Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Video game collectibles and the value of "stuff" in a digital age

Or, wherein the Modern Medievalist reveals his inner neckbeard to the world at large.

In 2015, when I buy a video game, the most common course of action is not to get a disc, but to log onto Steam (the most popular digital distribution service), check for a game I want, and set an alert to be notified by email when the said game is offered on discount. I can then download the game directly to my hard disk without ever going to a store, waiting for a shipment, and best of all, for 50%, 75%, or even 80% off the usual retail price. 

The downside is that my game library is increasingly reliant on a cloud service even more ephemeral than video games in general:  the dependence of my access to games on the state of Steam's servers, and worst of all, the fact that all the games I've bought on Steam will eventually be gone. It may not be in five years, or even ten, but some day, Steam (or rather, its owner, Valve Software) will go out of business or otherwise no longer have a reason to keep their servers running. I know this, so every time I buy a game through that service, I'm consciously putting an expiration date on it.  

Needless to say, our medieval forebears had little or no concept of buying the rights to an immaterial thing, and would probably find something as doomed to obsolescence as Steam (not to mention the rest of our culture of disposability) rather abhorrent. But every once in a while, I choose to defy this doomsday scenario by actually buying a box copy of a game I know I'd really like. As I mentioned in last week's post on the Wild Hunt, my most recent acquisition of this kind was the Collector's Edition boxset for The Witcher 3, the third and final installment of a dark medieval fantasy role-playing saga based on a book series from Poland, which I fell in love with ever since playing the first game back in 2008.

The makers of the Witcher games, Polish developer CD Projekt, grew up in another time and place where copyright and intellectual property were not only nonexistent, but antithetical to the the entire philosophy of governance: Poland behind the Iron Curtain. There's an excellent short video documentary which you can watch below, but I'll provide a brief summary underneath:

Early video games from the west could neither be bought nor sold; they were instead broadcast through the airwaves for anyone to copy at will.  As such, with the downfall of Communism, game developers in Poland had a real need to "sell" the very idea of buying games by giving extra value in the box, e.g. books, maps, and other goodies that can't be easily replicated. This mentality is now all but lost in a world where we we're accustomed to buying and downloading games directly online or, at best, going to the store and getting a disc in a case with nothing else save for a bare-bones manual spanning three or four pages. 

Thankfully, CD Projekt continues the relatively ancient tradition of packing their games with other goods. Therefore, if you buy a box copy of any of the Witcher games, you're likely to get not only the game on a disc, but a map of the game's setting, a small compendium guide, perhaps a short story, and the game's soundtrack on CD. And, bear in mind that these are just the standard editions. Each game has also been released with a collector's edition boxset, jam-packed content. In 2011, I ordered just such a boxset for The Witcher 2 to arrive at my doorstep on the day of its release in stores, and last week, I did the same for The Witcher 3. This last one was the richest collection of loot I've ever seen, with a statuette, art book, steelbook, map, necklace, and keychain.

I'd like to think that, if we were able to go back in time, strap our medieval forebears to a chair, and subject them to the wonders of digital interactive entertainment, they'd have an easier time getting a grasp of it if they could touch and feel some manifestation of the game in the physical world.

And now, for those who like "stuff", I'll share with you pictures of my Witcher collection, particularly things that came with my new collector's boxset.

Possibly the only time you will see the Modern Medievalist in a t-shirt.

Madame Medievalist, also clad in an official Witcher t-shirt, models the statuette of Geralt battling a griffin.

The collection together, along with other items from the Witcher 2 boxset. (The incensers are just there to keep things smelling good and medievalesque in my abode.)

The box that even plebeian "standard edition" owners get still comes with a map and soundtrack of the game's music.

True fans, however, will encase their beloved game discs in the collector's steelbook, for that extra level of permanence.

The steelbook holds all four installation discs, though of course, in the PC version, you don't actually need one in your computer's disc drive to play.
The wolf's head medallion worn by the game's protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. 

