A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part three)

And so to the books but where to start? The Blood of Elves was supposed to be the start of the novels so I began there and…hang on, this isn’t the beginning – the characters are talking about Geralt and Yennefer and the things they’ve already done. Look again…ah, there are two books of short stories first. Now we’re talking.

The Last Wish

Temeria. King Foltest has a stryga situation. This is very familiar. Haha, he just said ‘whoa there, Roach’. Later Geralt arrives in a place called Blavakin and I know this isn’t going to end well. Here is the Cintra where Ciri is supposed to be a Princess. The stories are nicely contained and slightly unexpectedly from my experience of the games, particularly the first two, they are funny at times and not afraid of the odd cheeky cultural reference. There’s a line about not about not wanting to dispatch a troll because he does good work maintaining the bridge that could have almost been in place in Terry Pratchett. When I later revisited the games I realised some of this humour can be found but this is a journey and we’re not there yet.

Overall, the tone is much lighter than the grimdark I had expected having played the games. Being separated from Geralt’s leaden delivery helps in this regard. Book Geralt is world-weary and cynical it is true but he’s also more sardonic and generally animated. He also pontificates on the nature of things from time to time. In short, game Geralt isn’t nearly as good company.

I get to the Last Wish that is heavily referenced in the quest of the same name in Witcher 3. This is more or less the Yennefer we meet in the games. Spoilt, headstrong and manipulative, living in luxury and putting noses out of joint in every direction. As before, it’s a more light-hearted affair than is hinted at by the Witcher 3 and provides a satisfying set up for what is to come.

 

The Sword of Destiny

I later found out that Sword of Destiny wasn’t released in English for a long time. I wonder how followers of the books got on because it’s quite an important missing piece to remain unfilled. I’m glad I started reading them when this volume was available as it is vital to understanding the relationship Geralt has with the two most important women (for that matter people) in his life; Yennefer and Ciri.

I’m also glad Sword of Destiny was available to me from the beginning as it remains by far my favourite of all of Sapkowski’s works. It makes the tonal transition from the lightness of The Last Wish to the gloom that will follow. As an aside, I always have a fondness for the parts of a series that hit this sweet spot. Goblet of Fire and Mass Effect 2 also fit in this category but that is a matter for another blog.

Yennefer is back and on fine form and the dragon hunt is on. Witcher 2 references paying off here with the Crinfrid Reavers (in fact they are only in Witcher 2 to do this) and Yarpen Zigren. There’s also a GWENT card pay off and the conversations between Geralt and Yennefer in The Last Wish quest now make a lot more sense.  The oft spoken of Zeugl also makes an appearance later on. In terms of the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, if the games had been set between where they end up here and the next time they meet the Yennefer/Triss choice would have been more finely balanced.

The short form seems to suit Andrej Sapkowski. One thing he does very well is introduce characters and quickly make you care about them even if you will only know them for a short while. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking and I wonder why he did that to me. A life, like the Sword of Destiny, has two sides. There is the life of the person and there is the life that their effect on other people has. I understand now why he did that. Sometimes to understand someone you need to see how they act towards other people and how they suffer at their loss.

Sword of Destiny is mostly about the two women in Geralt’s life. For me, it is also where I started to like Dandelion. His humanity emerges from behind the facade of ridiculous hedonism. I find he is at his best when he is prepared to contradict Geralt and in these moments their unlikely partnership seems to make the most sense. Sometimes you need to see how people act towards others to understand them. Through Sword of Destiny and beyond you see the flashes of Geralt’s soft side. Not weakness but a fierce if somewhat begrudging loyalty to anyone or anything that falls under his care, even if he does call them ‘Roach’.

A point of view is like a camera. It can only focus on one thing at a time. In the world of The Witcher this often means that important things are happening out of sight. Sometimes this works, other times this is frustrating. We never get to see the Battle of Sodden. We get to stand on the hill and feel it’s aftermath. Names are mentioned that I’ve heard in the games. I think about the sorceresses who fought together there and wonder how Sapkowski would feel about how their fates play out in them. Is Sabrina Glevissig supposed to end up burnt on a wheel?  It’s an idle question really. I get the impression that Sapkowski doesn’t give the storylines of the games too much thought.

I’m glad I didn’t start with the novels. The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny is where the main characters are properly established. From what I have gathered so far it also seems that the events of these books are set to feature heavily in the upcoming Netflix series. In essence, if you want to get to know Geralt, Yennefer and Dandelion; read the short stories. I think you could go from here into the games and need almost no explanation for who is who and why these things are happening. With one exception; Witcher 3 is in many ways Ciri’s story and her story is yet to be begun. To understand that properly I had to read the novels.

