The Book of Swords

I came across this announcement for a new Sword & Sorcery anthology The Book of Swords.

While my experience with anthologies has not been that great this far, I am still looking forward to it. It has a couple of the bigger names on its list and there’s also already an announcment for a second volume, The Book of Magic, which I am even more curious about.

My Star Wars Headcanon

While writing about the Star Wars games that I played, I noticed that almost all of them are pretty old by now. So I got to work to create some kind of timeline of what I consider the important books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe and the result I got is this.

You can get the 90s Kid out of the 90s, but you can’t get the 90s out of the 90s Kid. It really seems like the golden age of Star Wars to me, which is not terribly surprising given how old I was then. If I would have been into anything else, I probably would still vonsider the 90s to be the best period it ever had.

Another thing that surprised me in hindsight that there were six years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 3. Such restraint! It almost seems like they were making those movies one at at time. Which seems incredibly slow by today’s standards. At least I got to be relieved that the time between 3 and 7 was not nearly as long as the time between 6 and 1, which by this point would no longer have surprised me. Still, in trade school I have classmates who were not even born when Episode 1 was out.

My Star Wars Game List

There are a lot of Star Wars video games that have been released over the years and I have played a substential part of them myself. But I have not played any new ones in quite a while, which got me to make this list. These are a roughly chronological order, as far as I can remember it.

  • X-Wing: (1993, PC) My first “proper” videogame that I played at my home for serious amounts of time. After having first played it at a friend’s place after school for dozens of hours, it was the very first game I got for myself when we got our first computer. Wonderful game that I still never completed.
  • Tie Fighter: (1994, PC) Much more polished than X-Wing with better graphics, a much wider variety of ships, and a much stronger campaign. And to my knowledge so far the only game that lets you play as a loyal Imperial from start to end. This one I did actually finish.
  • Rebel Assault II: (1995, PC) An okay arcade game that I played quite some time when I didn’t feel like X-Wing or Tie Fighter, but ultimately it was forgetable.
  • Rebel Assault: (1993, PC) I got this one because it was a Star Wars game and I needed more! Of this one I remember almost nothing and I didn’t play it much.
  • Shadows of the Empire: (1996, PC) A game that I think is objectively pretty poor and probably aged terribly by now, but back in the day I thought it was really awesome. A fun third person console shoter that captured the style of Star Wars pretty well but had a really weird 3D-Engine that handled perspective in a rather wonkey way.
  • Rebellion: (1998, PC) This is a strategy game that was very different from the Command & Conquers and Warcrafts that were the mainstream of that time. Pretty much the whole game takes place on a big map of the galaxy on which you place orders to produce ships and train troops and send them to guard or attack various systems. There is a 3D space battle mode that lets you command your ships in a way somewhat resembling Homeworld, but it never worked well and took really long and you always had the option to simply let the computer calculate an outcome for the battle instantaneously. Still, as a strategy game it was pretty cool and I played it a lot.
  • Rogue Squadron: (1998, PC) This game has lots of big fans, but I am not one of them. I just wanted more stuff like X-Wing and this one is more of an arcade style console game. And I thought it also looked rather ugly with its very limited range of sight and pretty small combat areas.
  • X-Wing Alliance: (1999, PC) This game looks much better and sophisticated than Tie Fighter, but in the end it left me somewhat lukewarm. I still played it all the way through two or three times, but the campaign just couldn’t compete with Tie Fighter.
  • Episode I: (1999, PC) This is one of the worst games I ever played, and certainly the worst one that I finished. It’s just awful in every way and I was actually very hesitant to get it, but it was a Star Wars game and I needed it!
  • Racer: (1999, PC) Making a Star Wars racing game that is really just a reskin of Wipeout sounds like a terrible idea, but the end result was actually really great. It’s really fast, as you would expect from Podracing, and the tracks are just gorgeous. When I got Wipeout HD for PS3 a while back I was actually really disappointed how poorly it held up compared to the cool tracks of Racer. I might actually hunt down an old N64 just to play this game on a big TV.
  • Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast: (2002, PC) This game is awesome! Kyle Katarrn is awesome! And you run around slicing stormtroopers to pieces with a lightsaber! The plot and the villain are crap and the levels not very pretty, but fighting against Dark Jedi with lightsabers is just such amazing fun. I actually played this one online for quite some time, which was always a blast with pretty much every match having force jump and force push set to maximum.
  • Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy: (2003, PC) And this one is even better! You don’t get to play Kyle Katarrn and your new generic Jedi apprentice isn’t that interesting, but the level design is much prettier and the various levels have a lot more variety. And more lightsaber action.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: (2003, PC, Xbox) Widely considered to be the best Star Wars game ever made. And for good reasons. It’s a pretty standard BioWare RPG and actually the first of the post-D&D games style that has now become the standard with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. For some reason I completed the game only once when it came out and started a second short-lived attempt years later. Now 14 years later I am finally giving it another go. (And so far it doesn’t disappoint.)
  • The Force Unleashed: (2008, PS3) This game really is just a Star Wars reskin of God of War/Devil May Cry. And I have to give it to the game that it is pretty fun to play. But as a Star Wars story it’s just terrible. The plot and especially the protagonist are just completely bonkers and have no place in Star Wars. Unlike what I hoped for, this game is in no way a substitute for Jedi Knight. (Still got a Platinum trophy on PS3.)
  • Racer Revenge: (2002, PS2) I got this game when I first heard that Racer was also available on PS2. Though only kind of, as it turned out. It’s the same engine, but this game has completely different tracks. Which just nowhere come close to the awesomness of the original game. A straight up port would have been much better.

