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.

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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Returning to Vampyr

Vampyr came to Switch, so I got it and played it. This time around, with technical issues reduced, I was able to complete the game. That said, there were still a lot of technical issues present, which felt shocking on a console. There were still often lengthy load times, including screen-freezing loading in the middle of combat on several occasions. Sometimes, it appeared that the game became slightly sluggish with a slight frame-rate drop. These were annoying and disruptive problems, but not fatal. Even worse, the game crashed on at least three occasions, with at least a couple times where I got a Switch system error telling me the software had to be closed and at least one time where the game indefinitely froze in the middle of a battle, becoming unresponsive (even in that situation, I could still easily return to the Switch Home menu and quickly close out the game, which is a testament to the reliable nature of the Switch). On top of all this, the game has been ported to Switch with what appear to be the lowest graphics settings–fair, I get that sacrifices have to be made for this little, under-powered console, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when the game still doesn’t perform consistently.

I’m glad that I finished the game, though. It has a fun take on vampire lore. The story advances in jagged steps, and the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, but it still lands more than it misses. In fact, I suspect that Dontnod had a better story here that was stymied somewhat by English-language localization efforts. Still, this feels like an odd explanation, given that Dontnod, while a French developer, has typically produced games with good-to-great writing, like Life Is Strange and Remember Me, which both precede Vampyr.

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I enjoyed roaming the streets of this version of 1918 London. I enjoyed uncovering secrets and unlocking hidden lore. I enjoyed learning little hints about people and then using my vampiric influence to persuade them to share more about themselves, their motivations and their fears. I enjoyed healing people when they were sick. I enjoyed crafting treatments for them and serums for myself and upgrades for my weapons. And I enjoyed the combat, so much of it, combat outside of every safe district hub, combat between vampires and vampire hunters of all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed a focused approach to leveling my character, locking in on specific offensive and defensive abilities rather than going too broad with my skill selection and wasting valuable experience points on dead-end development. I enjoyed applying skill advancements that boosted my combat strategies and that sometimes made me adapt new strategies. I became a huge fan of hurling myself forward from the shadows across vast distances to damage and stun opponents, drawing blood and vitality restoration from them by biting them when they fell, and using a combination of vampiric claws and melee weapons (upgraded so that they, too, would draw little bits of restorative blood for me with every hit) to whittle down the health of tougher opponents in quick flurries of strikes between bursts of dodging. Combat stayed fun and fresh during most of my time in the game, and it kept the frequent backtracking across the game map more lively, but the boss fights were less fun and more frustrating, presenting the same sorts of challenges and requiring the same sort of maneuvers in basically every battle. And combat as a whole, especially at the scale in which it appears within the game, feels antithetical to the spirit of the core game, which is more focused on balancing your character’s thirst for blood with his impulse as a doctor to help people, to save lives, to be better. The narrative focuses on the latter so much that it feels increasingly disconnected from the active fighting and killing you’re doing most of the time.

[Huge spoilers about the end of the game follow. Stop if you have interest in giving the game a try without any reveals about the alternative endings.]

I hadn’t realized how close I had been to the end of the game before. I was well into the last third when I gave it up previously.

I made slightly different choices playing through this time. Chiefly, I found that I had little desire to choose to take the life of others. Something about my mental and emotional state at the time of this play attempt made me even more reserved about killing. Even when I encountered characters that are easy to hate, like a violent street gang leader or a sleazy slumlord or an actual serial killer, it didn’t seem right for me to be choosing to take their lives. At best, it would have been a brutal vigilantism, and at worst it was little more than an extrajudicial lynching, I felt. And so I spared characters I had previously killed.

