January 2013

Can you tell an entire epic fantasy in 9 minutes? It turns out, yes, you can.

This is a student film directed by Mikkel Mainz and Kenneth Ladekjaer, from the Animation Workshop in Denmark, but it’s really amazing. It’s hard to get comedy going plus actual character arcs and impressive epic-fantasy visuals, but they did it.

Update to this post— my Mom passed away a few hours ago.  We didn’t expect it quite this fast, but we knew it was coming.

The hospice left a booklet on dying, and I was surprised to learn that the kind of withdrawal from the world that I described in the last post is very common.  The person kind of zones out from the world– perhaps a lot more is going on in the mind.

I’m afraid it’s going to be very hard on my Dad, not only because they’ve been together for so long, but because he’s been acting for years as her caregiver, and that role is gone.  As I mentioned, sometimes great optimism is a source of strength, sometimes it’s probably a disadvantage.

On a brighter note, I finished Le Morte D’Arthur.  (Part I here.)

The ending chapters, on the rending of the Round Table and Arthur’s actual death, actually work.   That is, there’s character and motivation, conflict that’s not just artifices to get worshipful knights into battle, and emotion.  The story has the pathos of classic tragedy, as events are set in motion that pit friend against friend and lead to almost all the major characters ending up dead or in holy orders.  Arthur is succeeded by a dude, Constantine, who I think barely appeared in the story before then.

The plot hinges on the enduringly strange nature of courtly love.  C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book on this, pointing out that a conflict between love and marriage is inevitable in a time where marriages were not only arranged but a major preoccupation of clan and royal politics.  Even so it seems a bit odd that Arthur is depicted as completely unaware of his wife’s dalliance with Launcelot.  Yet he resorts no less than three times to putting her on trial, a process which consisted of setting her out to be burned to death unless her knightly champion could defeat her accuser.  Fortunately for her, her champion happens to be the best knight in Britain.

The story is foreshadowed in earlier chapters by the romance of Tristram and Isoud, who’s the wife of King Mark of Cornwall.  But it’s OK because the king happens to be a major douche.  There’s a chapter which is devoted to piling on the poor guy, showing that he’s a coward and ultimately a murderer.

Which raises a tricky question: isn’t the worshipful knight basically someone really good at killing people?  Thus the knightly code, which sets out when you can and can’t kill the other dude.  Mostly it makes sense– e.g. killing an unarmed knight is murder, and killing a dude on foot when you’re on horseback is bad form.  Some of it seems like special pleading, though– e.g. Launcelot kills the unarmed Gareth and Gaheris, which understandably pisses off their brother Gawain, but it’s presented as an understandable accident.

Before these final chapters comes the story of the Sangrail, where we’re back in culture shock land.  Here Malory shifts to a very different ethos: all of the knights who were praised for being tough, strong, and violent are now judged by their service to God– and by this new standard they’re murderous, lecherous thugs.  Of the 150 knights of the Round Table, just three are deemed worthy to find the Grail; and even these are really subordinate spiritually to the various hermits and angels who guide them.  And the chief of these, Galahad, is so darned holy that once he’s found the Grail there’s nothing left for him to do but shrivel up and die.  Once the story is over, we go back to the knightly ethos with hardly a backward glance.

The story itself is baffling.  Joseph of Arimathea, you see, brought the Grail to Britain.  At a point God starts showing visions of it to everyone, and the whole Round Table goes off in search of it.   There’s no real detective work involved, as finding the Grail isn’t a matter of doing quests but of moral worth; as mentioned, only three knights are judged worthy, and they’re led to the Grail by a magical boat.  They then take it to a mythical city called Sarras and leave it there.  For a modern reader it’s completely unexplained why any of this was necessary, or indeed what this has to do with spirituality.  The Grail doesn’t actually do anyone any good, and it isn’t even treated as a relic, much less a trophy.  Maybe you have to be Catholic, or a medieval Catholic, to be moved by all this.

Still, it’s a glimpse into the dual ethos of the Middle Ages.  Normally power, splendor, and goodness are assumed to co-occur.  The best knights are the most physically robust and powerful; royalty and noblehood is and ought to be rich and splendid; the common people and even urban life are almost completely ignored.  At the same time there was great admiration for clerics living in solitude and poverty, and for virginity and self-mortification.

