Friday, December 17, 2010

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, First Impressions

We've only been waiting four and a half years for it, but we finally got it, and it is phenomenal.  And even though we know hardly anything about it yet, speculation about and anticipation of the new Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, is going to occupy an unhealthy portion of the next eleven months of my life.

What do we know?  The story sounds epic--and very Morrowind.  The prophesied hero, incarnation of an ancient great power, comes to a remote province of the empire to save the day from a newly-reawakened evil.  Call it Nerevarine or call it Dovahkiin, it's a classic plot within the Elder Scrolls universe, and it's consistently fun to play through.  It's set to involve dragons, and while we know from the lore that dragons are a part of the history of Tamriel and especially Skyrim ("...and then came the northern men to help Kagrenac and they brought Ysmir again," 36 Lessons of Vivec, Sermon 36) we've never seen them in-game.

Much has been made of some comments from the developers, but in reality it's far too early to say anything about what they mean.  In particular, Skyrim has been construed as a "direct sequel" to Oblivion, leading to a lot of speculation about how closely related the two titles will be.  But as a longtime fan of the series, it's intuitive that Skyrim and will be about as closely related to Oblivion as Oblivion was related to Morrowind.  All the games take place in the same setting, and the setting being as lore-intensive as it is, the events in the previous game are naturally going to have some impact on the next game.  But a "direct sequel" to Oblivion would necessarily be set in the Imperial Province, involve the Oblivion gates crisis, and have Mehrunes Dagon as its antagonist.  It's clear already that Skyrim will do none of that.

That said, because this is the Elder Scrolls universe, it is prudent to wonder just how much the events of the previous game are going to change the setting.  A lot of crap went down in Oblivion.  The Imperial City got sacked, a Daedric Prince was defeated, and the Septim line of emperors ended.  At the very least, Tamriel is going to have a new ruling dynasty--and it's entirely possible that the Empire will have collapsed completely.  Is Mehrunes Dagon permanently destroyed, or merely rebuffed from the mortal world?  All this remains to be seen.

Finally, the announcement of Skyrim has re-ignited the senseless debate among Elder Scrolls fans about whether Morrowind or Oblivion was a better game.  I don't know why we can't all agree that Morrowind had a more immersive experience and a better story, Oblivion had a more polished structure and prettier landscapes, and they were both incredibly enjoyable games.  There are people who will insist that Morrowind is better because it has medium armor, the short blade/long blade distinction, and more attractive faces.  On the other side of the coin, Oblivion's diehards protest that Morrowind was too hard and lacked horses.

Micromanagers and effort-averse aside, most Elder Scrolls fans do agree that both Morrowind and Oblivion were excellent.  Even though we don't know much about Skyrim yet, if it builds on their successes, my social life is going to collapse next November.

A few assorted points:

--In the chorus at the end of the trailer video, a figure named "Hrothgar" is mentioned.  I thought that Hrothgar sounded familiar, so I checked him out on the Elder Scrolls Wiki.  Turns out the only mention they have of Mr. Hrothgar is that his name lives on as a mountain in Skyrim.  But!  Hrothgar is an actual mythic figure from Anglo-Saxon myth, most notable as the king in Beowulf.  It wouldn't be the first time that an Elder Scrolls myth has drawn name inspiration from a real-world myth.

--It's probably a hope in vain because level scaling is pretty much de rigeur in RPG design these days, but I really, really hope that Skyrim either eliminates or overhauls Oblivion's approach to level scaling.  Roadside bandits instantly getting tougher the second you do destroys the realism that the Elder Scrolls series tries very hard (and mostly succeeds) to create.

--Bethesda trademarked the name "Skyrim" way back in 2007, suggesting they've been planning this for a very long time indeed.  Of course, suspicion that Skyrim would be the setting for the next Elder Scrolls game started back then, which is why it isn't really a surprise that this game has that setting.  Looking at Tamriel, we've had games set in Hammerfell, High Rock, Morrowind, Cyrodiil, and now Skyrim.  Unless we really want to set a game in Argonian-land or Khajit-land, that leaves Valenwood (Bosmer) and the Summerset Isles (Altmer) as the logical choices for the next Elder Scrolls game.

--So I got to thinking: wouldn't it be totally awesome if there were an Elder Scrolls game set in Summerset, where you could go to Artaeum, visit the Crystal Tower, and join the Psijic Order?  Yes, it would.  You heard it here first: Elder Scrolls VI: Artaeum, summer 2016.

