The Tragedy of The Witcher 2

Spoilers for The Witcher games.

witcher

I’ve been playing through The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings very slowly over the past few weeks, and during my time playing through the game I am continually struck by how the series sets you up for a long-term tragedy around the geopolitics of the Northern Kingdoms.

The Witcher 2 gives us a world with some hope for a free state in the north. While the various already-existing kingdoms are not going to give the Upper Aedirn up without a fight (to take it over from Stennis), it really does look like it could all happen. There might be a place for some kind of weird proto-democracy to take hold, or at least for some kind of French Revolution scenario, but then the (necessary) death of Saskia and this constant betrayal of people by other people makes sure that doesn’t happen.

The Witcher 2 really is this story of watching a wave crest and fall back again. The Witcher 3 has this feeling of “personal quest” for Geralt, but it’s also this journey through the political outcomes that the previous two games have presented us with. The idea that there was something better in the world and then is slowly slid back under the pressure of violence, intimidation, and greed is so profoundly sad. More than that, the game doesn’t flag all of this. It isn’t rubbing the ordeal in your face and talking about your personal, Spec Ops failings. Instead it is merely showing a character, his (important) place in the world, and the fallout of humanity being itself. It’s better at that than any other game, for sure, and I’m very much excited for a replay of The Wild Hunt with all of the DLC.

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Mages and Murderdads – Episode 4

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Donald Trump Is Created In Postproduction

trump

I just wanted to take a minute to expand on this tweet I made the other day. It is increasingly apparent that Donald Trump does not exist on the same timescale as other people in the material world. I don’t mean that as some weird knock, I mean it in a literal way: Donald Trump as an entity exists only after postproduction through other people. Every interview, statement, or wail that comes from former friends and people who have been around him exclaim shock at his inconstancy and his inability to sustain through anything.

Everything we know about Donald Trump has been edited for our consumption through other people. The Art of the Deal was cobbled together through half truths by a ghost writer. The Donald Trump of The Apprentice was manufactured for us by the producers and story editors of that show. And now, Gawker has created its own clip format through which Donald Trump can be communicated as nonsensical.

Donald Trump’s power is that he plays to the supercut; he’s giving the editor as much B-roll as possible so that they can make it all come together in a coherent way for them. The general public is used to having to cobble together narratives for themselves, whether that’s as a standard news story (only fleshed out for the public in a combination of social media commentary, cable news, and email forwarding) or conspiratorial call to action (Hilary Clinton, George Soros, or the Koch Brothers are at it again!).

There’s a lot of energy spent calling Trump’s campaign a symptom. It’s the white working class’s dissatisfaction, or it’s a lack of excitement in politics, or it’s his constant claims to being an outsider. It also seems to me that the method he’s employing, this explosive creation of infinite footage on all possible sides of an issue, is a symptom of how we all read news (and the media more generally). We’re already used to doing the brunt of the labor to make the content of the work either fit or create friction with our media narratives. Trump’s just giving us the tools to do what we would anyway.

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Mages and Murderdads – Episodes 2 and 3

I just realized that I forgot to post these here! Mages and Murderdads is our biweekly podcast where we play through the Baldur’s Gate game series. Episode 2 sees us doing a bunch of sidequests, and Episode 3 is all about the Nashkel Mines.

 

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On Bloodborne: The Simulation and the Surrogate

on bloodborne

I.
The lore of the Soulsborne series is generally “solved” a few weeks after the release of the newest games. We end up with a vague consensus, and then there’s just the continual work of augmenting that in order to get to a “correct” interpretation. However, there’s a sedimentation effect that comes with the initial solving, and Bloodborne‘s lore seems relatively settled between the speculation of “The Paleblood Hunt” and Vaati’s explanation of the game’s lore. If you haven’t beaten the game, or you haven’t read and watched these, or you don’t want Bloodborne‘s lore spoiled for you, you should stop reading here.

II.
I have begun many experiments in the wake of my piece on Dark Souls and easy mode from a little while back. One of those was digging back into Bloodborne and beating it in cooperative play, and thanks to some really great anonymous hunters and Twitter friends, I finally completed it a week or so ago.

In that easy mode piece, part of my argument hinged on the lore. I find Bloodborne fascinating in a narrative and conceptual sense, but the act of playing it can be a real chore. I called for (and still want) an easy mode that would allow me to get the former without the friction of the latter. All of that aside, I got what I wanted–I got all that lore! Steeped in it and more than halfway through a replay, I now have Opinions About The Lore of Bloodborne (As Is My Right).

