The sword of destiny (Andrzej Sapkowski, 1992)

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The sword of destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski (1992, Spanish version by José María Faraldo).

Score: Not as good as The last wish.

Like The last wish, The sword of destiny is made up of short stories set in the Witcher universe that follow monster hunter Geralt of Rivia. While in The last wish pretty much all the stories were deconstructions of popular fairytales, this strays from the fairytale formula and starts developing the features unique to the Witcher universe.

There are mentions of The snow queen, The little mermaid and The twelve swans, but thematically it expands on fantastic racism (Scoia’Tael versus humans, humans versus monsters, humans versus anyone and their mother) and its curious opposite, fantastic ecologism and a hint at Renaissance-like early days of scientific method. Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship is further developed and Ciri is introduced as Geralt’s protegée.

While I thought Ciri’s and Geralt’s affection towards each other was sweet and well-written, I can’t say the same about Book!Yennefer. Game!Yennefer could be bossy and insensitive at times, but Book!Yennefer is a cliché on two legs. Her main conflict and the very thing that drives her being her sterility seems to me like very lazy writing and makes for a very flat and shallow character so far. “Oh, Yennefer looks very depressed. It must be because she has everything in life but she can’t bear children, which is the greatest tragedy that can befall a woman”. This terrible sadness is never developed. Does she want to be a mother to leave a legacy? Because she feels tenderness towards infants? Because she wants to make a better world through education of her children? Not a single word on why. I try to be impartial and avoid personal feelings regarding this topic but it really bugs me that this kind of characterisation assumes that woman equals mother and doesn’t bother elaborating.

Most of the book is devoted to fleshing out the universe, so if you have already played the videogame it’s going to feel dull since most of these things you already know, except perhaps how Ciri and Geralt met (apparently it’s not fully explained in the games).

All in all, you will want to read this if you want to read the whole saga, but it’s not as enjoyable as The last wish and I hope Blood of the Elves will improve again.

Until dawn (Supermassive Games, 2015)

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Until dawn, developed by Supermassive Games (2015).

Score: A pleasant surprise.

I got my hands on this hoping to kill some time until Fallout 4 comes out, but I was genuinely surprised by its quality. Until dawn is a QTE-driven interactive drama survival horror where most of its value is replayability, since the player’s choices greatly affect the outcome of the story. There are potentially hundreds of linear combinations of events at the end of the game, depending on dialogue choices and QTEs.

Until dawn tells the story of eight teenagers who reunite in a mountain lodge to commemorate the unfortunate death of two of their friends who went missing the previous year after a prank went horribly wrong. The first half of it is more heavily-laden with B-series horror flick clichés, with a dark and noisy cabin up in the mountains and a maniac stalking the horny teenagers. The second half veers into the territory of supernatural horror and drops the spooks and cheesiness altogether. Apparently I’m the only one that likes the change, since most reviews disliked the twist, but for me it was what changed a mediocre, disjointed effort into something more original and enjoyable.

The graphics and development are nice, though with some flaws, like when the characters’ eyes get strong light on them and it looks like they have cataracts and the teeth are too prominent and the joints look too dark, so it seems like they’ve been munching on black liquorice or something. The character design could have been much better. Their physiognomy is just too similar, and in the first playthrough it’s difficult to distinguish the generic skinny blonde white girl with braids from the generic skinny blonde white girl with her hair up and the generic skinny redhead white girl with a beanie. With the boys it’s the white jock, the black jock, the nerd and the host. Their conversations are so idiotic that I couldn’t care less if they all died, but fortunately the story makes up for them.

As for the gameplay, the controls and camera angles are a bit clunky but I’ve seen worse. The only extras to the story are the collectibles, which thankfully are not brain-racking (looking at you, fucking coffee thermos from Alan Wake). The addition of Dr. Hill, which integrates gameplay customisation into the gameplay itself is a quite interesting mechanic. It’s quite short, about 9 hours per playthrough, but you will want to replay it to save them all or kill them all. Or both.

All in all, not the game of your life but you’ll have a nice time playing. A decent new title in the line of interactive dramas, not so much of survival horror games.

Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)

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Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961).

Score: Like munching on cork.