Upcoming

These are games that I have not played yet but plan to do so, or which have been announced and that I am looking forward to to see how they turn out.

  • Republic Commando: (2005, Xbox) I’ve heard pretty good things about this game many times and always planned to try it myself some day. Until just recently I never realized that it’s actually been out for 12 years now. I finally got the game and play to give it a try after I finished my new KotOR run.
  • Battlefront 4: (PS4) Battlefront 3 is the most impressive looking game I’ve ever seen and I’ve been planning to give another shot at serious online playing for a while, but all the reviews for it just made it sound too simplistic to invest more than a few hours into it. With Battlefront 4 I am hoping that they won’t be repeating the same mistakes and the announcements for the campaign actually sound like something that could potentially be pretty interesting. Not expecting much from it, but it’s something I want to keep an eye on.
  • Visceral Games RPG: (PS4) I know very little about the game except that it’s an RPG that is being made by the developers of Dead Space and has the director and writer of the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series. And as a huge bonus it is set during the Rebellion era, which means it probably is going to ignore the Clone Wars and New Wars material for the most part. This could potentially be huge.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition

Now that’s a game I have not heard from in a long time. A long time…

This comes completely out of nowhere. Fantasy Flight Games, the current license holder for Star Wars pen and paper Roleplaying Games, is releasing a 30th Anniversary Edition of the one and only original Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

It looks to even be the first edition, which is widely regarded as the best edition of the West End Games game because of its simplicity, and even as the best Star Wars ever made. It’s described as a limited edition but priced at a reasonable $60. Which leaves the question how limited it will really be.

It’s a fantastic game, but I think in the current RPG market there is probably little risk of this becoming any kind of threat to FFG’s own Star Wars game. Small and tidy games don’t seem to be making it big these days and customers love their piles of splatbooks with lots of pictures and endless character customization. Which this game certainly doesn’t have.

If I could get my hands on one for $60, I’d definitely buy it.

I just gave up on the new Star Wars

For me, the last two Star Wars movies rank at the very bottom together with Episode 2, all below Episode 1. But I was still having some hope that Rogue One was meant as a quick cash grab (which the Han Solo movie seems to follow) and that Episode 8 could finally turn things around with Jeffrey Abrams being gone.

