Thursday, October 8, 2015

The dangers of selective reading

Even if I don't get around to responding to everyone's comments, I always appreciate your feedback. Though I didn't know it until today, one of my (former?) readers even went so far as to write a whole article on his own blog in response to my Independence Day column on English liberty. I think the fact that his headline is "'Traditional' Catholic advocates mass murder of whites" is proof enough of the dangers of selective reading. I now know how popes feel when their words are taken wildly out of context.

Among other points to be made, the fact that I'm as "white" (Anglo-American, to be specific) as anything else would suggest that, if Hoffman had read my thought correctly, I'd be advocating for my own death.... and suicide, as Catholics know, is a mortal sin. Perhaps, if he had paid closer attention to the greater context, he would know that what I was expressing was my bewilderment at the patience and docility of the black American community to blatant injustices during the 1950's.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Friday, September 4, 2015

The problem of "humility"

On the left is a "simple oak chair built by immigrant laborers and devoid of the ornate trappings of power" made for Pope Francis to sit on when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden, New York during the upcoming papal visit to the United States. Sounds like a wonderful gesture of solidarity for a "people's pope", no?

On the right is a splendid Gothic revival chair crafted for Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States in 1999 by an American master woodcarver.

My friend Jacob, a woodcarver who makes furniture for Catholic churches, was taught his craft by the gentleman who made the chair on the right. His former teacher had to give up his trade in St. Louis, Missouri and move to California because there wasn't enough demand in the Church for his work. He now carves ornate cabinets and furniture for the wealthy, mainly for private homes, never to be seen or enjoyed by the general public.

The fact that we deride beauty as vain or wasteful is one of many cancers in our church and society. By insisting upon plain, "humble" furnishings for our churches in the prosperous first world, on the contrary, we make a show of false humility, prideful in our shabbiness like a well-to-do family man who calls himself "middle class" for wearing board shorts to work and then frowns on a poorer man for wearing a suit.

As Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey said when his heir was thinking of firing his valet in the name of living a simpler life: "We all have our parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Gotham's reckoning: Bane, Burke, and the French Revolution

Last month, I managed to nab the Dark Knight Trilogy "Ultimate Collector's Edition" Blu-ray set for a steal: lightly used for $35. I introduced my mother-in-law to the series, who hadn't seen anything Batman-related since the Adam West days, and had a blast all over again.

Those of you who've been around my blog since the beginning recall that my very first post was about Batman's themes, especially in response to The Dark Knight Rises's release in 2012. This latest reviewing took me back to that first experience of the film, a 3:30am opening night premiere at the largest IMAX theater in the region. The first scene: America's dumbest CIA agent loads a nuclear physicist and three terrorists, tied up with bags on their heads, onto a plane without bothering to look at their faces. As the plane is in mid-flight over the gorgeous Scottish highlands, the agent interrogates one of the men about their leader's plans. Even before he lifts the bag off the guy's head, we hear that voice. Where every other actor's speech was piped in left or right of the screen, corresponding to where they were standing in the shot, the mesmerizing voice of Tom Hardy's Bane seemed to emanate not from any conventional speaker, but from the floor itself, penetrating your brain until all you could think about was "the fire rises!"

Like any good Bat-fanatic, I ended up watching The Dark Knight Rises twice over in other theaters, but neither establishment's sound system gave the Bane voice the justice it got when I heard it the first time around. I have a friend who even refuses to watch the movie in part because he thought the voice sounded so silly and unthreatening... tragic, because Hardy's Bane manages to match the nigh-impossible feat of outdoing Heath Ledger's Joker as one of the most brilliant, terrifying, visceral villains to ever hit the silver screen. For the Modern Medievalist, it's not just the bone-crunching, death-dealing carnage Bane channels into every punch that makes him the icon of terror; for in the real world, a well-placed bullet stops a strong man just as quickly as a weak one. It's not even the possibility of Bane destroying civilization; the Joker sought to sow chaos and total anarchy throughout Gotham's streets, but for all his cleverness, I doubt Nolan's take on the clown prince of crime could sustain a perpetual cycle of madness over an entire city. The institutions of man (if not the police, then federal or military intervention) would eventually take someone like the Joker down with or without the Batman's help.

Bane stands apart because, where the Joker is content to rob a few banks and burn his pile of money to ash, Bane pulls a heist on Wall Street itself (or whatever Gotham's equivalent is called) and harnesses the entire Wayne fortune for his own ends. While Bane certainly doesn't have faith in the power of money or law and order, he doesn't just smash them (until the end, of course)--he rebuilds them in his own image and convinces an entire city to actually buy the deal. The Joker offered no pretense of hope, forcing society to take extreme measures against him if Batman failed. Bane brings about a worse evil: he strings people along with false doctrine and hope, both in Gotham and the prison whence he came, like a carrot at the end of a stick to corrupt and torment their souls.

