A Helsinki Location in The Last of Us Part II Cover Version

Game Music Collective is a Finland-based orchestra, band, and studio production company lead by cellist Lukas Stasevskij. As the name implies, they produce and perform game and other soundtracks.

Their latest project is a cover version of Ellie’s song “Through the Valley” from the PlayStation4 game The Last of Us Part II. The music video for the cover was filmed in Helsinki, Finland.

THE LAST OF US 2 OST – Through the Valley REAL LIFE ELLIE’S SONG [4K] Shawn James Guitar Cover(2020) by Game Music Collective on YouTube

The original song was written by Shawn James; the Game Music Collective version features Mokka Laitinen (vocals and guitar), Sujari Britt (cello), Leonardo Carrillo (oboe), and Eeti Nieminen (drums).

Pretty neat, isn’t it? (Although strictly speaking I would’ve been happier to see outdoor locations, too.) #FinlandNerd 🙂

Found via Helsingin uutiset (NB. Finnish only).

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

I mentioned in the past that my fire mage got a hidden artifact appearance as a random drop back in Legion. I also mentioned that I’d made a new mog for her, but never posted a better screencap of it. Tut tut, bad librarian!

Turns out I liked her mog so much I kept it even after we moved on from Legion artifacts. Since it’s likely I’m going to change it after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops, here, finally, is the mog saved for posterity.

BfA Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

The wand and legs aren’t mogged, and I’ve hidden the head, shoulder, and belt slots. Like with my surv hunter mog, I used the wrist armor to add another stripe of turquoise into the set.

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Night Elf Survival Hunter Transmog

As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to spend a lot of time in the barbershop after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops. I’m likely to change not just some details of my toons’ appearance but also some of their transmogs—I like to rotate some of my characters’ mogs since I don’t have an absolute favorite, and for others I’ve never found anything particularly fitting. So I thought I’d save a few mogs for posterity by posting them online.

Here is my female night elf survival hunter.

BfA F NElf Survical Hunter Transmog1

I go back and forth with a headpiece I like and a hidden head slot like here; the polearm is also unmogged. Other armor slots, however, are mogged, including the the bracers, which I usually skip; this time I found a way to add a slight chevron line just above the glove edge with the bracers.

BfA F NElf Survical Hunter Transmog2

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Images: World of Warcraft screencaps

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Dwarven Windwalker Monk Transmog

As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to spend a lot of time in the barbershop after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops. I’m likely to change not just some details of my toons’ appearance but also some of their transmogs—I like to rotate some of my characters’ mogs since I don’t have an absolute favorite, and for others I’ve never found anything particularly fitting. So I thought I’d save a few mogs for posterity by posting them online.

Here is my female dwarf windwalker monk.

BfA F Dwarf Windwalker Monk Transmog

The head and shirt slots are hidden and the bracers aren’t visible. Not sure how well the gloves work, but at least the gold more or less matches the other pieces. It was neat to be able to use two fist weapons in this mog.

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Image: World of Warcraft screencap

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Dwarven Outlaw Rogue Transmog

As I mentioned last week, I’m going to spend a lot of time in the barbershop after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops. I’m likely to change not just some details of my toons’ appearance but also some of their transmogs—I like to rotate some of my characters’ mogs since I don’t have an absolute favorite, and for others I’ve never found anything particularly fitting. So I thought I’d save a few mogs for posterity by posting them online.

Here is my female dwarf outlaw rogue.

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog1

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog2

I hid her headgear and cloak, and the bracers aren’t visible, but other pieces are all mogged, including the shirt.

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog Roar

The roar above looks more like an anguished cry of “Why in the world do I suffer this way!” or something, LOL!

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Images: World of Warcraft screencaps

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

WoW: Shadowlands Character Customization Options

Details of Shadowlands, the next World of Warcraft expansion, have continued to slowly accumulate. Blizzard Watch and Wowhead, among others, have kept track of new character customization info.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Human Screencap

Here is an incomplete list as a note to self:

New options include new skin or fur tones (inclding black skin—finally!) and hair styles, makeup for human women, heterochromia (eyes of different colors), body tats or paint, cataracts, facial scars or markings, vines with leaves (Elven hair), some ear or tail size options, and the separation of beard and moustache sliders.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Dwarf Portrait

Not all options will be available to all races / classes, which might be annoying, but I understand the need for limiting options.

There’ll also be new special armor depending on which covenant you choose.

Shadowlands Night Fae Covenant Armor F Pandaren

We still don’t know all of the, er, detailed details, and of course these customizations may change or simply never be available in the finished game. But what we do know is already enough for me to realize I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the barber shop after Shadowlands drops! LOL!

Images by Blizzard Entertainment: Female Human faces and hair via Wowhead (screencapped). Female Dwarf portrait via Wowhead. Night Fae covenant armor (cropped).