The Sangrail section is if anything harder on women than the rest of the book– not only are they barred from knighthood, but courtly love is temporarily seen as a terrible temptation away from godliness.  However, there’s one holy maiden who takes part in the quest.  She comes to a castle where a lady is sick and requires the blood of a maiden to heal her; the girl willingly submits to this, and gives so much blood she dies.  This must have seemed to Malory’s readers as pious and pathetic both, rather than grotesque.  (It’s not that the males do much better; as noted, Galahad and one of the other knights don’t survive the quest by long.)

More pedantically, I was surprised that Malory actually dates the Sangrail story, to 454 years after the Passion– thus, AD 487.  I’m curious whether this date appears in his French sources, or if it’s his own guess.

I read the book in modernized spelling; it’s interesting that the 500-year-old text is quite easily readable in this format.  You soon get used to the difference in syntax and the not terribly numerous obsolete words.  (Some of these are French, so it doesn’t hurt to know that language.)

Kind of tempted to go back to an old project and write one of the Cuzeian epics…




Not my usual blog fare, but for reasons that will become obvious, this has been on my mind a lot.

For the last year I’ve been helping take care of my parents, who are both in their nineties.  It’s been a rough year for them.  They’re both very weak; they’ve each fallen down several times, and they spent three months of last year in rehab places.

My parents have been married for 71 years, but they have almost comically mismatched personalities.  My Dad is an optimist, and he has an engineer’s mindset that every problem can be solved, including medical conditions and the increasing difficulties of everyday life.  That’s generally a good thing, except that it also leads to a level of denial about how serious their problems are, or how well the two of them can live on their own.

My Mom is more of a pessimist… she’s had trouble believing that things would get better, and she’s been more annoyed than helped by Dad’s cheerful admonitions.  (It’s just as well they mostly can’t hear each other.)  A year ago she was spending most of her time in bed.  A month in rehab early last year did wonders– at the end she was taking walks up and down the corridors, without a walker.  But she just doesn’t like exercise, and she’s very sensitive to aches and pains.  To the rest of us it was obvious that she needed more activity, but I think from her point of view it just didn’t make her feel better, so she gave up on it.  About three weeks ago she was back to staying in bed most of the day.

Then she got an acute infection, and went into the hospital.  Her heart and lungs are very bad, and though she perked up a bit with antibiotics, she just was not getting better.  She’s now in hospice care– she came home yesterday, and she is probably not going to last long.

They’ve both had good lives, and I’m thankful that it’s their bodies, not their minds, that have been declining.  But even if you’re not obviously sick, the last years of life can be an undending series of losses you have to adjust to.  Everyday life, even things like getting dressed or unloading the dishwasher, becomes a set of difficult challenges.

One takeaway from all this: please stay, or get, in shape.  By nature I’m highly sedentary, but by now I’m a strong believer in fitness at any age.  We expect old people to be feeble– but I think a big part of that is habit.  If I get to be their age I’d like to go in with more strength and a habit of exercise.

Also, if it weren’t for my weird little niche in publishing, I wouldn’t be able to spend a couple days of week with them.  So if you’ve bought my books, thank you.

I decided I might as well finish Fallout New Vegas, so I did.  It turns out I was only about two hours from the end.

Hey, House, you're ugly!

Hey, House, you’re ugly!

I have mixed feelings about the ending, though in part I think it’s because almost all video games have problems in the endgame.  More on that in a moment.

A minor annoyance is all the running around.  In this big open world, the ending is designed so that you’re constantly shuttling from one place to another, with loading screens popping up constantly.

The hardest part of the ending is not anything you have to fight, but avoiding fights.  I had to replay the Hoover Dam bit several times in order not to kill NCR, ‘cos I don’t really have anything against them.  It wasn’t really obvious how to do this, and it’s annoying that Stealth Boys, plus a Sneak of 100, did absolutely nothing to prevent conflicts.  (On the other hand, as I was talking to Lanius, I decided, fuck this speech challenge shit, mask boy’s gotta die.)

It’s a bit weird that the very last bit of gameplay involve Yes Man explaining that he’s going to get an assertiveness upgrade.  It sounds ominous, but the designer has explained that he meant only that it was intended to mean that he would henceforth answer only to the Courier.  It’s still a strange note to end on.