Gotham: a microcosm of history

In the sewer under Wayne's armory, Bane exclaims, "I am here to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny!" As new head of the League of Shadows, he ties the trilogy together to an overarching plot which was neglected in the second film, The Dark Knight. In Batman Begins, Ra's explains that his league's mission was to restore balance to civilization:
"Gotham's time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham... must be destroyed."

As in the general course of history, the city of Gotham has had its periods of growth and decline, order and decadence, reaction and revolution. We know from Batman's comics canon that in its early years, the Wayne family, through successive generations of wealthy business owners and philanthropists, guided the city of Gotham to prosperity as a modern metropolis. Like the Medici of medieval and Renaissance Florence, the Waynes rarely held political office, but were always in the background, pulling the strings to secure the city's growth. At the opening of Batman Begins, during Bruce's boyhood, his parents help the city get through a recession by engaging in public works like the building of the monorail until their senseless murder by a lowlife. Ra's eventually reveals that the economic depression of Bruce's youth was actually engineered by the League to bring Gotham down from its apex of decadence and corruption, perhaps like the Protestant Reformers' whirlwind against the statues and shrines of the Renaissance Church. But the League's measures to destroy the city, which spurred scumbags like Joe Chill to hold the Waynes up for their money in an alley behind the opera house, also sewed the seeds for reaction: for a son to dedicate his life to ensuring his fate wouldn't be shared by anyone else in Gotham again--taking up the mantle of the Batman.

"Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham's citizens... such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself... and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice... you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart."

The Dark Knight opens with a Gotham City in which Bruce's crusade against crime has been ongoing for several years. Ra's al Ghul has been defeated, the last dregs of the breakout at Arkham Asylum have been cleaned up, and gangsters flee when the Batman's signal floods the night sky. The mob, pushed to desperation as their cash reserves disappear before their eyes, turn to an "expert" to exterminate their hated foe once and for all: the Joker. As Harvey Dent says, "the night is darkest just before the dawn". Things must get worse before they get better.... and man, do they get worse. We never actually see that dawn Harvey alluded to until The Dark Knight Rises, which reveals that the framing of Batman for Dent's death bought a tenuous peace: outrage over the law's ineffectiveness empowered the government to pass the Dent Act, strengthening the police and denying parole for any of the hundreds of mobsters arrested by Dent's prosecution in the events of The Dark Knight for over eight years running. In a moment alone with Gordon, Officer Blake jokes that they'll soon have nothing left to do but chase down overdue library books. Little did they know that the security bought by the Dent Act was merely an armistice preceding the gathering storm of Bane's revolution.

The history of Europe, too, has its counterpart to Gotham's Dent Act. I earlier compared the League of Shadows and its rejection of both the corruption of Gotham and the benevolence of the Waynes to the Protestant Reformation. The challenge of the Luther, Calvin, and their thugs were eventually met in Rome by the Counter-Reformation. The popes put their building projects and nepotism aside (more or less) to convene the Council of Trent, reinforcing the Church's doctrine and institutions, matching the Luthers and Calvins of the north blow for blow with an army of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. The war of priests and preachers gave way, soon enough, to armies of soldiers and mercenaries, as religious tensions flared to intermittent warfare between Protestant and Catholic for nearly a hundred years: the Pilgrimage of Grace, the French Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years' War. In 1648, after German soil had been watered with the blood of more than 8 million dead, the kings and princes of Europe established the Peace of Westphalia. Its term established that territorial boundaries (lines on a map, if you will) were to be respected. Religious policies were to be determined by the maxim cuius regio, eius religio: whatever the faith of the local king or prince would be the established religion of that country, though minorities would be permitted to practice their faith privately at home or publicly within designated times and places. The pope and the leading Protestant figures both found anything less than total victory unacceptable, but the Westphalian system ultimately prevailed until, at least, the onset of the French Revolution.

Gotham is yours: Bane's Revolution

I hope it's understood that in no way did I mean to suggest that Nolan, Goyer et al. ever consciously thought to mirror the history of Gotham after western Europe's march to modernity... with one critical exception. Bane's takeover of the city was explicitly inspired by the French Revolution, and in particular, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. This is, after all, the book Commissioner Gordon reads from at the end of The Dark Knight Rises during Bruce's "funeral" (the Penguin Classics edition, to be precise!). Though, instead of the more oft-cited beginning, he reads snippets from the end:

"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss... I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy... I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence... It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

These are the last words of Sydney Carton, the alcoholic Englishman who, in his moment of redemption, switches places with Charles Darnay before the guillotine during the reign of terror in Paris. So much here can be said about Bruce Wayne's journey to martyrdom for the sake of his city; his "fiefdom", if you will; but we're here today, rather, to talk about Bane. Though Nolan's interpretation of this villain differs dramatically in details from the original comics' version, their essences are the same. First gracing the pages of DC Comics in 1993, Bane grew up since early childhood within the prison of a small, fictional Latin American banana republic to serve the life sentence issued to his father, a failed revolutionary who fled and escaped the government's "justice". Possessed with great strength, an incredible intellect (augmented by lessons in Latin and the liberal arts from an old Jesuit priest, a la The Count of Monte Cristo), and the bloodthirsty streak you'd expect from someone who grew up knowing no other way of life, Bane was chosen by his wardens as a test subject for a super-soldier serum being developed by the government. Naturally, once Bane acquired superhuman strength thanks to the drug known as Venom, he disregarded his former masters, busted out with his bare hands, and became an assassin. He makes his way to Gotham City, where, after being one of the only villains to deduce Batman's identity, his master plan to take over the city culminates with his breaking Batman's back against his raised knee.

