Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shimbashi! Shimbashi!

And now, from the same person who recommended The Rule of Four, comes Shibumi!

It's an interesting book... not my normal genre, but I do enjoy a good spy action story as much as the next guy.  That said, one of the oddest things about Shibumi is how little action there is.  The vast majority of the novel is spent building up just how awesome this one particular agent/assassin guy is, but virtually everything violent takes place offstage.  I think this is deliberate: the name of the novel, Shibumi, is also the main character's primary purpose in life: as described in this book, shibumi is a kind of simplicity, a stripping away of life's noise and focus on the important things of life.


The novel does jump around quite a bit.  It starts off as a spy story, becomes a character study, spends some time as a World War II novel, and contains an extremely long segment on cave exploration.  I imagine that this is largely disappointing to people who are mainly looking for a James Bond-style yarn; personally, I enjoy the variety in the prose.

The characters are pretty interesting, although it's painfully obvious that this book was written in the 1970's.  I cringed at the strong racist generalizations that are made throughout the whole book, and at the in-your-face sexist attitude towards women.  You can partially apologize for the racism because the targets are so varied: he does criticize the French and Russians and British, but also the Americans and Spanish and Basque.  Still, the descriptions of Arabs and Palestinians are particularly crude and offensive... it goes beyond the more rote criticisms of "Americans are immature and materialistic, the French are snotty, the British make bad food."

The cultures that largely escape criticism are Japanese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese.  The Basque get plenty of criticism but are also among the only group that receives specific praise.  He's largely silent on Israel, though the few comments he does make seem complimentary, especially in comparison to the vitriol directed at its Arab neighbors.

The main character, Nicholai Hel, only appears a few chapters into the book, but swiftly takes over and dominates the story.  He's pretty awesome - a bit too awesome, to be honest.  Trevanian seems to spend the whole book describing all the ways in which Hel is more amazing than anyone else, and the character feels really overstuffed as a result: the ultimate assassin, and one of the only mystics in the world, who is also fluent in six languages, and has an incredibly refined palette, and is one of the most effective lovers in the world, and on and on... characters need flaws, and Trevanian seems extremely reluctant to assign any to his chosen hero.


All my complaints aside, though, this book is quite enjoyable to read.  Despite the lack of action, the book moves quickly, with a nice mix of mystery and surprise plot developments to keep your interest.  I can't get behind the author's worldview, but from a storytelling point of view, he does a fine job of writing a fun tale that expands beyond its genre borders.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dragon Youth

Well, I've been having a blast with Dragon Age.  It has utterly taken over my leisure time, and very pleasantly so.  For the last couple of weekends, nearly every minute that was not spent hiking, eating, or sleeping was devoted to Dragon Age.  It's been a long time since a game has sucked me in this much, and I'm loving the experience.

Before I get to the juicy stuff, let me get a few complaints off my chest.

* Bizarre server integration.  DA is a single-player game, but it uses DRM with the server to authenticate your right to use "premium content."  As a result, if you try to load a saved game before it has authenticated you, it will deny you permission.  What's much worse is that the game regularly phones home as you play the game, uploading your progress so your friends on the social site can keep track of what you're doing.  Except, if you have a spotty Internet connection (as I apparently do, though I hadn't noticed any real problems before now), you get annoying modal pop-ups saying "Unable to connect to Dragon Age server."  Which is incredibly aggravating.  It persists even if you disable all the available options for uploading data.  This is my number-one request for the next patch.
* The economy feels broken.  It isn't nearly as aggravating as, say, Morrowind, where my main complaint was that no merchant in the world had enough money to buy the best stuff you found.  My main complaint here is the extreme discount on selling stuff back to merchants.  There is a twenty-five-years-old tradition in fantasy RPGs of being able to buy weapons and armor (or whatever), use them until you find or buy better equipment, and then sell the originals back.  Traditionally you earn between one-half and one-quarter of the original purchase price; you don't make money on selling stuff back, but it's a reasonable investment.  In DA, you're basically getting pennies on the dollar.  As a result, there's no incentive to buy any equipment... it has a limited lifespan, and will be useless once you get the next tier, which will probably happen soon.  After discussing with Andrew, I adopted his strategy of only buying gifts, potions, and skill/talent books from merchants.  I also really like Andrew's suggested improvement, which is simply to add a new set of skills or talents for bargaining; alternately, have your Coercion affect bargaining, or your Cunning.  Someone with all four ranks and a Cunning of 100 could sell items back at full price; someone with no ranks and 10 cunning would get today's crummy rates.  This would take only a minor tweak in the game code, and lead to a far more satisfying and interesting economy.
* In general, the Journal and Codex are extremely useful and well-written.  However, at least once I've been in a quest which did not update the Journal when I got a crucial new piece of information.  That wouldn't be so horrible, except that I currently have at least 30 open sidequests, and am actively working on a dozen or so of them at any given time.  I spent about an hour wandering around Orzamar looking for Faryn before realizing that (1) he wasn't actually in Orzamar after all, and (2) I had spoken with him last week, when he told me that I needed to go to Redcliffe to continue the quest.  Gah!  I suppose it's a sign of how good the Journal usually is that I hadn't considered that it wasn't accurate here.

And... that's about it!  On to the good.  First, the system.

Overall control in combat feels almost exactly like Baldur's Gate.  This is a Very Good Thing.  You pause the whole game by pressing the spacebar, and then can study the battlefield and decide on tactics.  You can control each individual party member, but it's also easy to select everyone and issue the same order; for low-level fights, I usually just grab everyone and instruct them to attack some poor sap, then repeat with the next villain in line.  Combat is incredibly satisfying.  Everyone can learn various special moves, which are basically equivalent to feats from D&D 3rd edition.  My rogue can hit someone below the belt, which slows them down and causes them to take more damage.  An archer can shoot someone in the foot, which traps them in place for a while so they cannot move.  Someone with a two-handed weapon can activate various modes, like Indomitable or Powerful Swings, that change their overall performance in battle, like increasing their strength and making them impossible to knock down, but making them more vulnerable to damage.  For most standard fights, you won't bother with these special moves, but on tricky boss fights or ones in unusual situations, you'll need to carefully consider how you operate.  For example, I was recently ambushed on a forest road.  There were archers to the left, on a raised hill across a ravine, and some fighters and dogs on the path ahead.  I ordinarily rush enemies with my melee fighters, surrounding them with three attackers while my mage casts spells on them from the rear.  In this case, though, there was no room to maneuver on the path, Instead, I sent my strongest guy ahead to block the bath and tackle the enemies one-on-one.  Meanwhile, my other two melee fighters switched from swords or daggers to bows and arrows.  None of them are specifically trained in archery, but they're good enough at it.  So my newly minted archers and my mage concentrated their fire on the archers atop the hill while my main fighter kept them safe.  It was unconventional, and the fact that it was unconventional made it even more satisfying.  No two fights are exactly alike, even if you're always fighting with the same team.

I do have to confess one guilt: I'm not sure whether this is a shortcoming of me or of the game, but I have come to follow a standard strategy when I face a fight that seems too hard.  First, some background: I have a team that's extremely effective when facing an opponent, even a very strong one, but because I don't have area-of-effect attacks, we can get overwhelmed by a large number of weaker enemies.  When I get into this situation, then, I try to even the odds.  My main character is a rogue who has high levels of stealth.  He'll sneak ahead until he finds the next set of enemies, and get a feel for their numbers.  If it's reasonable, he'll position himself behind the strongest spellcaster or fighter in the group; then, the rest of the party will charge in, and when the enemies start attacking them, he'll backstab like mad.  On the other hand, if there are just too many enemies, then he'll head back towards the party, and then, once only a couple of enemies are still in sight, he'll reveal himself.  This will attract a couple of enemies to chase after him; he'll run back to the rest of the party, and then we'll have a good old-fashioned slaughter.  Repeat as necessary.  Again, it feels cheap, and I'm sure a lot of people would hate to play this way, but I'd rather do something sneaky like this than drop to an easier difficulty level.

And actually, now that I think about it, I learned this tactic at the hands of the game.  Relatively early on in the story, you and three other fighters are exploring a woods.  You run across an enemy spellcaster standing on a bridge who casts hostile magic at you.  One of the first lessons you'll learn in DA is to focus on enemy mages first: they are weak, so they go down fairly easily, and more importantly, they can do more damage and cause more grief than almost anyone else.  So we all rushed him, at which point he turned tail and ran.  We chased after him.  BAM!  The land beyond the bridge was filled with traps.  Party members took damage and were stuck in place.  Dozens of previously invisible enemies were lying in wait, and others had emerged from stealth on the bridge behind us, effectively blocking our retreat.  I lost that battle.  I re-loaded the game; next time, I fought the mage with ranged attacks, and then, when he fled, only advanced very cautiously.  At each stage we attacked the visible opponents with archery attacks.  Once we had clear cover, my rogue disarmed all the traps, and then we could finally advance forward and finish off the mage and the rest of the enemies.  All that to say, I learned well how devastating it could be to lead others into an ambush, and so maybe I needn't feel guilty of trying it myself.

