On the beautiful simplicity of the Middle Ages in film and literature.

 

Rolling, sunbathed meadows, pastures littered with sheep, their fleece as white as fresh snow, bare-foot children running through the not-so-dirty dirt road that weaves through a quaint village, comprised of wooden huts with straw roofs. Hard working men in plaid shirts labor in the radiant sun, forging, crafting, building. And all this is seen through the eyes of a comely knight-errant striding atop his gorgeous charger.

A pretty picture, to be sure, and one that most of us know all too well. Few things are more reassuring than the highly romaticised vision of the Medieval countryside. It’s simple, it’s naturalistic and wholly void of any sort of pretension or malignant thought. The Shire is a wonderful example of this very sentiment, a place of innocence in the face of the hardship and danger that grip the world around. And therein lies the allure of these tales, of this idyllic imagery – they are the pinnacle of escapism. Every one of us has, at some point in our lives, be it at a time of unbearable stress or existential desperation, dreamed of a simpler world, one where purpose is easy to discover, adventure hides behind every corner, as does opportunity, and social mobility is as quick and easy as wielding a blade in combat. To hell with the details, to hell with the technicalities of reality in the Middle Ages, historical accuracy needn’t have a central place in a fairy tale. Think of Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale – the story of a peasant that dons a knight’s suit of armor and takes part in jousting tournaments in said knight’s name, earning both himself and his friends coin and renown. The movie shamelessly borrows from true historical tales, as well as from other pieces of fiction. It combines classic rock (Queen, David Bowie) with a story that, at its core, is quintessential example of chivalric romance. It’s truly a dreamy experience (though, from a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s far from perfect).

But the desire for simplicity goes beyond the dream of a world that is easier to understand. In the age of the precariat, one wishes for a higher meaning, to discover his true calling in life, that which would fulfill and satisfy him. Economic insecurity turns man into machine, constantly performing repetitive tasks, until being summarily shut down. Wage stagnation and income inequality are some of the biggest hurdles that the generations to come must overcome, especially if the rise of the precariat class is to be stemmed – labor productivity grows much faster than wages and there are only so many hours in the day. In this climate of uncertainty and rampant class disproportion, it’s no wonder that the individual would look for reprieve in a magical place where the worker receives the fruits of his labor, where evil is black and good is white and one can easily hack evil to bits with their trusty sword if need be. Even nuanced works that borrow heavily from the history of Medieval Britain like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire feature a faction or party that is clearly morally superior and, sooner or later, receives a chance to retaliate, to exact vengeance upon those who wronged both it and the surrounding world.

The other crucial component of Medieval romanticism is the knight – typically a wanderer, lone wolf or one with a small pack, rarely displaying more than a limited array of emotional responses. The knights-errant are influential stoic characters, precursors to action movie badasses, as portrayed by the likes of Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes. And why is any of this particularly important? Because a strong character, one who is physically able and mentally sound, who lives a fulfilling life and is constantly confronted with something new, offers the opportunity for the reader, viewer, or player to live vicariously through this protagonist’s experiences. In an age where depression is becoming an ever more serious issue to public health, there is no wonder that some individuals turn to mediums such as gaming and film to explore aspects of life that are inaccessible to them in their current state. Becoming famed monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia in the Medieval Europe-inspired world of the Witcher offers something that a person suffering from severe anxiety or chronic depression may never experience otherwise. Likewise, watching The Seventh Seal, a film in which Max Von Sydow, a knight returning from the Crusades, finds Europe enveloped by the Black Plague and plays chess with Death, might bring the viewer closer to realizations that he’d never have reached himself, might even help him on a profoundly intellectual level.

Or maybe it’s all harmless diversion and my Occam’s razor simply hasn’t been sharpened in too long.

Under 800: Clash Royale and microtransactions

With approximately 200 million downloads across all mobile platforms, Clash Royale is one of the most played games in history. It’s not particularly hard to see why that is – nigh on infinite replayability, coupled with an addictive gameplay loop, based on both luck and skill, and, of course, the gambling element. It’s become customary for multiplayer-only games to feature chests, containing different sorts of loot. Overwatch and Counter-strike crates give the player the chance to change the look of their character models or their guns. Other games, mostly mobile ones, fully embrace the idea of making the player rely heavily on paid features, provided said player wishes to be competitive. This is the so-called ‘freemium’ model – the game is free, and so is progressing through it, in theory, but there are plenty of ways to aid your progress by means of cash transactions. It’s very rare nowadays to find a mobile game that doesn’t feature a shop. In-game currency, different lootcrates and chests that cost real money but are little more than glorified slot machines, meaning that the player, effectively, pays not for the items in the chests, but for the opportunity to win said items. Your money rarely guarantees you anything, it merely speeds up the same process that even F2P (free-to-play) players go through. Needless to say this practice is extremely predatory, as the main demographic of mobile games is young adults aged 16-21, and that’s completely ignoring the fact that many of these games also attract vast hordes of minors.