Currently listening: "Letter from an Occupant", the New Pornographers

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Wheel of Time: Towers of Midnight

Holy crap, Wheel of Time fans.

We're actually looking at the penultimate book of this series.  It is going to be finished in the next volume.  Twenty years later, and we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  It took fourteen books, not the putative twelve; it took struggling through some real quagmires around book 10; it took two of the most accomplished fantasy authors of our generation.  But the Last Battle is really, truly about to happen.

Towers of Midnight is the second of Brandon Sanderson's three contributions to the series.  The first, The Gathering Storm, was the best Wheel of Time book probably since The Dragon Reborn, and it represented a clear return to the brilliant form of the first few books in the series.  Towers lags a little compared to Storm, but it still probably ranks among the better books in the series--and besides, it's the middle volume of a trilogy, so it's allowed to lag a little.

After having read three of Sanderson's books (his two Wheel of Time books and The Way of Kings), a few clear patterns have emerged.  Sanderson likes to spend about four hundred pages developing a few protagonists and setting up their respective conflicts, then resolving those conflicts in the three to five hundred pages that remain.  The result is that each protagonist's story--while well-developed, entertaining, and following a clear beginning/middle/end arc--is about twenty to thirty percent longer than it needs to be.

For instance, in Towers, Perrin's decisive battle with Slayer and the destruction of the Tar Valon dreamspike is necessary and entertaining; his earlier string of stalemates with Slayer are not.  Mat's decisive battle with the gholam where he sends it through the gateway to nowhere is necessary and entertaining; his earlier string of stalemates with the gholam are not.  Aviendha's vision at Rhuidean is necessary and entertaining; her introspection along the road there is not.  Elayne's accession to the throne of Andor is (presumably) necessary and (marginally) entertaining; her oh-so-subtle political maneuvering to get there iscertainly not.

Speaking of Elayne, will some Wheel of Time fan please convince me that her story is either necessary or entertaining?  She's not a terribly interesting character--at best, she's a slight variation on the "spoiled princess" archetype, and her most intriguing trait is her ability to assay and create ter'angreal, which has nothing to do with Andor at all.  And her story lacks an exciting quality that most of the rest of the characters' stories have at least sometime--even Perrin's!  We want Elayne to do something awesome; this is epic fantasy, not Machiavelli.

Elayne being about as interesting as the attendant who brushes her hair is more Robert Jordan's fault than Brandon Sanderson's.  But Sanderson makes one apparent gaffe that's all his own.  In bringing Graendal back from apparently being dead, he breaks the Megatron rule: if a villain appears to be defeated at the end of one installment, it is almost always wrong to retcon that villain into the next installment.  Sanderson has latched on to Graendal as the primary villain for his trilogy, and that's fine, but she had better play a critically important role in the last book to merit being brought back in this one.

Sanderson still does a lot right in this book.  The Tower of Ghenjei adventure is a nice antidote to the Elayne mess; it feels like a campaign in a heroic roleplaying game, and it's a fulfillment of one of the series' long-standing promises.  Exactly what point Moiraine is destined to play in the final battle remains to be seen, but a little like Graendal, she had better be important to have invested so much of the series into this rescue.  It's nice to see that Perrin, Mat, and Lan have finally decided to be real leaders, and the very last scene where Lan assumes the (figurative) throne of Malkier, raises the Golden Crane, and charges the Trolloc army at Tarwin's Gap is incredibly fulfilling.

Aside from telling a fine story, Sanderson continues to organize his narrative well.  In the latter half of his part of the Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan more or less dispensed with traditional novel structure, instead releasing collections of chapters with little holding them together as books.  While to some extent every volume in a serial is just a continuation of the story, each volume also needs to have enough internal structure to make them satisfying by themselves.  (The best episodes of Lost both contributed to the overall plot and were compelling stories in their own right.)  Fortunately, Brandon Sanderson is very good at this; reading Towers of Midnight felt like both reading a novel and continuing a series.

It's increasingly obvious that Brandon Sanderson is exactly the right person to continue the series to its conclusion.  The Gathering Storm was excellent.  Towers of Midnight was a little down but still great.  If Towers of Midnight ends up being Sanderson's Two Towers, then we're in great shape for A Memory of Light.

Currently listening: Several Arrows Later, Matt Pond PA

Midnight Harry Potter, Two Weeks Late

First thought: "This movie is going to end way past my bedtime."
Second thought: "Ah, what do I care.  When else besides grad school am I going to have the means and opportunity to watch movies at midnight?"
Third thought: "Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?"