I was initially disappointed at the party size; Baldur's Gate allowed you to have a party of six, and even then I thought that I could have enjoyed controlling one or two more.  Four is definitely smaller than six, but it's a good number.  From what I've heard, there are a lot of viable strategies to use when forming your party, depending on who you want to adventure with and what style of combat you prefer.  My stock party is led by my rogue, who has some skill with two-handed weapons but mainly specializes in the softer skills (coercion, stealing, stealth, lockpicking, trap detection, etc.).  He is backed up by two solid fighters: one is a very powerful two-handed-weapon specialist who can deal incredibly damage; the other is also a strong fighter, but favors using a shield, and as a result acts as a bit of a damage magnet.  (My rogue has only about half as much health as either fighter, but he almost never dies, because they are so good at absorbing enemy attention and attacks).  One simple but very enjoyable aspect of battle mechanics is backstabbing.  If you position your rogue behind an enemy, every attack that he lands will count as a backstab, which does much more damage than usual.  Because enemies tend to focus on the hulking, scary warriors swinging swords in their faces, it's simple to send my tiny little dwarf behind them where he can rapidly prick them full of holes with his two enchanted daggers.  My fourth party member is a mage.  She initially specialized in offensive ice-based magic, but became far more useful once she learned the Heal spell.  She's now a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and shifts her role more often than any other party member, based on the ebb and flow of the battle.  Most of the time she is using ranged magical attacks on whichever enemy we're facing.  When someone starts falling in health, she'll pump them up.  She uses targeted ice attacks on particularly tough enemies.  When we're surrounded by a crowd of enemies, she'll use Mind Blast to try and incapacitate a large number of them.  If she's stuck facing a bunch of enemies at once, she'll break out Cone of Cold to freeze them in place.

One tricky thing about DA, as with D&D, is that many of the best magical attacks can also hurt your party members.  This goes both ways, of course: I've faced several enemy mages who've wiped out their own low-level opponents with an inopportune fireball.  As a result, I've stayed away from some of the more impressive offensive magic, because it isn't compatible with my hands-on melee style.  That said, I've heard that some people have extremely successful parties that consist of three mages and one warrior.  The warrior only exists to draw attention away from the mages, while the mages can use their powerful area-of-effect magic to wipe the field clean.  (I haven't tried this myself, but I think the best deal would be to, say, give your warrior all the fire resistant armor and charms that you can find, and then use fireballs with impunity.)  Some people have even been able to fit two rogues into the party, by making one a two-weapon melee fighter, and having the other specialize in archery.  The point is: four people actually works.

I think the biggest reason WHY it works is because of the Camp.  In Baldur's Gate, if you dismissed someone from your party, they were out.  You might be able to get them back later, if you went to their home or whatever, but until you did they wouldn't be involved in any of the action.  In DA, though, you are conceptually traveling with all of your followers all of the time.  Whenever you want, you can make camp (outside a city, in the wilderness, wherever) and see everyone.  This is a great time to talk with people, give them gifts, pursue romantic entanglements, whatever you fancy.  In a particularly brilliant stroke, Bioware set it up so early in the game you encounter some merchants who decide to travel with you; therefore, no matter where you are, you always have someone who can buy all of your loot.  (My only criticism here: the camp merchants' items, and particularly their health poultices, really should regenerate.)

Anyways!  You can still kick people out of your party if you want, but by letting you travel with more than four people, Bioware has avoided the most agonizing aspect of the old BG system.  I was always worried that, by not taking a certain follower, I'd be missing out on an especially cool quest.  Now, even if you generally don't take someone in your party while you go to battle or go shopping, you still can talk with them, learn their story, and maybe get to go on a quest or two for them.

That being said, there are definitely certain situations where having someone in your four-person party affects the plot of the game.  Some scenes will only be triggered if a certain member is in your party.  Often, when you're talking with an NPC, that NPC will interact with other party members, but if they aren't in your active party, you'll never see that interaction.  One of the most dramatic things that happens, though, is that party members will comment on your choices, and their opinion of you will grow or diminish based on your decisions.  This can make organizing a party especially tricky.  I mentioned before that I travel with two warriors and a mage.  Well, one of the warriors is basically a Lawful Good type; the other is either Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil; and the mage is probably Chaotic Neutral or Chaotic Evil.  Needless to say, they don't always see eye-to-eye.  If one of them approves of a decision, I can expect others to disapprove.  Therefore, I've gotten into the habit of switching to an alternate party when I move into a city or other area that I expect to contain a high level of personal interaction and a low level of combat; even though these people aren't effective fighters, they're far more likely to agree with one another and myself, and so I don't need to worry about triggering unnecessary disapproval.  Which may seem cheap, but hey, maybe not.  After all, in Firefly, Mal would take Jayne and Zoe with him when he had to deal with some violent back-stabbing smugglers, but he would take Wash and Kaylee when he went shopping.  I'm basically doing the same thing here.

Conversations in general are - wow.  Just really, really well done.  I have spent an hour at a time in camp, just talking with all of my various followers, learning what makes them tick, trying to impress them with my empathy, picking the perfect tokens of my affection for them.  (In case you're curious, this is totally unnecessary - if you wanted to, you could beat the whole game just by yourself, and kick everyone else out of your party.  It wouldn't be nearly as much fun, though.  And, you don't have to make your party members like you, but if you do, (1) they're more likely to share interesting quests and such with you, and (2) they may be inspired by your leadership and become more effective at their tasks.)  I've gotten in the habit of saving before I start any significant conversation.  Most of the time it goes well, but in case disaster strikes, I can always quick-load and try it again.  The conversations are very well-written, interesting, and meaningful.  At various places in the conversation you are prompted to ask a question, add a comment, or respond to your interlocutor.  There's always a good variety of options available here, and I almost never feel like I don't want any of them.  You can be humble or proud, honest or deceitful, amorous or cold, brave or cowardly, fun-loving or boring, nostalgic or practical... I think that my initial post had mentioned that I was curious how morality would play out in this game.  Well, it's almost entirely done within the conversations, and it's an incredibly broad range, far more multidimensional than the old Law/Chaos/Good/Evil choices.  And I'm impressed to see that the game doesn't try to reduce you down to a particular moral description.  Instead of your character having some sort of absolute moral position, your morality really exists as reflected in the opinions of your companions.  Each will judge you on their own moral system, and depending on how consistently you behave, different people may have very different perceptions of you.

The end result: I don't feel like I'm confined to playing out a particular role, either a role that was assigned to me or one that I chose.  Instead, I can improvise, really finding the best expression of my character's personality through the multitude of moral choices I receive.  In doing so, I don't need to worry that, say, I'll lose my Templar abilities if I stray from the path of Lawful Good, or that I'll lose my Druid position if I abandon the cause of Neutrality.  I can make the choices I want.  That said, there are still consequences: primarily in the opinions of those you travel with, but also in how the world itself is affected by your decisions.


So: my main character, Seberin, is a rogue.  I mentioned in my previous post that I tend to play RPG rogues as a sort of mixture between Silk and Shadowspawn.  I'm finding that I have more choice and more personality in this game than I've been able to play with before.  I'm playing the character that I find most fun to play, not the character that necessarily aligns best with a power-gaming strategy.

Seberin exhibits what the movie Grosse Pointe Blank described as "a certain moral flexibility."  He lies, he connives, he schemes, he steals, he cheats.  However (and any interesting character needs to have a "however"), he does all of this in the ultimate service of good.  He likes his family, cares for the people close to him, and wants to keep the land safe from the darkspawn.  However, if he can get fabulously wealthy while he does this, well, so much the better!

Two recent scenarios gave me a ton of freedom to explore this personality, and I absolutely loved how both of them played out.  I'd be very curious to try again with another character and another set of morals, and see how they would end differently.

First, on a quest for the Urn of Sacred Ashes (mini-spoilers ahead, no biggies), I fought through a long dungeon, and finally met the Big Bad Guy.  He gave a Big Bad Guy speech, and then appeared to change his mind, and ask if I wanted to make a deal.  I ALWAYS am ready to make a deal - even if I don't think I'll take it, I always want to hear the other person out, and see if there's some other advantage I can take.  This guy (I think his name is "Kolgrim," though I may be confusing names here) wanted to enlist my help in destroying the Urn of Sacred Ashes.  This would be a Bad Thing.  I said, "Yes!"  Not because I wanted to do it, but because I wanted to see how far along I could push this thing.  Kolgrim became more chatty, and I learned more about his belief system and what he wanted me to do.  Alistair freaked; I have really high Coercion, so I talked him down and persuaded him that I knew what I was doing.  Morrigan was pleased at the idea of tweaking the Chantry.  Sten was predictably stoic.

We emerged on a mountaintop.  Kolgrim got me past a particularly difficult-looking obstacle, and then showed me the way to the Urn.  On my first play-through, here I attacked Kolgrim and his followers.  They were a smaller crew than in the dungeon, but I still got my tail whipped: Kolgrim, plus a mage, plus a large drake, plus several Reavers, all amounted to an impressive and deadly force.  After a few tries, I figured, "Well, maybe I WON'T attack Kolgrim."  I went ahead, and did some more stuff to finish the quest for the Urn.  At the end, I had the choice of whether to destroy the Urn.  I chose not to - after all, I'm basically a good guy, and not interested in promoting the aims of a demonic cult that murders innocents.  I emerged from the urn, and found Kolgrim, who predictably had a fit.  Screaming in rage, he threw himself at me.  He, and two other Reavers.  No mage.  No drake.  This was a far, far better fight.  By practicing deceit and treachery, I had managed to complete my virtuous quest.  Huzzah!