 

Featured photo.

Photographer: Victoria Romanova aka Milligan Vick

Model: Galina Zhukovskaya

 

 

 

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A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part two)

the_witcher_3_v6_by_harrybana-d8a4bxlHaving ploughed (maybe not the best word in context) through Witcher 2 I went straight on to Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. First of all, I have to say I am in awe of the work done on this game. Witcher 2 is in some ways quite a confined game. With this game they broke down the walls and made instead the game that any RPG fan would want.

In some ways this era could turn out to be a golden age of RPGs. Not necessarily, as for me story and a sense of place are the alpha and omega of an RPG. It’s not a given that these will improve. On the other hand, there seems to be a real sense of learning. I’m sure games developers play the output of other studios more extensively than me. I tend to find a game and play it to death. One a year can sometimes be enough. Nonetheless, I can still see cross-pollination for the good.

Elder Scrolls and particularly Skyrim reimagined the scope and beauty of a single-player open world RPG. This clearly had an effect in the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Horses become a standard feature (also through Red Dead Redemption) and the possibility of exploring a vaster landscape unfolds. But gamers aren’t satisfied they want to fight from horseback and this mechanic appears in the Skyrim DLC. It’s not quite there yet. Now Witcher 3 comes along and (at least on keyboard and mouse) it now works and, most importantly, is fun.

There are many points in Witcher 3 that I felt that the designers were responding to something that fans of RPGs wanted and it is then delivered. None of this is to say the RPG form has been perfected. Far from it. There is so much more that can be done and some things that should be dropped but this is for another post. The point here is that CDPR with Witcher 3 gave me a real sense of responding to what people want.

Personally, I immediately felt that my issues with the previous games had been addressed. It was no longer aimless, rather it gave clear opportunities to progress the storyline as and when suited. The graphics were once again improved (beardy Geralt is a huge improvement over previous versions). The combat was enjoyable, the interface more intuitive and gameplay was more logical (e.g. taking potions before a big fight actually possible).  After the trio of barren locations I had endured in Witcher 2 a more verdant and varied vista opened up before me

Last but not least, the VA was a step up from previous games. There was a bit more variety there (helped by more expressive animations), although there are a number of times when Geralt acts needlessly put upon, sighing when exiting a shop screen for no apparent reason and saying a begrudging ‘fine’ more times than I can count. The greater length of the game and opportunities for interactions also mean Geralt is able to show more of his character than before.

I knew I was going to choose Yennefer based on the fact that she was who he was with before he lost his memory. It seemed a bit odd to sideline Triss after spending the game before trying to save her but Geralt lets on several times that easy-going sweetness is not his bag and when previously in possession of all his faculties he had chosen Yennefer. If in doubt, do what you think the character would do.

The game moves on to Skellige and once again I was in awe. This viking-celtic mishmash setting (perhaps meant to be Orkney or the Shetlands) could have been the whole world for many a game and here it is just one place to visit. I think on this in more depth. Skyrim has myriad locations but actually how extensive are they? Even Riverun is only a few screens, probably only a part of the size of Oxenfurt let alone Novigrad.

I have probably only played a tiny fraction of RPGs out there. Still, some things stick in your mind. There’s a game called Summoner on the Playstation 2, horrible controls/gameplay, mediocre graphics, good story and a fabulous setting. Reasonably early in the game you get to the main city, Lenelle. You first enter the market on the outside then and interior market region. From there you can progress to the old town, the upmarket district and the temple area. I don’t think I’d ever seen so much space given to an urban environment before in an RPG. Now I expect nothing less.

Initially, I ignore Gwent. Once I get a feel for the shape of the game I restart in completionist mode. This time I learn Gwent. Who are all these characters on the cards? Oh look, there’s Phillipa Eilhart again. She’s referred to again but first time round I missed ‘Redania’s Most Wanted’. There are others, Milva, Cahir, Regis. Menno Coehoorn I recognise from the back story of the Dun Banner. I still want to know more about Brenna and Sodden.

I complete the main quest and move on to Toussaint. Riding out of Beauclaire I often have to stop and spin around the panaroma. Once again, I am in awe. Ah hello, here’s Regis from the Gwent card.