Now, I like Harry Potter.  I've read all seven books.  I've seen the first seven movies, and I'll undoubtedly see the eighth.  I'll even give the series credit for forming and strengthening some friendships.  I would call myself a Harry Potter fan.

There aren't many of us.

Harry Potter tends to attract not just fans, but fanatics.  Every hobby, every form of entertainment has them: people who own special clothing, who can recite lists of minor information, who spend time in the meta-community talking about the activity rather than doing it, who can engage in a half-hour conversation and not be abashed by its utter nerdiness but just be left wanting more.  (Think me with Lost.)  Whether it's gardening or Batman or Ke$ha or the New York Mets, somebody is going to go all out.  But for whatever reason, a lot more people go all out with Harry Potter than with any other hobby or activity or entertainment that I know of.

Combine me being a mere Harry Potter fan with me being Not A Movie Person, and it was strange indeed to find myself in a midnight screening of Deathly Hallows Part 1.  But I'm glad I went--because seriously, why not--because it turned out be one of the better Harry Potter movies so far.  Only a few scenes fell short.

The only truly weak part of the film is the middle-to-late "Ron has left us; what are we to do?" section.  It lasts too long with not enough happening.  I don't remember the "Harry and Hermione dance" scene from the book at all, but man was it boring and inconsequential in the movie.  One of the biggest differences in reading the book and watching the movie is that in the book, you don't know if or when Ron will come back--and it leads to an emotionally devastating few chapters.  After you've read the book, you know that Ron does come back, and that the plot really doesn't advance until he does.  With that in mind, the scenes in between go from powerful to filler pretty quickly.

Quibbles with other parts of the movie are even more minor.  As in the book, I wish that more had been made of Hedwig's death scene.  I'm probably alone among Harry Potter fans in saying this, but forget Dobby--I think Hedwig's death is the real tragedy.  It's more than just a character dying; it's a symbol that Harry really isn't going back to Hogwarts anytime soon, and it's a clear sign that the Bad Guys are Not Messing Around, when they're totally okay with killing defenseless creatures.

And speaking of our friend Dobby, the funeral scene seemed a little odd, with Harry and company carrying around a white-sheeted bundle meant to contain Dobby's corpse.  It's the only time in the movie where my suspension of disbelief utterly failed, and I started thinking in terms of actors and filmography rather than the story being told.

Finally, the intensity could have been turned way up in the Malfoy Manor scene.  Once again, this scene serves some important literary purposes: it's more evidence for Bellatrix's complete insanity and hatred for non-pureblooded wizards, and it's probably the first strong piece of evidence for Lucius Malfoy's wavering loyalty.  Sure, he's a bad guy, but the manor scene demonstrates that maybe he isn't okay with Voldemort using his place as a de facto base camp, and maybe he follows him more out of necessity than fervor.

The more potent the Malfoy Manor scene, the stronger the development of these character traits becomes.  On top of all that, we need to feel like Hermione is really in danger of dying.  This might be yet another function of having read the book and knowing what happens next, but the whole ordeal at the manor seemed started then finished in the matter of a few minutes.  Obviously there are limits to how far you can push a PG-13 rating (and clearly it makes economic sense to avoid the R rating), but it's scenes like this one that I like to point to when Harry Potter skeptics accuse the series of being "children's literature".

As usual, though, when a review comes down to criticizing a few specific scenes, that means the rest of the movie worked reasonably well.  I absolutely love Luna's character--in fact, her character is much better in the movies than in the books--and her humor (where you're never quite sure if she's being flaky or unexpectedly insightful) is one of the few instances of comic relief that is genuinely funny.  The movie is quite faithful to the book--not that it's difficult to be, with two and a half hours to cover less than 400 pages of the novel, there would be no excuse for any drastic departures.  And most importantly of all, the lovely Miss Emma Watson turns in clearly her best performance so far.

Bottom line: if you're out of the Harry Potter loop, there's no way you're going to see this movie, because it simply will not make any sense to you.  And if you're in the Harry Potter loop, even if the movie were truly horrible, it probably wouldn't cross your mind not to see it.  But here's the thing: this movie is good.  It is both a worthy followup to the first six movies and a faithful translation of the seventh book (or at least the first chunk of it).  So even all those fanatics that Harry Potter inexplicably attracts won't be disappointed.

Currently listening: Broken Bells, self-titled album