It appears that this pure-hearted approach, wherein I refused to “embrace” any character, netted me the most “good” ending for the game. It was pleasant to attain that good ending, but I can imagine how frustrating it would feel to play through the game, choosing to feed and gain power only through enacting street justice against a few of the worst of the worst, only to find that this led you to being irredeemably corrupted. This insistence on remaining pure, avoiding the temptation to become a predator, feels especially silly given that the game actively encourages you to embrace people to gain power (and choosing who to kill and who to spare was part of the meta-narrative discussion around the game), while you’re also involved in a lot of fighting against and killing of the various types of vampires and vampire hunters. You can even choose an option, as I did, that led to a good person becoming a mindless lesser form of vampire (though not your intent), and you can return to their location later and kill their corrupted form, and this does nothing to hurt the ending. I had the protagonist feed constantly; using a vampire bite in battle was one of my major combat tactics, and there were plenty of rats drained of blood along the way. The distinction between the piles of bodies I drank from and killed along the way and this idea of abstaining from the thirst for blood as presented by the “good” ending narrative is contradictory and left unresolved and unaddressed in that narrative.

Still, the Gothic atmosphere and diverse cast of characters made it rewarding to explore (and fight through) the world all the way up until the end.

When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

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I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

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The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.

New job, same site, & other news

Surprising even myself, after a few contented years working in an operations administrative support role, I’ve stepped down from my management position to accept a new role in an Indy firm’s Social Security disability department. The transition happened midweek; I left my old job on Wednesday and started my new job on Thursday. But it was about a month in the making. I’m excited and anxious and interested to see how this goes. That’s big enough news in my personal life that I felt it warranted a post. It’s been a year with a lot of big personal events, including the death of our dog, the adoption of two dogs, the purchase of a house, a new volunteer pursuit, and now this. That all said, this site shouldn’t be impacted in any way. I’m already only posting once a week, which has been quite comfortable. While it means that I certainly won’t be increasing the frequency of posts on a regular basis any time soon, I also don’t have any reason to decrease or discontinue posting. I’ve enjoyed writing on this blog, and I fully intend to continue carving out time for it.

I have a few other, much smaller, updates that are more relevant to the focus of this blog, though. I’ve finished Cat Quest. I’ve actually finished it twice now, since it provides a New Game+ mode. That’s taken me a little over 10 hours of game time. I’m a little over level 100. I’ve cleared most dungeons (maybe all, but I wasn’t very diligent in confirming that, and I know I never found all the loot locations in some of the cleared dungeons). I’ve got some high-level themed equipment (a helm of Faith, the armor of Courage, and the weapon of Willpower, resulting in my hero looking like a near-naked enlightened monk). It’s been fun, but I don’t have any particular interest in trying out the other game modes or starting over again. My opinion hasn’t changed on the game, and I’d still say it’s worth the purchase. And compared to my game time spent with Desert Child (just a few hours) or Untitled Goose Game (about five), it’s still been the longest gaming experience among the indies I’ve played lately.

There are altogether too many games available on and coming to the Switch, and I haven’t narrowed down exactly what I’ll play next. That said, Vampyr will be released for the console a couple days before Halloween, so while it may not be the next game I play, it’s certainly one that I’d like to revisit, and the seasonal timing is just perfect.

It’s not much of an announcement, but I’ve realized in retrospect that I sort of gave up on The Clone Wars rewatch. It’s sort of a silly thing to say, because I can of course continue watching or start over whenever I want, but I’ve made no effort to keep up with the official posts for several weeks now. Watching almost any Star Wars film or show will be much easier when it’s consolidated on Disney+ anyway (though it doesn’t appear that the two Endor-based fantasy movies or the Ewoks or Droids shows are dropping there anytime soon). I have been watching other things, though. Sam and I finally finished Adventure Time; that final episode was absolutely fantastic. I’ve started the television version of What We Do In The Shadows, which is fun and tonally fits with the movie, though I’m not far enough along yet to say if it really feels like it’s doing its own thing–that said, I like the introduction of the Energy Vampire concept.

I haven’t watched any particularly memorable movie lately, and my pile of books remains as thick as ever; I keep adding more to read, quicker than I can get through them! Most of my attention is currently on Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, about Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the “Groveland Boys” in Lake County, Florida.

While I could leave it at a week’s recap post for the week, I’ll still plan on having a more “normal” post tomorrow, though I’m not sure what about just yet. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Either way, I’m looking forward to what is sure to be a very exciting, very different week for me.

