Friday, January 31, 2014

Called to Keep House

Dragon Age: Inquisition is creeping ever closer, and like many other fans, I'm filling in the time by exploring other areas of the Dragon Age expanded universe. My most recent conquest is The Calling, the second novel by lead writer David Gaider. It's a sequel to The Stolen Throne and a prequel to Dragon Age: Origins, taking place about 20 years before the action in the game starts.

I'd enjoyed The Stolen Throne, but The Calling felt like a clear improvement. It retained many of the things I thought the earlier novel did particularly well, like surprisingly exciting and well-realized fight scenes. (I think this is something that players of the games might be in a particularly good place to appreciate. Even in DA:O, the fights were incredibly cool-looking, so when a passage in the book describes a character running up the back of an ogre and then stabbing a broadsword between their shoulder blades while vaulting over their head, I have a very specific picture in mind of what that would look like.) The Calling is also another character-oriented novel, focusing on a small group of compatriots joined in an occasionally uneasy alliance. This time around, there's a wider cast of characters; not all of them can be as fully-formed as the four at the heart of the first book, but there's also more opportunity for interesting webs of relationships between them. Also, on a purely technical level, this book felt more strongly edited: free of typos or any other distractions.

MEGA SPOILERS (for the book & the games)

Of course, one major reason to read these books is to glean more lore, and it certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. Some of this was stuff I had known about going in: I knew that a young Duncan would be a main character, and was looking forward to learning more about his background and his evolution into the firm leader we see in DA:O. That was cool, but there were also some major revelations that make me fundamentally rethink some of the most important characters in the franchise. These are things that don't exactly contradict any events in the game, but add huge layers of potential irony, and (depending on player choices) some even-happier symmetries.

Sorry to be vague about this, even in mega-spoilerville, but I was frankly surprised to have escaped spoilers in the four years since the book came out, especially considering how attuned I am to the franchise, and I would hate to be responsible for anyone else being spoiled.

Big surprises aside, this book was also great for deepening my understanding of history and culture in Ferelden. I've written at length before about The World of Thedas answering lots of questions, but there's a lot of flavor and color you can get from a novel which you won't gain from an almanac. We met Maric in The Stolen Throne, and The Calling shows the kind of king he was: not a great king, but a decent king, and a great man. There are also even more justifications for Loghain's actions at the start of DA:O, as if the events in TST weren't enough. And there's also a lot of insight into the Grey Wardens, some of which was hinted at in DA:O:A and DA2:Legacy, but makes more sense and forms a fuller picture here.

Maric is the one major returning character from TST; Loghain is still around, but much less present. All of the other heroes are Grey Wardens, of varying ages, genders, and orientations. There's another romance here, a very touching one with Maric and a young elven grey warden mage named Fiona (who I think might become First Enchanter Fiona, but I believe that's in later fiction). The Maric/Fiona match is a very deliberate echo of the Maric/Katriel tryst from the first novel; this isn't exactly a redemption, but it takes on more significance in light of what occurred before. She has a nice arc; you only catch brief glimpses of her life before the Wardens, but it's enough to understand the frustration and anger she clings to in the beginning and only gradually relinquishes.

Duncan is very different here from how I thought of him. He isn't a strong warrior, but rather a thief, only a few months removed from the streets of Val Royeaux. Along with Maric, he's probably the most comic character, frequently complaining about the cold Ferelden winters. This isn't a comparison I've made before, but reading his passages made me think of some similarities between the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age and the Black Watch in A Song of Ice and Fire. Both are ancient organizations tasked with holding back a nearly-unthinkable evil, and while they nominally are honorable posts, they may be particularly attractive to thieves, murderers, and others who would face death if not for recruitment. Anyways, Duncan also evolves gradually over the novel, to the point where he embraces his identity as a Warden even more strongly than his official superiors.

Through Duncan we catch a brief glimpse off-page of Kristoff, whose body would later be inhabited by Justice in DA:O:A. He's also tied into Genevieve and Bregan, Warden Commander siblings who experience the full horror of corruption that comes with the Calling. Most of the remaining heroes are more sketchily drawn, though still interesting. My favorite minor character was probably Utha, one of the Silent Sisters and thus a mute. She communicates with sign language; interestingly, it isn't directly translated in the narration and we never get a point-of-view from her perspective, so we're reliant on other non-POV characters to translate her words. Anyways. Dwarves are awesome, and female martial artist dwarves are probably the awesomest of all. Seeing her here made me feel pre-emptively sad; I encountered her in DA:O:A, but she's very much an enigma there, and if I were to re-play that section now my decision would be much more difficult to make.

I'd kind of thought that Utha and the other Wardens would just be red shirts, and some of them sort of were, but Gaider spends enough time fleshing them out that I felt genuinely sad when they died. Particularly Hafter, one of the greatest doggies ever. Hafter's keeper, Kell, would be sympathetic just for his association with the Mabari, but he's also possibly the most mature and reasonable person in the entire party. He's quiet, and doesn't open up much about his past, but he has great reserves of inner strength, and is the one person brave enough to directly challenge his leader when he sees the problems with their mission. Finally, Julien and Nicolas are warriors and lovers; it isn't the first same-sex pairing in Dragon Age, but I think it might be the earliest canonical (non-PC-initiated) one. We don't get to know them as individuals all that well, but there's a very touching depiction of grief when their union is destroyed.

And, of course, there's the Architect. He's such a baffling figure in DA:O:A, and it was kind of amusing to see characters in this book react to him in almost exactly the same way I did when I'd encountered him in the future: is this guy for real? Is this all a trick to raise another Old God? Do we have the authority to make this bargain on behalf of all humanity? Would a future with darkspawn but no blights be better than a future of blights? We never get a POV from him, but reading this made me feel a bit better about rejecting him in the game, while simultaneously convincing me of his honest intentions.


There's one more novel coming up, Asunder. I imagine I'll read it before Inquisition drops. It sounds like Gaider isn't interested in writing more (and I can't say I blame him - writing a book takes a really long time!), but Patrick Weekes, a fantastic writer from Mass Effect who recently moved over to Dragon Age, is writing the fourth novel, which should be out in a couple of months and will do its part to help slake the insatiable hunger of us fans for more Thedasian goodness.