The title is self-explanatory: this is a courtroom drama based on the real-life Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted judges, clerks and collaborators of the Third Reich. It has an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift and it’s basically three hours of large hams yelling at each other in a courtroom.

It has nearly zero plot and most of the action is the trial itself, centering on four judges who sterilised and sentenced people to death at concentration camps purportedly for political reasons. While the production and acting are quite in line with the style back in the day for a superproduction, I found the hammy acting excessive, especially when underlined by whispering reinstatements for a more obvious effect. There was an instance of extreme zooming in that was unintentionally hilarious but I have to say I really liked how the first few minutes were shot in both German and English with interpreters and a zooming in tells us that the change to all-English is for our convenience, but German characters are still speaking German. I found it a very clever resource and I wonder why it’s not used more.

The most interesting aspect is the historical accuracy and the political reflection. The main questions that the film throws in the air are: should judges disobey when their countries’ laws are unjust? Who is really to be held responsible for the Holocaust, and what is the scope of that responsibility? How reasonable is it to believe that most Germans didn’t know about the concentration camps? Even if all these ordinary people are found guilty, is it any good to imprison them, or would any other course of action be more beneficial to society as a whole?

It does ask these questions but it’s not very deep or thorough at answering them. It’s a film, not a treaty on law, after all. It’s quite informative and accurate if you want to learn more about the period, but you’ll not learn anything new if you’re already familiar with the political regime, genocide, institutionalised racial persecution and extermination camps. If you’ve got teenage History students, maybe you can bore them to death with this. Beware: there’s actual footage of the liberation of a camp, in case you’re sensitive to that kind of images.

All in all, it’s more a fictionalised documentary than a film, worth a watch if the topic interests you.

Following (Christopher Nolan, 1998)

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Following, directed by Christopher Nolan (1998).

Score: Cool for a debut.

Something I really like about Christopher Nolan is that he gets better with every movie he makes. From Following to Interstellar, every one of his movies is better than the previous one. In Following, Nolan’s feature-length debut, the protagonist is a young aspiring writer who gets used to following strangers around. Everything changes when he starts following Cobb, a suit-wearing burglar.

All the ingredients are already there: dialogue-driven action, thieves, deception, non-linear narration. Needs a bit of an effort to follow and some reconstructing due to the non-linearity. Bearing in mind it was made by a bunch of people in their spare time and cost £6,000, the results are really impressive. Acting is quite decent and while props, locations and characters are kept to a minimum, you don’t really miss more of them. It bugged me a little that it is in black and white, but hey, six thousand quid of film is not a lot.

All in all, it’s a fun and entertaining film to watch, but nothing too special. You’ll like it if you’re a fan of Nolan, or if you feel like watching a little Noir film.

House of leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000)

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House of leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000).

Score: a one-of-a-kind book.

House of leaves is not for you.

House of leaves is a book about a guy who finds a manuscript about a film that does not exist about a house that’s haunted as hell. It’s a book that’s a labyrinth. It looks really confusing, but it’s not really. The in-universe book is written by Zampanò, a blind film critic and scholar that writes like a freshman and knows it, and these passages are in Times New Roman. The manuscript is found by Johnny Truant, a sleazy assistant at a tattoo parlor, who nevertheless can keep up with Zampanò’s nonsense, and is increasingly affected and haunted by the manuscript. His passages are written in Courier New. Meanwhile, Zampanò describes the events in the plot of a documentary called The Navidson Record, to which he provides a gargantuan amount of references from other scholars, film critics, journalists and pretty much anyone who had anything to say about anything and a soapbox that was tall enough. Despite the fact that no one else in real life has ever heard about Navidson or the house at Ash Tree Lane. Navidson moves there with his family looking for a peaceful life, only to find out the house they bought is bigger on the inside than the outside, and contains a huge, shifting, pitch-black maze.

House of leaves is many things: it was marketed as a cosmic horror story, while some people see it’s more prominently a love story, and what I think it is more prominently is a huge fuck you to the world of academia and scholarly writing. I never thought a parody of scholastic and pedantry could be a thing, but so it goes. Zampanò is shameless about quoting primary sources he never read, adding huge chunks of unrelated ravings about random topics to already fat and excessive footnotes or defending outlandish and clichéd theses, along with the unnecessary quotes in exotic languages that Johnny complains so much about. This was the late 90s and Google Translate didn’t exist. If you’re not familiar with how these intellectuals and smart people roll, you’re going to miss out on a lot.