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

WoW Warrior Transmog Loosely Inspired by Ancient Greece

Hanging around World of Warcraft and taking advantage of the Winds of Wisdom buff inevitably leads to new transmogs. Here’s my new female gnome arms warrior mog:

WoW Arms Warrior Ancient Mediterranean Mog1

WoW Arms Warrior Ancient Mediterranean Mog2

I was idly flipping through the various leg slot possibilities when I noticed that one of the plate legguards has this short skirt-like fold at the top. I was able to find a color-matched chestpiece to go with it, and noticed they vaguely reminded me of ancient Mediterranean garb. I then turned off the head, shoulder, cloak, wrist, glove, waist, and boot slots; in the end, the only pieces I mogged were chest, shirt, legs, and the weapon.

WoW Arms Warrior Roar

Awesome roar, right?!? LOL!

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Image: World of Warcraft screencaps

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Gameplay vs. Lore: Faction Conflict in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game steeped in lore, with stroylines spanning thousands of years and major expansion themes playing out the emotional lives of lore characters. Nevertheless, it’s a common refrain that gameplay trumps lore (a few discussions of the idea here, here, and here). There are many examples: player characters can come back from the dead, while NPCs (mostly) can’t; heroes who defeated a godlike manifestation of evil at the end of the last expansion may struggle to kill an overgrown crab at the beginning of the next; leveling up from 1 in the game as it stands now is a dizzying exercise in time travel through fifteen years’ worth of story, all of it still happening “now” in the zones of the various expansions. These breaks from lore fidelity make the game more fun and more playable, so even those players who care about the lore in depth generally accept them. The story is there to create background and flavor and give us a reason for going out, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Whenever the lore threatens to get in the way of the monster-killing, stuff-taking fun, it just steps aside and gets out of our way.

With one big exception: the faction conflict. The conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is the product of lore, not gameplay, but for years it has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay and make players’ experiences worse in a way that no other lore element has.

The faction conflict in WoW is a holdover from the Warcraft real-time strategy games. In the RTS context, a red-vs.-blue battle serves a good gameplay purpose. In the early years of the World of Warcraft massively multiplayer role-playing game, it made sense to carry over the familiar elements of the setting that fans of the RTS franchise would know, but WoW is no longer bound to its RTS roots and it hasn’t been for years. The defining game mode of the Warcraft universe is now an MMORPG. It’s time for the game to reflect that fact.

As a multi-player game, WoW is built around groups of players teaming up to take on difficult challenges. While there is plenty to do in game as a solo player, the endgame content that everything builds towards is all geared toward groups of players banding together. By dividing the player base in half and arbitrarily preventing them from playing together, WoW is working against its own game mechanics.

An argument sometimes made in favor of the faction divide is that, although it is detrimental to the player-vs.-environment aspects of the game, it is essential for the player-vs.-player elements, but this argument is manifestly untrue. One of the accommodations Blizzard has made in recent years to the faction divide is the introduction of “mercenary mode,” which allows players from one faction to temporarily join up with players of the other specifically to play in PvP content. If the faction divide can be wished away in the parts of the game that are specifically designed to pit players against one another, what purpose can it possibly serve in the parts of the game that are supposed to bring players together?

Even as a lore-dictated design element, the faction divide has never contributed much to the game story. How many expansions have we seen start with “Oh no, the Horde and the Alliance are at it again, and this time they mean it!” and end with “We have learned our lesson and must put aside our petty differences to work together against the greater threat”? Even in Battle for Azeroth, which has taken the faction conflict more seriously than any expansion before, the Horde-Alliance war has ended up being no more than a big speed bump on the way to fighting the big threat of N’Zoth. The core of WoW‘s gameplay has never been about the Horde vs. the Alliance; it has always been about killing monsters and taking their stuff. The important stories in WoW are about where the monsters came from and why we need to kill them, not about why we can’t kill them together.

The faction divide seems to survive largely for the benefit of a small base of fans who like having something to argue about on the internet. So far, Blizzard seems to be calculating that keeping that small base of fans happy (or, rather, continuing to give them things to get angry about, which seems to be their version of happy) is worth more than making a better game for everyone else.

Perhaps someday the faction divide will finally be removed and my Tauren and Eppu’s Dwarves can go kill monsters together. Until then, we live with a game whose gameplay is subject to an out of date, unproductive relic of lore.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

World of Warcraft Views: Northern Lights-esque Sky from Drustvar

My 2020 started less than optimally with a cold / flu (jury’s still out). The good thing, though, about being awake at 5 a.m. and incapable of much else, is that flying around Azeroth at a time you don’t normally see shows a whole different side to things.

BfA Drustvar W Coast Early Morning Sky Lights2

This view is westwards from the northwestern shore of Drustvar. Very Northern Lights-esque and pretty!

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.