Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Should I Boycott Ideological Entertainment?

January 17, 2019

So I’ve been talking a bit about ideologically infused entertainment this week, talking about Doctor Who becoming Social Justice Oriented and a bit about how the Persona games, in general, aren’t. Recently, I came across a post at Vox Populi talking about Marvel inserting a drag queen into its comic with reactions to this, especially in the comments, calling for boycotting Marvel. This raises the question: you’ve found that either a new work that you were considering buying or an existing series is or has become ideologically infused, and in particular to an ideology that you aren’t in agreement with (whether that’s Left, Right, Front, Back or whatever). What should you do? Should you boycott it?

The first thing to think about is whether or not it really is ideologically infused. If you just look at this specific Marvel example, that’s not really enough to conclude that it’s ideologically infused. Drag queens as characters aren’t uncommon. After all, Persona 5 includes one and we wouldn’t call that game ideologically infused. The important thing to remember is that while the notion that all media is ideologically infused (or political) is just plain wrong, creators have their own views and biases and sometimes, no matter how careful they are, those views will bleed through. Just because a work expresses positively an idea you dislike or denigrates an idea you like doesn’t mean that it’s pushing that as an ideology. It just might be a creator unconsciously including an idea that they hold that you don’t. It doesn’t seem to be reasonable to stop consuming an entertainment media because they happen to hold different ideas than you do, or at least that’s not reasonable for me.

Now, people will protest that in the Marvel example they’ve done plenty to prove that they are, in general, ideologically infused, which isn’t an unfair complaint. So, what do you do then? Well, what we need to consider here is that the worst ideologically infused works are essentially deliberate propaganda: they are works designed to present a specific view and encourage you to adopt it. And what I think, for me, is that I shouldn’t boycott propaganda works for being propaganda works, but instead should judge them just like I’d judge any other work of entertainment: Are they entertaining or not? If I’m being entertained by them regardless, then I don’t see any reason to stop consuming them. And if I’m not being entertained by them, then the boycott problem solves itself.

I have two main justifications for this:

1) Most works that are deliberately ideologically infused aren’t very entertaining anyway. So the very worst of the lot will solve themselves anyway.

2) If I recognize that something is just propaganda, it’s not likely to impact my actual thinking. In fact, once I recognize the views that it’s trying to promote, I’m actually quite likely to spend my time arguing against them rather than giving in. So there seems little risk of the propaganda having its intended effect on me, so I can indeed treat it like any other form of entertainment.

Now, the objection will arise here that if I and others still buy it, then the companies will continue to produce it. If we don’t like ideologically infused media — and I don’t — then the only way to make people stop producing it is to vote with our dollars and not support those attempts. For me, my counter is that if it’s entertaining, then it is fulfilling the purpose of entertaining, and so is worth my dollars. I don’t feel the need to vote with my dollars for things other than “entertaining” when it comes to my entertainment.

But this is one of those things that is actually subjective. If you don’t like something that a company does and want to stop giving it your money, knock yourself out. We all have our own desires and principles and lines we won’t cross. For me, though, when it comes to entertainment, my line is entertaining. I don’t want to put more thought than that into my entertainment. If you do, then that’s fine, but you don’t really have an argument saying that I shouldn’t.

If I have to put too much effort into filtering my entertainment media, then all I’m going to do is retreat to the things I already have and already like. Ultimately, this is what will kill ideologically infused media. The more work buying entertainment media and being entertained becomes, the more people will find other ways to be entertained … and ideological infusion of entertainment media always adds more work, both in buying it and consuming it.

Advertisements

Thoughts on “Privateers”

January 10, 2019

Here I return to Ben Bova’s solo outings with “Privateers”. Again, this book reflects how Bova builds worlds well but his human drama really struggles. This wouldn’t be a bad thing — especially since Bova is trying to be more “hard” science fiction than most writers — but unfortunately the driving force in all of his novels is always the human drama, which is the weakest part of them.

The world in this one is interesting: the Soviet Union won the Cold War by building a missile defense screen first. Thus, they are the only nation that can use nuclear weapons (relatively) safely. They use that to browbeat the U.S. into giving up their space program and their missile defense research and thus take control over space … although not officially. There are agreements making space neutral and having to be used for the benefits of all mankind, but the Soviets can pretty much do what they want because no one wants to push them to the brink of war. Although Bova on a number of occasions points out that their dominance isn’t as secure as it might sound and if groups of nations got together to oppose them, things would be bad for the Soviets.