I'm reminded, incidentally, of my Masterpieces of Western Lit class in college.  We did a few chapters of the Old Testament here - it wasn't as thorough a treatment as I would later tackle in The Bible as Literature, but still quite interesting.  One of the things we talked about a lot was the meaning behind the Old Testament (er, sorry - I meant Hebrew Bible - old habits die hard) stories.  Not in the Sunday School sense of spiritual lessons, but in a sociological sense: what were the virtues that this particular tribe promoted in, say, the story of Jacob and Esau?  Well, seen from a historic and sociological perspective, this story is basically about overturning the laws of primogeniture: an underlying moral is that, rather than automatically granting all of a family's wealth and power to the son who happened to be born first, it is better if the son who is more cunning and clever to take the fortune.  This flew in the face of Mesopotamian culture, but proved to be an incredibly helpful lesson: by rewarding the brightest and cleverest of their tribe, the Hebrews managed to establish a respectable kingdom even in the midst of neighbors who were far larger and more powerful than themselves.

Anyways, I found myself thinking of that... in the Bible story, Jacob is tricky and deceitful when he takes Esau's birthright from him.   But, is he really "bad"?  It's hard to say that he is... after all, it is Jacob and not Esau who fulfills Abraham's promise and founds the great nation.  To be sure, you can make plenty of arguments that he shouldn't have done this, but just reading within the text itself, you can definitely see this kind of trickery promoted as a virtue.  That's the kind of feel that I'm getting for Seberin: he uses amoral means to achieve moral ends.

MEGA SPOILERS (but only if you intend to play The Stone Prisoner)

The second incident came during my quest for Shale.  At the end of a dungeon, I met up with a runaway girl who was talking with a cat.  The cat was talking back.  It was quickly obvious that this cat was actually the demon who had been imprisoned by the mage who used to live here.

The girl is mesmerized by the cat, and won't leave with you.  The cat smugly tells you that it intends to possess her.  But, it must escape from the wards on its prison.  You are given the standard conversation options: denounce the demon and attack it, or acquiesce to its wishes, or attempt to bargain with it.  I did the latter, and then chose an option that allowed me to lie to demon, promising it freedom.  I then got to solve a cute little puzzle.  Once the puzzle was complete, the demon was freed, the girl got scared... and THEN I attacked.  By stringing the demon along, I had gathered more information, lulled it into a false sense of security, and still managed to be a hero and save the day.

This kind of stuff is FUN!


It's probably also a testament to the verity of this game that I thought long and hard about my options for romance.  Bioware first introduced romance in BG2, and the effect was amazing - you had three potential romantic partners (if you were playing a male, that is; I think there was just one option if you were a woman), and incredibly rich and complicated plots that would carry you along the path from acquaintance to companion to friend to lover.  There's been a lot of excitement about romance within DA, and long before the game was released there was a lot of chatter about which partners different people preferred.

Like your party itself, romance is purely optional - it improves your relationship with a particular party member, of course, but it's the sort of thing that you'd do for fun rather than an in-game advantage... with Bioware's excellent writing (and, yes, some interesting game-engine cut scenes), this aspect of the game is uniquely interesting, something fun to do other than cutting up Darkspawn.

Earlier this week, I was tempted to place the following status update on Facebook: "Christopher got to first base with Leliana."  Then I thought I'd modify it by appending, "Is it weird that today's RPGs require more planning and strategy when you woo a woman than they require for assaulting the Dark Lord's fortress?"  Then I decided the whole thing was too wordy, and revealed more of my nerdiness than I really wanted to, and let it go.

As far as I can tell, you have two potential female partners, Morrigan and Leliana.  (There are also gay and/or bi options.)  This put me in an immediate quandary: I wanted, I needed Morrigan to be in my party, but I was much more interested in pursuing Leliana in a romance.  (She's cuter, and sweeter, and more interesting... sort of a Joan of Arc figure, if Joan was a minstrel assassin and spy.)  Still, I had no use for putting Leliana in my party.  She's a rogue, and Seberin was all the rogue that I needed, having already eclipsed her in the theft department.  Since I intended to specialize as a Bard as soon as I could, she was even more useless than Zevram (sp) would later be.  Still, it all worked out well.  I took Morrigan whenever I travelled between areas or while in a hostile location, and I took Leliana everywhere else.  Everything went along swimmingly: I raised bother members' opinion of Seberin considerably, started the romance plot line with Leliana, and toasted my success.

And then I messed up.  Morrigan had been romantically interested in Seberin for a while, although he never pursued anything with her, having learned the hard way that she doesn't react well to any mention of "love."  After one night of indiscretion, though (hey, keep in mind that Seberin is deceitful and greedy), she decided to lay claim to him herself.  Now, I'm afraid to talk to either of them, because both will demand that I break off with the other woman, which wouldn't be so bad, except that I'd need to break up with Morrigan, and that would result in a -30 or so opinion drop.  Hence a loss in her effectiveness as my one and only spellcaster.  Sigh.  Video games were complicated enough already without bringing in romantic entanglements.  (I'm secretly loving it.  I'm also going to wait until someone reverse-engineers the developer console so I can modify my game and reset a flag so I can pretend that Morrigan and Seberin are still just friends.  I fear that this game is teaching me lessons that should not be applied to real life...)


I realize I've just barely scratched the surface of the story.  Honestly, I think there's just too much of it to try and deal with now.  Again, there are an absurd number of side-quests and whatnot going on, all of which feeds the feeling that Faerun is a living, breathing world.  I may try and summarize the plot at a later point, but I definitely won't be able to recall every nuance.

I'm already thoroughly intrigued by the world that Bioware has created here.  Even though this entire game takes place within a single nation, just my conversations with foreigners within my party has intrigued me about settings for future games.  The buzz around DA has been very positive, and my own experiences have been entirely great, so I hope that we'll get to continue exploring this rich land.

The House of the Rising Stag

The House of the Stag is one of the most original fantasy novels that I've read in years.  It contains some pretty standard tropes, like magic and quests and curses and castles, but more so than any other modern novel I can think of, it directly explores the space between modern fantasy and its cultural predecessors: myths, fables, and religion.  HotS is a fantasy novel that manages to feel like something entirely different, and because of that is completely charming and fascinating.


One of the things I liked best about this book was how it shifts literary style throughout the novel.  It doesn't slip around in an ad-hoc manner; rather, each section picks a unique idiom, and then sticks with that voice throughout.

The prologue essentially narrates a series of hieroglyphs.  We learn the story of a peaceful tribe that lived in a valley; how they were attacked and enslaved by ferocious horsemen; how a prophet arrived to provide hope to the people; and how two brothers followed different paths to stop the horsemen, and the tragic ends reached by each one.  Everything here is very simply and very powerful, such as the utter evil of the riders or the pure determination of Gard.

The first long section is framed by a series of bureaucratic records.  These describe Gard's life as a slave, denoting the moments when he was reassigned to different duties or assigned to a master.  The bulk of the story is told in conventional third-person limited omniscient narration, allowing us access to Gard's perspective as he puzzles out the system that holds him captive.

Now, you can read this part in a straight-forward manner, and get a kick out of a great story.  This may have been my favorite section of the book, and it's fun to cheer for Gard in his quest.  However, it's fascinating to think of this story as something that has been reconstructed.  In the prologue, you can imagine someone seeing those cave drawings, and then inventing a story to explain them.  Similarly, in the first chapter, you can imagine someone stumbling across the slave record book, noticing the unusual assignments given to Slave 4372301, and then constructing a narrative that would connect those dots and tell a story.  This is a pattern that repeats throughout the book: small, rather direct data points string throughout a chapter, and a much richer and more interesting story grows up around them.

The next, much shorter chapter shifts into a first-person narration.  Here we learn first-hand the story of how the Prophet's prediction of a savior child was proven true, how that child led the people to freedom, and what happened to the people on the other side of the mountains.  Here, it's pretty impossible to not think of religious stories when reading about the events.  There are obvious parallels to Christianity - you have a prophet, a message of peace, deliverance from a land of oppression, a pure child with no father (or, in this telling, mother) who offers salvation.  Now, I don't think that this is meant to be a satire of Christianity - it's far too respectful for that.  It's kind of a sly subversion in some ways, particularly as the story progresses.  Mostly, I think what the author is enjoying most here is seeing how real events get turned into stories.  I mean, if you were to, say, travel back in time and follow around John the Baptist for his career, you would see far more of him than is captured in the Bible.  He must have said thousands of things, encountered tens of thousands of people, lived an incredibly rich and varied life.  We don't see all of that, though: all that is left to us of John the Baptist are a few chapters in the New Testament.  So: what was the point at which the physical reality of the person of John the Baptist transmuted into the prosodic snapshot of him that we see in the Bible?  What was the result of that transformation?  Did people who knew John argue about the meaning of his statements?  Did they dispute which Gospels reflected him more or less accurately?  In the course of House of the Stag, you can witness that kind of process taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.


After this, we return to Gard's story, which once again is a third-person limited omniscient narration framed with an external set of data points.  Except here, those data points aren't primary source material: instead, Gard's story here is presented as a play.  The curtain rises, actors stride upon the stage, and the audience listens raptly to learn of the Master of the Mountain.  The body of this story also focuses upon the theater in a variety of ways.  Gard now lives in a state of freedom and exile, and must disguise himself in order to survive.  He learns how to speak and act like the Children of the Sun.  Later, he learns how to actually act - he joins a theatrical company and auditions for the role of the hero.  He is a great success.  Then he falls into the role of the Dark Lord.  He is an even greater success.

This is, of course, SO meta.  Gard is a perfect antihero, and is both the hero (brave, determined, faithful to friends, liberator) and the villain (demon, tricky, deceitful, violent) throughout the book.  We can already sense much of this tension by this point in the book, and the play doesn't just reflect Gard's person, it also predicts what will happen for the rest of the book.

I think that this was the first part of the story where humor started to creep in.  I'd enjoyed the book up until now, but this is the first time I remember actually chuckling at some of it.  It isn't in-your-face funny, like Terry Pratchett.  It's just... really meta, really knowing, really wry.  Gard himself can be pretty funny, and grows more so when he starts making friends and finds love.