Let’s take a closer look at Clash Royale. CR is a deck-building game, the player chooses their own set of cards and dukes it out against other players in cool-looking arenas. The catch is that not all cards are created equal – some are inherently overpowered and are obviously created as a means of baiting people into purchasing chests. Upgrading cards changes their stats, and requires the player to acquire a certain amount of the same card to do so. The first level requires two copies, the next one requires four, the third requires ten, the fourth – twenty. And so on. Cards come in different rarities, meaning that the chances of getting them from a chest (the player receives a free chest every four hours, and one chest for every win until they fill up their allocated chest spots, four in all) depends on their quality – higher quality means lower chances. Chests work in much the same way. They too come in many shapes and sizes, the rarest ones have the highest chance of dropping cards of the highest rarity (Legendary). There is a complicated system that governs the chests dropped after a match win, one that involves cycles of hundreds of chests, most of which of the lowest possible quality, which means that an F2P player could go as much as 600 match wins without receiving a chest of the highest rarity.  Oh, and did I mention that there are two types of in-game currency? The player requires gold to pay for the upgrades (yes, you have to pay even after collecting all the necessary cards) and for the occasional card offers in the market. The other currency is the gem. Gems are rarer, and much harder to save up. They’re used for speeding up the opening of chests (because chests take time to unlock, the lowest quality chest takes three hours, while the higher quality ones take a full day to open).

I haven’t gone through all of the intricacies of the chest- and card-drop systems as this would complicate things even further, and I can’t even begin to imagine how confused someone who doesn’t play the game would be upon reading this. Is it possible to play without paying so much as a cent? Absolutely, but the process of levelling up and progressing through the arenas is going to be slow and painful, and you’re always going to be acutely aware of how much easier the game is for people who pay their way to the top. Is it possible to beat these people? Sure, that’s the beauty of Clash Royale – the player’s ability to react mid-game and create different strategies is absolutely crucial, and no amount of money can buy that. But there are plenty of other games that don’t have that going for them. The likes of The Smurfs’ Village, Clash of Clans (as well as most of its cheap knock-offs, for that matter) and Candy Crush are barely-concealed slot machines that either become impossible for F2P in the late-game stage, or don’t even bother hiding the true idea behind them.

There’s an argument to be made in favor of purely cosmetic microtransactions, but the truth is that chests, crates, lootcrates, or whatever else shady developers choose to call their flavor of RNG-based rewards system, abuse the vulnerability of kids and the mental disposition of adults prone to gambling addiction.

The fate of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane – it’s 1995, DOS is still the predominant operating system and the computers are as large as cardboard boxes. The first ever E3 is just around the corner, as is the first PlayStation, and companies like Remedy and BioWare are just being established. Gaming’s formation period hasn’t ended yet, but the potential is there and so is the passion. Enter New World Computing’s Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest, a spin-off of the successful Might and Magic series. The game receives praise for combining elements of adventure, simulation and strategy, as well as offering an accessible, yet hard to master, gameplay. A year later, in 1996, Heroes of Might and Magic II comes out, improving upon its predecessor in every aspect while only taking a fraction of the time to develop. It’s the first in the HOMM franchise to receive an expansion, possibly due to 3DO’s purchase of NWC earlier that year. And then Heroes of Might and Magic III comes along on February 28, 1999.

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See, HOMM III was a truly special game, one of those games that live on in the hearts of their fans for decades and are remembered fondly by everyone who’s experienced them. The third installment of the franchise was by far the best one yet, and  arguably one of the best turn-based strategy games ever created up to that point. It was bigger and better than the prior iterations of HOMM, building on the concepts of the previous games and improving upon them. The number of units was doubled, the graphics were tremendous for their time, and, as customary for the franchise even to this day, the soundtrack was absolutely beautiful, professionally made and easy on the ears. Heroes of Might and Magic III remains, to this day, one of the greatest achievements of the strategy gaming genre.

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3DO made an attempt to capitalize on the success of their game even further, releasing two expansions and the episodic series Heroes Chronicles, which utilized the same engine. Sadly, this marks the beginning of The 3DO Company’s end. The turn of the millennium brought nothing but the realization that the situation was becoming ever more dire by the day. The expansions weren’t selling as well as they’d anticipated, Heroes Chronicles was practically invisible on the market. Production of Heroes of Might and Magic IV began around the beginning of 2001, but soon it became obvious that NWC wouldn’t be able to finish the game quickly enough and, thus, it was shipped early, unfinished and unpolished, prior to post-release patches and changes. Critically, the game did rather well, but the fan base was split in half. Some absolutely abhorred the complete change of pace from HOMM III, while others loved the new features, though the latter group was a minority at the time and even more so now. Heroes could now take part in the battles, the combat view was changed, the UI slightly modified, just enough to throw even the seasoned veterans for a bit of a loop. The spell system was different, the atmosphere was off, the list went on and on. The result was a commercial flop, despite the critical success. This was, arguably, the final blow for 3DO. The expansions did even worse, understandably, as the player base either moved away from HOMM IV and back to the previous game or completely gave up on the series.

The 3DO Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2003, just a year after the release of HOMM IV. Employees were laid off without pay and the company’s intellectual properties were sold off to the highest bidder. The Heroes of Might and Magic and Might and Magic names were bought by Ubisoft. NWC ceased to exist following the dissolution of their parent company, and that was the end of Heroes of Might and Magic as we knew it.