Nolan's Bane, of course, ditches the lucha libre mask and the other fantastical aspects of his character in order to fit in with the Nolan vision of "heightened reality", but the most important characteristics remain: namely, that Bane is both physically and intellectually a match for Batman. Bane's nationality and even the prison he comes from is made more abstract for the film, with the added flourish of a background with the League of Shadows. (In the comics, however, Bane does eventually encounter Ra's al Ghul and eventually impresses him to the point where Ra's names him heir to the League and proposes that he marry Ra's daughter, Talia.) The greatest difference of any real distinction for us between comic and film is not how much muscle mass Bane has, but the villain's motivations. In 1993, Bane had grown obsessed with stories of Batman even while still in prison and dedicated himself to "breaking the Bat" simply to prove that he could. After realizing his goal, Bane was content to bask in a luxury penthouse over Gotham's skyline with a pile of riches and dominance over the criminal underworld.

For the film, it just wouldn't do for Bane to have such a mundane goal in mind. No, he was given the unenviable task of outdoing even Ledger's Joker in sheer terror. The Bane of 2012 had to be an idealist. Though his true purpose is to instill total despair and destruction, Bane finds it convenient to play the part of the demagogue to further his plan. He is no sans-culotte himself, but finds it easy to harness the rage of a million Madame Defarges against everything Bruce Wayne represents in Gotham: power, privilege, and wealth. He gives his call to arms on live television before the doors of Blackgate prison as though it were the Bastille: rightly or wrongly a symbol of the old regime's power to crush dissent.

"We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you... the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please. Start by storming Blackgate, and freeing the oppressed! Step forward those who would serve. For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city... it will endure. Gotham will survive!"

Bane harnesses the mob's anger for his own ends, but he doesn't actually believe in the rhetoric himself. On a personal level, every murder and execution Bane commits is cool, rational, and directed toward a higher purpose. Bane's last words to Dr. Pavel before snapping his neck are "thank you, doctor". The last thing Daggett, too, hears before dying at Bane's cusped, reassuring hand is "I'm necessary evil." He's not so well compared to the angry Madame Defarge or "The Vengeance" as he is to Maximilien Robespierre. Lest you think it's a stretch, I point out that the design of Bane's overcoat was a deliberate reference. Costume designer Lindy Hemming said:
"Chris Nolan thought there was an element about Bane that was of the French Revolution. There was kind of a romanticism about him, as well as being very bad. So I tried to combine the jacket with a French Revolutionary-style high-standing collar, which goes up and then comes back down."

Now, it might seem strange to us, but the Terror's most infamous character was a man devoted to principles and was always squeamish about death and war. Earlier in his life, Robespierre resigned from a plum position he was given as a judge because he disapproved of having to sentence men to capital punishment. He opposed his fellow Jacobins who wanted to export the Revolution abroad by going to war against Austria. He even put his money where his mouth was on social equality by totally abolishing slavery in both France itself and all her colonies. So, what on earth happened in 1792-1794?

The short version is that, when King Louis XVI was put on trial for treason after attempting to flee the country, Robespierre came to the conclusion that "desperate times called for desperate measures": in order for the new Republic to live, the king had to die, despite Robespierre's personal opposition to the death penalty... or, as Bane put it, it was necessary evil. In turn, by 1793, he concluded that a reign of terror had to be applied to preserve the common good and save the Revolution from being reversed by its enemies. Indeed, properly applied, terror was merely the fast-tracked application of justice. It was never anything personal against those doomed to die. In his own words:
"Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."

Of course, a strong parallel can also be drawn from Robespierre and the Terror to Ra's al Ghul and any one of his plots to purge civilization of corruption, both in Batman Begins and in his various comic incarnations. Bane meant it when he said, "I am the League of Shadows! I'm here to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny!"