Speaking of which: once the curtain falls on this chapter, the next one moves us back towards the Yendri.  Now the story focuses on the Child, who has now grown into a woman and, in the absence of the Prophet, become the leader of the people.  The framing device here is a historical record: some monks, presumably many generations in the future, have collected what is essentially a Gospel.  This tells the story of the people, but is one step removed from the primary sources: we aren't hearing directly from the Child, or one of the disciples, but rather from someone who has heard the stories of what happened there, probably soon after the events occurred, and put together this narrative.  Once again, we're in pretty fascinating postmodern territory here.  The end of this chapter is particularly great, as it describes how the handwriting of this account changes towards the end, abruptly shifting tone.  That reminds me of, say, the end of the Book of Mark, which had a section added to the very end after its earliest version was written.

The religious parallels are back here and stronger than before.  If the first part of the Child's story was Old Testament in tone - prophecy, deliverance, the promised land - this section is pure New Testament, and more specifically, smack dab in the epistles.  As the people grow in number and gradually scatter, dissension arises among the disciples.  All claim to love and obey the Child, but each has their own ideas about how to organize themselves, whether to arm themselves, how to deal with other tribes, whether to trade, whether to profit.  The Child speaks with them, but after a while is compelled to begin writing letters to express her teachings to her far-flung followers.  It's impossible to avoid thinking of Paul's exhortations here.  Even the subject matter is often the same: scolding people for quarreling with one another, reminding them of what is important, urging them to stay focused on important spiritual matters and not grow distracted by the world's temptations.

That said, this is one of the parts where there might be a little satire taking place.  I'm not sure if I can really talk about the "faith" or the religion of the Yendri.  It's mainly devotion to the Child, who in turn promotes uplifting teachings: kindness to one another, love of beauty, and so on.  Of course, many people will say that there wasn't a religion of Christianity while Christ was alive; the religion only came after He left, and His followers were left to argue over His teachings amongst themselves.  In this view, we can see the Yendri "faith" as something that is being born within the book, that will later be codified and become a mystical, religious following, rather than responding to the person right before them.

Anyways: the satire.  One way in which the Child is the polar opposite of Paul is when it comes to the nature of the world's temptations.  Paul famously wrote that it would be better if all were like him (i.e., celibate), and to this day many people struggle over how to interpret his writings on the status of women within the church.  In contrast, The Prophet in this book is serially UNcelibate, joyfully sleeping with any of his female disciples who wish it.  The Child is a reluctant virgin, but she rejects the teachings of her disciples who argue that men should remain apart from women.

So.  Lots of interesting religious parallels going on.

The final section of the book finally brings together all the plot threads throughout the book: The Blessed Child, Cursed Gard, the mages of the mountain, the armies of the Children of the Sun, hordes of demons, the Trevani.  Everything comes together, and - it all works.  It all clicks.  It has the excitement and drama of a modern fantasy novel, but by this point it has earned much of the depth and weight that we tend to attach to older and more traditional literary styles.  And it's funny, too.  You can almost imagine a situational comedy focusing on the grumpy Dark Lord in a skull-adorned castle, and his clever wife who tries to make things better.

I really don't want to give anything away, even in a mega spoilers block, but I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer storytelling prowess on display.  I don't think there was a wasted scene anywhere: everything serves to heighten the drama, to entertain us, to propel the story towards its inevitable conclusion while keeping the nature of that conclusion shrouded from sight.


In case you can't tell yet, I really, really liked this book.  I hadn't even heard of Kage Baker before Scott tossed me a reference to this book (thanks, Scott!), and now I'm smitten.  From the little that I've heard, it sounds like her first fantasy book was quite a bit different from this one.  I'll still check it out at some point.  Now that Baker has written The House of the Stag, I kind of doubt that anyone else will try to cover this same ground; she's done such a great job of playing with the forms, content, and style of non-literary fantasy that it would be almost impossible to top her.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spectral Corpse

"Ghost in the Shell" was one of the first anime I ever saw.  Years later, in Kansas City, I read the manga and watched the sequel, Innocence.  It's a cool series, and I really dig the themes, atmosphere, humor, and action.  The overall thrust of the series' premise and moral challenge is embedded within the title.  "Ghost" refers to whatever it is that makes us human - our spirit, if you will, the part that gives us autonomy, intuition, desire.  "Shell" is our physical representation in the world - out body, but in the future of GitS, the shell is almost always augmented with mechanical devices.  And not only that: almost everyone in this world has "cyberized" brains: implants that allow people to see marked-up views of the world, communicate "telepathically" with others, remotely access data, and otherwise act like a giant Internet line into your mind.

Of course, that's one of the really cool things about GitS; the original story was written after the Internet but before the Web, and is really forward-looking.  Through its multiple iterations over the years, the stories from the manga have been further updated, keeping that eery sense of "oooh, that could totally happen."

I've been aware of the Stand-Alone Complex for quite a while, but just now started watching it.  Somewhere along the line I'd heard that it wasn't very good, and I have a long-standing policy of not wasting time on anime that isn't great.  I don't remember where I heard that criticism, though, and more recently have received positive recommendations, so I decided to go for it.

I'm glad that I did!  No, this isn't "Death Note," but it is one of the better anime series that I have seen for a while.  It maintains the things I liked best about the original movie, while finally reflecting the strengths of the longer-form manga.  Much like contemporary American drama shows, it demands a lot from its viewers, and rewards them with a really complex story that builds on itself, establishes long plot arcs, and really fleshes out the characters and their relationships.

The movies focused on Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, and with good reason; they're the two most striking members of Section Nine.  However, the entire squad is talented and enjoyable, and I loved seeing them fleshed out more.  The best improvements in the series are the Old Man and Ishikawa.  Both were in the movies, but stayed mostly in the background.  The Old Man gets about as much screen time here as the Major and Batou, and we actually get a chance to dig into his mind a little bit.  Ishikawa is still usually background, but a really entertaining and interesting background.  He reminds me of someone particular who I worked with: extremely competent, calm, intelligent, with a dry sense of humor and an impressive beard.


The first GitS movie spliced together a couple of stories from the first manga.  The second GitS movie was kind of interesting; it took stories from the first manga that had occurred before the original stories, but set them after it chronologically; it worked, but was definitely out of sequence. 

Here, I think most of the SAC stories were new.  There are still plenty of things taken from the manga.  I enjoyed seeing the tachikoma, and especially the short segments at the end of each episode, which perfectly captured the spirit of the tachikoma doodles that used to be included as the very end of manga issues.  There are some other artistic things borrowed from the manga, such as the director of a medical equipment company who has put himself into a bizarre-looking small box with legs and wheels.  In the manga, that director becomes the major focus of a story; here, he's more of an amusing plot device in connection with another story

Anyways.  This is a full series, and has a lot of nifty one-off episodes.  The overall arc, though, deals with a cyber-criminal known as The Laughing Man.  The thread is introduced a little way into the series, fades away, is hinted at, leads to a major incident at the half-season mark, burns away for a while longer, and then leads to the finale.  It's really fascinating to see everyone process through the problem, which is almost fully incomprehensible and yet irresistible.

It also does a good job of getting back to the main point of GitS, which is the tension between man and machine, and, more specifically, trying to identify just what makes us human.  If a robot can think and act on its own, does it have a soul?  Should it have rights?  What if it developed a sense of humor?  What if it gained the capacity to disobey its owner?  At the opposite extreme, if your brain is moved to another body, do "you" still exist?  Are you still the same person?  What if someone cloned you?  What if they cloned you and copied your memories?

The Laughing Man is the ultimate hacker in a world where computers reach everywhere and everything.  The coolest, creepiest moments of the show come when someone encounters The Laughing Man in real life, physically standing next to him, only to have him suddenly vanish, or an icon display over his face.  The Laughing Man exploits the connectedness of everyone, rewriting the reality within others' brains.  It's chilling, but at the same time, it's the cost people pay for having accepted the benefits of cybrid brain technology.

It isn't all tech, though.   You gradually learn that The Laughing Man's crusade is more about the political and economic structures of Japan.  He's the ultimate avatar of technology, but he draws his inspiration from J. D. Salinger.  Another benefit of the longer form of this anime series is that you really get a feel for the bureaucracy that Section Nine operates within (or, more accurately, outside of) and the politics that drive policy.  It's all nicely complex and intriguing, and feels thoroughly realistic.  I might even go so far as to say topical - I don't follow Japanese government all that closely, but I do know that collusion between government, civil service, and business is built into the system.  Some moments of SAC felt like particularly pointed satire, or the vented frustration of someone fed up with the status quo.


Oh, I almost forgot to write about the art!  It's really, really pretty.  The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous and lush; I suspect that it's the same studio that made Advent Children, because it has that same level of photorealism, down to amazing hair and lighting.  The body of the episode doesn't have that same level of production, but still looks really good.  It's all computer-generated, and has a really smooth, clean look throughout.  The cars in particular show really well.  There's plenty of good movement throughout; I think anime has finally broken out from the meme of "hold a single image in the frame for as long as we can get away with it."  The action scenes are extremely well-done, with great kinetic energy that still lets you see everything.  And the characters... I suppose we can't give too much credit for character design, since they're faithful to the precedent in the manga, but the execution is excellent.