On a totally unrelated topic, I read and enjoyed The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I've been struggling to think about what to write about it, and have had a single paragraph sitting in my blog drafts folder for nearly a week now. It's a beautiful story, simple but elegant, about an amnesiac mathematics scholar who forms a profound yet intrinsically transient relationship with a single mother and her son.

Math and, to a lesser degree, the hard sciences are often used in literature as a shorthand for severity, lack of emotion, or tedium. One of the many things I liked about this book was its depiction of the passion that math can inspire, and the transcendence one can feel when communing with this study of pure abstraction. The Professor is downright poetic when describing his field, describing math as the language of the universe, which existed before the universe began. He also has a wonderful gift for allegory; he doesn't use story problems to explain math, but more lyrical and evocative phrases.

I felt some brief nostalgia at all the math in the book. Math was my best subject in school, and in some years it was my favorite as well. Late in high school I began to drift from math to English, and almost totally abandoned it in college, but I still have warm feelings of the sense of elation I would feel at solving an interesting problem, or the serenity that came with acquiring a perfect mastery over this domain of pure knowledge. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have pursued the study of math further; from what I understand, math at the highest levels is radically (heh) different from what we start out learning, and work on the cutting edge of math today bears very little resemblance to the gentlemanly pursuits of Euler and Fermat.

Of course, the book isn't really about math. It's about human relationships, and memory, and kindness. I think it's one of the most universally enjoyable books I've read recently, one of the few that I could recommend to pretty much anyone.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Yet Another Roundup

Just realized I didn't write nearly enough about video games in my last post! So, here they are!

I recently received the Season Pass for BioShock Infinite, which will eventually include all the DLC released for the game. The first DLC entry, Clash in the Clouds, is apparently a combat-oriented expansion without original story, so I haven't been very interested in pursuing it. The next one, though, is the first entry of Burial at Sea, which has intrigued me quite a bit.

MINI SPOILERS (for Burial at Sea and all other BioShock games)

I'd been curious from the beginning about exactly how they would expand the game, since Infinite seemed to end so definitively. They'd opened up a multiple-universes plot, which can provide an infinite number of possible additions, but then neatly closed it as well. I think we still haven't figured out exactly how the events of Burial at Sea can be reconciled to the ending of Infinite, but I'm currently operating on the assumption that it occurs "before" the ending of Infinite (while recognizing that temporal words like "before" are very difficult to adapt to stories that include time travel and interdimensional travel).

The game takes place in a parallel universe to Infinite, and I think it's the first time we've received direct confirmation that BioShock 1/2 and BioShock Infinite occur in the same multiverse. You play as an alternate-universe version of Booker DeWitt, the protagonist of Infinite, but the game is set in Rapture, the location of the first two games.

I quite enjoyed the setting of the expansion. From a pure design perspective, Rapture isn't as delightful as Columbia, but it was great to see the Rapture vision elevated to the level of technical superiority that Infinite accomplished: the graphics look terrific, with Rapture's familiarity married to Infinite's polish.

I was also pretty impressed that they managed to revert to so much of the feel of the first two games while using Infinite's engine. Granted, it isn't that difficult to do so: Plasmids are basically the same as Vigors, etc. Still, there were a lot of things that felt like fundamental engine mechanics that turned out to be quite flexible. For example, in Infinite you could only physically carry two guns at a time, and would need to discard one if you wanted another. Burial at Sea returns to the previous system, where you can carry all weapons at once. This also involves some rebalancing: with a larger arsenal at your disposal, they can get away with providing far less ammo for each weapon type, forcing you to switch between weapons regularly, unlike in Infinite, where you could generally focus on mastering two weapons.

Irrational Games seems to have listened to some of the complaints that folks like me keep making about their (generally excellent) games, and I feel like they tried to address them, with varying degrees of success. First of all, there's a really nice long-ish stretch near the start of the game where you're free to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere in Rapture. It was great to participate in Rapture before the fall, when it was at the peak of its powers. There's a lot of conversations to eavesdrop on and culture to observe. Maybe it's because I'm so fresh from Infinite, but I kept comparing the two societies, and while both are kind of awful, I found Rapture's much more palatable. Granted, it's an objectivist fantasy realm where money rules absolutely: but on the plus side, it doesn't seem to have much room for racism or bigotry. If a black woman or a gay man seizes a fortune, all of Rapture will defend them against the parasite who would seek to steal from them.

On the more negative side, I feel like they tried to emphasize stealth elements more in the expansion, and really failed. Or maybe just I failed, but still. There's a huge shortage of ammo, and limited EVE, so several fights will come down to sky-strikes or melee attacks. You can one-shot melee an enemy if you sneak up on them from behind. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the incredible stealth system in The Last of Us, but I found BaS's stealth mechanics very frustrating. There are too few hiding places, you move too slowly while in stealth, enemies can see you from far away, everyone is alerted at once when you're spotted, and enemies don't seem to drop off of alert status once they start looking for you. I could occasionally knock out a couple of splicers, but most often someone would turn around at the wrong time, and since there's no cover around I'd be immediately spotted, and lose a ton of health while trying to quickly take them down.

While I'm complaining, the game was also shockingly glitchy for an expansion that spent this long in development. At one point I lost twenty minutes of progress due to an eternally spinning airlock; some research revealed that this is an issue which has been around since the game first came out, is present on all platforms, and still hasn't been fixed. That was frustrating. Several friendly NPC character models have weird bugs as well. The funniest and most disturbing was Elizabeth: sometimes, her skirt gets hiked way up to her hip, so you can see her entire leg, including the part that's just missing from the knee on up.

I still haven't totally grokked what Elizabeth is doing here. She seems to be one of the Columbia versions who has traveled through a tear into the Rapture dimension. She isn't familiar with anything about Rapture, but I also don't think that she's the same Elizabeth as from Infinite. She has a much more mature, femme fatale aspect to her. On a mechanical level, she seemed to be much stingier with health and ammo than in Infinite, and much more likely to get in my way. She's very cryptic, and your relationship with her in BaS seems to be about the opposite as it was in Infinite, when she was the naive innocent child and you were the worldly-wise man who knew what was going on.

