Monthly Archives: December 2014

1998: The Great Year of Videogames

If your age is about 30, then there’s a very good chance your favorite classic videogame was releases in 1998. I first noticed this strange high occurance of famous gaming classics when I learned that Metal Gear Solid was release in the same years as two of my other favorite games: Baldur’s Gate and Half-Life. Also StarCraft. And FreeSpace. What, Thief too? And Commandos?!

Just look at this!

  • January 21: Resident Evil 2
  • February 11: Xenogears
  • February 28: Star Wars: Rebellion
  • March 19: FreeSpace
  • March 31: StarCraft
  • May 22: Unreal
  • July 31: Commandos
  • August 5: Soulcalibur
  • August 21: Rainbow Six
  • September 3: Metal Gear Solid
  • September 24: Anno 1602
  • September 30: Fallout 2
  • October 30: Grim Fandango
  • November 19: Half-Life
  • November 21: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • November 30: Baldur’s Gate
  • November 30: Thief
  • December 3: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron

There might of course be some bias here. And given the huge amount of games that are released every year, this list of 18 famous titles may not be that impressive. But look at them! These aren’t just games that were simply “really quite good”, but a lot of them had a huge impact in the long run, that continues to this day. Nobody has to be told what Half-Life and StarCraft are. Baldur’s Gate is the granddaddy of Dragon Age and Mass Effect and made BioWare into the famous company it is today. Ocarina of Time is the first Zelda game as we know them today. Soulcalibur, Metal Gear Solid, and Thief are still getting new games. And while my memory might deceive me here, I think Rainbow Six pretty much invented the Modern Military Shoter with political backstory. Commandos and Anno 1602 may not be much remembered these days, but back then they made a really big splash and got lots of sequels and inspired many other games with similar mechanics.

I think this is much more than simply perception bias and nostalgia. 1998 was an amazing year for videogames, the like we probably havn’t seen again since.

Book Review: The Last Wish

I’ve been reading a lot of Sword & Sorcery books recently, both classic and (relatively) new, and I now got around to finish The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Spoiler for the end of this review: Oh boy, am I happy!

The Last Wish was released in Polish in 1993 and contains stories written both before and after the release of Miecz Przeznaczenia (no English translation) the previous year. The stories also take place earlier, which makes The Last Wish both the second and also first book in the series, depending on how you want to count it. The book consists of seven stories of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter from an old but fading orders of warriors who have acquired special powers through magic and alchemy. Six of the stories are conventional narratives with a beginning, middle, and end in the correct order, while with the seventh Sapkowski did something rather unconventional and quite clever. The Voice of Reason is about as long as all the other stories in the books, but split into seven different parts, between which the other six stories are inserted as flashbacks. It’s not like Geralt sitting down and telling another character a tale from his past, but instead we cut to those other stories so that Sapkowski can give us the necessary background info we need to understand the context of the next scene in The Voice of Reason. May sound strange, but in practice it flows very smoothly and works perfectly well.

Even though the book is kind of an anthology, I am not going to go into detail about each story individually, as they are all by the same author about the same character and they do form a single coherent, if very loosely connected work. In my previous Sword & Sorcery reviews there were always two things that really had me disappointed in a story: Lack of evocative descriptions and lack of thrilling action. While the former is mostly a personal preference, action, passion, and thrill is what I consider the most fundamental essence of Sword & Sorcery. You can change and experiment with all the common archetypes and conventions, but if there is no passion and fury, a story will always just be Heroic Fantasy. The Witcher has all the hallmarks of a Sword & Sorcery hero: An outsider who uses descisive action for selfish gains. And at least in the first two books, the tales of Geralt use the classic short story format as well. (The other six books don’t.) So I gave The Last Wish a try, hoping to find something for my Sword & Sorcery craving. And does it deliver?

Oh yes, and how!

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Book Review: Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of Flesh is a… well, I am not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a novel, nor quite a series of short stories, but something inbetween. Written by William King in 2011, Stealer of Flesh tells the first major adventure of Kormak, a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn who hunts the ancient creatures of the night. It consists of four stories that are very closely linked together but each have their own distinct character and take place in four very different locations. Calling them “episodes” feels very appropriate to me.

Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of Flesh

The story follows Kormaks hunt of a demon from the ancient past, who has returned to haunt the world, but is yet too weak to face a seasoned hunter of monsters and spirits all by himself. Several times does Kormak come face to face with the demon, but each time it manages to escape from him, keeping the hunt going for what seems like several weeks, though three of the stories all seem to take place within a single day.