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Ubi announced their plans to develop a fifth game almost immediately after buying the franchise. The producer was to be Fabrice Cambounet and the game would be made from the ground up, despite Ubisoft gaining access to NWC’s prototype of the next game in the series. NWC’s version was true to the legacy of the franchise, featuring the familiar 2D graphics and interesting artwork. What Ubisoft created was nothing like the previous games, be it visually or in terms of the gameplay. It received favorable reviews and was generally regarded as a soft reboot of the series, thus not prompting any serious backlash from the already dwindling HOMM fan base. The game, in my eyes and in those of many other players, had done away with the charm of its precursors. The 90s feel was gone, and so was the lightheartedness. The rest of the games in the franchise, the sixth and seventh installments, received negative reviews and low sales numbers, and despite this there is no indication of Ubi trying to return to the classic feel of the series in order to rekindle the passion that gamers once had for it. And why would one of the biggest corporations in gaming attempt such a thing? HOMM is relatively cheap to develop and, at this point, the expectations are so spectacularly low that even the faintest sign of progress and improvement would be regarded as a step in the right direction by the big gaming news outlets that seem so inclined to heap praise on even the most hastily produced and mechanically shoddy triple A release.

The story of Heroes of Might and Magic is telling for the path that the gaming industry took in the early 00s. All semblance of innocence is gone, and most of the old-timers have either adjusted or dropped out, leaving only the big sharks to compete. Yes, independent development is alive and kicking, maybe even more so that ever before, but one can’t help but feel that the spark has gone out of game development, that the passion is only observable in those small developer teams that make games on the side. Big titles are made in boardrooms now, amid discussions of optimizing sales and preventing any possible controversy. The actual creative process takes a backseat to the PR departments and all the other white collar employees whose job it is to maximize the shareholders’ profits.

Under 800: The Mist and religion

The Mist is a movie written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella. It tells the story of a small group of people trapped inside a supermarket while a supernatural mist envelops the outside world. At a glance, one might think this is an incredibly cheesy premise that would most likely be dead on arrival if it weren’t for Darabont’s involvement in it, but this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

Don’t go into this movie expecting a “modern” horror flick. The tension comes mainly from the interactions between the characters and the relations that form between them within the tight confines of a small town supermarket. There is gore, yes, and there are plenty of creatures that inhabit the mysterious mist, but they aren’t the main focus – they serve as a means to steer the characters into a certain direction, so they could in turn host an interesting, if somewhat biased, discussion on religion and the depths of despair.

Mrs. Carmody serves as the main antagonist. Mentally unstable and deeply religious, she maintains that the mist is God’s wrath, his vengeance and his punishment. Her idea of the big man in the sky is that of a spiteful deity, one that requires sacrifices and exacts his revenge upon those who have wronged it and its followers or refused to acknowledge its existence. Mrs. Carmody quickly begins spouting her religious drivel with all the fervor that a bipolar ultra-conservative nut can muster and makes some vague predictions for the future. When one of her prophecies comes true, some people in the supermarket begin taking her seriously and very soon she amasses a sizable following, a group of the weak and frightened. Among them is Jim, a simple man who is one of the first to encounter the monstrosities that lurk inside the mist and, during the first few days of the crisis, proves to be a proactive member of the temporary community. It is only after his trip to the pharmacy, where two of his companions meet their demise in a rather gruesome manner (hint: mist spiders are much nastier than regular ones), that he succumbs to fear and joins Mrs. Carmody’s ravenous group of followers.

Fear is the driving force behind Carmody’s cult. In general, continuous fear, sooner or later, becomes desperation. And, to quote Alfred in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” In this case, Carmody takes The Joker’s place as the wild card that the regular antagonists turn to after being faced with an insurmountable obstacle, in this case an event that seems so outrageous and ridiculous that it takes them time to so much as consider the truth of their situation. Her strong, commanding personality turns her into someone that could easily convince the fearful of her own power, of course aided by the outlandish claims of being God’s vessel, His prophet. And this is exactly how religion has functioned in the past and continues to do so to this day, albeit in a more grounded and subtle manner. The fear of divine retribution sits at the heart of every belief system associated with deities that have complete control over us. The protestant work ethic is based on the fear of falling out of God’s good graces, Christianity as a whole exists solely due to man’s innate fear of pain and punishment – let’s face it, no one would want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell, it truly does sound like a rather dull and dreary place. Those inclined to believe the stories are also more inclined to give in to their baser instincts and surrender themselves to the will of someone stronger than themselves. Authority and fear go hand in hand, the latter births and props up the former, while it in turn maintains and feeds the latter. It is a vicious power cycle that has proved a useful tool in the hands of the wrong people (see most current Islamic theocracies, as well as Western dictators like Franco who were heavily influenced by their respective churches).

And, as every self-respecting authoritarian ruler would do, I will now change the narrative completely and drone on about how wonderful the movie itself is and how mind-blowing the ending is. Or I won’t. The movie’s fun though, go watch it.