A few other random thoughts:

It was fun to see Sander Cohen again. He's one of the weirdest, most messed-up characters in that universe, and his sequence in the original BioShock is probably the part I remember most vividly, apart from the very end. This seemed like an even less sympathetic version that we saw here, but that's because it was even more creepy and interesting.

I'm a bit curious whether this is the same Rapture as in the original BioShock games. I initially thought not: besides Booker's presence, there's also some news floating around about Fontaine and Brigid Tenanbaum that made me think we might be seeing an alternate version, where Rapture didn't fall but something else would happen. Late in the game, though, you start to see some Atlas posters, which makes me think it's more likely that we are in the original universe.

MEGA SPOILERS for Burial at Sea

Elizabeth mentions a few times that she's in "debt collection", and is seeking your help in order to pay back an old debt. I'd assumed that this meant that, after she killed off all the Booker/Comstock characters at the end of Infinite, she felt pity for what she had done, and decided to find alternate versions of them that she could help: perhaps ones from universes so different that they had never fought at Wounded Knee. By making their lives better, she may have hoped that she could atone for what she had to do.

But, given the very end, that doesn't seem to be the case at all. Her quest is one of vengeance, and she's clearly out to "get" Booker. It seems like there are actually multiple pairs of universes where a Booker sells a child to the Comstock in another universe. In this one as in the Infinite one, Booker changed his mind and tried to reclaim the baby; unlike the Infinite one, he pulled Anna just a little further through the portal, and ended up killing her instead of cutting her finger. Elizabeth is here to punish him for that act. (The Luteces come by as well, which was fantastic; I love that couple.)

It's all very clearly cliffhanger-y, and I'm awfully curious what will happen in Part 2. Will Booker be recreated as a Big Daddy? Will we play as Elizabeth as she hunts down and murders all remaining Bookers in the multiverse? Can Rapture be saved? 


If you're a fan of any of the BioShock games, it's worth picking up Burial at Sea, though you might want to wait until Part 2 comes out so you can play straight through. The game mechanics are pretty similar to what you'll find in the original games and Infinite, but there's some nice expansion to the lore that fans should appreciate.

Now, for a couple of fantasy game updates:

I finished my Arendel Phaedra game in FfH2. I'd been angling for a religious victory, but I could never convince Arturus Thorne to grant Open Borders, so despite spreading the Fellowship everywhere else I just couldn't quite get over the 80% level. For a while I'd thought that I'd be able to use Inquisitors to bring down other religions and thus raise Fellowship's percentage; but while I could do this in other countries with Fellowship as their state religion, I apparently couldn't do it in non-Fellowship states. Which I guess makes sense.

Oh! This was kind of fun. I'd been running some hunters/rangers since the start of my game, and gradually built up a proper military over several centuries: starting when killing Orthus and his barbarians, adding a couple of heroes, then expanding to full strength when I started my war against Jonas, at which point I added the Baron and started breeding werewolves. I then split the army in two, with the recon units and my national heroes preparing for a long fight against Acheron the Red Dragon, while my werewolf horde swung north and across the ocean to join in the fight against Alexis. Once again, I encountered something that's potential in every game in FfH2, but I've never seen until now: an epic war between vampires and werewolves.

Not every game has the Calabim. Sometimes nobody will build Baron duin Halfmoon, or he will die before establishing lycanthropy. Even if both are present, it's possible that they'll be on the same side, or never meet. Still, at least once, the randomness of procedurally generated content aligned with popular perceptions of mass culture, and we were treated to an epic struggle between the implacable foes of vampires and werewolves. (Thanks to my Command promotions on Priests of Leaves, I was even able to persuade a few vampires to turn from their evil ways, and join the slightly-less-evil ways of my werewolf horde.)

After my two wars with Jonas and Alexis, I never needed to go to war again. For a little while I was worried that Varn would declare war on me, since he'd contact me every ten years to demand that I switch to Empyrean. Now, I totally get why he would be passionate about this - in the lore, Varn is practically synonymous with that faith - but it seems pretty unfair that they would keep piling on diplomatic penalties, plus it seems weird that I never even saw the option to demand he convert to Fellowship (despite it being present in his cities and my own state religion). Still, he was delighted to have me as a fellow Overcouncil member, and we never came to blows. (He did declare war on Cassiel of the Grigori, which led to an interesting war to spectate. I was rather relieved that neither side demanded I join with them or cut off ties with the other.

Aaaaaanyways... since straight-up religion wasn't an option. I decided to go for an Altar victory, which I've previously pursued but never achieved. There are some similarities between the Altar and the Tower victories, since both require you to build multiple prerequisite wonders and then a capstone project. However, the early Altar pieces all must be built by Great Prophets, so it was a great project to do with a Great Person factory like me.

I'd thought that the Altar would be like the Tower and that all the world world declare war on me once I started construction. I pulled my army back to my core cities, and nervously hoped that at least my vassals would stand by me. Fortunately, construction commenced without any incident. I'm guessing that this is a scripting difference: sure, most of the world loved me, but even if public opinion was a factor, I'd have expected Arturus at least to declare war if it was a pretext.

I'd been prepared from my Tower of Mastery victory, and had started stockpiling vaults of gold once I decided to shoot for the Altar. So, it wasn't terribly long before I could afford to rush production, then exalt in the approval of all of Erebus as we joined the Gods.

Yay! This was the highest normalized score I've received, at least on this partition. (I had a long run of several years of FfH2 on my Linux partition under WINE.) I think it might be time to bump up from Prince to King. And Andrew keeps trying to convince me to play a Marathon game (apparently not realizing that, if I did that, I'd never get around to Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition.) There's still a lot left to experience. An infinite amount, really.

From the complex to the simple: I also beat Heroes of Dragon Age. Of course, "beat" is a tricky concept for games like these, since they're designed to keep you playing and spending money forever. I'd set myself a fairly straightforward objective: beat all of the single-player maps. I was happy to have done it without ever springing for a premium pack or gems.