Stand Alone Complex is a different beast from the earlier movies and manga, but it keeps the coolest aspects of the characters and themes, and provides a really interesting and complex new plot.  There's a great blend of thought-provoking speculative fiction with fun action scenes and random bits of silliness.  Stand Alone Complex wears its mantle very well.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Das Book

I'm still feeling flush with excitement at completing my first book.  It's been a wonderful, long, unexpected, enjoyable process.  I'm still kind of processing everything that has happened and what it all means.  Without further ado, let's commence the rambling.

The way it all started was a bit like a fairy tale, with Ray Rischpater playing the part of the fairy godmother.  I had thoroughly enjoyed my previous technical editing gigs for Ray and Chris Haseman, which allowed me to go outside my normal technical circles, pick up some good new skills, and, even better, exercise the critical and analytical parts of my brain.  The two books were very different - Chris's was written quickly, relatively casually, and was extremely dense.  Ray's lasted for many months, was more structured, and regularly stepped away from the code to take a higher view of the mobile space.  I like Ray and Chris, and it was an honor to work with them in this new venue.

I really enjoyed the process, and daydreamed a bit about writing my own book, but never really did much about it.  Then, due to a fortuitous turn of circumstances, Ray connected me with some of the people at Apress to write about BlackBerry.  It just so happened that I'd been focusing on BlackBerry almost exclusively at work, a change from my previous BREW-heavy experience, and felt like I had a lot that I could contribute to a book.  We discussed it, and the book proposal went through several iterations.  When it all finished, I had a five-page proposal I'd written, complete with a table of contents, and a title: Advanced BlackBerry Development.

Having completed the earlier technical reviewing gig definitely helped prepare me somewhat for the process of writing a book, but it was still fascinating and occasionally surprising.  I don't think I've ever really appreciated just how many people are involved in this undertaking, and how they come in and out of the picture as the book comes along.  The editor who had initially recruited me seems to be more business development oriented... we keep in touch, but he wasn't hands-on for much of the writing process.  Instead, I worked primarily with another editor who showed me the ropes, got me used to the Microsoft Word templates that Apress uses, offered useful feedback, and generally helped give me confidence that I was moving in the right direction.  Later on I'd work closely with a coordinating editor/project manager; we'd check in frequently, often multiple times a day, to make sure that materials were being received and edited on schedule.  Towards the end of the process I got to work with a technical reviewer, a copy editor, and the fine folks at production and layout.

Possibly the biggest surprise for me is how fast the whole thing was.  On the one hand, yeah, it has taken me about four months from start to finish.  On the other hand, though, the actual chapters just flowed out.  Apress maintains a wiki that, among other things, contains useful advice for new authors, and they promulgate a phenomenal strategy for writing a book.  Basically, you should subdivide, then subdivide, then subdivide again.  When you have a manageable chunk, do everything you need to do with it: do your research, write sample code, draw diagrams, come up with examples and tables.  Then you write it - as they observe, by this point, it practically writes itself.  Once it's done, you move on to the next chunk.  There's no worry about losing your place, about forgetting to cover something, about repeating yourself.  You create a plan, then execute the plan - what could be simpler?

The original schedule had been for me to finish the first 3 chapters by September, and the rest of the book by November.  I realized that this schedule would allow me more than 2 weeks per chapter for the first 3 chapters, but about a chapter a week for the rest.  Since I would also be doing edits and such at the end, I was concerned about creating a bottleneck, so I asked my editor if I could write ahead of schedule.  He said, "Go for it!"  And I did.  For week after week I wrote and wrote.  Not a single day went by that I didn't write something.  I tapped away on the Caltrain commute in the morning, and tapped again in the afternoon, and switched to my desktop computer for further tapping once I got home.  Some weekends I would hole up in my living room and just pound out more and more of the book.  It was exhausting, but also totally exhilarating.  I felt a constant sense of accomplishment: "Yes!  I drew another diagram!"  "Yes!  I finished another section!" "Yes!  This chapter is DONE!"

Oooh, before I forget: this book also taught me to love diagramming.  I do really enjoy sketching out design and architectural diagrams on a whiteboard or notepaper, but my handwriting is horrible.  I'm used to fighting with Microsoft Visio or Rational Rose for drawing diagrams on the computer, and just hate them.  I can easily spend five or ten minutes just trying to make all the lines straight, and the programs still won't let me get them just right.  I think that I've improved myself a lot while writing this book, and the most dramatic instance may be becoming a far better illustrator.  And, 100% of the credit goes to OmniGraffle.  (With an assist to Ray, for introducing me to the program, which he used in his own book.)  OmniGraffle is... well, it's like sorcery.  It's a Mac program, you drop shapes onto a sheet, drag them to where you want them to go, and then draw in the lines connecting them.  Poof!  The process takes less than a minute, with a result that looks far cleaner than something I could have spent twenty minutes on in Visio.  It uses helpful guides that help ease shapes into place, automatically display rulers when you're trying to line something up, lets you grab and move multiple pieces together... oh, and the magnets just work like magic, keeping the lines where you want them to be.  On the really complicated diagrams, it let me take control and manually position things where I wanted them to do; for the bulk of my diagrams, no extra effort was required on my part.  Hats off for a job well done!

Back to the book proper - I kept dropping off chapters to my editor.  He had some great, detailed feedback on the first couple of chapters.  I had initially designed the book by looking at the table of contents for Beginning BlackBerry Development and picking up where that book left off.  As a result, the book assumed the reader was up-to-date on all the basics of BlackBerry programming, and plunged right into new material.  We eventually decided that it would be helpful to include an introductory chapter that would review the basics and cover the most important points.  This would be helpful for people who were going directly to this book without reading the "prequel," or for people who had waiting a while between the two and wanted a quick refresher course.  Because we realized this so early, I could build it into my schedule, and more importantly, tailor later chapters' contents slightly differently by controlling when and how certain concepts were introduced.

The feedback became more minor as the chapters continued.  I asked the editor if I should keep writing after I passed the third chapter.  To be honest, I would have kept writing regardless, but I was really curious whether I should keep handing them in or just sit on them until the September deadline.  He encouraged me to keep writing and keep submitting, so I did.  It was so much fun, I just couldn't stop!  A lot of the book, especially the first several chapters, covers material that I deal with quite a bit at work and that I could code in my sleep, like media capture and playback.  As I got further in, I started to tackle chapters where I had less hands-on experience.  That was even better, because I got to learn some new stuff, process it, play around with code, find out what worked, figure out the best way to do certain things, check out the collective wisdom on the forums and technical articles, then distill it all down to a compact and (hopefully!) helpful segment.

Funny story: Of course, I kept my day job during this whole process.  We were (and are) working on a high-profile project that can lead to a lot of pressure.  We had been going back and forth for almost a week on a particular problem with authenticating our client against a third-party server.  The people who write the server are way overseas, so we could never work anything out in real-time; we'd ask questions, and get an answer when we came in to work the next day.  Anyways, on this particular day we had a 9AM conference call (beginning of our day, end of theirs) to try and hash out this problem once and for all.  I arrived in the office a bit before 8 to prepare for the call.  I found that the server team had finally fixed the issue that we had been reporting.  I fired up the RIM emulator and hit the server.  Success!  We were getting data back.  But, wait - as I looked at the bytes for the first time, I realized that they were returning the data in Base64 encoding instead of raw binary.  "Oh, no!" I thought to myself.  "Converting from Base64 to raw bytes is a pain.  I remember because it was annoying to write that part for my book.  Wait!  That's right, I already wrote that code!"  I hopped onto Google Docs, found the relevant chapter, copy-and-pasted the decoder into our source, and then ran it again.  Success!  When the 9AM call came along, I could calmly and confidently lean into the speakerphone and say, "Yes, thank you for solving that problem on the server.  We are now able to log into the system."  Ain't nothing like a side gig that directly increases your value on the main gig!

Because I kept flying, I was almost done with the book by the time the first 3 chapters officially came due.  I handed the last few off to my coordinating editor, and then started the review process.  Reviewing proved to be a serious case of "Hurry up and wait."  I went for almost a month at one point with absolutely nothing back to review, then would get 8 chapters all at once.  It was fine, though.  Reviewing was a much quicker and easier process than the writing itself; even on chapters that I hadn't looked at in months, it was always really simple to figure out what needed to happen.

I found that moving from full-on writing mode to editing mode was surprisingly difficult.  I had gotten so used to months of constant writing... it used to be that, any time I had any free time at all, I would think, "Oooh, I should try to fit in another section!"  Once that was done, I would realize that I had some free time, then just sort of sit down and say, "Soooooo.... what should I do with myself?"  This is when I picked up HalfLife 2 and started playing games again after an incredibly long wait.

I particularly enjoyed the copy-editing process.  I'm an English Lit major, and have a sick enjoyment for copy editing myself... I need to be careful when other people ask me to edit their stuff, because some people can be irritated at the things I'll comment on.  ("Don't use passive voice here... don't end a sentence with a preposition...")  Anyways, almost all of the copy-edits were clear and good and made things feel tighter and sound better.  One of the most rewarding aspects of this process was identifying some gaps in my own skillset.  I've been writing and editing for my entire life, but I've never taken a real, former grammar class.  In a way, I've mainly been skating along by reading a TON and then editing so things sound right.  But in some cases, things that sound right to me aren't actually right.  The biggest example I saw here was something that I apparently do a lot: place adverbs after verbs.  For example, I would say, "I went to the store quickly," or "They kissed passionately."  My editors, though, would change it to read "I quickly went to the store" or "They passionately kissed."  (NOTE: Sentences are for illustrative purposes only.  No kissing occurs within this book.)  Now, when I read those sentences, they sounds just as good to me, but now that I know the latter is preferred, I can try to be on my guard and catch myself when I make that mistake clumsily... or rather, when I clumsily make that mistake.  :-)

The last few weeks have, honestly, just been all fun.  I've reviewed the galley proofs, written the acknowledgments and introduction, signed up for my Amazon author page, and started talking with Apress about marketing the book.  I decided to splurge and hire an actual photographer (a friend of a friend) for an author photo.  I can't wait for the moment when I first see the book on an actual bookshelf.