But the mindfuck goes further. Every single instance of the word “house”, in any language and anywhere on the book is printed in blue, and no unambiguous explanation has been given. Some pages are half blank, with upside-down or mirrored text. And it’s not done just because. The chapter that develops the theme of the labyrinth has extremely confusing footnote structure, to the point it has different columns that must be read in different orders and footnote marks that lead to the beginning of the passage all over, like it’s described that real mazes have. The passage that introduces the Minotaur opens with a paragraph shaped like a key and closes with one that resembles a lock. And seriously, make what you will of Johnny, I’ve just given up already.

Because I’m convinced that it’s also a huge fuck you to people who like to give confusing or obscure stories weird interpretations and conspiracy theorists in general. Danielewski is out for you too, guys. “House” is always written in blue to screw with you and in the end it’s just a novel.

A friend who is skeptical of it asked me: “would it still be worth reading without all the weird layout and colours?” and the answer is still the same. It wouldn’t be the same book without them.

Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy (1988)

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Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy, by Rüdiger Safranski (1988).

Score: An excellent introduction to Schopenhauer’s life and work.

I never thought I would agree with Schopenhauer in anything, and though I’m thoroughly convinced that the man was comically insufferable, lo and behold, I stand corrected. Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy combines exposition of the philosopher’s personal life, social and historical context, intellectual influences and original thought.

Born in Danzig in 1788 to a prominent merchant and a educated patrician twenty years her husband’s junior, Schopenhauer had a neglected childhood and was expected to inherit his father’s commercial empire, much to his dismay, since he loved the intellectual life with a passion since a very young age. The untimely death of his father freed him of such a commitment, and he, his mother and his sister lived comfortable lives after selling the the trading company. Arthur was free to go to university and in 1819 he published The world as will and representation, his magnum opus that he regarded as his child and legacy to humanity. Unfortunately, his belligerent opposition to the back-then trends of philosophy (namely, German idealism), his pathological pride and unpleasant nature caused him to be ignored for most of his life, and being ahead of his time for at least half a century he was only appreciated as a philosopher after he died. Probably because he wasn’t there anymore to tell anyone trying to interpret his work how illiterate and wrong they were.

His main thesis, recovering Kant and walking right around idealism, is that the world can be understood as the dichotomy between will and representation. External objects appear to us as representation through our senses and those impressions can be manipulated and composed through reason. But the ding an sich, forbidden and untouchable in Kant’s philosophy, is defined by Schopenhauer as will: what lies inside of us, when we strip ourselves of all that we could consider as an object or a representation, is will. Will to live, hunger, thirst, lust, desire, loneliness, ambition, longing and satisfaction. The will is what drives the world, animals, plants and our every action as human beings. Since will is essentially selfish and desire is essentially insatiable, inaction is sanctity and the selfless contemplation of art is one of the few ways out of dissatisfaction. As a consequence, the only root of ethics is sympathy, since duty, or the hope for a reward and fear of punishment, by extension, are selfish motivations and driven by will. Recognising the other as a subject, capable of suffering just like me, is the only thing that can justify ethical behaviour.

Safranski’s narration is swift and light, deep and informative at the same time. Undergraduate knowledge of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Feuerbach is desirable to get the most out of the book, as well as German history of the 19th century. If you don’t know a lot about this, you will when you’re done.

If you would like to get acquaintanced with the work of the philosopher of the Will, this is a great place to get started.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED, 2015)

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The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, developed by CD Projekt RED (2015).

Score: Best RPG ever.

At first I was regretting having called Dragon Age: Inquisition an impressive tour de force, because, what should I call this then? DA:I pales before this like The name of the wind before A song of ice and fire. The Witcher III is a truly adult and mature videogame, with a production of such quality that it makes me cringe at people who wonder how a videogame can be more expensive than a movie. But then I decided there’s something I can call The Witcher III: Best. RPG. Ever.