My end team was the Black-aligned lineup I mentioned before: Merrill and a Level IV Desire Demon in the back, Grey Wardens Duncan and Carver (II) in the front, with an Inferno Golem towering over us all. I started to have the makings of decent Red and White teams near the end, with Fenris, Yavana, and Anders all making strong entries. Still, it would have taken forever to level them up. I sometimes rotated them in while grinding challenge nodes, but it was my Black team that eventually carried us to victory. It's a bit of a shame; there's actually some interesting strategies to consider in the game, and I would have enjoyed playing a version that focused more on squad composition than on level. As it stands, though, a high-leveled squad will virtually always outperform a well-designed squad. (Though there are still a few niche cases where that isn't strictly true. For example, a Ferelden Knight is fantastic in the Challenge maps against a single high-level opponent, regardless of how low his level.)

All in all, it was a decently fun way to waste some time. The biggest downside is that, given the deliberately open-ended design of the game, there isn't much of a sense of closure or catharsis at the end. It would have been really nice to get a closing video as nice as the opener, or even some text. I don't think that would have been easy to do, though... the game is really all about disconnected "what if?" scenarios, so there isn't any through-line to follow or big plot to resolve.

On a more positive note, I'm partway through playing Republique, a new mobile stealth game. I'd picked it up before the holidays, planning to play it on the airplane. It's been really good so far. The subject matter feels very au currant; the project started before Snowden's revelation of NSA abuses, and I feel like they probably updated the content to emphasize the surveillance state aspect a bit more.

There's a lot I like about it so far. It's a mobile game, but looks fantastic on my tablet. It has terrific voice acting, including Jennifer Hale doing a wonderful Eastern European accent. They managed to make the controls simple without making the game feel dumbed-down. It's much more about strategy than about reflexes, although events do play out in real-time and you definitely get some pressure when trying to avoid bad guys. The puzzles are generally well-designed, except for one frustrating one that I got stuck on for a long time.

The overall game design is good, too. I feel like I'm on kind of a roll now, after BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us and now Republique, in protecting young females from dangerous situations. Instead of controlling an on-screen avatar as guardian, though, this time you are... well, you, kind of. You're someone looking at a screen and tapping controls in order to guide the woman to safety. The moments of direct address can sometimes feel a little uncanny: am I me? Or am I a character?

Republique was a Kickstarted project. I didn't participate in it, but am always really happy to see such projects succeed, particularly for video games, which tend to have much higher budgets, expectations, and risks than other Kickstarter projects. One of the rewards for this was apparently to become a character in the game, so there are a lot of times when you can identify a guard and see their name, country of origin, and some personal quirks (including a rap sheet) along with a Kickstarter badge. Cool! I'm a big fan of being immortalized, even if it's a few words buried deep within a game.

This is the first episode of the game; I haven't beaten it yet, but I feel like I'm close. I'll probably pick up the remainders as they're released, though I'm likely to continue to time my purchases to coincide with long plane trips or other periods where I'll have my tablet and no Internet connection. It's a fun game and a great way to pass time, but so far hasn't been compelling enough to preempt the many, many other games that I want to play.

Faubert's Perroquet

Many months after Rahul recommended it to me, I finally got around to reading Flaubert's Parrot, the second novel I've read by Julian Barnes. It's an interesting, well-written novel, and I'm still trying to process exactly what it was doing and how I feel about it.

I tend to be a big fan of stories-that-don't-look-like-stories, like many of Borges's and Barthalme's offerings (short stories disguised as recipes, or literary criticism, or instruction manuals). However, I'm used to just encountering them as short stories; this might be the first time I've read an entire novel that doesn't seem like a novel.

It isn't at all mundane or repetitive, though. Several sections of it read like a memoir. Others present an abbreviated, encyclopedia-style timeline of dates and events. There are counterfactual musings, wherein the narrator plays out what-if scenarios of alternate timelines, and impassioned arguments against straw-man questions that the narrator asks himself. There's even an essay test at the end, complete with multiple prompts and a three-hour time limit.


While the structure shifts multiple times throughout the book, it doesn't feel capricious. As you might guess from the title, the center of gravity for this book is Gustave Flaubert, the great 19th century French author of Madame Bovary, A Sentimental Education, and other fine books. The subject matter sometimes meanders, as the narrator pursues rabbits or drifts into reverie, but it keeps returning to Flaubert.

The book really isn't about Flaubert, though. The book is set in the present day and narrated by the character Geoffrey Braithwaite, an elderly English physician who cares passionately about Gustave. Even during the dry-looking portions of the book, where he lists the facts about Gustave's life, we're receiving those facts as delivered by Geoffrey. It isn't exactly a matter of a narrator being reliable or not; it's seeing the narrator as a human being, and understanding everything we receive from him as having first passed through and been processed by this other mind.

Barnes does some interesting things within the book, even in the sections where Braithwaite recedes from view. In one early example, he gives a dry recitation of Flaubert's life: his birth, childhood, first love, publishing success, maturity, death. You're left feeling upbeat and happy about his life. Then, immediately after, he gives yet another recitation of Flaubert's birth, childhood, love live, professional career, and death. This time, you're left feeling melancholy at his life and depressed by the world. Everything in both sections is (to the best of my knowledge) true, and nothing in one section contradicts the other. You're left to marvel at the immense power of editing: by deciding which facts to include, and how to gloss events, you can completely invert the impact of a true story.

I know that I have a habit of projecting aspects of myself onto characters in novels, so please forgive this, but I can't help thinking of Braithwaite as a bit of a nerd, and the way he approaches Flaubert reminds me a lot of the way I approach my own obsessions (authors, stories, games, subjects). We both find something that we love, and feel an intense need to discover all that we can about it. After devouring the immediate thing itself, we then go abroad in search of supplementary materials: letters, apocrypha, documentaries, eyewitness accounts, criticism. We begin to feel a weird sense of ownership or possession over our beloved, and lash out at those who dare denigrate their talents or character. (Of course, we feel free to offer our own small criticisms, since we know it's coming from a place of love.)

For all that I enjoy writing about Tolkien, or Dragon Age, I can't consider myself an actual critic, because I lack the necessary distance. They've touched me at a deep emotional level, to the point where my own sense of self-worth becomes weirdly bound up in them, and while I can aspire to become an expert on them, I can never consider their quality independently of how they make me feel. This seems to be the case as well with Braithwaite and Flaubert. He recognizes it, too, even as he meets with true scholars near the end of the novel. He just hopes that he can uncover something that scholarship has missed, that he can add to the sum of human knowledge about Flaubert.