But I just learned that Abrams will be back for Episode 9. So whatever good might come out of 8 will all become irrelevant anyway.

Thanks, but no. I gave this new series two tries and I just can’t get myself to care.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalogue, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.)

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Update: Some more that I totally forgot and didn’t think about: Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

A Wanderer on Kaendor – New writing project

As I’ve been hinting at over the past weeks, I have once again turned to trying my hand at writing fantasy. I am still very early in the process and just started working on a first outline, but so far a pretty solid concept has already formed. To a large extend it’s an updated version of my ideas I had two years ago, which ended up going nowhere because I was never able to transform my ideas for characters and setting into plot. But a while back I figured out that you actually can write action adventure tales that are character driven instead of plot driven, and that opened up a whole new space of ideas to me that really has me want to get something down to paper.

Oldschool Sword & Sorcery

To probably nobody’s surprise, the style I want to write in is Sword & Sorcery in the style of ConanElric, Kane, and Hyperborea. Modern Sword & Sorcery is generally thrown together with Dark Fantasy or the completely unironic and akwardly oblivious Grimdark. But while Kane does match the stereotype of the dour cold-hearted killer, the style as a whole is probably best described in the opening ofThe Phoenix on the Sword, which became the work that led to it’s establishment as a distinctive type of fantasy:

“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

In my view, Sword & Sorcery is all about tales of encounters with the supernatural. About remarkable individuals who have brushes with vast realms that lie beyond the world of ordinary existance and behold things not meant for mortal minds. And they are also tales of great emotions and passions with great senses of wonder and exhilaration. It is very much a style that has grown out of the tradition of Romanticism. Yet passion and wonder are things that I find missing in most works that I see released as Sword & Sorcery in the 21st century. A niche that has been seriously lacking attention for a good while now, even with hushed wispers of a Sword & Sorcery revival making their rounds for close to a decade now. But by now we have to realize that we won’t be having such stories unless we write them.

My take on it

Sword & Sorcery is a style of stories that lends itself really much more to shorter self contained tales rather that big multi-volume doorstoppers. Yet there is barely any market for short length stories outside of obscure magazines that nobody seems to read, and none at all for stories of medium length. And I can very much see why there is little interest in short stand-alone one-shots where the world and characters are over barely after they have been introduced. But all the big classics of Sword & Sorcery – Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Elric, Kane – are not like that at all. When we read them today we get collections of many stories often spanning multiple volumes. They were not written like that back then, but it seems to me the perfect approach to write them now. Instead of one story in three books, we can write three stories in one book. (And of course expand to nine stories in three books.) All set in the same world and sharing the same cast of characters. Very much like TV shows were being made in the 90s. This way you can write stories using the well established and tried structure of Sword & Sorcery while providing the requirements of the contemporary market.

As the saying always goes, “write what you would want to read”. And there are so many things in contemporary fantasy that I think have great potential for so much more than is being done with it, as well as a lot of fascinating themes and elements that I never see covered in fantasy anywhere. The one thing that motivates me most to write is the types of heroes that are common in the action and adventure genres. They are heroes without fear, who are undisturbed by violence and death, and who never question the whole business of constantly fighting hordes of enemies. And they are also almost always more than capable of dealing with seemingly overwhelming opposition because they are just that great and special. You could easily say that I have a great fascination with violence, but it’s far from the heroic glorification of action movies and games. Depictions of violence tend to greatly tone it down to make it entertaining fun, but I am much more interested in treatments of violence as horror in itself.