III.
The conclusion that the Vaati lore video comes to about the grand plot of Bloodborne is this: the Hunter’s Dream and the paleblood hunt that it enables is a longform method in order to facilitate you killing Mergo’s Wet Nurse to assert the dominance of the Moon Presence in some kind of cosmic game. That’s mostly fueled by the action funnel at the end of the game: when you kill the Wet Nurse, the Hunter’s Dream catches fire and Gehrman tells you that your job is over. Whatever the purpose of this iteration of the Hunter’s Dream was for, it is fulfilled, and the “dawn” ending has you coming out unscathed (the second ending has you taking over as guardian of the Hunter’s Dream, and the third has you wriggling into the position of an infant Great One. More on that in a bit.)

I think that most of that is true, and I wanted to take a few minutes here to do some speculation about a well-loved and important fulcrum of lore from the game in order to construct a different narrative about what is happening with the hunt, the Hunter’s Dream, and the relationship between the player, the Moon Presence, Mergo, and Oedon.

The Moon Presence, Oedon, and Mergo are all Great Ones. They’re Lovecraftian entities that are coextensive with the material world, the world of dreams, and the cosmos itself. They seem to have rankings in power, and they seem to have age. Much like humans, they are all unique beings, and despite all being Great Ones they are not unified in their desires.

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Oedon is the formless Great One who exists only in speech (the creator of the Caryll Runes is the only one to have contacted it) and in blood.

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Mergo is Oedon’s child that it had via impregnating Queen Yharnam, the Pthumerian Queen who can be seen after the fight with Rom and before the fight with Mergo’s Wet Nurse.

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The Moon Presence is the being that created the Hunter’s Dream and, as I will try to demonstrate, the Yharnam that we experience.

IV.
I do not believe that the Yharnam we play the game in is the Yharnam of the “waking world” that the Doll mentions so often and that we received our initial blood ministration in. While it’s pretty clear that there’s a layering and interconnectedness to the dream world that we access throughout the game, I find it really hard to accept or understand how the Yharnam that we play in could remotely be one in the material world, and it all has to do with a timeline.

It is impossible for all of the events that take place in the game to occur in the timeframe that they would have to if the Yharnam we play most of the game in is materially real. There just isn’t enough time for dungeons to be excavated, Great Ones to be talked to, Old Yharnam to be lived in and burned while the Healing Church and Byrgenwerth duke it out for methodological supremacy. Then you still have the experiments of the Choir, the complete creation of all of the grand gothic architecture in “new” Yharnam that is crafted around the Healing Church’s political supremacy, and the timeline of Old Hunters.

For some characters, like the Vilebloods and Martyr Logarius, it seems like the plot has taken hundreds of years. For others, like Father Gascoigne, it seems like a couple decades at the most.

I think that the Yharnam that we play the game in is a composite version of Yharnam created by the Moon Presence that “borrows” from the material world in the same way that the nightmare and dream world “borrows” from the dreams of characters. It seems fairly certain that the relationship the Gehrman and the Moon Presence have is based on some kind of deal around the Doll (replicating his former apprentice Maria) and the Hunter’s Dream. Yharnam is a “snapshot” of the world at the moment that deal was struck (with some augmentations since its initial creation) in the same way that the Hunter’s Dream is a “snapshot” of the Old Workshop (with some augmentations).

I think this interpretation is useful and helps smooth out some timeline problems, but it brings another question with it: why would the Moon Presence want this? We know that there have been Hunter’s Dreams in the past and that the graves that line the HD are those of previous hunters who have done the same thing the player is doing over the course of the dream. If they succeed in the mission given to them by the Moon Presence, they’re let go back into the material world; if they fail, by which we can assume they will never develop the skill to continue, they get dumped back into Yharnam (Eileen the Crow might be of this type).

The Moon Presence is running a simulation, over and over again, in order to find an agent that will kill Mergo in the “unsimulated” layer of the Nightmare of Mensis. It’s unclear what makes this time important–Mergo is the child of Queen Yharnam and Oedon hundreds or thousands of years ago. The question of Bloodborne really is “why now?” for these cosmic beings, and my assumption is centered on the School of Mensis. Only now, with the huge amount of power given over Mergo in the Nightmare of Mensis, is Mergo able to make the transition from baby Great One to a full-fledged one.