Why is this important to him? Part of it might be a desire for acceptance and approval, that would elevate him from being merely an amateur fan to a professional scholar. Part of it might be a desire for self-justification, to prove to himself that all those hours and years spent obsessing over this author were not "wasted," but in service of a greater goal. Maybe he wants the excitement of something truly novel, to be the first person in modern times to know a certain thing. Maybe he hopes for a quiet kinship with the deceased novelist, just the two of them knowing one thing, without all those other Flaubert fans crowding around the published literature. I think it's some of all of these things, and Geoffrey himself can't exactly define it, even while he recognizes that he needs to try.

Geoffrey tries to keep the focus on Flaubert throughout the book, but over time elements from his own life begin to trickle into the narration. We start to get a rough picture of his life: much remains a mystery, but personal details and reminisces start to color our understanding of his background. The most poignant is his deceased wife, who is vaguely alluded to early on, goes away, comes back, leaves again, until at last near the end of the book he devotes a great deal of time to thinking about and mourning their relationship. This task is done with the aid of Flaubert, and Geoffrey can fall back on quotations from Flaubert's novels and references to aspects of Flaubert's personal life as he struggles to extract meaning from his own beloved, difficult marriage.

And, while I hate to crowd my own self in here yet again, it also seems appropriate to do so, since (if you've read more than a few posts on my blog) you know that's precisely what I do as well. I turn to examples in fiction when I try to explain events from my personal life, and I turn to examples from my personal life when I try to process fiction. I have no idea how widespread this sort of conflating is, but it feels familiar to me, and it's interesting that it's rarely portrayed in novels.

Oh! And, while I'm thinking of it, the part of the book that amused me most was probably the section shortly before this, where Geoffrey lists some common criticisms made of Flaubert, and then offers replies to each of them. It was funny because it feels true. That's exactly the sort of thing that runs through my head when, say, I'm on a three-hour-long hike: I'll mentally conduct long, elaborate arguments against imaginary debating partners, and of course I win every time, and utterly demolish the foolish points they tried to make. And, like Geoffrey, I often do this in "service" of something I love: why Tolkien shouldn't be considered racist, or why Dragon Age 2 should be praised for its original story, or why the ending of Pan's Labyrinth deliberately avoids resolving the question of reality, or why you should only own indexed funds, etc. (Which is kind of funny on its own, since I pathologically avoid as much arguing as I can in real life, but quite enjoy it when it isn't real.)


I'm left feeling pretty sure that I missed a lot of what this novel had to offer, but I enjoyed what I got from it. The varied styles and structure of the book were interesting, and the story it gradually reveals is pretty different from what you'd probably expect at the beginning.

Oh, and this feels almost like a philistine thing to say, but the stuff on Flaubert is gripping in its own right. I studied some of his books in college, but never really learned much about the man himself, and even if the rest of the book hadn't been so artful, it would have been worth it to learn more about his interesting life and very interesting relationships.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Elves and Hobbits and Zombies, Oh My!

After yet another long delay, I have finished the next act of Neverwinter Nights 2. I’ve put together another of my typical albums with some scattered screenshots from throughout the act.


Now that the plot is coming together, in some ways it seems a bit more cliche than I was hoping. There is an Ancient Evil Force that was Defeated Long Ago but Not Fully Destroyed, and is now Gathering Its Power and will Return to Destroy the World. Only your party - let us think of them as a Fellowship of sorts - can hope to Defeat this Evil before it Reclaims Its Powers.

But, there’s plenty here to keep it from being just another retread of Lord of the Rings. For example, while I’m not through the plot yet and can’t say this for certain, it seems like the reason why you the hero are important is not because of your lineage, or prophecy, or any particular powers you possess: it’s because there’s a SWORD INSIDE OF YOU. (I do kind of like Obsidian’s habit of placing inanimate objects inside of living creatures and vice versa.) That’s something that kind of surprised me, and surprises are always welcome in my fantasy RPGs.

Like I said in my writeup of Part 1, though, it’s really the companions that shine, and elevate this from a game about collecting artifacts and fighting into something really engaging. The party actually continues to evolve more than I expected; you have a core team in place fairly early on, but major new party members are joining you throughout Act 2 as well. Rivalries are always great fun, and ones like the Qara/Sand dynamic add a lot of energy, even though I rarely have those two in my party.

My lineup for Act 1 was usually Toman, Khelgar, Neeshka, and Elanee. In Act 2, Shandra Jerro is a non-removable companion for most of the act, and I really liked having her… she’s both practical and compassionate, exasperated at the craziness around her while also stepping up to deal with it. For the first part of the act, I replaced Khelgar with Sand, who is plot-required for most of the trial-related content. I hadn’t liked Sand much during our interactions in Act 1, but he really grew on me as a companion: you can start to see past his arrogance and see what he cares about.

I go into some more detail on the trial in my album, but basically: it was awesome. I love it when an RPG lets you do something besides fight, and there was a ton of stuff that led into the trial; it’s not quite as complex as the Landsmeet in Dragon Age Origins, but that’s probably the closest comparison I can find, as it draws a lot on various choices you’ve made throughout the game, optional side-quests you might have completed, allies and enemies you’ve attracted, loyalty among your companions, and your specific dialogue choices during the trial itself. I replayed it a few times, not to change the actual outcome, but to see all the ways it would go in different directions as it unfolded.

I’d thought that the trial was going to be my highlight for this act, but it ended up being surpassed by the next major development: taking command of your own fortress. This was a lot of fun to play out. It’s initially held by your enemies, so you join forces with an attack squad and launch a surprise attack during the changing of the guard, then fight your way through the courtyard into the keep, and then break into the basement to defeat your enemies. Afterwards, Lord Nasher appoints you the Captain and grants you funds to begin its rehabilitation.

Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a similar concept in an RPG. Baldur’s Gate 2 had the Stronghold system, and the de’Arnise keep was most similar to Crossroads Keep. Dragon Age Origins: Awakening added Vigil's Keep, which you had responsibility for and would make some judgments and preparation. The keep in NWN2 has similar concepts, but executed even better than those two excellent comparisons. You need to constantly juggle priorities and determine the best overall strategy to take towards the keep. Do you follow Lord Nasher’s prerogative and immediately focus on reinforcing the fortress walls? Or do you improve the road quality and safety, in the hopes of attracting more merchant trade and therefore help fund later projects? Do you limit your expenditures to what the realm provides, or do you dip into your personal pockets to expand, or exercise your legal right to tax your subjects for funds? Do you want a large and unruly army, or a small and disciplined one?

In addition to all of these major strategic decisions you make by talking with your advisors, you also have a set of throne room-type conversations that let you make interesting story decisions and rule on controversial issues. Will you allow a black marketer to trade in your keep? Will you offer clemency to a Luskan agent who tried to have you murdered? Will you encourage some reckless adventurers in their quest? (This last bit particularly tickled me, and reminded me of the fantastic encounter in the beholder cave in Throne of Bhaal.)

As of the end of Act 2, my castle still hasn’t seen any action, but I strongly suspect that there will be some sort of battle or siege coming in the endgame, and I’m happily dumping my vast amounts of surplus gold into its improvement. I’ve totally prioritized developing the economy, and only started propping up its military defenses once I exhausted my mercantile base. My guard is currently small, but I’m investing heavily in their equipment and training. At the moment they’re primarily focused on keeping the roads safe. Once their numbers increase some more, I hope to start patrolling the surrounding lands and take care of our bandit problem. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops next!


In other nerdy fantasy news, I’m currently working my way through the special features on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I am shocked at how in-depth they are; I’ve learned more about filmmaking by watching these features than I have in the entire rest of my life. (To be fair, I’ve never attended film school or made a movie or anything; but given the various documentaries I’ve watched on disastrous movie shoots, I was a bit surprised by how much I didn’t know.)

They go over EVERYTHING. The financing process, the delayed green light they got, the casting process, assembling the crew, all the way down to the details of how they make prosthetics (and why they need to throw them away each day), how they insert CGI creatures into the middle of live-action scenes, how they trained actors to speak Khudzul, and so on. I’m sure most people would be bored to tears by it, but it’s presented very engagingly, with each feature (typically varying from 5 minutes to 1 hour) staying focused on a particular topic or time period, and a combination of terrific behind-the-scenes footage and eloquent talking heads. It’s great to hear from, say, Ian McKellan and Martin Freeman (who is absolutely delightful), but I’ve also kind of fallen in love with the dialect coach, am fascinated by the movement coordinator, and impressed at the small army needed to put everyone in costume and makeup. The biggest impression I’m left with is the sheer scale of effort needed to do this; it seems somewhat similar to ruling a country.

I’d also watched all of the similar features for the Lord of the Rings movies back in the day, and was intrigued by all the things that had stayed the same (the New Zealand setting, the core creative team) and changed (almost all of the technology, most actors, Peter Jackson’s waist size). One recurring theme was how much more digital content was present in The Hobbit, but in many cases, it was only a last-ditch effort after they had started shooting with people in the appropriate costumes (goblins, orcs) and determined that it wasn’t working. It was also interesting to think about how in some cases the progress of technology had made things harder, not easier. LotR used a variety of tricks to establish the different sizes of hobbits and men, one of the coolest of which was the use of forced perspective, where Ian McKellan would be placed much closer to the camera than Elijah Wood and thus appear bigger. However, as Peter Jackson points out, you can’t use that technique when you’re shooting in 3D, because in 3D you know exactly how far both of those actors are from the camera. So, entirely new methods needed to be developed to solve these old problems.

Those methods seemed occasionally painful. Again, I’m a bit surprised at just how in-depth they go in these things: it’s not just a case of “rah rah, look at how great we are”, but they acknowledge the mistakes they made, the roadblocks they ran into, the people they upset. I cringed during one portion where they showed Ian McKellan struggling to adapt to the new system of shooting. McKellan is a fantastic actor, but the style of acting they were asking him to do was unlike anything he had done before, and he couldn’t take any pleasure from it: he had to sit all by himself in a completely green-covered, downscaled replica of Bag End, while all of the other actors were on an entirely separate set. He would hear their voices piped in through an earpiece, but had no eyes to look into, just little colored dots that indicated eyelines. The documentary format doesn’t gloss over his frustration: with himself, with Peter, with the entire project. It’s somewhat salvaged later on by a touching display of affection from the crew, but still, I was impressed at how they didn’t shy away from showing a mini-meltdown of a beloved actor caused in part by the film’s director.

So later, when they advance to shooting the White Council meeting in Rivendell, you can practically feel the waves of relief emanating from McKellan. At last, he gets to interact with other actors, on a stage! And good actors, too; as McKellan observes, he, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving all started in theater, and they all share a stage actor’s sensibility. It’s fascinating to watch footage of those actors preparing for this scene: in contrast to a lot of other shooting, which seems to consist of the director giving instruction to the actors and the actors carrying it out, these guys drive the process, asking copious questions about their characters’ motivations, background, and thought process, trying to embed themselves within the character.

I could keep going, but I won’t. If you’re interested in filmmaking or the Lord of the Rings, I highly recommend checking these things out!

Other random thoughts, with mild spoilers within each topic:

I quite enjoyed the current season of Sherlock. The current incarnation of the story has been strongly defined by its "modernity": taking many plot and character elements from the original stories, but instead of recreating a Victorian atmosphere, it embraces modern technology, style, and morals. (Leading, for example, to some amusement as to the nature of Sherlock and Watson's relationship. The assumptions one made about two unmarried gentlemen sharing lodgings in the 19th century are quite different from the assumptions one makes today.) However, I've felt like the crimes themselves hew quite closely to the originals: art theft, impossible murders, blackmail. In contrast, the final episode of this season felt like it had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to its crime. It's impossible to think of Magnusson as anyone other than a Rupert Murdoch stand-in, and I thought they did a fantastic job at tapping into the raw outrage that Britain has felt over the News of the World and similar offenses from the Murdoch empire. It had an immediacy and sense of purpose that felt unusual for this show, but was very welcome.

Archer is back! It looks incredible! That is all.