Batman: the Burkean hero

Many of my, err, left-leaning friends like to characterize the Batman as a fascist who keeps the people of Gotham down by perpetuating a broken system: criminals break out of Arkham, and all Batman does is throw them back in the revolving door, only to break out and kill a dozen more victims, making a mockery of the Dark Knight's rigid adherence to his no-killing rule. This is ultimately the Bat falling afoul of bad writers or, perhaps, the nature of comics themselves. To keep a continuity running for years or decades, the villains have to break out of prison over and over again so that DC can sell more stories and more comics. The Nolan films, on the other hand, are safely in the confines of a defined story arc. Batman doesn't feel the need to save Ra's al Ghul a second time, when the monorail careens into the parking garage in front of Wayne Tower at the end of Batman Begins. Once the Joker is in custody at the end of The Dark Knight, he (presumably) has never been able to bust out ever since.

In the hands of a good writer, Batman isn't a useful idiot for a broken legal system. He respects the rule of law in general, but has no qualm with acting above the law when it falls short; whether it's running a few red lights during a high-speed chase in the Batmobile, or attacking cops when they get in his way of acting for the greater good. As Bruce Wayne, the unofficial prince of Gotham, he'll also use his influence behind the scenes to get worthy men in political office, find jobs for the able-bodied, and give charity to the not-so-able. If Bane is Robespierre, Batman is Edmund Burke.

Burke was a member of the House of Commons in Britain during the French Revolution. In 1790, though he was a Whig (the liberal party at that time), Burke came out with a scathing attack, Reflections on the Revolution in France:
"What sort of a thing must be a nation of gross, stupid, ferocious, and at the same time, poor and sordid barbarians, destitute of religion, honor, or manly pride, possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter? I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal."

Of the British system, by contrast, with its tradition of common law and gradual evolution, he wrote:
"Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete."

Although we now see Regency Britain as an avowed enemy of the French Revolution, it's important to point out that Burke's fellows in the Whig Party were rather supportive of the Revolution at first. Burke came out with his Reflections even before the execution of the King and Queen, the Reign of Terror, the massacre of the Vendee, and the foreign wars. The Tories, meanwhile, didn't wholly trust Burke, either because earlier in his career, Burke supported the American side of their revolution in the colonies, emancipation and civil liberties for Catholics, and spent years trying to get the Governor-General of India impeached for judicial murder and other crimes during his colonial administration. His unpopularity among both parties for seemingly contradictory views caused him to resign from Parliament. As there's no greater praise to be had on earth than the ire of Karl Marx, it's worth citing the communist author's feelings about Burke's loyalty to his conscience over party lines:
"The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois. 'The laws of commerce are the laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.' No wonder that, true to the laws of God and Nature, he always sold himself in the best market."

One can easily imagine Edmund Burke at the charity gala early in The Dark Knight Rises, scoffing with Bruce at the luxurious assortment of food on the table while the city suffers. Nonetheless, being born in the Regency Room or driving to the party in a Lamborghini isn't the evil. The sin is in refusing to fulfill the responsibilities attached to power and privilege: using your gifts and virtue to better your fellow man. Noblesse oblige.

When the screen goes to black and the credits roll, the average moviegoer walks away with the lesson that Batman became a hero for sacrificing his name, fortune, body, and his whole life for the sake of his city. And while that's all true, the casual viewer might miss a greater significance: that Batman also inspired ordinary men to be heroes with him. The best counter to Bane and the League of Shadows's designs is not anarchy or even enlightened despotism under Batman's mailed fist, but the co-operation of virtuous men. Good government. Civilization.

At the final film's climax, Batman has finally regained the trust of law and order. Captain Foley, who has spent Bane's revolution hiding behind his wife at their townhouse, wakes up from complacency and leads the Gotham police, clad in full dress, in a march toward Bane's heavy guns and certain death, all to give Batman a chance to strike. He gets mowed down by a Tumbler in the execution of his office, sprawled over the pavement with all the symbols and badges of his station like a fallen soldier in a romantic painting looking back to the Napoleonic wars. Batman hasn't destroyed a corrupt government. He's restored faith in good government and redeemed the western civilization that the League sought to overthrow. In death, Captain Foley realizes Burke's unheeded lesson on unchecked evils such as those which arose in France, which is often misquoted as "evil triumphs when good men do nothing" but remains substantially true below:
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Pugin brothers: Saint Mary's, Warrington

I'm jealous of a friend of mine, a seminarian of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, who lately had the opportunity to visit that Fraternity's latest acquisition: a splendid Gothic revival church in Cheshire (the archdiocese of Liverpool): the church of Saint Mary's, Warrington. The church was built by the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey beginning in 1875, which they managed to operate continuously all the way up to 2012! The church was designed by Edward Welby Pugin, Augustus's oldest son and successor to the business. Unfortunately, Edward died shortly after breaking ground (at 41, just one year longer than his father), but his younger brother, Peter Paul Pugin, assumed the project and took it to completion in 1877.