Review: Cat Quest

Of the three quirky indie games I’ve played recently on the Nintendo Switch, Cat Quest (developed by Singapore-based Gentlebros) is by far the longest experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, of course, but it does mean that this is a game that I can return to over time. It helps that, despite the RPG-norm grinding, it feels airy, light, and casual, rather than consuming, endless, and bloated. I remain engaged, maybe a little addicted, to this oddball title. If I had to guess, I think I’m about two-thirds of the way through the main story, having completed a huge bundle of side quests and explored many dungeons; if the suggested level of one of the isolated island dungeons is any indication, leveling to the needs of the main quest is more of a floor than a ceiling. (As usual, I’m so behind the times that I’m getting to this 2017 game just around the time that its sequel has released.)

In Cat Quest, you are a cat. On a quest. In the most generic of RPG stories, your sister is captured by an evil villain, and you set out to save her and put a stop to his plans. Turns out that you have a special heritage and destiny, too, because this game lives on RPG tropes. You’re a Dragonblood, the most recent in a storied line of dragonslayers (yes, there are a lot of homages to Skyrim, among plenty of other pop culture mainstays). While the game isn’t quite a satire of these tired conventions, it does have a lot of fun lampshading them and laughing at itself.

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As I referenced, the game is obsessed with pop culture references. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t get a lot of amusement out of them. Most of the references amounted to a sort of Family Guy-style allusion or simple parody, where the joke is simply getting the reference. Among other things, The Elder ScrollsStar Wars, Santa Claus, Arthurian myth, the Tomb Raider games, Game of Thrones, Lovecraftian horror, The Lion King, Robin Hood and medieval myth and legend, and even Santa Claus get references. The best of these references, to me, are ones that go with a lame cat pun.

There are a lot of lame cat puns. Some are kind of fun. Many are painfully bad. When you play a game called Cat Quest, you’d better hope that there will be cat puns.

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The game itself is fairly simple to play. Most of the game is spent on the overworld map. Exceptions are fairly small dungeons, which load mini-levels to “explore” down railroaded paths. It plays a little like a pared-down Zelda-alike at first, with you mostly pressing one button to swipe at enemies and another button to roll out of range of their telegraphed attacks (always indicated by a darkening red hit radius). You even have a pseudo-annoying pixie-ish “guardian spirit” sidekick to speak for your silent protagonist. Over time, you collect more and more spells and special abilities, which are toggled by additional buttons. I’ve only collected enough spells to fill out my mapped buttons, but while I haven’t had to be selective with spell choices yet, I have found that simply managing four spells plus the melee attack and dodge makes every tiny battle fairly dynamic and fun. Spells use mana, and mana is recharged by melee attacks. Enemies tend to be weak to a particular spell type or physical attack. Combining attacks while rolling out of enemy barrages is sometimes easy and sometimes hectic, especially when you’re suddenly surrounded by enemies. Virtually every battle is fast-paced yet manageable, with strong visual communication of what is happening at all times. Death doesn’t cost you much, so if you do find a challenge in which you are overwhelmed (and fail to turn tail and run quickly enough), there’s very little setback.

A lot of the quests orient around going from one place to another to kill monsters or collect items. Item collection is mostly triggered by reaching a certain point on the map, which is fairly dumbed-down but also makes fetch quests a lot less painful than usual. Some of the quests have interesting little stories, though they’re all heavily drawing from fantasy tropes and common RPG story beats. There are no conversation trees or branching quest paths here (outside of literal divergences in a physical path to a location). It’s all basically an excuse to go around fighting things while exploring more and more of the overworld. Improving in abilities and equipment is almost an afterthought–you run over XP and coins scattered across the land or dropped by enemies, and you collect equipment upgrades from chests. There’s a handful of different armor and weapon types, and whether using a blacksmith or completing a dungeon, equipment drops are randomized. If you get more equipment of a given type that you’ve already collected, this manifests as increased stats for that particular item. So while you’re progressing and improving, it never feels like work to do so; everything feeds back into the simple fun of the combat.

