Tag: smaug

500 Words on Dragons

Our stories are rife with mythological creatures. The minotaur, the phoenix, the hydra, ogres and fairies and vampires and wizards – the list is exhaustive. While I’m a fan of all of them, writing about some and playing others, there’s yet to be a creature that, in my mind, truly outshines the dragon.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation

It’s not just that these are giant lizards that can not only fly but also breathe fire (or ice or lightning or toxic gas or acid). The thing that tips dragons over into my mental tray of ‘best things ever’ is the fact that they’re highly intelligent. While the Minotaur rages through the corridors of a labyrinth, and hydras try to feed all of their various heads, dragons often have agendas. Even if that agenda begins and ends with “roll around in enough gold to make Scrooge McDuck jealous.”

This isn’t always the case, of course. At times, dragons are simply smart animals. But intelligence is intelligence. For a case in point, I highly recommend How To Train Your Dragon. Specifically, play close attention to the character of Toothless. Without speaking a word of dialog, Toothless communicates exactly what he’s thinking and how he feels. He moves naturally, like a large lizard would, but he also has the body language and expressions of a very intelligent being. In addition to being a compelling character, and the adorable and unique mascot of an excellent storytelling series, he’s an exemplary dragon.

When it comes to articulate dragons, there are other examples. Draco from Dragonheart is a noble creature, while Smaug from The Hobbit is completely malevolent. Both are ancient and noble, in their own way, both are the last of their kind and both are massive in size with speed that belies their bulk. But while they’re similar in form and function, their characters are very different. Draco is interested in survival, and when presented with an opportunity to make something of himself, he tries to bring out the best in those around him. Smaug, on the other hand, is a creature of pure pride and avarice, reveling in his bountiful lair, and when a certain barrel-rider stumbles in, Smaug toys with it the way a cat toys with a mouse. Draco sees humanoids as both potentially dangerous and capable of better natures; Smaug can only perceive vermin to be exterminated.

Dragons, like our heroes and our villains, come in all shapes and sizes. But they are always fascinating, often beautiful, and terrifying in their core natures. Even exemplars like Toothless and Draco are still powerful, mythical creatures; dragons are true apex predators no matter how they express themselves. That’s part of what make them so interesting. Dragons that feature in the stories that stick with us either defy or indulge in their natures, and in both, they become reflections of ourselves. Like any good characters, they’re people, even if they have scales on. The lens that takes the shape of a dragon is an interesting one, and always will be.

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

The Execution of Smaug

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Previously I have discussed villainy in terms of how we relate to and perceive various villains. I’ve praised villains who achieve their aims through intelligence, charm, and guile. These traits tend to appear in villains who are not necessarily a physical match for their heroic counterparts, doing their dirty work through henchmen or other means. Usually, a villain who is smart, playful, and erudite is not an overwhelming physical presence that inspires awe without necessarily having to say a word.

Usually, that villain is not a dragon.

I’ll go into detail about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, but after a few days of reflection on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever else might be said about it, they pretty much nailed the ideal portrayal of the ancient magical beast. As impressive as the effects are that brought him to titanic, fire-breathing life, I’m more over the moon regarding the way in which his personality, perspective, and above all, his flaws have been transcribed from page to screen.

One of the first impressions we get is that Smaug likes to play with his food. Or at least, his curiosity overwhelms your typical violent response to intrusion. He is so massive and deadly, and Bilbo so small and insignificant (relatively speaking), that he could easily devour or eviscerate the hobbit at any time. However, he engages the thief in conversation. He learns more about this tiny burglar, and we in turn learn more about him. This is not anything like Bilbo and Gollum swapping riddles. There, we had a sense that the two of them were counterparts, diametrically opposed but somewhat equal. Here, the dread is palpable and ever-present, even as Smaug speaks in almost dulcet tones.

Being a creature that can fly, Smaug sees other beings as beneath him. He is so well-armed for devastation, and so capable of escape and endurance, that he really has no real sense of fear. He speaks and moves boldly. His speed belies his size and makes him all the more intimidating. All of this is conveyed through excellent effects in the film, matching well with our imaginations regarding how dragons should behave. The highlight of Jackson & Weta’s execution of Smaug, however, has got to be his flaws.

With that perspective comes a haughtiness, an arrogance, that blinds Smaug to the threats ‘lesser beings’ could present. From the dwarves of Erebor to the people of Laketown, he never once considers that his centuries-long life could be in danger. Most of all, Smaug is greedy. All of his treasure is HIS treasure, and he won’t part with a single coin of it. Dragons tend to have an instinctual draw towards shiny piles of treasure, which is somewhat odd for creatures of intelligence and articulation, but it’s worth considering that human beings can have similar instincts towards things of little consequence to overall life that still brings them joy, like football paraphernalia or Magic cards or cats.

What other dragons in literature would you like to see executed the way we have seen Smaug?

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