Here are some pictures my friend took. You'll see that Edward's style gradually diverged from Augustus's, particularly after 1859. Augustus's churches were usually of "country parish" proportions with very deep and narrow chancels, while Edward eventually addressed some of Cardinal Newman's criticisms against his father's work and brought the Gothic revival in line with "Tridentine" norms: smaller chancels, wider altars, and no rood screens to obscure the people's view of the high altar, to name a few. At the same time, Edward greatly enhanced the "vertical" aspect so that, in true Gothic style, even a common city parish was sure to make you feel like an ant inside it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

If you're not a gamer, you'll wish you were -- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review

“Lesser, greater, middling, it's all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I'm not a pious hermit, I haven't done only good in my life. But if I'm to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”
― Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish (1993)

In May, I finally got my hands on a game I so eagerly anticipated that I had reserved the collector's boxset edition 11 months in advance of its release (see my post on unboxing that set here). At last, 200 logged hours and a small mountain of tin soda cans later, the credits rolled and I set down the final chapter of Geralt of Rivia's tale in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There are two ways for me to recount my experience. The short version is where I tell you that, in the course of the story, I accidentally unleashed a bubonic plague upon the peasantry, purposefully threw a baby in an oven and locked the door, spent about 15 minutes leading a goat back to its owner with a handbell, helped a warrior get over his fear of his own father by wandering through a dark cavern with him under the influence of shrooms, and caved an ancient elf-lord's head into his torso with a mace the size of a small tree. I tell you it's one of the best games ever made, you dismiss me as a psychopath and never visit my page again. Or, if you have the patience for it, you can read the long version.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the last installment in a series of open-world role-playing games based upon dark fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and a heap of Slavic folklore. Most people, including many hardcore gamers, have never heard of it. Those who have will think it's either "that game my PC will never be able to run", "the Skyrim knockoff", or perhaps "that racist, sexist game where everyone is white". I prefer to call it instead: "the game that will make non-gamers wish they were".

The hero 


 Introducing Geralt of Rivia

You play as Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher": a monster slayer who wanders the world in search of beasts and ghosts who haunt the realms of men, and villagers who are willing to pay hard coin for a professional to exterminate them. He is at once hunter, investigator of the paranormal, and (when the circumstances allow) a lifter of curses. As with the other members of his guild, Geralt has trained in the arts of swordsmanship from childhood and subjected to genetic mutation to enhance his reflexes and senses just enough to be regarded as a freak and outcast from the rest of society, but not enough to actually be superhuman. But, as much as common folk may revile them, the witchers are oft-enough the only ones standing between the people of a remote village and their total extinction at the hands of a werewolf prowling the woods at night, or worse. In short, imagine a medieval Batman meets John Constantine from Hellblazer.

Geralt is controlled from a third-person camera so you can admire his ugly mug and pirouettes during fights. The bread-and-butter of fighting will always be your two swords (a steel blade for humans, and a silver one for monsters), but Geralt's arsenal also includes a whole system of herb-gathering and alchemy to create potions, oils, and bombs. There are also five basic magical spells that won't win the battle for you, but can give you a slight edge such as blasting foes back with telekinetic force, launching a wave of fire, or muddling an enemy's mind to fight on your side for a time. That last one can also be used in some conversations as a sort of Jedi mind trick to get people to see your way; just be careful when using it among groups of people, or the guy's friends might catch on that you're using a hex on him and try to snap him out of it. New to The Witcher 3 is a mini-crossbow, especially helpful for bringing flying enemies such as harpies and griffins down to your level, though you do get chided by fellow witchers for such an anti-traditional armament.

Unlike most RPG's, you don't create your own character here. While you get to make moral choices galore throughout the adventure, this is definitely a "Geralt simulator": you spend the vast majority of the game controlling one pre-defined character whose history spans not only the past two games, but two short story collections and six novels. Just as you can't make Batman kill someone in the Arkham Asylum games, you can't make Geralt gay or adopt the persona of an aristocrat. Cosmetic changes are limited to armor pieces (which are actually quite diverse) and an array of hairstyles and beards. Within the reasonable confines of the character, though, The Witcher 3 gives the player a freedom to act and explore that has never before been seen in the history of the video game medium.

Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon was as central a character as Geralt in the books, but The Witcher 3 marks her first game appearance. She's also playable in several sequences, and is just as fun.

The story begins with the hero in search of his lover and his adoptive daughter, Ciri, from the books. While The Witcher 2's plot grew into the political like a spider web of schemes and double-deals in the council halls of kings, this game's quest remains entirely personal throughout. Yes, you'll run into King Radovid from the past two titles and Emperor Emhyr (voiced in the English version by Charles Dance and, as you can imagine, sounding more-or-less exactly like his character Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones), and you can choose to embroil yourself neck-deep in their machinations; but the core always remains the search for Ciri, delivering her from the clutches of the spectral cavalcade known as the Wild Hunt. (I have an entire post on the folklore phenomenon of the Wild Hunt here.) You're not here to save the world: just to stitch some semblance of a family together and make a living, wandering from town to town along the way.