Something is nagging me at this stage. All this interaction with people Geralt knows but are strangers to me. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of references and back history. I feel a bit like an outsider when I should be right in the midst. This was fine when in the previous game Geralt was recovering from amnesia but now I need to know the full story. I feel like I’m coming in late on this and I hate coming in late. I want to start from as close to the beginning as possible.

There is only one solution…I have to now read the books.

A Journey through the world of The Witcher (Part One)

the_witcher_2_enhanced_ed_for_windows_8_oblytile_by_masakari666-d5n4cngThis is not a review. I am not making a recommendation or judging whether anyone else should like the Witcher books or games. This is simply my meandering journey through the series of games and books and my thoughts along the way.

For a long time I didn’t like the Witcher and it was such a shame because I really wanted to like it. Friends, whose opinions on games I trusted, told me it was great. Reviewers told me it was great. I even liked the concept. Yet still I didn’t get on with and to explain this I have to go back to the beginning of my journey.

As previously stated, friends had told me the Witcher was great, specifically that the Witcher 2 was a great game. Long time fans of Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing might well be horrified at coming into the series from this angle but that’s how it was for me. So what was wrong with the Witcher 2? The answer is nothing, initially, as I didn’t start there. I hate coming in late on any series so I started with The Witcher.

There were things to like about the first game. I was keen on the setting and the mythology. The procedural nature of Witcher work seemed like a good tool for telling self-contained quests within a larger story. Ropey graphics (at least by the time I started playing it) notwithstanding the Grimdark aesthetic was one I could buy into.

My stumbling blocks were threefold. Firstly, by the time I got into the Vizima investigation there seemed to be a lot of going back and forth and waiting for things to happen and it all became a bit aimless. Secondly, the combat gameplay was not particularly enjoyable and this exacerbated the first problem. If you’re going to have to do some trudging it needs to be fun. Thridly, and this is the major one, I didn’t like Geralt.

That’s not to say I thought he was a bad character I just didn’t like him because of how he was presented.  This may enrage fans but I hated the voice acting. I’m not going to call it bad acting as I feel that is an accusation made far too liberally. Time and again I’ve heard people label a performance in a film or TV ‘bad acting’ when in fact it was a terrible script. The actor gets the blame for the bad line as if they were the one who wrote it. Another way in which actors get blamed unfairly is that it is sometimes the director’s fault. The actor gave the performance that was asked of them; they were merely asked for something that was bad.

As a consequence, I’m not sure the VA performance in the Witcher isn’t what the creators wanted. It seems as if there was a line about Witchers being purged of emotion and the whole performance stemmed from that. The trouble with this is that one, there is little evidence that aspect of Witchers is anything more than one of the many slanders aimed at them and two, no other Witcher in the game speaks that way. This leaves Geralt as being the sole deadened performer in the piece and comes across more as a poor-man’s Wolverine who’s been given an overdose of sedatives.

A further problem arises from this performance when it comes to the ‘Geralt as a horndog’ parts of the first game. Amorous lines delivered like that come across as skincrawlingly creepy and all the more immersion-breaking when the female characters respond favourable to it.

And so I left Geralt just as he entered the trade quarter thinking I might come back at some point but with no real enthusiasm. I could have left my journey into the world of the Witcher here but, after all, it was The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings that people were raving about not the first game. Perhaps the faults with the first game would be fixed?

The Witcher 2 is widely reckoned to be a pretty good game. There’s a story that when President Obama visited Poland he was given a copy of it as a gift. I can’t help but try to imagine him trying to play it. It’s not easy. I assume he stayed away from the brothel.

On to the second game. Some things were indeed fixed. The combat was much improved, as were the graphics. Unfortunately, the voice acting was the same and the sense of aimlessness had not been eliminated. It was not an amazing place to hang out like Skyrim and the world and relationships were not as engaging as in the Dragon Age series, a fact I found curious as by this time I was aware there were years of book lore behind it.

Once again I left Geralt, this time in the drizzle of Flotsam thinking that one day I might go back. Here my journey seemed to end and had the Witcher series only been games it may have ended indeed. During my time away, however, another Witcher game came out, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Once again, people raved but I was cautious. However good it was I still didn’t like Geralt. In the other ear, so to speak, came tales of how the books were actually really good and the kind of thing I would enjoy. Here the seeds were sown for I really thought that I ought to like the Witcher.

Time passed and I had a period where I was minded to start gaming again. The nagging thoughts about giving the Witcher series another chance bore fruit and I determined that this time I would play Witcher 2 through to the end (gameplay of Witcher 1 was still a bit offputting).