The whole journey has been incredibly fun.  That said, now that I've been through it once, there are definitely some things that I'll do differently the next time (assuming that there is a next time).

First and foremost, I want to take more time on it.  Like I said above, the speed was one of the most exhilarating parts of the whole process.  However, because I was so eager to get the words down and send them off, I did only a cursory editing pass between writing and submission.  My reasoning was sound: I wasn't sure how much the structure of the book would change during the course of initial editing, and I didn't want to take a lot of extra time on fine-tuning passages that might be drastically restructured or rewritten anyways.  Since I knew that there would be multiple editing stages, both over technical and over grammar contents, I'd have plenty of time to tinker with them.

Now that I've been through the full process, I know that that isn't necessarily the case.  Yes, there are multiple editing passes, but not as many as I'd thought - with Ray's book, I had tech-reviewed each chapter twice, with the second pass basically just double-checking Ray's corrections.  For this project, there was just a single technical reviewing phase.  (The second would have been the perfect time for me to revisit the flow of the chapters, once the technical content was locked but before copyediting started.)  Additionally, even though I might go for weeks without getting any chapters, when things did come in for review I needed to turn them around very quickly.  I had enough time to respond to all the specific edits I got, but not enough to strongly rework things as I would have liked.  With copyediting, again, I had expected to get another editing pass to make final adjustments, but it turned out that we just had the one.

The end result of all this was that, once I got the final galley proofs, I was still finding stuff that I wasn't happy with.  Unfortunately, that's the worst time in the whole process to make any changes; here, the design of the book is pretty much locked into formatted PDF files, and any changes are difficult and expensive to make.  As a result, I'm limited to 10 corrections per chapter.  Most of these ended up going to genuine production corrections (mis-set type, altered diagrams, formatting issues).  I did get to fix all the genuine typos I found that had made it through, but if it wasn't for the limit of 10, there would be fewer things in the final book that make me wince.  (Nothing TOO bad, but some things I just don't like to do, like repeat a word twice in consecutive sentences, or use passive voice, or over-use semicolons.)  None of this is Apress's fault, of course, just my own.  Now that I've been through this and seen how it works, I'll probably slow down on the initial writing portion of the book and build in time for a more thorough edit.  It turned out that the technical and copyediting reviews didn't make any sweeping changes to the book, just adjustments, so I shouldn't need to worry too much about sinking time in there unnecessarily.

That said, doing this quickly definitely had its advantages.  We were originally planning for a final first draft in mid-November, with a publication date sometime in February 2010.  Because the drafts were done so early, Apress was able to move up the date and publish in November.  That's pretty huge, for everyone involved.  On my end, that means that I can finish the writing process earlier, relax a little, and start working on future projects.  For Apress, they get to go to market at around the same time as the Beginning BlackBerry book, which should help sales for both titles, and may get a bit of a boost over the winter holidays.  And, of course, their in-house editors can focus on future books as well.

It was also interesting to see exactly how the monetary aspect of this all works.  I'm definitely not going to be able to do this full-time, and if you divide my total funds received by the number of hours that I've spent on the book, it has been a very unlucrative endeavor.  But, again, it's fun, it's something that fits nicely into my commute time and weekends, and it's hard to argue against a pursuit that strengthens my technical skills while providing a little extra cash.  Anyways, the way it works is, you get both an advance and royalties.  The term "Advance" is a bit of a misnomer.  Unlike, say, the advance for a new novel, which might allow an author to spend months writing without needing to find work, this advance is paid in arrears.  As such, it's more like a standard work-for-hire agreement than a forward-looking or speculative investment.  You are paid one-third after Apress approves the first three chapters; this lets them check out your bona fides, see that you actually can produce on a schedule, and make sure that you're producing quality work.  The next third is paid once the book is about two-thirds done, which I guess is more of a check-in.  The remainder of the advance is paid after the book is entirely complete, including all the edits, corrections, source code submission, and so forth.  That helps ensure that authors stay engaged through the process and don't drop out once the draft is done.

In my case, it went somewhat differently.  I actually did want to use the advance as an advance, at least in part: I used the money I was expecting from my first payment to buy a personal BlackBerry and sign up for a BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) account with T-Mobile (they have awesome month-to-month prepay contracts available, provided you call them directly).  I also created a personal account for the BlackBerry developer program and ordered a personal set of code signing keys.  (There are tons of BlackBerry devices and keys at my office, but I was careful throughout the process to keep the two separate.)  This wasn't a huge investment, but altogether it came to many hundred dollars during the project.  Anyways, I finished the first three chapters ahead of schedule, and my editor approved the first advance payment in August.  However, due to an increasingly bewildering series of setbacks, I didn't actually receive any funds from Apress until November, when the book was virtually done.  Apparently they have switched their back-office to New York - you can find some chatter from other authors online if you look around - and... actually, I don't even want to speculate what the issue is, because I just don't know.  Anyways, they finally sorted it out, and I'm hoping that I'll receive the remainder of my advance before too much longer.

Even though the advance is paid out differently, it still works similarly to a traditional book contract in other respects.  I'll receive a fraction of the price for every book that is sold.  Obviously, I don't have a lot of exposure to the industry, but I think their contract is extremely fair.  The share that you get is based on the number of copies that sell within each accounting period, so the better the book does, the more you are rewarded.  The amount that the share is calculated from is derived from the Apress profit, not the list price or the sale price, so books that were sold at a wholesale discount won't generate as much revenue for you.  There are also provisions for electronic book sales, subscriptions, and other new-media-type purchases.  All of these get counted up each quarter, and they calculate your share.  The share is used to pay back the advance, so I'm not expecting to see any royalty money soon.  Once the advance is paid off, future royalties accrue to you.

I'm curious to see how the book does financially.  Mobile software development is a niche category in the software industry (albeit a dramatically growing niche, thanks to the success of the iPhone), and BlackBerry development is a particular region within the niche, so I'm sure that the book won't do gangbusters.  Still, since I'll get to see the sales figures for the books, it'll be really interesting to figure out just how many people are getting their hands on my words.

Now we're heading into the marketing phase for the book.  I don't have anything particular planned; if we'd published a month or so earlier, I might have explored doing something for the BlackBerry Developer conference, and depending on how things work out, I might try to attend it next year.  (There are several other conferences that are peripherally related, like Java ONE, Mobile Developer Days, and so on... I'm not planning on doing anything with those, but we'll see what happens.)  Oh, and I'm also starting to write some more articles on mobile development; I enjoy doing that, and it's been a while since I have.  Other than that, it will largely be in Apress's corner.

So, yeah.  It's been incredibly fun!  I've loved the journey.  I've learned a lot, and know that I'll do some things differently the next time around, but mainly I'm just very excited to have had this opportunity.  Excelsior!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Unseen Academicals

Now that I've read, y'know, every Discworld book ever written, I'm now limited by reality and Terry Pratchett's writing schedule to feed my urge.  Fortunately, Pratchett has always been a fairly prolific writer, so the process is nowhere near as painful as, say, waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire. 

That said, I almost didn't pick up Unseen Academicals.  I have no idea why, but for some reason I hadn't realized that it was a Discworld book.  Maybe I had confused it with A Hatful of Sky or another of his juvenile books.  I eventually realized my error, and felt pretty silly when I did - after all, Unseen University appears in virtually every Discworld book in one way or another, and Unseen Academicals was a pretty obvious reference to UU.


So, where does the book fit on the famous Reading Chart?  Personally, I'd place it under the Industrial Revolution thread.  It doesn't continue the latest adventures of Moist, but it completely fits in with the overall thrust of these books, which are all about taking modern concepts and incongruously transplanting them to a fantasy setting.  In this case, that concept is organized sporting leagues.  Psychology also makes a brief appearance, as do glamour fashion magazines and play-by-play commentary.

I must say, I was a little surprised by the presence of soccer (er, football) in the book.  It works, but c'mon, sports and fantasy have to be about as far as you can get from each other.  Somehow, I have the feeling that few of the readers of this book have great sporting experiences from their childhoods; they're far more likely to sympathize with Ponder Stibbons' memories of the kid who was picked last for a team.  As always, though, Pratchett makes it work.  You get to see the history of the sport in this alternate universe, see how it affects the day-to-day life within A-M, how it affects the passions of peoples' lives, why Vetinari cares about it, how he changes it, how sports can be good or bad... the most compelling part is the idea of The Shove, the sort of mass mind that takes over the throng of passionate spectators.  It's something I recognize from my own experiences any time I join thousands of other strangers to watch a competition.

The plot is pretty sprawling (more on that later) and fun.  There's a fairly small cast of main characters, all of whom would be nameless servants in other Discworld books.  One is a cook who is the head of the Night Kitchen at UU; another, her assistant, is a beautiful but vapid assistant cook; the final two are candle dribblers, who are responsible for dribbling wax so wizards can use arcane candles which appear appropriately aged.  The characters are well-sketched and likeable.  The most compelling is Nutt, one of the dribblers, a "goblin" from Uberwald who has arrived in Ankh-Morpork under mysterious circumstances.  Nutt is, to put it bluntly, much better than everyone around him.  He is more thoughtful, more talented, stronger, patient, and determined.  Due to his race, he needs to constantly try harder than everyone else and constantly prove his "worth."  It's touching, and also a little sad, to realize how much effort he must expend just to achieve what others take for granted.