Contrasting the two wolf medallions I have (left is from The Witcher 2, right is from The Witcher 3). The right is much more "three-dimensional" and closer to what appears in the actual game. You can also actually prick your finger if you put it in the wolf's mouth.
The keychain!
Map of the game's world, the Northern Realms.

The collector's edition also comes with a hardcover book with much of the concept art made for the game.

When we ask ourselves, "where did all the good artists go?", I believe history will tell us that, in the aftermath of modern "art", true conceptual artists migrated over to the film and game industries.
The statuette again. 
These don't come with the collector's boxset, but they are the novels that the games were based on. There's roughly one translated to English from Polish every year now. I have two more to go.

This book of the game world's lore came out on the same day as The Witcher 3. I haven't gotten much of a chance to peruse through it yet, but it seems ridiculously comprehensive.
The collector's hardcover strategy guide. Again, another release from last week. I took a picture of it from an angle so you can see how thick it is.
The collector's strategy guide also comes with a small lore compendium.
Inside the small lore compendium.
And finally, actually playing the game. No, I don't actually recommend playing these games in front of children!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Holy Ghost, holy oil

Pentecost, also known as Whitsunday, was formerly one of the greatest feast days of the medieval world, just after Easter and Christmas. It was the last day of Eastertide, commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles ten days after the Ascension of the Lord. It was on Pentecost, so says Sir Thomas Malory, that the knights of the Round Table reconvened: "every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost", renewing their vows of service and obedience to King Arthur. And, strengthened by the presence of the Holy Ghost, they were given a new quest and bidden on their way.

No medieval realm had a greater devotion to the Holy Ghost than France, where the culture of chivalry first took root. The most senior order of knighthood was the Order of the Holy Spirit, limited to one hundred knights (roughly analogous in prestige to Britain's Order of the Garter). Indeed, the entire kingdom seemed to rest on the Holy Ghost's authority: it was believed that, in the 5th century, when Saint Remigius was to baptize the warlord Clovis as the first Christian king of the Franks, he found that he had no oil to use for the anointing. The bishop placed the empty vial upon the altar of his church, where it was miraculously filled by the Holy Ghost. Others say that He descended in the form of a dove to place vial of holy oil in Remigius's hands. Either way, this same vial, according to legend, was used for the anointing at the coronation of every king of France until 1793, when it was destroyed by revolutionaries in yet another act of vandalism and cultural suicide.

The symbol of the holy vial, or ampulla, in French heraldry was the fleur-de-lis. Its three petals, recalling the Trinity, became the defining symbol of the monarchy's power. After Joan of Arc's execution at the hands of the English, King Charles of France rose her surviving family members to nobility, authorizing them to take on the surname du Lys. It was the least the king could do for the relatives of the peasant girl who led him to the coronation city of Reims in triumph.

And so, in remembrance of the Holy Ghost and the legend of the ampulla, I wore my fleur-de-lis necktie to Whitsunday Mass yesterday. I don't suppose anyone who saw it immediately got the reference.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Wild Hunt rides forth

The Wild Hunt by Peter Arbo, 1872.

In the world of gaming, pre-orders (reserving copies of highly anticipated video games before their market release) are a racket for the consumer; for $5, you're guaranteed access to a game that will most likely be readily available on store shelves regardless. Occasionally, though, I'll consciously succumb to the hype to secure a limited collector's edition of a game I've long been a fan of, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Good thing, too! I pre-ordered the collector's edition in June last year, and they were sold out by December. The game itself was only released last Tuesday, and the box was brought to my doorstep the same day.

This final installment of the Witcher trilogy, a dark medieval fantasy saga based on a series of novels and short stories by Polish author Andrezj Sapkowski, focuses on a phenomenon called the Wild Hunt. In the series's world, the Hunt is a spectral cavalcade of riders across the night sky, led by an enigmatic king, abducting children and heralding war and death. The riders were hardly invented for modern fantasy fiction, though; they were once a widespread staple of medieval folklore, now almost entirely forgotten by us moderns amidst enlightenment and a steady stream of technological distractions.

