The Witcher 2 Holds a Mirror to Polish History

PolandSovietMap[This article discusses the entirety of The Witcher 2's plot]

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There’s a brief, computer-generated video that plays after The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings‘ credits have finished rolling. In it, a rural man collects wood in a forest glen. He spots a rabbit hopping through the brush and following a (much appreciated) fade to black he heads back home with the now-dead animal hanging from his belt. As the man starts to cross a wooden bridge he hears the thunder of approaching horse hooves, and a group of mounted knights in black armour ride pass him. The man hurries onward to his village only to find it burning and a sea of troops marching toward it from across a river valley. The game pulls out from the scene to show a map of the area and the sweep forward of the invading Nilfgaardian Empire’s army. Coloured a menacing black, the Empire’s borders extend upward to swallow the regions to the north of it, shading their multicoloured nations with darkness.

This moment sounds innocuous outside of the context of the game–it’s one fantasy nation taking over another. Those who have played through the previous twenty-odd hours of The Witcher 2 and invested in its fiction are more likely to understand the dramatic import of the moment, though. Players who think back on the history of Poland–the home of CD Projekt RED, the game’s developer–may react even more strongly.

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The Long Dark, The Forest, and Modern Survival

Family CampingI don’t like camping. For the longest time I felt like I was supposed to because, I mean, there are a lot of things about hanging out in the woods and fending for yourself that are immediately appealing. Building a bonfire, constructing shelter out of a bag of loose poles and canvas sheets–these feel like decent enough accomplishments when we’re more used to the convenience of sleeping in beds and adjusting thermostats to meet the same basic needs. But, after one night in Cape Breton a few years ago–one night I remember most for its awful heat, clouds of black flies biting at my face, and skin made sticky with layers of ineffectual mosquito repellant–I allowed myself to admit that I’m too accustomed to the easy life to get much enjoyment out of camping.

Just the same, I’m fascinated by the wilderness. I stand out on a cottage deck, looking at the lakes and dense forests of Ontario and I still think about how I’d do at fending for myself out in the wild. I know it wouldn’t go well, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering. Maybe, if the stakes were high enough, I’d get past my discomfort and figure out how to make a lean-to and catch food. I’m one of many people, soft-palmed from a life spent living in towns and cities and typing on computers for a living, that subconsciously assumes–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I still know how to survive like our common ancestors. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

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The Last of Us, Chaos, and Control

Flood DamageApocalypse stories are as old as humanity itself. From the Norse Ragnarok and Sumerian flood myths to the centuries of religious doomsday watchers, people from across the world have long maintained an obsession with the end of days. In the postwar era, these stories have only become more common. The incredible destruction of the First World War, the nuclear detonations that obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the impending devastation threatened by the Cold War standoff not only demonstrated that the annihilation of entire national populations was possible, but also that it was–and still is–downright probable in the event of renewed global conflict.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the last sixty-odd years have seen a widespread revival of fiction centred on the end of the world. Our species has attempted to come to terms with the inescapable possibility of our complete destruction–something that could happen, really, at just about any moment–by doing the only thing humans can be counted on to do: rationalizing an idea too large and frightening for us to easily comprehend. Rather than lose ourselves in existential despair at the incredible notion of the complete breakdown of our world, we compartmentalize this overwhelming anxiety through art. Post-apocalyptic fiction, probably the most popular example of this tendency, allows us to cope with enormity in the same way that apocalyptic myths helped our ancestors force narrative order on the unknowable vastness of a mysterious reality not yet made sensible through scientific discovery.

This attempt to impose logic on essentially disordered concepts is at the centre of all of these stories. The dramatic tension always results from this very struggle between control and chaos; order and the complete absence of it. It is especially clear in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, a game that uses its ruined world and two main characters to explore these themes.

[This article discusses plot details from the entire game, including the ending.]

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Monochroma is an Interactive Monument

MonochromaThere are enormous moments in every medium that fundamentally change its future. The Cubists start painting in a style that reinterprets visual perception; Woolf and Joyce defy grammatical rules to allow readers inside the minds of their characters; Bebe and Louis Barron compose a film score made entirely with electronic components. In most cases the birth of new movements is incremental, the process of one artist influencing another taking place gradually until, before anyone has really realized it, everything has changed. Videogames, though, are an intrinsically technological medium that has seen its greatest leap forward come as the result of widespread internet connectivity. All of us–players and developers alike–can pretty much pin down when the zeitgeist started to shift–when digital distribution made it possible for smaller and weirder games to hit the mainstream. It’s easy to forget just how much of shake-up this time was, and how massively a handful of hyper-successful indie titles from the late aughts influenced developers-to-be.

Basically, this is all just a roundabout way of getting to Nowhere Studios’ Monochroma, one of the clearest examples of a game made in the shadows of giants like Playdead’s Limbo and Jonathan Blow’s Braid.

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Titanfall Diaries: Part Two

NewsHomeDear Mom and Dad,

I am sad to hear that Robert has enlisted as well. This is no place for him. He should have stayed at home and continued apprenticing for Mr. Dylan. I believe Robert’s time would be better served in crafting homemade cabinets than in contributing to this failing and pointless war. My only hope is that we do not end up fighting against one another in the future. I do not think I could bear to rodeo his Titan or to have my Titan rodeoed by him. It is all so awful now that the sheen has worn away. We spend so much time admiring the surface thrill of war here–the gleaming metal of the robots, the extra-sleek cut of our pilot uniforms–that I almost never find time to think about what we’re doing. It disturbs me when I do. We are simply killing each other over and over again for no real reason, hoping for just one more taste of combat to fill the empty hours of the day.

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Titanfall Diaries: Part One

Letters Home“Dearest Robert,

It has been nearly one week since I enlisted with the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation in their fight against the Militia. I paid my $60 recruitment fee (thanks again for the 20% off coupon code) and set out to do my part for whatever planet it is we are from. Things have been happening very quickly since then. It is hard to believe that in such a short period of time I’ve learned to run along walls and pilot giant robots. Or that I’ve killed so many in pursuit of such an unclear goal. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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An Actual Discussion About Actual Sunlight

ActualSunWill O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight is a dark, troubling, and fascinating game. Through its focus on disenchanted 30-something protagonist Evan Winter, O’Neill’s work chronicles a dramatic descent into utter hopelessness that manages to communicate the deeply personal experience of depression to a wider audience. It’s a strange game, one that paints a grim picture of the intersection of modern capitalism and mental health without coming off as overwrought or pandering. Playing it left me with a lot of thoughts on Actual Sunlight‘s story, its treatment of depression, and what its release means for the–if you’ll excuse the grand terminology–future of videogames.

After finishing the game I talked with Patrick Lindsey, co-creator of Depression Quest and Pixels or Death head honcho, to compare notes on the experience and to hear what a developer behind one interactive take on mental illness thought about another.

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