Besides the main characters, many of the old favorites return.  Lord Vetinari has a surprisingly large role in the book, and we get to see far more unguarded moments of him than usual, including a great sequence where he purposely and coldly gets drunk.  Of course, Drumknott is present as well.  All the wizards are present.  I was surprised and delighted when, about halfway through the book, Rincewind puts in an appearance - running away, of course.  But he sticks around, and it's fun to see him staying put in the University for once.  CMOT Dibbler and Sam Vimes put in nice little cameos.  All in all, it's a great return to A-M.

Now, about that plot - like I said, it's quite sprawling.  The book as a whole feels really loose.  There are lots of scenes that start out being about one thing, then one of the characters will sort of drift into another conversation and pick up another plot thread, then drift back to the first plot again.  The pacing as a whole is weirdly languid.  At one point Nutt runs away from A-M, and the others go to chase after him; they have plenty of time for comic goings-on while they pursue him, and when they catch up, he doesn't resist at all about going back again.  The whole incident... well, I guess it works, but it just doesn't feel nearly as dramatic as it could have been.  Other side plots, like micromail (it doesn't chafe!) seem really interesting at first, but sort of peter out without a satisfying conclusion.


I have a confession to make: I found myself thinking a lot about Pratchett's Alzheimer's while reading this.  It's pretty inevitable; obviously something like that would affect a person's writing.  The good news is that the book is still really good.  The complicated news is that it definitely feels different from his earlier books.  Not totally different - in particular, the old characters do feel like the same people (or orangutans), and the sense of humor is very much intact.  But the book as a whole reads much more loosely and casually than I'm used to.  Some people might prefer it to the old style, others will be turned off.

In any case.  It's fully enjoyable and well worth pulling out.  It isn't quite as good (for me, at least) as a Vimes novel, but it's an A-M novel, and that's the next best thing.  It's funny, thought-provoking, interesting satire.  Just my cup of tea.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dragon Age: Initial Thoughts

I haven't been this excited about a new game since Civ IV. Even Oblivion had to wait for well over a year before I deigned to pick it up. But Dragon Age has been shouting "Buy me! Play me!" for quite a long time.

My list of favorite games changes regularly, depending on my mood and memory, but Baldur's Gate 2 holds a really secure spot on there. I've played many good games since then, but none has captured the magical combination of awesomeness that defined BG2... phenomenal writing, a plot that was gripping yet sprawling, really interesting and detailed play mechanics that rewarded you for planning out tactical combat, and a living, breathing world that you felt fully a part of. I still can hardly believe that we had a game - a high fantasy RPG - which allowed you to purchase an equity stake in a theater, hire actors, guide them through weeks of rehearsal, then put on a killer opening night and milk the box office receipts for months. And I'm probably only one of a handful of people who actually bothered with that particular side quest.

The Baldur's Gate games and their successors, Neverwinter Nights, were set in the Sword Coast region of Dungeons & Dragons, and followed the D&D ruleset. (The original BG games were version 2, Throne of Bhaal was 2.5, and NWN was version 3.) So the online RPG community leapt for joy when Bioware announced that they were working on a new series, called Dragon Age, which would mark a return to the realm of high fantasy (more recently, Bioware has dabbled in Eastern settings with Jade Empire, the Star Wars universe with KOTOR, and the alternate space setting of Mass Effect), but this time use their own intellectual property. No more borrowing setting, content, or rules from Wizards of the Coast; Bioware would build everything up from scratch for an incredible game experience. The universe cheered.

That was... oh, about six years ago.

Bioware has been running a VERY tight ship. Even after they started announcing the release date, they did not follow the normal process of dropping tons of videos and screenshots on everyone. The game didn't even have a web site or forum until very recently.

And, you know what? I've been totally fine with that. I decided long ago to not let myself get too excited over the game. I've had my heart broken before, and have had near escapes from things I thought would be sure-fire wonderful games (I'm looking at you, Spore). Wasting $50 on a game that isn't fun isn't nearly as much of a tragedy now as it was a decade ago, but on general principle I still don't like to waste money or time. And, honestly, I didn't want a bad Bioware experience to leave a bad taste in my mouth that would cover up my delicious memories of the BG series. So, I resolved to hold off getting the game until I could read some reviews, and to avoid all advance info about it. (I should point out that this isn't very unusual for me. Once I find an author or director or whatever who I like, I always stay away from any information about the work until after I've had a chance to experience it directly. Hence my overuse of the SPOILERS tags on this blog.)

I was pretty good on avoiding info, not great. I lasted pretty long until my youngest brother started geeking out on it, at which point I couldn't help out-geeking him. I started reading through their codex, getting a feel for the world and its system, avoiding anything that seemed plot- or gameplay-related. What I found looked rather interesting.


On the surface, DA seems indistinguishable from any other major high-fantasy work. You have three good races, the humans, elves, and dwarves. Dwarves have long beards and live underground; elves have finer features and come from the forest; humans are numerous and live in cities. There are many monsters running around who want to kill the good guys. There are fighters, wizards, and rogues who, respectively, use might, magic, and larceny as they quest together.

However, Bioware hasn't just lazily copy-and-pasted The Silmarilion here. They are re-using existing entities, but coming up with really fresh and interesting stories about them. For example, unlike in Middle-earth, where the elves are a superior race, in the world of DA, elves have been essentially enslaved by humans. They live in squalid slums, and are treated as an underclass. Only a few wild elves survive, and their existence is hardly better, trying to scrape together a living away from human encroachment.

Dragon Age is also billed as a Dark Fantasy. I suppose that this is mainly to distinguish it from children's fantasy. I recently read a chat transcript with some Bioware guys, and one of them mentioned that George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" was one of the inspirations for the game's tone. I think that's a great analogy... both are fantasies set in vaguely medieval worlds that have extremely ruthless plots. (Martin's focuses more on the political fractiousness of the middle ages, while, at least so far, DA seems to focus a bit more on the spiritual aspects of a dominant Church.)

Anyways. All that to say that, by the time the game rolled around, I was only somewhat pure. I had watched a video trailer that featured an extended (choreographed, not in-game) battle, and had a basic understanding of the game world. Oh! And I had also played Journeys. Dragon Age Journeys is a fascinating marketing idea - a group made a complete, stand-alone Flash game that's set in the Dragon Age world and features many of the same gameplay characteristics (leveling up, talents, skills, leveled weapons and armor, etc.), but is, y'know, inside a browser. It was fun, though maddening technical glitches seemed to keep me from getting my premium content.

Ohhhh, right, I should mention that as well. Other than the game itself, the huge thing about Dragon Age is its vast set of downloadable content. This is a game-driven yet purely technical achievement, roughly analogous to Valve rolling out Steam simultaneously with HalfLife 2. Downloadable content is hands-down the hot topic in gaming these days. Games like Rock Band have shown that after consumers have given you $50 for a game (and maybe another $70 or more for instruments!) you can make them return to the well time and time again for little $5 impulse purchases. Those purchases add up, and can easily eclipse the cost of the game itself. (Personally, I've probably spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 on Rock Band songs, and I'm an extremely casual player.)

Dragon Age incorporates that whole thing into the game itself. Well, even more than that, outside the game. Because I had been logged in to my Bioware account while I was playing Journeys, when I started playing Origins for the very first time, my rewards from Journeys were waiting for me. Now, most content that's out there now is basic stuff, just things like magic rings, enchanted boots, and so forth. However, there are also downloadable characters, locations, and entire quests as well. Bioware has been very open about this: they want to spend years and years releasing extended content for the game, probably in the form of little add-on chapters... maybe you'll pay $10 and get a new quest of about 10-15 hours.

Which is cool and all in the abstract. I'd rather have it for free, but I recognize the economics of the situation. It takes a lot of talent from a lot of people to put together a fun, polished product, and those people deserve to be fed. The big problem, though, was that Bioware just wasn't prepared for it. They wrote a long, heartfelt, apologetic post describing the meltdown that occurred: they had gathered the best evidence they could about what sort of traffic a single-player game with downloadable content could possibly create, drawing data from recent major launches like Spore. They expanded that by the size of the content that was available, and then doubled that figure. In addition, they created a "Plan B" in case that didn't prove to be enough and they needed to bring on more capacity. Well, launch week was a mess. Eager consumers blew past their initial setup, annihilated Plan B, and hungrily slavered as desperate Bioware IT guys frantically tried to pull together more computers. Bioware limped through the European launch, and seem to be doing well now, but man, how the Internet HOWLED! People were outraged that they had paid extra for expanded, premium content, and were not allowed access to it.

I'd been curious exactly how the content would work. Would you need to go on a quest in order to get your items? Would they be restricted to certain levels? No, and not exactly. Items just show up in your inventory when you first start the game, before you've gotten anything else, and can provide a significant boost to your early efforts. Other things show up as optional quests; I haven't had a chance to try those out yet. (In case you're curious, I just opted for the basic version. I have no use for a tin case. I do like the idea of a cloth map, but sadly these have gotten way worse since their Ultima glory days. Gamers now have a new name for these: "Mapkins.")

Some of the special items came as incentives for pre-ordering the game. This was actually a kind of bizarre situation, as Bioware offered different incentives to different realtors. Anyone who pre-ordered would get the Memory Band, but only Amazon customers would get the Lions Paw Boots, and Gamestop consumers would get another reward, and so on. I'm fascinated by the concept that someone might choose to buy one place instead of another because they can some different loot that better fits their intended character.