It was perhaps the Nordic peoples who had instilled belief in the night riders, who Jacob Grimm would come to call the Wilde Jagd (the Wild Hunt), throughout northern and central Europe. At its head was Woden, better known as Odin All-father, Norse god of battles, wisdom, and death, to name a few. It was, no doubt, always a terrifying proposition to be caught in the path of Woden's hunting party in the dead of the night; but the Hunt took on a more demonic character after the Christianization of the Teutons. In Teutonic Mythology, Grimm wrote:

"...they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.
"The Christians had not so quickly nor so completely renounced their faith in the gods of their fathers, that those imposing figures could all at once drop out of their memory. Obstinately clung to by some, they were merely assigned a position more in the background. The former god lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power, that still had a certain amount of influence left. His hold lost upon men and their ministry, he wandered and hovered in the air, a spectre and a devil."

Other folklorists contend that the Wild Hunt was always a part of the Christian age. They say it developed to give the old gods a new place in the northmen's understanding of the universe. Far easier it was to re-imagine Woden (or Frigg, or some other formerly revered deity) as among the spirits of the damned than to abolish him entirely. It wasn't only ignorant peasants who believed in the Hunt, though. The first recorded account of the riders in England appears in the Petersborough Chronicle under the year 1127. The monks recorded an incident when they were receiving a new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who was hated for being corrupt and for being a Norman; which was, perhaps in their minds, the same thing. At any rate, they said of it:

"Let it not be thought remarkable, when we tell the truth, because it was fully known over all the country, that as soon as he came there... then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and big and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Petersborough, and in all the woods that there were between his town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that were blowing at night. Trustworthy people noticed them at night, and said that it seemed to them there might well be about twenty or thirty hornblowers. This was seen and heard from the time he came there all Lent up to Easter."

As the centuries passed, new leaders emerged at the head of the cavalcade, as determined by local popularity: in France, it was Charlemagne; in England, Arthur; in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Barbarossa. It appears the myth persisted well into the Elizabethan age, since some tales tell of Sir Francis Drake commanding the Hunt.

In the event that you come across these ghostly riders in the night, our medieval forebears propose the following survival tips:

1.) Throw yourself on the ground to avoid being hit; the Hunt usually travels above ground level.

2.) Stay in the middle of the road; there is no hiding from the Hunt. Hopefully they'd rather trade with you than run roughshod over your corpse.

3.) If they reward you with the leg of a slain animal (or human), don't take it. It's probably cursed. Rather, ask for salt to go with it. As the Hunt cannot carry salt, neither can they bring you the cursed leg.

4.) Carry a piece of bread and a piece of steel with you at all times. If you see Woden first, throw the steel to keep him at bay. If his dogs come first, toss them the bread.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In case of organ failure: on singing by rote and how the medievals learned Gregorian chant

Calamity struck last Sunday at my local Anglican Use parish. A wild Texas thunderstorm rolled over us, sending the church's pipe organ on the fritz. Since they've succumbed to the modernism of powering the instrument by electricity, rather than by a team of serfs (or parochial school freshmen) at the pumps, the chant schola which sings all the music for the parish's Sunday evening Mass had to go live with nothing but a pitch pipe. There were also delays in practice due to an Evensong which had been sung just prior to the Mass, so while the choirmaster was busy, it defaulted to me to help the other chanters get started with rehearsing the propers.

How an organ works, the old-fashioned way

This is always a lamentable situation because (confession time) I have no formal education in music theory, other than a few years in middle school band.... and there, I played the drums. Most of the other chanters in this schola are young men who have been in the parish school's choral program (which is mandatory for every grade) for many years, so ironically, I'm usually the only person in the room who struggles with identifying the notes on a modern staff without thinking hard about FACE and "Every Good Boy Does Fine". 