I belatedly caught up to the current half-season of The Walking Dead. The chronology between the comics and the show never lines up, but I think that it's now definitely past everything that I'd read in the books, so from here on out everything will be a surprise to me. I think I'll keep it that way; I don't have the unreserved love for the show that I have for the Telltale game, but I love it more than the books. Anyways. I was a bit surprised that they brought back the Governor and spent so much time exclusively with his storyline, considering where the story went, but it was also pretty cool, and that actor did a great job at showing the ways in which the character changes, and the ways he still stays the same man.

While on the topic: I'm hearing good things about the next season of the Telltale Games Walking Dead, but I think I'll probably wait for the season to end before buying the pack. Not that I mistrust them, exactly, but they've taken on a LOT more work lately and have already slipped a few dates, which makes me slightly nervous about pre-ordering for the season. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers between now and the end.

The Berlin expansion for Shadowrun Returns should be dropping later this month! I'm quite excited about that. The little I've seen so far looks great, and I dig the stuff they've talked about delivering (more personable companion runners, greater autonomy in determining mission order, etc.)

I've wrapped up Season 2 of Misfits. That show is so ridiculous, I love it. The Christmas Special in particular was one of the most delightfully awful things I've seen.  Season 1 seemed to be mostly about how the characters don't change: they get super-powers, but are still the same lowlifes they always were. Season 2 seems to be about the characters do change: they start to consider whether they have any responsibilities, and how they can use their powers to make changes in the world. I've just started Season 3, and the show seems to be shifting yet again with at least one cast change. It'll be interesting to see the other ways they continue to shake things up.

I may or may not do a full writeup at some point, but I've finished reading RASL, the new comic from Jeff Smith, the creator of Bone. It was awesome, and pretty much the complete opposite of Bone in almost every conceivable way. Bone is fantasy, RASL is science fiction. Bone has a simple art style, RASL has a lush style. Bone starts out with a very straightforward plot and only gradually delves into mythology, RASL starts in the middle of a very complex plot with an elaborate mythology. Bone's protagonists are cheerful and reflexively lovable, RASL's protagonist is kind of a jerk. Of course, both stories are incredible. RASL ends satisfyingly, but there are a few lingering questions left at the end, and I'm curious if we're meant to just ponder them, or if those characters might crop up again in the future.

Now go forth, and do likewise!

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Bloody Point

The Crying of Lot 49 has a lock on my personal list of Top 5 Favorite Books. I love its humor, its strangeness, its paranoia, its love and fear of science and history. Most of all I love the ambiguity of the thing, the incredible way that Pynchon is able to constantly postpone a resolution to the central question driving the action: is Tristero real or a put-on? The answer to that question will determine which of two very different universes Oedipia is living in, and by eternally denying us an answer, Pynchon created a wonderfully tense and dense atmosphere that still excites me decades later.

I enjoy Pynchon as a whole, but all of his works are profoundly different from one another. Gravity's Rainbow shared some things in common with The Crying of Lot 49 - intelligent use of science in literature, a fascination with the macabre, a creeping metaphysical reality - but while TCoL49 is a breeze to read, Gravity's Rainbow requires enormous effort. His later books wander in structure and topics. His most recent offering before this one, Inherent Vice, was a really fun read, but didn't seem to have the same depth that I associate with his earlier works.

So, when I picked up Bleeding Edge, I had modest expectations. Pynchon is a talented writer, and I knew that no matter what it would be fun to read. What I ended up getting was something totally unexpected, and wholly appreciated: a sort of spiritual successor to my favorite book, The Crying of Lot 49. It took me a while to start connecting the dots, but once I started noticing the similarities, I giddily gave in to the idea and had a blast with the remainder of the book.


TCoL49 was written in the mid-1960s, and set a couple of years earlier, in sun-drenched California. Bleeding Edge just came out this year, and is set in Thomas Pynchon's current home of New York City. It's set in the year 2001, which is a really gutsy move. I generally have a knee-jerk negative reaction to fiction (whether literary, cinematic, etc.) that deals with the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems like creators are screwed no matter what. On the one hand, it can feel like a really cheap and exploitative way to raise the stakes for their plot, by tying in to the highly charged emotions people connect with that event and hoping that they transfer to their own story. On the other hand, just because the event looms so large, there's a risk that any story someone attempts to tell will seem utterly insignificant in comparison.

I suspected that I was in better hands with Pynchon, though, and that proved to be correct. This isn't a book "about" 9/11; nor does it ignore the attack. Most of the book takes place during the summer and early fall, and does a fantastic job at capturing the zeitgeist of the period: a sense of ennui around the deflating tech sector, lingering liberal outrage over George W. Bush's "election," confused optimism about where the new millennium. As the story moved chronologically closer to the event, we (the reader) feel an increasing sense of dread, which tracks but does not mirror the unease felt by characters within the book.

After the World Trade Center is destroyed, characters react and grieve in very believable ways. There's also an extremely Pynchon-esque reaction as they try to determine if and how this tragedy is connected to the plots they've been attempting to follow. He doesn't say "This is what really happened," but offers a very realistic portrayal of the way we try to make sense out of disasters, derive some meaning or explanation from tragedy. (There's also a depiction of the birth of the 9/11 Truther movement, which the protagonist is skeptical of, even though she helped spark it.)

Speaking of which: I love the protagonist! Maxine Tornow is one of my favorite characters ever, and the best I've run across this past year. She's a vaguely middle-aged divorced mother of two, a secular Jew, and a disbarred auditor. She has opened her own practice, kind of like a private investigator who only investigates companies' books; she operates in the same kind of netherworld that noir heroes inhabit, hired by people on either side of the law to root around in other peoples' business and uncover wrongdoing.

This is, of course, a really perfect job for the protagonist in a mystery to hold, and provides an endless set of excuses for Maxine to get entangled in the multiple plot threads that make up the book. In the same way that Oedipa Maas in TCoL49 had her role as an estate executor which motivated her to go hunting through documents and connections, so Maxine's job as a rogue auditor gives her the background and associates that let her pry into the major power structures of today, technology corporations.

The best thing about Maxine, though, is her voice. The dialogue is wonderfully written, with lots of terrific repartee between Maxine and her friends and foes. She's sharp-tongued, intelligent, quick with a rejoinder, able to tease or draw blood as needed. She's a slightly older woman, and so has a lot of history with some of the characters, providing ample ammunition when they start going at it.