The world

The debut gameplay trailer

You start the tutorial in the ancient witchers' fortress of Kaer Morhen (a stunning recreation of the first area of the first Witcher game) via a flashback to Geralt and Ciri's past, but soon you wake up in the open world. In truth, the game starts you off in a village called White Orchard and its surrounding environs. It's big enough to think you're already in the open world, but White Orchard is actually just a primer region to help you get familiar with the game's mechanics until it ejects you into No Man's Land, a swampland fiefdom on the edges of Temeria, ravaged by war and famine. Unlike Skyrim's single map, The Witcher 3 spans across not only No Man's Land, but the two cities of Oxenfurt and Novigrad (on the same map), and the isles of Skellige on another map, which is accessible later in the story. Together, the two maps form a whopping 52 square miles of explorable territory; Skyrim was only 15. It's a good thing CD Projekt now gives us a horse to ride across the world in, or else we'd be walking forever.

Of course, size isn't everything, but The Witcher 3's world also matches quantity with quality through an inexhaustible number of fully-fleshed side quests strewn about every crook and nanny of the world. This is a world which doesn't revolve around the protagonist's existence. People have everyday problems as simple as an old lady asking you to find her frying pan, to deciding whether or not to intervene when you see a gang of peasants descending upon a lone enemy soldier lost on the road. Hayden Dingman's review on PC World described the last one as such:
Early on I was riding my horse down the road—flanked on both sides by hanged corpses—when I came across a group of angry peasants surrounding a lone soldier, part of an invading force. The peasants insisted the foreigner be lynched. I told them to back off. The peasants attacked. I killed them all.

“Thanks so much,” said the soldier. “So lucky you stopped by.”

“If I hadn’t stopped, only one man would’ve died here today,” said Geralt.

And I felt bad. So bad that I succumbed to the perennial video game advantage—I reloaded. This time I let the soldier die. When the peasants walked away, there was one more corpse hanging by the side of the road. I looted the soldier, only to find a letter from his wife desperately begging him to come home.

I reloaded again. I killed the peasants.

Hanged Man's Tree
Aside from the dozens upon dozens of such encounters (which, even after 200 hours of play, I still have over 10 left undone according to my strategy guide), there are something like 26 monster contracts, not counting DLC's, which all build upon a basic but nonetheless entirely satisfying formula:

1.) Learn about a monster terrorizing some locals via a notice board or talking to an NPC in person;
2.) (optional) Haggle with a contract giver for a higher reward
3.) Conduct an investigation to learn about the monster and its weaknesses by questioning any witnesses
4.) Explore the wilderness by using your heightened "witcher senses" (like Batman's detective vision in the Arkham games) to look for clues
5.) Prepare for, and kill the monster in a mini-boss battle
6.) Return to quest-giver to collect reward

Just a few examples of monsters: 

-rock trolls
-noonwraiths (the ghosts of women who die violently right before their weddings and only appear when the sun is at its zenith in the sky)
-hyms (vengeful specters who only haunt those guilty of grievous sins, slowly sapping their strength)
-leshens (woodland spirits who control the trees and animals, and often use their powers to demand gifts and worship from local villagers as gods) 

There's also a high chance that there's a "twist" to any contract if you look hard enough, such as that the monster was of the villager's own creation through cursing or wickedness. One of the recurring themes of the entire Witcher saga, after all, is that sometimes the worst monsters are the ones in human skin. Most importantly, even these contracts serve a greater purpose to the story of The Witcher. Here, Geralt is plying his trade, like a traveling cobbler, thatcher, or actor might for their daily bread. You need money to buy better armor, weaponry, or crafting supplies if you want to have a decent chance of taking on the Wild Hunt, and the game's economy is designed so that your hero mostly reflects Geralt in the books: always broke and on the road to find another monster to kill, and another paycheck. 

Geralt does battle with a griffin
Throw in the main quest for Ciri which spans three acts, treasure hunts, side activities like horse-racing and fistfighting tournaments, and the surprisingly entertaining trading card mini-game called Gwent (yes, strange as it sounds, The Witcher now has its own, more fun version of Pokemon or Yu-gi-Oh), and you could easily put one or two hundred hours into it yourself before the end. To top it all off, CD Projekt has been constantly releasing free DLC from release even up to now. While they're small additions, to be sure; a spiffy new armor set here, a monster contract there; CD Projekt has demonstrated their commitment to rewarding their customers with new content without nickel-and-diming them for each new thing, not to mention the constant updates to fix the bugs which are inevitable in any game of this scope. 

The visuals

NVIDIA Gameworks features
Oh, by the way, while the graphics are the least of The Witcher 3's achievements, it does happen to also be the best-looking RPG ever made. As with past titles, the flagship platform is the Windows PC version, which can take full advantage of a PC's superior hardware if your system specs are up to snuff: drawing distance that lets you spot trees from miles away, ambient occlusion draping interiors and objects shielded from the sun with lifelike shadows, dazzling flora and fauna populating every bit of wilderness, and, if you have an nVidia graphics card, you can turn on "HairWorks", which simulates realistic hair animation on both man and beast. The sun even rises earlier in the morning the further north you travel on the map!