A major influence in this regard to me is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. Snake is an extraordinarily dangerous fighter and skilled master of stealth, but he is also a pawn who keeps getting used by others who outsmart him, and while he always wins in the end, he usually is left with regrets about having been tricked into furthering another villain’s goal. Snake represents a very unconventional form of heroism that is much more about being of honorable character and regarding violence as a means of last resort that holds no glory. Perhaps an even greater influence on my idea of heroism is Indiana Jones, who is constantly being beaten and outsmarted and doesn’t really have any superhuman strength and power. But his heroic nature lies in his determination and courage, which makes him come back and try again until in the end he comes out on top. A third character I love is Geralt from The Witcher, who like Snake is a superhuman warrior with a very unique insight into violence and a very critical view of himself and his work. As we have a rather unique outlook on militarism and heroism in German culture, Snake, Indy, and Geralt are heroes that resonate with me much more than the average action hero who enjoys his violent deeds. I am with Yoda when it comes to “great warriors”.

Another topic that greatly fascinates me is failure and defeat. Mainstream American media do not accept failure as the final outcome. “Failure is not an option.” But my own take on existentialist philosophy (influenced by Buddhism) is that failure is always an option. “Never give up” is possibly one of the worst advice that I’ve ever heard. I love stories in which the protagonist eventually grows to be more by dropping the commitment to a goal that no longer seems to be worth pursuing. Finding peace always seems more important to me than winning or being right, which is something that I find very much missing in current and recent adventure movies in general and also fantasy books specifically. Giving up and running away can be a form of personal greatness that can be a satisfying conclusion to a story, which is something I really want to write about. There is obviously a strong Noir influence in everything.

The third thing I want o feature heavily in these stories is a strong mystical element. The treatment of religion in fantasy is often superficial at best and the supernatural reduced to an alternative form of physics. I’ve been taking classes on existentialism, spirituality, mysticism, and Asian and African religions for four years in university and there are huge psychological and social elements to them that have incredible storytelling potential. I see the Encounter with the Supernatural as a core element of Sword & Sorcery and want to make it the center of my own stories. And not simply encounters with fictional beasts and wizards who can throw fire, but by making the adventures spiritual journeys to a higher reality. There are some really incredible lines in Mass Effect, that sadly the series did not really follow up on, but which quite well describe the sense of wonder I want to pursue:

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it. You can not even grasp the nature of our existance. We have no beginning, we have no end. We are infinite. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

I admit that all of this is very ambitious to say the least. Especially for a first serious attempt at writing. But if you have something fresh and different to say, I think it does not matter that much how polished and refined it is. I am very exited to see how this will work out for me. I think there’s real potential for it to be great.

The Wanderer

I intend Kaendor to be a series that covers the adventures of several different heroes. But for the beginning I want to focus on one character in particular, who has been constantly on my mind for years, even though I have not decided on a final name yet.

The Wanderer came into being as a reaction to typical fantasy heroes who regularly tend to be or become the most extraordinary people of their world. Individuals of remarkable talent and potential who end up with unmatched skills and perform the most amazing deeds that become the stuff of legend. Over the years I have developed a great love for the smaller stories. Of characters who are not the best at what they do and who don’t have the skill and power to fight enemies that greatly outnumber them, and who are not assured victory because they are the hero of the story. The Wanderer is a woman without great skills or special powers, who doesn’t have great fame or any significant influence. Nor is she on any mission or quests. What drives her is her curiosity and the search for answers to questions she can’t specify herself. She travels the lands as a seeker of enlightenment, similar to how Conan was wandering the world to gain greatness. In a world full of strange wonders and mysteries, she often joins groups of treasure hunters and mercenaries or travels on her own, with a temporary companion or alone. As she is often on her own and no master of combat, fighting is usually not an option and so her adventures into strange places are more about wits and bravery.

The Lands of Kaendor

Kaendor is a world very similar to my past work for RPGs and is made up of many of the same building blocks, including peoples, creatures, and landscapes. They are my favorite cool things that I have scavenged from other fantasy worlds for years. But below the aesthetic surface it’s a quite different world that is’t tailored to the specific needs of campaigns or build around game mechanics. Instead it’s a world that is mostly about culture, society, and elaborate manifestations of the supernatural and the mysteries of the cosmos.