Despite her sometimes abrasive demeanor, Maxine is a thoroughly good person. She has a soft spot for victims, even those who are not so innocent themselves, and she regularly struggles between her professional obligations of justice and her personal desire to bestow mercy. She isn't perfect, and makes at least one majorly bad moral decision, but she's always admirable.

Beyond Maxine, it... gets a little confusing. I read this book practically nonstop, and even so I had a hard time keeping its vast cast of characters straight. Everyone receives a solid introduction when they first appear, but then flit in and out of the story, often with gaps of a hundred pages or more between appearances, and the sheer number of characters makes it hard to keep track of their identities, agendas, and alliances. Of course, this isn't a unique issue for this book, as Pynchon tends to have a lot of fun building these sprawling networks in his stories. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it, which should help me better appreciate what everyone's up to.

There are no insignificant characters, and everyone serves some purpose. Horst is Maxine's ex-husband; at first I thought he was kind of an oaf, greedy and uncaring. He drifts back into her life, though, and over the course of the book he's revealed as someone much more nuanced: a true child of the American heartland, with all that entails, including a reticence to discuss his feelings, an aversion to the cacophony of NYC, a problem controlling his weight, etc. Once I understood that, I even started to like him a bit, and appreciate the efforts it took him to stay involved in his kids' lives.

The villains also have layers that are revealed over the course of the book. Gabriel Ice and Windust are both discussed as people who have sold their souls, pledging to perform some service in exchange for rewards. The nature of their corruption appears different, though. Ice seems purely motivated by material gain; he aids the darker forces in the US government in exchange for immense wealth and growing power. Windust, on the other hand, has already achieved great wealth, but doesn't seem to care about it at all. He's motivated by the sick work he does itself: the dirty job is its own reward, and the holdings he acquires are just inconsequential afterthoughts. Which is worse? I detested Windust more, but it does raise an interesting question: is it worse to do evil while knowing it to be such, or to believe that your evil is good?

Gabriel Ice owns a tech company, and much of the plot has to do with his various machinations, almost always performed through proxies or deniable assets. Possibly the biggest surprise to me was just how fluent Pynchon is when discussing software. I probably shouldn't have been surprised; he's always been a smart writer, and conversant about science, so it makes sense that he would keep up to date in the computing field. I'm always pathetically grateful when any author (even a science-fiction writer) actually understands software (hence a major factor of my appreciation for Neal Stephenson), so finding an honest-to-goodness literary writer who can write funny jokes about man pages, algorithms, and dot-com decor is a startling treat.

For the most part, Pynchon's dialogue shows that he actually understands tech, and isn't just dropping in keywords. The one area that felt off to me, though, was the part of the book that took place in the Deep Web / DeepArcher, a fictional underground anonymized digital space. The description of the tech behind it sounds vaguely like a TOR ring or onion network; the actual descriptions, though, read like badly dated 1980s predictions of Virtual Reality. I'm hesitant to be too critical of this - it would be very boring to write about how one person sat at a computer and clicked icons on their screen - but it's the one part that took me out of the story a bit, and made me second-guess whether Pynchon did all this himself, or if he was relying on a domain expert to help him with the lingo.

While the tech stuff is interesting, and generally extremely well-done, the key appeal of the book is, once again, the vague sense of unease and alienation that creeps in. During most of the book I thought that Pynchon was writing a relatively realistic novel, without the hints of the supernatural that creep into TCoL49. After a while, though, a few specific things start to occur that make it seem very likely that we're living in a universe that does not observe our rational laws. True to Pynchon form, these aren't big, earth-shattering miracles: just events that are simultaneously mundane and weird enough to force you to do a double-take. The first such event that I can recall is a deliveryperson, who has already been established to show up at unexpected times bearing unexpected parcels, who suddenly performs an act that appears to violate the laws of space and time. Nothing specific develops out of this one occurrence, but a seed of uneasiness is planted that will continue to grow through the rest of the novel.


I hesitated over whether this qualifies as a spoiler or not, but better safe than sorry: there isn't really much of an ending to this book. Again, it's kind of par for the course for Pynchon. It's not that he doesn't care about plot; he's really good at crafting elaborate storylines, it's just that they make more of an impact if they're left to drift forward through eternity rather than snipped neatly off at the end. TCoL49 ended at an especially tense moment, and it felt like if he had written just one more page, it would have answered every important question that had been raised during the course of the book. In contrast, Bleeding Edge mostly drifts off into its ending. There's a showdown with the big villain near the end, and our protagonist kind of "wins," but it isn't the explosive climax you might expect, and ends with both parties getting into their respective vehicles and driving away. Of course, there's no resolution to most of the central mysteries of the book, such as what Ice was keeping in his basement, who killed Windust, etc.

I'm notoriously pleased with ambiguous endings (cf. Murakami, Stephenson), and this book was no exception. Again, the way it incorporates the real events of the era made this feel surprisingly authentic for such a surreal book. Real lives don't have climaxes and conclusions. They keep moving forward, they're messy, and it feels like at the end of this book Maxine is just moving forward into the second half of her life, with some questions answered, others not, some regrets deeply buried, some past happiness recovered... it's nice.


So, yeah. Excellent book! I'm still a bit too close to it to judge, but it's almost certainly my favorite novel I read last year. It doesn't knock TCoL49 off its perch, but is an incredibly strong entry in my "Favorite Pynchon Books" list. It's a great showcase for his talent at funny dialogue, unsettling plots, clever allusions, and intricate structure. My go-to recommendation for new Pynchon readers will continue to be TCoL49, but Bleeding Edge will probably get the follow-up nod for second reading assignment.

I don't want to sound macabre, but there's a good chance that this is the last Pynchon novel we'll get. He's already 77 years old, and it's impressive that he's continued to write such strong material in recent years. It's even more impressive that this book feels to contemporary, so vibrant, so plugged in to the current millennium; he isn't revisiting his glory years of the 1960s, but examining the attitudes and events that drive American culture today. Still, I hope that I'm wrong, and we'll continue to see more terrific works from him in years to come.