I chose Amazon, not so much for the Lion's Paw Boots (though they do fit decently well with my rogue), but rather because they were offering a $10 credit. (Retailers seem to be pretty creative in finding ways to get around the fixed prices on major new releases.) I finally pulled the trigger on the preorder after catching a couple of online reviews. Pre-release buzz has been very positive, but it's hard to judge from that; it seems like every game gets great feedback until it's actually released. The major sites actually hadn't reviewed it yet by launch day, but a couple had, enough to give me confidence that I wasn't making a horrible mistake.

I was planning on just doing the standard free shipping for the game; it came out on a Tuesday, and I wouldn't be able to play it much before the weekend. But then I noticed that they offered "Release Day Shipping," which would guarantee delivery on Tuesday, and cost just a buck more than standard shipping. I mentally shrugged and bought it. On Monday night, I received notice that it had shipped... from Indiana. I laughed... it seemed like it COULD get to me on Tuesday, but not terribly likely. On Tuesday, it was in my hands around 10AM. I was astonished. Go Amazon!

Of course, since I HAD the game on Tuesday, I had to at least install it. On my ride back from work I devoured the manual (NERD!) and daydreamed about the game. Then, I realized I had made a horrible mistake. As part of their really excellent marketing campaign, Bioware had released their Character Creator for Origins several weeks earlier. You could use it to, well, create your character. As Penny Arcade has noted, some of us can take a VERY LONG TIME to make the character look just the way we want.

In my case, I had been toying with the idea of playing another Bard, in homage to my BG2 character. It seemed like elves would make great bards, so I made a character named Cirion who was a City Elf Rogue. (Bard is a specialization that you can take once you reach Level... Eight, I think?) I had spent... well, yeah, probably a bit under an hour tweaking the face, playing with the hair, trying out different voices, and making it just right.

Well, anyways, on my ride home as I was actually reading about the races and classes, I realized that to play the kind of character I wanted, I'd be way better off as a dwarf. An elf's bonuses wouldn't do anything for me, while I would get some benefit from a dwarf's. And, furthermore, since bard is a specialization, I would need to be a full-on rogue for my party. This ain't like the days of BG, when you had a six-character party and could get away with both a rogue AND a useless bard. No, one rogue was all I could take. Which was fine - I love playing as a thief, and actually would have taken the thief class in BG if it hadn't been for Imoen - but it meant that I'd need to scrap Cirion and start from scratch.

I let DA install while I was making supper, then took a far more hurried run through the character creator. Dwarf Commoner gave me a MUCH better set of starting skills than a City Elf, and I quickly allocated the attributes to give me a high Cunning and Dexterity. (I'm deliberately not putting anything into Strength - a later talent [or is it skill? I still have trouble remembering which is which] will allow me to substitute my Cunning for Strength in most applications.) I started from a preset that I generally liked, then played around with the hair and tattooes, leaving most of the options (ears, eyes, nose, mouth, neck, brow) largely untouched. I spent a bit more time on the voice, knowing that I'd be hearing a lot of it. I was pleased to note that they had an entirely different set of Dwarf voices from their Elf offerings, and finally chose one that appealed to me. Finally, for the name I chose Seberin, as an appropriate alter ego to Cirion.

I almost always play as a rogue when I get the chance to do so. For American-style RPGs that let you define your own character, I generally model my character after a mixture of Shadowspawn/Hanse from the Thieves' World books and Silk from the David Eddings novel. My archetypal thief is completely and shamelessly larcenous, happily stealing anything that isn't locked down; he will steal from anyone, he prefers to steal from the rich, but primarily because they have better stuff. That said, apart from this rather large gap he is still a rather moral person: faithful to his friends, helping people when he has the opportunity, supporting causes that he believes in. Silk was charismatic, a real charmer; Shadowspawn personified silence and quiet menace. My characters typically land somewhere between one of those extremities, partly depending on my current mood but even more depending on how fun the games' creators have made each approach.

My BG2 Bard was very much in the Silk vein, and so far Seberin is following suit. There's no Charisma stat in this game, but I'm taking all the Persuasion skills that I can take, and my Cunning has already allowed me to talk myself into some new places. I've been almost entirely bypassing the combat skills, which I'm sure will bite me sooner or later - I've already learned that DA:O uses leveled enemies, and the thing I hated most about Oblivion was how I would spend time increasing my lockpicking and sneaking skills only to level up and be punished by far more difficult enemies. ANYWAYS. Jumping ahead of myself.

Back to the game: The "Origins" part of "Dragon Age: Origins" both reflects that (1) this is the introductory chapter in a new game world, and (2) the game features a variety of "origin stories" that define your character's destiny and motivation. As a Dwarf Commoner, I was a member of the Casteless. We learn that the Dwarves follow a strictly striated caste system, far more severe than that followed by humans: every person is born into a caste and knows exactly what their relationship is relative to everyone else. Nobles on top, then craftsmen and merchants and so on. Even servants are members of the servant caste, and take pride in it. Seberin, though, was born to parents who had no caste. Long ago, folk wisdom says, the dwarfish Gods were angered by the great evil among some of their people, and punished them by marking those dwarves and casting them out. Therefore, it is a sacred duty for every dwarf to shun the casteless. Every dwarf bears tattoos marking their social position, so everywhere you go, you are ostracized.

Seberin works for a crime lord, someone who mainly smuggles objects from the mines to lucrative markets on the surface. The most lucrative trade is in lyrium. Lyrium is the stuff of magic, the source of mages' powers. Because dwarves have lived for generations surrounded by the stuff, they are largely immune to its powers; this is why dwarves cannot become mages, and why they are naturally resistant to spells. Lyrium is more or less useless to the folks in the mines, but it is essential for mages, and so anyone who can get lyrium to the surface will be rewarded.

Early in the origin story, the boss asks you to track down a smuggler who has made off with some lyrium, and take care of him. This is among the first of the many fascinating moral choices you must make. Bioware is pretty famous for their moral dilemmas; some are presented better than others, but all of their RPGs constantly give you the opportunity to make interesting decisions based on your world view. Both your actions and your motivations can be expressed; the most typical example in the Baldur's Gate series is when a noble person asks you to go on a virtuous quest and offers a reward. A good person will go on the quest. A very good person will go on the quest and refuse the reward. A neutral or bad person will go on the quest, but loudly proclaim that they are only doing it because of the money. A very evil person will kill the noble and take their money.

Anyways, you have some opportunities earlier in the game to establish your personality. You first speak with your sister, and then with your mother, and in those conversations you are receiving information (learning about who you are, what you do, who your family is), but also providing information to the game (whether you are kind or cruel, whether you have a sense of humor, whether you are motivated mainly by fear or greed or virtue, whether you are curious or traditional). On this job, though, you meet the renegade smuggler, and have a host of options in dealing with him. I only played through it once, but it would be fascinating to try again and see how else it could go. You can kill him right away, or talk with him. If you talk you can wheedle, or threaten, or cajole. You have to decide whether to accept a bribe to let him get away. If you accept it (as I did) you have to decide whether to hold up your end of the deal or just kill him. And those choices have consequences: I let him go, only to learn later that the boss had witnesses in the tavern who could testify that he had walked away alive. Only some quick silver-tongued persuasion on my part convinced him that I had killed him later on. What if I had failed to persuade him? Good question. I'm sure that the game would have still proceeded with the next segment, where you infiltrate a fight of champions put on for the Grey Wardens, but the script would have followed a different path to get you there. More than the actual gameplay impact, what I love about stuff like this is how INTERESTING it is. There isn't a clear "right" answer, you need to struggle with the choices you're given, and your choices lead to believable yet unpredictable consequences.

That said, I'm very curious just how my gameplay style will map onto their morality system. They aren't using a D&D-style alignment attribute, where I would probably wind up on the Chaotic Neutral pole. Anyways, there's a lot of ambiguity in a kleptomaniac who genuinely likes people and wants to save the world, and I'm curious what the game ends up deciding I am.

I've just recently finished the introductory portion of the game. After the origin story, you meet with the Grey Wardens, do some stuff in the woods, then watch some awesome cinematics and fight in a big battle. I'm just now to the point where the world starts to open up a little: I can see an overworld map with lots of locations on it, and soon I should be able to start moving around at will. I'm quite looking forward to it! The game's been good up until now, but I'm a huge fan of the free-roaming, side-questing, exploration, steal-everything-you-can phase of these games.

That's it for now - I'm sure I'll have an exhaustive summary once I finally beat the game. Depending on what's happening in the rest of my life, that may not be until a year from now, so don't hold your breath.

Oh! One more thing - user-created content. As if BG2 wasn't already one of the best games out there, it also had some of the best user-built mods that I've ever seen. It's really pretty amazing; people are STILL updating mods for it now, almost a decade after it came out. People created entirely new "romance patches" that allow you to, for example, have a baby with Aerie. I never got too deep into NWN, but it also had a rich modding community that released a lot of stuff. Anyways, Bioware has taken the tools that they used to build the game, and are releasing them to us, The People. This is an unmitigated wonderful thing. It'll be a while until we start seeing real mods, but I can't wait to see what people come up with. I'm extremely tempted to get into it myself - I haven't even downloaded the tools yet, but I'm already fantasizing a bit about potential add-ons. One of the best aspects of the new Bioware Social site is adding the ability for potential modders to find one another. We're long past the time when a single dedicated person could put together a decent mod; these days, you need someone with the time and talent to create custom character models, and another person to handle programming, and maybe other people for sound, writing dialog, play-testing, and so on. The increasingly complex games we have demand more specialization, so kudos to Bioware for trying to help make that happen.