The oddball humor, fight mechanics, focused and honed simplicity, and even bright and colorful visuals remind me in many ways of Japanese indie game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and not in a bad way at all. Both games don’t try to be everything; both offer subversions and reinterpretations of fantasy tropes. I think that Recettear pushed the envelope a little further (the idea of running an item shop, stepping into the role of an NPC for any other game, offered a great deal of novelty), but the cute cat characters, open world, and silly puns of Cat Quest, and the lack of shrieking, “cutesy” anime characters, puts this feline RPG at a higher rank in my book.

Cat Quest is pretty, cute, addictive, and fun. It’s not a deep RPG. It’s not one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. But it’s easy to pick up, inviting, and enjoyable–whether I’m playing for a long session or a short one. Playing on a mobile device (or in the Switch handheld mode, which I’ve enjoyed), it would be a perfect option for a quick pick-up-and-play title to fill a commute or while away a Sunday afternoon.

Review: Untitled Goose Game

Untitled Goose Game (developed by indie studio House House) is a small game wherein you are a goose. As said goose, you do what geese are known to do: act like a total dick to everyone around you. You hurtle yourself through a small town, honking and flapping and smashing and stealing on your way. You make people miserable and sow chaos. You pull pranks and cause mischievous, and sometimes unintentional, petty harms. Your grand goal at the end of the game is to tear down a model village tower just so you can drag a shiny bell back across town to drop in your hoard of shiny bells in your swampy home.

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Untitled Goose Game is an absolute delight. The instrumental music is playful and dynamic. The townspeople’s reactions are amusing to observe. It’s fun to test what exactly you can do in each part of town, to see how different combinations of interactions lead to divergent results. The game is consistent and logical, and while you can’t always predict what will happen, you can count on a consistent result when using the game’s mechanics in a similar situation. It’s part puzzle game (where the puzzles are logical and intuitive and delightful to solve), part stealth game (where getting caught is part of the chaotic fun, and where the worst penalty is simply being chased a bit away by an annoyed villager), part sandbox (where destruction and recombination reign), and part peaceful afternoon jaunt.

It took me a single Saturday to play through the entire game, completing every item on every to-do list, including the bonus challenges, the timed runs, and the claiming and donning of the final prize. I enjoyed virtually every moment of it. There was only one point where I had to look something up, and reading the first sentence of a summary in the search results was enough for me to go, “Oh, DUH! Of COURSE,” and promptly take off to complete the task. Even the timed runs were far more fun than frustrating; whereas most of the game was remixing actions to accomplish tasks, now it was remixing task completions such that the results would blend together to enable a successful sub-six-minute completion of a zone. I had to reset a lot to get the time completions of each zone right (resetting is just a reality of even attempting the in-game speed-run challenges), but resetting just restored order to the clutter and placed me at the starting area of a contained zone. Testing ways to move through a level and complete tasks was some of the most fun and challenging experimentation that I had in this wild waterfowl’s lab.

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Even aside from the tasks, it is so joyful and often truly peaceful to simply explore the town. You can just observe the townsfolk moving about. The colors and shapes and textures are soothing. The townsfolk all have evocative personalities, even with the simple bodies and blank faces that encourage the dickish goose personality. Really, very little encouragement is needed to be a massive ass of a goose. It’s fun to pick things up, to toss them about or run off with them, to honk and flap and run and swim. As an example: after a brief tutorial that gets you out of your home with your small set of moves and across a small pond into the village, you are confronted with a picnic spread on a bench; I immediately grabbed up the sandwich and tossed it into the water, just because I could, and there was an immediate jolt of internal positive feedback–yes, this is good, do more of this, the animal part of my brain said. This is all the more remarkable because I hate playing as bad or evil characters in most games; doing evil things, causing harm to even virtual innocents, makes me uncomfortable. But I delighted in my small, and ultimately harmless, torments of the villagers.

I haven’t had such a relaxing and fun weekend evening in a long while. I highly recommend this game!