Unless you already play a lot of recent, high-end PC games, your computer is unlikely to run The Witcher 3 on settings that do the game justice (if at all), but the good news is that you can also get the game on Xbox One and Playstation 4. I haven't tried the console versions out myself, but I know that most players have, and according to all reviews I've read, both next-gen consoles run the game at a respectable level of graphic detail that still knocks just about every other game on the market out of the ballpark. Oh, and you can, in fact, use both Xbox (360 and One) and PS4 controllers with the PC version. Though the keyboard and mouse is stronger for navigating the interface and general exploration, the gamepad is a better match when it comes to actually swinging your sword and dodging about.

A panorama of the Free City of Novigrad, the largest, most densely populated and believable medievalesque city ever rendered in a game.

If making the most beautiful RPG in existence is the least of The Witcher 3's accomplishments, then what's the greatest?


 The game's outstanding, orchestral main theme

Quite simply this: that The Witcher 3 raises the entire gaming industry's bar to a new standard for content and storytelling that hasn't been seen since the original Deus Ex back in 2000. The only way I can explain is by way of a short spoiler. Early in the game, Ciri's trail leads you to a man called the Bloody Baron, the self-appointed warlord of No Man's Land. A common-born deserter from a defeated army and a brute whose beard, you can only imagine, is matted with bread crumbs and vodka, the Baron demands your help in finding his lost wife and daughter in exchange for information on Ciri's whereabouts. As you investigate his manor, you see all the signs of domestic abuse: broken furniture, poorly concealed holes in the wall, signs of a miscarriage, and in the basement, a written prayer from the Baron's daughter, Tamara, asking the Eternal Fire to strike her own father dead. It becomes clear that the Baron's family had enough of his drinking and left him of their own accord in the night.

The Bloody Baron: deserter, warlord, drunkard... and concerned father
Before you draw your sword and go full Punisher on the man, though, you learn the Baron's side of the story. You even get to play as Ciri (in the first of several sequences throughout the game) in a flashback where the Baron shows his fatherly side, taking her in to the manor as one of his own until she's restored to health. Where there was once a savage warlord, we now see a man with serious character flaws, yet stands as a gentleman compared to the motley rabble of plunderers and rapists he tenuously commands. A man who, in true Slavic spirit, was born on the wrong side of the bed... but yet, like Dmitri in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, though his veins run with vodka, they sustain a heart beating with compassion in the darkest hours. I won't spoil the story any further; it suffices only to say that this questline was the single most gut-wrenching experience I've ever had in a game.

The Witcher 3 isn't perfect. There are still, at the time of this post, some annoying bugs that haven't been patched out. Combat on horseback is very frustrating and not really worth trying. For veteran players, you can import a save file from The Witcher 2, but most of your decisions in the end of the second game don't have any effect on the third's story. BioWare RPG's like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty good about at least giving the illusion that your choices from past games affect the state of the world, but it seems that CD Projekt didn't try very hard here. And, there's one important quest toward the very end of the story whose conclusion makes no sense to me and smacks of "we ran out of time, so let's just end it like this". Other flaws ultimately reveal the shortcomings of the open world game in general. Yes, there's a washerwoman NPC who looks like six or seven other peasant wenches elsewhere in the game, but the only reason we notice is because The Witcher 3 achieves excellence in so many other aspects that the small things start to stand out. Those on the Internet who call CD Projekt "lazy copy-pasting devs" for recycling assets in a game this enormous are like people taking down Michelangelo because the sybils on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are built a little too much like men.

For the rest of us who can take a few paces back and look at the whole canvas, we see a game that, as the Dark Knight trilogy did for the superhero movie, takes the player away from the fact that it's just a game. The Witcher 3, in transcending the limits of the medium, raises the bar for the next generation of games. It tells other developers: you can do better than throw in 85% filler and just a little bit of real content and call it an open world game. You don't have to insult your fanbase by charging $5 a pop for horse armor. You can have great gameplay, great story, and great visuals (and a little humor) all at the same time without having to budget for a thousand programmers.

Is this game for me?


An introduction to the Witcher's world

Does the sound of adventure as an itinerant monster slayer in a pulpy fantasy universe where elves and dwarves are persecuted minorities living in human cities, fairy tales can be true but are usually the darker version of the story, and where you'll rarely be able to save everyone in any given crisis situation sound appealing to you? If so, and you're not a kid or would be forced to play this game in the presence of children, then yes, this might be the one for you.