Kaendor is a forest world covered almost entirely in trees or water. The known lands consist of a long stretch of coast and nearby islands that reach from the arctic to the tropics but still make up only a small fraction of the full size of the world. The sky is dominated by a huge moon covered in changing bands of blue and beige clouds, which causes regular eclipses lasting for hours every spring and fall. The forests are dominated by conifers and ferns and home to many great beasts, including giant reptiles and insects.

The cultures of Kaendor are consist of various nonhuman peoples and are based on a wide range of civilizations from the Bronze Age, a time period that is surprisingly underused as a source for fantasy. There are a small number of city states ruled by regional kings, but most people are living in small clan holds deep in a vast wilderness. Armor consists of simple cuirasses of bronze scales and the weaponry of heroes consists of spears, shields, bows, axes, and small swords. I have a very clear and distinct aesthetic in mind for this world, which is very strongly influenced by The Empire Strikes Back and Morrowind, following my idea of Baroque Fantasy.

Finally there’s the strong supernatural element. The world as a whole really consists of two mirroring realms. The mortal world and the Spiritworld, which are always in close contact with each other and result in a strong presence of spirits in all places. Spirits are strange beings that normally exist outside of mortal perception, existing outside the familiar passing of time. Witches and shamans don’t really have magical powers of their own but possess great knowledge about the spirits and the ways to communicate with and manipulate them. By having access to the knowledge and abilities of spirits they become able to gain insight into the present, past, and also future and have some degree of control over the fortunes of people and settlements.

All in all, I feel like I have a lot of great ideas that are quite different from most fantasy that is out there today while also drawing heavily on classic Sword & Sorcery from the past that many people are wishing to see more of. While it’s somewhat daunting, I see a real chance to do something great with this.

Originality of Experience

I’ve recently been thinking about the question of originality. When discussing the creation of stories, particularly of beginning writers, frequently the question comes up whether the work feels original or rather derivative. Originality is widely treated as perhaps the most important thing for a new writer. Yet at the same time there are famous lines like “all great stories have already been told”, “all art is derivative”, and “there is nothing new under the sun”. How is one supposed to write a good original story like that?

I think it is important to make a clear distinction between originality of content and originality of meaning. Content is all the many pieces from which a story is assembled. The characters, the setting, the props, and also plots and situations. To come up with a character or plot, or even just a monster or magic spell that is completely original is extremely difficult to the point of perhaps being impossible. When it comes to these elements that make up a story, I believe that all art is indeed derivative.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that all our storytelling evolved from the telling of accounts of actual events that were embelished for dramatic effect. And it doesn’t take any big leaps to tell stories in which nothing has actually happened in reality. But such stories are not simply made up from nothing. They are constructed from elements that already exist. Any country, state, or nation you can imagine is based on already existing examples in the actual world, and all monsters are evolving embelishments of regular animals. To try to be truly original in these things is not only futile, but also completely unnecessary.

However, a story is not just characters, situations, and environments. What is really interesting about stories is how the characters in them react to and interact with the situations and other characters they encounter. How it affects them, what they want to do about it, and what their opinions on them are. This is where writers have the opportunity to put their own unique stamp on a work and create something fresh and original. You are unique and special. Just like everyone else. While this doesn’t make anyone better, it makes everyone different. And this difference is what allows writers to be original with their stories. When you write your own stories, you can have characters do in a given situation what you think they should do. Feel what you think they should feel. And actions have the consequences you think they should have. Instead of what conventions and traditions say usually happens in such situations. I discussed this in the Fantasy Faction forum and one person called this the Originality of Experience. You have characters that are familiar, in situations that are familiar, surrounded by things that are familiar. There is pretty little that can be done about that. But the reason we’re reading or watching a story is because we want to see how it will all play out this time and hoping that it will provide us with a new experience. That’s really what originality is all about.