Maybe the Moon Presence is jealous. Maybe there’s only room for so many beings of this sort in the universe, and the elevation of one is a cataclysmic event for that species. It’s unclear what the reasoning behind the Moon Presence’s simulation-running is. But it’s success does have effects.

V.

Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate.

From a lore perspective, this line might do more work than any other in the game, and it’s hard to find an interpretation of the game that doesn’t build itself out from some reading of this line.

Mine is no different, but I take a less literal approach. Many interpreters of Bloodborne go to great pains to take this line as literally as possible: Mergo must have been stillborn and yet still present, the coming of the blood moon is an attempt to find a surrogate mother to either bring Mergo into the Yharnam or to create another child, and so on.

I read it a different way, and with all of the preamble I have given here, I’m just going to lay out what I think has happened over the course of the game assuming that one has used the three umbilical cords in order to create a “whole” umbilical cord that allows one to fight and defeat the Moon Presence. So here it goes.

Bygenwerth, the Healing Church, and the School of Mensis are all very deep in their respective channels of research into the Great Ones. Byrgenwerth are the stereotypes of scholars, and they’re totally enrapt in learning the Truth and growing eyes on the inside. The Healing Church is consolidating power, experimenting, and trying to manage the beast plague that they’ve accidentally seeded into their city. Neither of those organizations are paying much attention to the School of Mensis, who has not only successfully contacted an Great One in Mergo, but have partially constructed a fully-fledged research nightmare alongside a strange half-Great One in the Brain of Mensis.

During this moment of crisis, alone and replaced completely by the apparatus of the Church, Gehrman builds a doll to replace his student Maria. Using a third umbilical cord secreted away (perhaps from the corpse of Kos), he attempts to call out to an Great One to help with animating his doll into Maria. The Moon Presence hears this call, and it takes stock of the situation in Yharnam. It sees others of its species engaged in sympathetic acts, and for reasons unknown to us (and appropriately unknowable to us), it binds Gehrman in a pact. It creates its self-interested Mergo Murder Simulator, and it puts Gehrman in charge of it. By giving the old hunter exactly what he wanted, it damns him for a very, very long time (the rare voice clip from Gehrman confirms–he’s shackled to the dream).

Gehrman becomes the manager of the Yharnam simulation. He and the doll will live in the Hunter’s Dream funneling hunters toward Mergo in the hope that some hunter, at some point, will kill it.

Oedon knows that this process is happening. It knows that it will lose its child, and it knows that it will desire a surrogate. Being a Great One outside of our understanding of time and space, it sees what the Moon Presence has done in order to cut off Mergo’s sustenance from the School of Mensis. Oedon knows that it will lose its child just like all Great Ones do.

And so it creates its surrogate in the player. In a cosmic political maneuver, Oedon deploys his formless essence to create his surrogate child. The pregnancies at Oedon Chapel and Iosefka’s Clinic are not, as many have read them, yet more lost children, but rather they are means of creating more umbilical cords for the real surrogate to gain access to the power they would need in order to truly ascend.

The process of playing Bloodborne is one of playing through the Moon Presence’s simulation designed to facilitate the death of Mergo while also accumulating so much of Oedon’s essence that you become the child that Oedon wanted all along. When the Doll tells you that she can hear the ancient echoes in you, she really means that she can sense the bioaccumulation of Oedon’s essence in the player’s body. The Doll knows what is happening even if the absent Moon Presence does not.

This interpretation squares with 90% of other interpretations of the game, but this is the kind of grand, metaphysical battle that gives justification of Bloodborne‘s mechanical loop (in the same way that Dark Souls‘ Chosen Undead and the collapse of time and space justify its mechanics) and allows us to keep all of the other narrative pieces.

 

And those are my thoughts about the lore of Bloodborne.

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On Evil Dead (2013)

evil dead 1

The word of mouth that I heard about the remake / reboot of Evil Dead was that it fundamentally misunderstood the thing that made the Evil Dead trilogy so great in the first place: the comedy. There’s a zaniness to the Raimi original that brushes close to camp, slapstick comedy, and legitimately creepy horror (by the time we get to fan-favorite-for-some-reason Army of Darkness it is full-on camp mode). It’s a difficult tone to match, and the weird sing-song waffling of the trilogy suggests that it is more of a stumbled-upon alchemy than it was an exact empirical science. Still, they’re wonderful.