I started again rather than trying to pick up where I left off. I do this often when coming back to an RPG, I don’t like coming in late. This time the Kayran was defeated and I followed the story (beware spoilers ahead). I took Roche’s path as he seemed the more natural ally and it took me to the bleak surroundings of the Kaedweni camp. After the damp drabness of Flotsam I had hoped for a bit of light and shade but at least the story was moving now. I found out the reasons behind the curse and probably at some point around here I had become immersed. The VA was grating less, I had deliberately hung out with Zoltan and Dandelion more and Geralt had started to seem less one-note than before.

Without going into the ins and outs of every quest, I arrived in Loc Muine. This was something of a disappointment. After two cesspits I had hoped for somewhere more like some of the crags I had visited on the way to Vergen. Instead, I was in an infested ruins. Oh well, I’m invested now. Clearly I had missed a number of things along the way and this would not be my best ever play-through. Might as well see this thing out. A dragon appears controlled by Phillipa Eilhart (who is this person? I mean a sorceress, obviously, but I feel like I meant to know who she is.) Everything is a mess. Sorcerers are butchered and now Nilfgaard is coming. Bloody hell.

I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, obviously the next logical step is to immediately download The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt…

 

 

It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dull empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

loki

 

 

 

 

Interview with the author II (continued)

Here follows part 2 of 3 of our second interview with JW Whitmarsh author of Enchantress Awakening 
AwakeningcoverblueNX: Just to recap, you mentioned fan fiction, RPGs and Game of Thrones as examples of how their is an audience for adult fantasy fiction. Let’s take those in turn. How does fan fiction relate?

JW: A lot of fan fiction is based around taking characters from fantasy series which we might term PG or 12A and putting them into more adult situations. Clearly there is an appetite  for this. Let’s not forget 50 Shades of Grey started as Fan Fiction based on the Twilight series and that was consumed by how many millions? Moreover, I think writers and fans of Fan Fiction here are picking up on a certain tension within fantasy. We take these beautiful characters and put them into life-threatening and highly emotional and often very violent situations but then fade to black when it comes to them doing the most vital of acts. I don’t see it as surprising that people would want to see that side too.

NX: What’s your take on Fan Fiction in general? Writers often have mixed views.

JW: Mixed views would probably describe my position too. First of all, if you get to the point where people are writing fan fiction based on your books it’s a pretty good seal of approval. As to the the process itself, I’m kind of torn. I would always encourage people to write about what interests them but at the same time I would personally always choose to create my own world and characters as far as possible so I could have full ownership of the story.

NX: How would you feel about people setting fan fiction in your worlds?

JW: I think if you’re going to write inside someone else’s creation you need to respect the boundaries of the canonical material. First of all, you should abide by the lore. If you it says you can’t cast the same spell in succession, you don’t do that. If time travel is stated as impossible, you don’t do that.

Next and just as important is character integrity. I hate seeing adaptation on TV or film even where characters behave in a way that is completely different to how they were written.Then, I think you need to respect the plot too. You shouldn’t try to rewrite the original story into something else.

So given all that, I would define ‘good’ adaptations, spin-offs and fan fiction etc as ones that stay within the spirit of the original. Everything added is something that could have happened but we just didn’t get to see it. So if someone really wants to know what happened to two minor characters we meet along the way and that’s not a story I’m ever going to write then sure write that story if you want.

NX: Ok. I think RPGs were next.

JW: I think RPGs are a great example of how there is an appetite for adult interactions within a genre. You look at Bioware games or something like the Witcher series, they don’t shy away from the fact that the fans who explore those worlds also want to explore the relationships between their characters. People might say ‘aren’t video games for kids?’ but the Dragon Age games are all 18-rated and still sell very well. I’m not saying they sell because of the adult content, as they are great games anyway, but they recognise that romance is something that usually involves coupling at some point.

NX: Favourite Dragon Age characters?

JW: I think I’d have to have Isabela and Varric in there. I love Leliana but I actually like her interactions with the dog the best. The dog brings out the best in a lot of them. Anyway, that’s a terrible party. Can’t have three rogues.

NX: Do you think the characters in Enchantress Awakening fit into the warrior, rogue, mage dynamic?

JW: Haha. I didn’t devise them in that way. I suppose it depends how you define the classes. There’s a fair few warriors, like Penric and Ceol and mages in Caleigh, Gideon and Tovrik etc. Not so sure about rogues. Maybe Ellie.

(Interview continues with reflections on Game of Thrones and other fantasy series) >>>