As with Fallout 3, it’s rather unsatisfying to just end the game.  You get a slideshow but little feeling of what it means to have an independent New Vegas.  I think FNV makes an effort to give you some meaningful choices– you can go evil with Caesar, or go conventional with the NCR, or take over for yourself.  But you don’t get to see any of it.  (Also, the slideshow suggests that Freeside was even more lawless afterward… why?  We have a frigging army of Securitrons now.)

As I said, though, I think it’s just a special case of the general problem: it’s hard to wrap up a video game in a satisfying way.  Most action games choose the option of:

  • Big boss fight.

And that’s kind of it for options.  Games differ in how hard the final fight is, from nearly impossible (HL2 Ep 2) to big ol’ climax (Dragon Age Origins) to standard (Saints Row 3) to kinda minimal (FNV).  But it’s tricky to get a final boss fight to really work well– to use all your skills plus offer rewards plus wrap up the story.

To put it another way, what makes a game fun is, unsurprisingly, the gameplay.  And that’s pretty varied.  It may involve:

  • noodling around an open world taking on whatever challenges you find (F3/FNV, Borderlands, Saints Row 3, VTM Bloodlines, Fable III)
  • solving puzzles (Portal)
  • stealth and occasional fights (Arkham City, Deus Ex)
  • parkour (Mirror’s Edge)
  • moving around a quasi-linear path fighting enemies and using neat toys (HL2, Singularity, Dead Space, Mass Effect)

But the final boss fight usually doesn’t resemble the main gameplay, so it doesn’t quite cohere.  It works better if the game has been puncutated by boss fights, as in Arkham City or Borderlands 2, though even in such cases you generally can’t use stealth or sniper skills.

There’s also the problem that the story has to be wrapped up, which generally means cutscenes or reduced player choices.  (The poster child for this problem is Dreamfall, which pretty much turns into a movie at the end.)

Ironically, it all may not matter much, because if the game was really good you probably want to play it again immediately, perhaps on a harder setting.

Beautiful map from David Sparks which combines political identification with population density:


Or as Matt Yglesias calls it, Red America, Blue America, and Nobody Lives There America.

(A cavil: Sparks seems to believe that the US has only 48 states.)

All done with Fallout New Vegas DLC now– just finished Honest Hearts.

It feels like the fastest and slightest of the four DLCs, though that may be because my level is in the upper 40s and even a Giant Cazador doesn’t faze me.  (I recall a time in the very early game when I was trying to explore the mountains and first discovered Cazadores as well as how unavoidably they could massacre a low-level character.)

Spectactular place, Zion:


The main quest gets you involved in a tribal war– repercussions of the larger war outside, as one side is allied with Caesar and the other is assisted by Caesar’s ex-general Joshua.  There’s some heavy material here– the role of religion, civilization vs. tribalism, vengeance vs. protection vs. pacifism– but overall I think the developers bit off more than they could chew.  You basically make one big fat choice, and it appears the actual battle plays out about the same either way.  There’s no option to join or help the Bad Tribals.  (Not that I wanted to, but the main game and the rest of the DLC allow you to take the really evil path if you want to.)

Plus I think the game doesn’t quite manage to avoid the colonialist mindset.  The tribes are obvious nods to Native Americans, though it seems only the Dead Horses are supposed to be actual Natives.  The ‘good tribes’ have Indian-like names and speak broken English, and mainly attack with melee weapons– out-Westerning the Westerns, as 19th century Native Americans were quite happy to use guns.  The tribes seem to be easily manipulated; all three tribes are effectively under the leadership of Caucasians.

I don’t think the developers intended to be quite this regressive; but I think ending up with this infantilizing picture is almost inevitable if you start out with the idea of “tribes vs. civilization” and don’t really look beyond pop culture for your research.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be terribly negative.  The DLCs as a whole are pretty impressive, and I think all of them are more satisfying than the main New Vegas storyline.  Plus Zion turns out to be a treasure trove of Xander Root and Broc Flower– which we learn early on in FNV are the principal ingredients in Stimpaks, but which are annoyingly rare in the Mojave.

Next Page »