I agree with the general criticism that 2013’s remakeboot by Fede Alvarez misses that comedy mark and replaces it with the worst excesses of the post-Saw / post-Eli Roth horror cinema. It’s a brutal trip full of gore for gore’s sake that literally reduces the plot of the original film down to a Final Destination-esque “all these people will die horribly one-by-one” formula.

I have a fairly strong fortitude when it comes to these kinds of films–I’m not queasy or avoidant when it comes to blood and gore–but there were moments in this film where I simply had to look away. I don’t know if conjuring these images is a strength necessarily, but Alvarez certainly has the talent for it.

Yet, despite needing to look away, I found myself laughing more often than I thought I would be. This version of Evil Dead doesn’t generate comedy through traditional beats or visual gags or through showing a character falling down. It does it through a weird ironic reference to its source material. For example, there’s a scene directly riffing on the possessed hand from the original trilogy. A woman is bitten, and her hand begins to grow necrotic, shaking with the power of murder. She takes an electric carving knife to it, and sheets of blood rocket up into her face followed by some close ups (and worse) of the severed limb. When other characters come enter the room in horror, she looks at them and says that she feels much better.

And I laughed. Not at the gore, or the excess of it all, or at the (so gross) aftermath. I was laughing at the film holding the originals in stasis for a moment only to totally squander what comedy they could bring with the most brutalizing, literalized violence possible. The film generates comedy not through punchlines but through side reference to the original films; it’s a comedy of being in the know, of getting the reference, and of feeling the friction when a reference does or does not land in the way we expect it to. It’s a movie worth watching just for that quality alone.

But, as I said, it’s brutally violent and extreme, so be aware of that.

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You Buy It, I Play It: Lifeless Planet

lifeless planet

Lifeless Planet is a beautiful object.

It’s graphically “simple” in the contemporary world of both prestige and grungy independent game development. The astronaut you play as is this wonderful almost-lump that can double jump by using his astronaut jet pack (my technical lingo here is lacking). You progress through this wonderful science fiction story that has all of the elements of the most beautiful Ray Bradbury tale, and I was legitimately impressed with how the game’s simple plot beats slowly cohered into something that I was legitimately interested in. Simple science fiction always has a way of racing toward the mean of silliness, or triteness, or finger-wagging political statements, and Lifeless Planet manages to avoid all of that in order to prod at something wonderful.

At least all of this is true through how much of Lifeless Planet I managed to play. Because no matter how much I love all of those elements, they cannot carry my interest for a long time. A double jump (plus long jump, plus robotic arm) is not enough to capture me for several hours. A simple mystery, something that I could read in twenty minutes in any of those beloved Bradbury collections, isn’t enough to keep me invested over four or five hours.

I did it to myself. I played half an hour of Lifeless Planet and was so engaged that I was recommending it to people. I sold it like this: “it’s this short, tight hour-long thing that really tells this great story.” I thought for sure that I understood the structure of this thing, and I idly searched it on HowLongToBeat to make sure that I could complete it before going to sleep–if it was another 30 minutes I would attempt it, but if it was another hour I was going to wait.

Five hours. I couldn’t image how the game could sustain for that long, or worse, how my interest could hold that long. And as soon as I got to the puzzles where I might have to use a robotic arm to solve a puzzle, I put the game down. The proliferation of mechanics, scenarios, and plot grandeur filled me full of dread. I put it down.

The difference between today and the game’s release window in 2011 is that today that kind of game is not only possible but existing everywhere. The “vignette game” (as Nina Freeman calls them) has proceeded from periphery to full genre, and we’re better for it. Lifeless Planet could be this amazing hour experience where a player wakes up, finds an abandoned town, and then travels deep into the planet for plot revelations.

But instead, in the interest of the general ideas of what a game is meant to be, Lifeless Planet stretches, adds mechanics, escalates the plot, and generally just continues. And I’m sure that’s great for some, but something I increasingly value in games is tightness, a kind of strict coherence, and the languid proliferation of Lifeless Planet goes the other way.

Speculative theory: a world where we could take the elements of a game and reorient them to make fan cuts in the same way that films can be recut toward different ends.

Thanks to Sparky Clarkson for purchasing this game for me literal years ago. You can read more in the You Buy It, I Play It series here. You can support this site and the work that I do here.

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