In this instalment of the saga, Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter, is hired by Emhyr, the Emperor of Nilfgaard, to find his daughter Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon a.k.a. Ciri and bring her to safety. Ciri, who is like an adoptive daughter to Geralt, is being tracked down by The Wild Hunt, a horde of ominous spectres, who want her for her congenital magic powers.

I haven’t played the previous games nor read all the novels yet, and in that case the story can get a bit confusing, though optional dialogue lines help a lot. The main storyline is quite cool, but this has secondary, bounty hunting and fetch quests that some videogames wished were their main storylines. As much fun as I had with Skyrim, The Witcher III has Skyrim for breakfast every day in this area. The dialogue is great and the characters are quite fleshed out. Sapkwoski’s mastery of the Polish language has been transferred to English with very good results: not only registers are varied and suitable to situations and social classes, but character’s accents are also used to that end, with characters speaking in English standard, Cockney, Welsh, Irish, American or German accents depending on their origin. The Spanish edition keeps the original voices and adds an excellent text translation, faithful in tone to the original English dialogue.

When I say it’s a mature game, I don’t mean ultraviolence and porn. I mean the characters talk to each other as normal adults would if no one was listening, mentioning sex and other non-family friendly topics. While it was nice that DA:I featured female breasts for the first time in the saga, in this game you can see a woman’s breasts while she’s having a bath and nobody is fainting about it. It puts you in situations that are very uncomfortable morally. Tone is an aspect where DA:I is clearly inferior: you don’t see moral misery in it. You don’t see children marooned in the forest because their parents are starving. And even if Geralt is the hero, people don’t orbit your huge charisma and you’re not able to put together people that in normal circumstances would be at each other’s throats.

Graphics and design are ambitious and up to the challenge. Being open-world and vast is no longer an excuse for poor rendering and texturing, though the reusing of face designs for unimportant characters can be a bit annoying. Water effects are stunning, and some other effects like lightning, which are rare to see, look great too. I have to talk about the fucking animals. In the past years we have seen a refining of animal modelling, especially horses and dogs, which are the ones that we see more often. This has deer, bears, wild birds, rabbits, pigs, cats, geese, several breeds of dogs, and they all look amazing. I would regularly stop at villages to look at the animals.

The gameplay is another highlight and though it’s not perfect, the constant free patches and general attitude of CD Projekt RED towards bugs and mistakes makes them forgivable. I was surprised when I was reading The last wish that the signs were not originally designed for the videogame but were invented by Sapkowski. That’s how well adapted they are. If you want a piece of advice, play in Death March, because the difficulty and experience and optimised for that mode and the easy modes can get boring easily. It’s miserable until you reach level 10 or so but it also means that you will enjoy combat design as it was meant to. Being so difficult is where the gameplay flaws can get exasperating but hey, nobody’s perfect.

In case it’s not clear yet, you will enjoy playing this even if RPGs or medieval fantasy are not your cup of tea. Its quality goes beyond genre and flavour and it seems difficult that it will be topped in the close future.

Bonus: Things I learned playing The Witcher III:

1- The contract is never for what they’re telling you it is. If it’s a wolf eating sheep it’s really a Chupacabra, if it’s an evil spirit it’s going to be a nitwit making weird noises. If it’s for killing a werewolf you can be sure it’s going to end up being a cheating husband and so on.
2- You don’t learn anything from killing monsters. You do learn heaps by telling a guy the cockatrice is dead or beating a small kid at Gwent. And I’m very sure you can actually level up by having sex with a prostitute.
3- You can be a Nietzsche wannabe in a world where there is plenty of evidence of the supernatural.
4- The genetic pool in this continent is really poor. Alternatively, they’re chugging peasants out of bottles in powers of two like in Brave new world. The merchants look like a particularly vast and prosper family.
5- Even in times of need, people are devoted to a sanctioned trading card game. Nobody forges cards or makes their own, they pay good gold for them.
6- Being a sorceress or witch means you’re immune to foot blisters and can climb rocky mountains with high heels.
7-With the right tools, you can see in the dark, stay underwater longer than humanly possible and slow time. But low fences, logs, pebbles and small fallen branches are unsurmountable obstacles, especially on horseback.
8- Geralt is a master of combat, expert in monsters and has inhuman senses. Nevertheless, sometimes he will decide that the best course of action is to try to punch a bear to death.
9- If you try to build a feminist Geralt, you’re going to get in a fuckload of fistfights.
10- Witcher potions are homepathic: they never replenish the ingredients, they just keep adding alcohol to them.

