and boy was I serviced by this film.
  • Most disappointingly, this film is cowardly in its LGBTQ representation. When I write more spoilery things, I’ll get into this more. If I were queer and hoping for representation, I might even be angry. The small concession to representation here is almost condescendingly small even as the filmmakers seem determined to walk back some other implicitly queer elements of the previous films.
  • Despite playing it safe in terms of filmmaking and storytelling, the movie does manage to introduce some cool new things to the canon Star Wars mythology–and to recycle some of the weirder Legends content in interesting ways.
  • There was a lot of great droid content in this film, and C-3PO actually gets to be significant again.
  • I’m feeling kind of smug about correctly predicting one plot point (at least, in a very broad sense).

Opinions will vary wildly, and people will surely have some strong reactions to this closing chapter. That’s okay; I’ve been a part of this fandom for long enough to be used to that with every new Star Wars property, especially the films. But even with my points of criticism and concern above, I still had a blast watching this. And I already want to watch it again!

Questions for TROS

In my excitement and anticipation for The Rise of Skywalker, I’ve read a lot of reviews today. And those reviews have largely made me nervous about the outcome. But I’m going to try to reserve judgment until after I’ve seen it. And honestly, I end up liking just about every new Star Wars thing because it’s STAR WARS! Over on Eleven-ThirtyEight, editor Mike Cooper published an essay today explaining his feelings for Star Wars that resonates with me strongly. I can’t recommend reading that enough.

What I thought I’d do is write out what I want to see answered or addressed in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not speculation, and I’m not going to try to preemptively respond to concerns raised in the reviews. It might be a little silly, now that Episode IX is being marketed as the culmination of the entire saga, but my questions mostly emerge from the state of the galaxy at the end of The Last Jedi.

  1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?
  2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?
  3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo (I sure hope not!), or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay? (Poe is gay. I’m convinced of that. Unfortunately, I doubt that will ever be confirmed in a canon source.)
  4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?
  5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?
  6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?
  7. Who are the Knights of Ren?
  8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?
  9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?
  10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

We’ll see what answers J.J. Abrams and company provide. And that leaves me with a final question: what if we saw an Episode IX written and directed by Rian Johnson, or someone new entirely, instead of the director known for making safe, slick stories reliant upon nostalgia?

I was wrong: The Mandalorian 1.7

Over the past couple of episodes, I admit that I was getting a little frustrated with the pacing of the show. In retrospect, that was imprudent of me. The seventh episode pays off so many developments in earlier episodes. Characters and plot points carefully placed over time, in a way that feels strikingly organic, have now come together in an exciting way. And now we are moving at breakneck pace, the episode ending in a tragic cliffhanger. I was moved and surprised and impressed. And I’d have to say that (almost) every episode was vital for reaching this point.

Full speed ahead to the ending–but first, The Rise of Skywalker!