King obviously is writing to capture the classic spirit of Sword & Sorcery. The stories are full with mentions of the Elder Sign and Old Ones, there is black lotus and Kormaks homeland is distant Aquilea, which surly doesn’t sound almost exactly like Aquilonia by coincidence. And to disperse any remaining uncertainty, King explicitly lists Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Smith as the people who inspired him in his introduction. You couldn’t make a stronger commitment to the genre than this. Which is why I think it entirely appropriate to not only judge Stealer of Flesh on its own merrits, but also on how well it manages to capture the spirit of the genre.

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On the origin of D&D species

It is no secret that the classic character races in Dungeons & Dragons, consisting of human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, are taken from The Lord of the Rings, as well as the standard enemies of orcs and goblins. However, a huge number of other creatures from the many Monster Manuals are neither original creations, nor taken from various mythologies as well. A great number of monsters and critters has been lifted directly from literature, a method that was at least continued until 2000 with the first Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition. Which is a completely legitimate thing to do, and there are countless of appearances in videogames of creatures that are very clearly beholders, which are one of the most famous original creations of D&D.

However, as I’ve been reading some older fantasy stories this year, I had a number of “Hey, I know that thing!” moments, and I think it would be interesting to share those.

  • The “Prehistoric Animals” Toys: These are probably the best known group by now. I don’t know who exactly is responsible for their creation, but the rust monster, bullete, and owlbear are all based on cheap plastic toy monsters from Hong Kong. Toni DiTerlizzi wrote a very good article about them last year. The carrion crawler is also based on a similar plastic monster from a different source.
  • Grimlocks: I was actually quite surprised to learn that apparently grimlocks appear only in very few cases outside of D&D. I had been kind of asuming that they were based on some local legend somewhere in Europe, but apparently they are simply a slightly altered version of the morlocks from the 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.
  • Thri-kreen: These are one of the iconic creatures of the Dark Sun setting, but actually they are based very closely on the tharks from the novel “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Burroughs, which was released in 1917. They are tall, green, have two legs and four arms, a pair of big tusks, big eyes, can jump very high and far, and are a nomadic people of the desert. The only major change in Dark Sun was to make them insectoid, while the tharks of Mars seem to be more reptilian, if anything.
  • Girallon: These monsters first appeared in the Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition and are both relative newcomers and not particularly popular in D&D. However, they are also taken stright from “A Princess of Mars” as well, where they are simply called White Apes. Giant gorillas with white fur and four arms. There is really no room for ambiguity there.
  • Purple Worm: Giant subterranean worms like these appear in H.P. Lovecrafts story “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” from 1929, where they are called dholes. A similar concept appears in the sand worms of Frank Herberts 1965 novel “Dune”.
  • Yuan-ti: The resamblance of Yuan-ti to the naga of Southeast-Asia is easy to see, but the specific details of these creatures are very close matches to the Serpent Men, who appear in several stories by Robert Howard. They first seem to have appeared in the 1929 story “The Shadow Kingdom”, where they are a race of humanoids with snake heads, who have the ability to disguise themselves as humans and many magical powers, and worship the gods Set and the Great Serpent. The 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” also has what would be a yuan-ti pureblood.
  • Elder Brain: The Elder Brains of the ilithids, though not the ilithids themselves, appear first in the 1930 novel “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon. In the book, they are the Fourth Men and control the Fifth Men, which are very much unlike mind flayers.
  • Kuo-toa: While many of the specific abilites of the kuo-toa are unique to the creature from D&D, these creatures are very closely based on the Deep Ones, that first appeared in the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, which was written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1931.
  • Gibbering Mouther: The creature that appears in D&D as the gibbering mouther is a severely downgraded version of the Shoggoth, another famous monster from Lovecrafts stories, which had its first appearance in “At the Mountains of Madness” from 1931.
  • Grell: A creature looking pretty much identical to a grell except for the color appears on one edition of the “Legion of Space” by Jack Williamson, which was written in 1934. In the story, the creatures are called medusae.
  • Worg: The creature, as it appears in D&D, is basically identical to the wargs from Tolkiens “The Hobbit”, which was published in 1937.
  • Displacer Beast: These creatures are based on the ceurl from the 1950 sci-fi novel “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”. They also appear in many Final Fantasy games under their original name.
  • Xill: The xill is a rather obscure monster in D&D, even though they have been around since the original Fiend Folio and reappeared both in Planescape and the 3rd edition Monster Manual. Like the displacer beast, they are taken from “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”, where their name is ixtl.
  • Frost Worm: The frost worm first appeared under the name remora in the 1969 story “The Lair of the Ice Worm” by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It’s practically identical in every aspect.
  • Spider Eater: This monster is strongly based on the sith from the Barsoom novel “The Warlord of Mars”.
  • Lich: The classic undead wizard is not an original creation by any specific author, but is indeed a figure from slavic legend. Koshei the Deathless is a powerful sorcerer so ancient that his body has decayed to almost nothing but a starved skeleton, and who has gained immortality by hiding away his soul in a magical box which is safely secured in a secret place.