Blindsight (Peter Watts, 2006)

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Blindsight, by Peter Watts (2006).

Score: Astounding, but unnecessarily obscure.

If I hadn’t been assured that this was an exceptional book, I would not have read past the first twenty pages. A guy with half his brain removed, vampires played straight? What in the world? And yes, exceptional is the word, though not always in a good way.

In a future where vampires have been discovered to be an extinct species of hominid, cannibalistic, sociopathic and extremely intelligent, and baseline humans are receding more and more into a massive VR realm called Heaven, a crew of enhanced humans is sent to investigate a potentially alien signal out in the Oort cloud. The story is told by Siri Keeton, who had a radical hemispherectomy as a child and as a result has exceptional, sherlockian analysis skills, but reduced empathy. The rest of the crew are the linguist Susan James and other three personae sharing a body with her, the super soldier Amanda Bates and the biologist with enhanced senses and data processing, Isaac Spintzel, all commanded by the vampire Jukka Sarasti.

Much like Neuromancer back then, the biggest crime of Blindsight is that it’s unnecessarily obscure in its narration (or I am too dumb to understand it, which can also be the case). Almost a third into it I had to put it down and go look up the most basic facts about the plot, such as what the vampires in this were like, what the Icarus Array was, what the matter was with the members of the crew, and when I got the explanation I wondered if the person who wrote it was reading the same book as me because I didn’t seem to understand or retain all the details. It’s a bit irregular in this sense, too. It has some passages that are crystal clear, with meaningful dialogue, and some others just as abstruse as a wannabe constructivist philosopher. I found it especially ironic in all those instances of Siri going: “and now I could see it”, “and now I understood”, followed by two or three thick paragraphs of gibberish. Colour me surprised, I still don’t understand anything. It’s a matter of underdeveloping of the narration and descriptions. Many things are described too vaguely, you need a lot of guessing to follow along. Other authors have managed to construct words and discourses almost as complex without losing the reader trying, such as Alastair Reynolds or China Miéville, even Neal Stephenson pulls it off, and the man is really disperse. See, obscure is not complex, nor deep, nor interesting. Obscure is obscure. But I don’t think Watts is obscure out of arrogance, I’m guessing he overestimated the reader or things just came out like that.

Nevertheless, and unlike wannabe constructivist philosophers, Watts packed Blindsight with content, even if sometimes it doesn’t shine through the actual words on the page. And it’s really the biggest strength of this book, how thoroughly researched it is, and how much meaningful philosophical reflection is contained in it. The transhumanism is only the beginning, and it’s quite heavy: four people living in the body of one, considered people and not a personality disorder, people who have extended virtual senses, others who live their lives as brains in a vat, and obviously, trying to figure out if an alien being is intelligent, sentient or human. But it goes further, into the territory of things like sociopathy and empathy. Is there any difference between something that is empathetic and something that behaves like it’s empathetic? Is sentience a necessary condition for intelligence? For higher intelligence? Are we all Chinese rooms after all? Would it make any difference to me if everyone else was?

And in case you didn’t believe that the neuroscience, physics and biology were researched, the fucker added a whole appendix with almost 150 references to scientific papers. Watts, being a marine biologist, has evolution and physiology all figured out, but went out of his way to do a lot of reading on neuroscience, physics, engineering, what have you. And it’s pretty convincing, at least when you see he actually listed the papers he got the stuff from. I had a couple of instances of “you can’t actually do that… oh, he listed a paper where they tried it out and worked”.

And last but not least, Watts is here Lovecraft’s worthiest heir. The Eldritch abomination and cosmic horror born of his mind are both quite faithful to the original lore and genuinely scary by twenty-first century standards. But I’ll not spoil why. You’ll have to read it yourself.

All in all, is it worth it? Definitely.

Blindsight is released under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded for free from here.

BONUS: If you found the different mental disorders exemplified interesting, you might want to have a look at the recently deceased Oliver Sacks’s book The man who mistook his wife for a hat.