As I said earlier, The Witcher 3 is the game that non-gamers will want to start playing. Does it mean that you need to start with The Witcher 1 and 2 first? Although there's definitely a lot of payoff for doing so, at least half of everyone who bought The Witcher 3 came in with no prior exposure to the franchise. The first Witcher game, in particular, is extremely unforgiving to people who haven't grown up playing computer RPG's. My suggestion for newcomers is to go ahead and start The Witcher 3, but be sure to read all the material that comes with the game packaging and pay close attention to the dialogue and books you can pick up in-game. If you're at all a literary type (and you probably are if you're even reading my blog in the first place), do order a copy of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish, the first short story collection featuring Geralt of Rivia, and read it as you play.

I suppose we have five more years until I can officially call it, but unless something truly phenomenal appears on the horizon, I'm betting The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will not only be Game of the Year, it'll deserve the title Game of the Decade... and, despite all the time I've put into it, I can't help but want to play it all over again.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The king of the jungle

The Internet outrage factory is once again in full swing. The unlucky lottery winner this week: Walter J. Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who paid a pretty penny to go on a lion-hunting safari in Zimbabwe and ended up killing the subject of a University of Oxford study by the name of Cecil. Two Zimbabweans, whose names only matter as much to us as Cecil's did to the Zimbabweans, led the lion out of Hwange National Park by loading a dead animal onto the back of a truck, whereupon Palmer shot the lion with a crossbow. Cecil escaped and limped on for another 40 hours until his hunters finally caught up with him and shot him dead. In typical white-guilt fashion, the Rhodesians are of no account, but Palmer has already had people here in the States swamp him with death threats, personal house calls, and have flooded his practice's Yelp page with bad reviews. 

Though these keyboard warriors' stirrings of rage are certainly misplaced, some conservatives and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to play the caricature: if liberals are mad about something, it must be good. I came across the following comment by a fellow traditionalist earlier today, for instance:
"Funny how liberals and the population at large throw themselves into such a tizzy over THIS, a stupid irrational animal being killed by some guy. But the murder of 1.5 million human babies per year in this country, by their own friggon mothers, does not move them.

"I'm fairly certain that hunting for sport has been a hobby of the wealthy for centuries. Weren't there many kings who hunted for fun? And I seem to recall during the colonial era, privileged men paid big money then for the opportunity to hunt exotic big game.

"Another element of traditional life being deplored by libs I say!"

But a greater evil, such as rampant abortion in this country and elsewhere, doesn't make a lesser one, such as poaching exotic animals, now good. In any case, the Modern Medievalist points out that poaching was once punishable by death, or worse; Richard the Lionheart's Assize of 1198 threatened deer-hunters with blinding and castration. The Norman kings' draconian game laws were reviled by the commons because they reserved hunting in the royal forests to the king alone, or his tenants by permission. Deforestation, or even the cutting of individual tree-branches were also subject to harsh penalties. Though the bottom line, as with most other things in this world, was about the vast sums of money that the royal treasury could collect with these laws, there is nonetheless a conservationist streak to their logic. So the court said:
"The king's forest is a safe abode for wild animals, not of every sort, but of the kind that lives in woodland and not everywhere but only in suitable places... in the wooded counties, where wild beasts have their lairs and abundant feeding grounds. It makes no difference who owns the land, whether the king or the barons of the realm; the beasts have freedom and protection, and wander wherever they will."
The exploitative "hunts" of the colonial period in Africa and Asia bore little resemblance to those practiced by the kings and princes of medieval Europe. In one, all the real work is done by local bushmen until the man paying for the expedition steps in to take a last shot. In the other, the greatest honor was accorded to nobles who could kill boars with close-combat weapons during their mating season, when the males were like to be most vicious. There, the boar was both meat for the feast, and an opportunity for warriors to hone their martial skills; not only English kings, but even Byzantine emperors sometimes perished in the chase. Palmer's latest excursion, as with most hunts from the colonial period to the present, amounts to a $50,000 photo op... but we can credit him, at least, for his insistence on using bowed weapons in most of his past hunts.

There is one thing we can learn from westerners' passioned, if also manufactured, outburst at the unfortunate dentist: that we are still monarchists at heart. Why does one lion, who lived most of his life in a natural state in the wild, matter more than the millions of livestock we raise every day within our own borders, never to see the light of the sun, born only to die and be served up as fast food? Thousands of us are paid to kill animals all day long without the slightest need to worry about death threats or bad Yelp reviews.

The answer to this contradiction is simple: because Cecil was, in our hearts, the king of the jungle. The lion is the heraldic symbol of the kings of England, the tribe of Judah, and Christ Himself. The people of Zimbabwe have responded to all this hubbub with "what lion?" They're confused that we care more about Cecil than the fact that the vast majority of people in that country are unemployed and sometimes even suffer from wild animal attacks. They kill lions and other exotic animals all the time, but when a westerner does it, it's international news. What the Zimbabweans don't understand is that the lion, to us in the west, is a majestic beast, one we humans have seen fit to ascribe more value to than other animals. Like Adam, we have given all the beasts of the earth a name and place in the world. The Modern Medievalist is quite comfortable with this. But let's not also forget that our first parents were appointed stewards and guardians of creation, not just its masters.