On the other hand, I also have the most experience with Gregorian chant in particular. Over the years, I've more-or-less memorized entire Introits and Graduals that get used but once a year in the liturgical cycle. Singing in a Gregorian schola is a uniquely brutal experience because, depending on how ambitious it is (and the schola for the local diocesan traditional Latin Mass, where I also regularly assist, has especially lofty musical aspirations), you can learn up to five intricate, "melismatic" chants per week, only to never use them again until that Sunday recurs the next year. These are the proper chants, which vary by the Sunday or feast: the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia (or Tract in Lent), Offertory, and Communion antiphons. The vast majority of any intermediate-or-above schola's rehearsal time is dedicated to a grueling mode of subsistence where these chants are learned, then immediately forgotten. There's barely any time left over to study new techniques or learn new Ordinaries of the Mass (settings for the fixed parts of the liturgy, such as the Kyrie and Gloria). The choirmasters of the later Renaissance and Counter-Reformation knew this got in the way of mastering the new polyphonic works in vogue in the great chapels and cathedrals of Europe, and that something had to be done. For several centuries, proper chants were simplified into psalm tones or discarded entirely. Today, in the vast majority of Catholic churches, they've been reduced to sentences read aloud by the priest before doing something more important.

When I first joined a chant schola at Ave Maria University in 2007, I had no real singing experience whatsoever; I just thought Gregorian chant was cool and wanted to imitate what I had heard in CD's. I learned how to read the traditional four-line, measureless staff with square notes that still confounds professional singers. I was taught what a "quilisma" was. But I wasn't learning fast enough to join the elite singers who were tasked with cantoring the verses of the Gradual and Alleluia, so I cheated. Rather than spend more time on theory, I simply looked up recordings of those Graduals and Alleluias on the Internet and listened to them over and over again, singing along until I had the melodies memorized. By the end of the semester, I was able to be a cantor for those verses, too. Last Sunday, after eight years of chanting week in and out, I was able to help these better-trained singers get started simply from memory, saying, "follow my lead". Eventually, you just come to know what a difficult phrase in chant is supposed to sound like without having to bang it out on a keyboard because the entire corpus of work is governed by an unwritten set of rules where, if you violate one of the conventions of chant, you'll know it in your heart.

It only occurred to me later that teaching by rote was how plainchant was imparted during its heyday. The four-line musical staff itself, after all, was only invented in the early 11th century by Guido of Arezzo to ease the learning of an art which had been taught orally for six hundred or more years prior. Imagine the daily experience of a novice Benedictine monk: he is thrown into a world where he must dedicate as much as six hours of his day to singing the Divine Office. Imagine, also, that in these earlier centuries, there weren't enough books to go around for every monk in the house.  If they did use books, it was likely to be a giant edition which the entire choir could look upon at once, and even then, only as a memory aid. Therefore, even in those communities which were filled with upper-class boys who already knew how to read and write, the business of learning the psalms was one of memory. A novice of average intelligence was expected to memorize all 150 in about half a year. I expect less than 1% of all priests today could claim such a feat.

There's a fascinating citation in the book Medieval Music and the Art of Memory by Anna Berger. In it, she writes:

'Craig Wright has demonstrated that Notre Dame of Paris singers were expected to memorize chant throughout the seventeenth century. He quotes from the Caeremoniale Parisiense from 1662, which specifies: "Things should be sung by memory following the example of the metropolitan church of Paris and other cathedral churches of the realm; in which chruch of Paris the singers always sing by memory whatever they have to sing both at Mass and at the hours including all Invitatory psalms Venite, all responsories, graduals with verses, Alleluias also with verses, and certain other things."' (Medieval Music and the Art of Memory, page 48)

Even well into the 1600's, when manuscripts with musical notation were far more available, the singers at Notre-Dame were expected to maintain the tradition of singing all chants, including the Graduals, from memory. To do this, they surely were taught to do so by a regime of repeating the notes of their choirmasters, taking familiar chant phrases and formulae to heart, for years on end. It seems that, in my own peculiar way, by practicing chant by following along in CD's in the car or recordings from monasteries on the Internet, I've been able to imitate this medieval tradition in a uniquely modern way.

From the Camaldolese Gradual, c.1380