The shift in power leaves America impoverished and dirty, and defeatism runs through them. The Soviets isolate them and blunt their power. Out of this rises our hero, Dan, who is at least a more interesting hero than we had in “The Trikon Deception”. He’s an American who worked on their space program who now has to work for a South American country to send things into space because America won’t anymore. There’s a link between him and the current U.S. President, where he was in love with and likely had an affair with her but when her husband — who was the one elected President — died of a heart attack he leaves the country and she is quite bitter over all of that. Unfortunately, all this does is introduce some issues; not much comes of it nor does it get resolved by the end of the book.

The main love interest, then, is the young daughter of the President of the country he is in. She fits into the spoiled rich girl stereotype that we also saw in “Colony”, but unlike the lead in that book Lucita isn’t running a rebellious organization nor does she show any sort of competence or plot-relevant actions in the entire book. She’s really just there to be a game chip between Dan and his Soviet antagonist Malik. But other than being attractive, it’s hard to see the appeal she has for them, so it’s hard to really get involved in the love triangle.

Things would be better if Bova wasn’t continuing his trend of having the classic moustache-twirling villains in his work. The Soviets themselves are utterly ruthless, at one point willing to crash an asteroid into the Earth — and, particularly, the United States — if they can blame it on Dan. Malik for the most part is equally ruthless, willing to kill innocent people — or, rather, have them killed — just to get back at Dan or as a warning to him. The machinations, then, never seem particularly clever, and how obvious they are is what leads to the rather quick and unsatisfying resolution to the novel.

Ultimately, the big power struggle is over the Soviets controlling the price of resources and so Dan needing a new source, which he plans to get by moving an asteroid into Earth orbit. The Soviets oppose this and capture the ship Dan was using to do it (after it has already been sent on its way) and Dan breaks them out, and then eventually turns to actual privateering, which results in the privateering ship being attacked and having its crew killed, and the space station he was on — controlled by the South American country he works for — captured and him arrested, leading to a somewhat contrived way to capture Malik and end the threat. To be fair, though, the elements for Dan escaping were set out in advance, but the actual ending and victory over Malik is what moves too quickly and seems contrived.

The book starts with the attack and capture and then traces the events that led up to it, like “The Trikon Deception”. It works better this time because the final events do follow from what was stated there and it is dramatic enough that we remember it.

Ultimately, the book was fine. The main characters work well enough to keep me entertained and the secondary characters are also interesting enough. The world is interesting and now can come off as an interesting alternate history — and so stays relevant even today — and the science parts mostly work. It’s just too bad that the human drama and particularly the villains are both the least interesting parts of it and are the main focus of most of the work.

Thoughts on “The Trikon Deception”

December 20, 2018

“The Trikon Deception” is a collaboration between Ben Bova and Bill Pogue, and is the second of those novels that I’m going to look at. It’s … a problematic work.

Essentially, the plot revolves around attempts to solve pollution and specifically global warming through research at a space station is space. The novel starts with a disaster and then builds up the background to explain how we got there. One of the issues with this, though, is that it starts with the commander of the station making a dramatic statement about how it was all his fault but the book doesn’t really establish how it was or how he could have done anything differently. The beginning starts with another issue and has him locking everything down to try to foil it — espionage led to someone stealing a disk that had a virus that would shut down the entire station if someone tried to load it on any computer on the full network — and if his deciding to do that then or later had actually caused the major problems that would be a good bit of foreshadowing. But the big issues were caused by other people, and in fact deliberately by other people, and he pretty much only did the reasonable thing in all cases. So if you remember that bit of foreshadowing, it will fall flat, and if you don’t remember it, then it was pointless.

One of the interesting aspects is that Bova’s novels tend to mix in a lot of environmental issues and details into them. This time it’s global warming and he and Pogue craft a very pessimistic assessment of it, claiming that it will be critical by the 90s (killing off plankton, for example, causing massive whale deaths). Obviously, this didn’t happen, but my impression was that Bova had been a part of or had contacts within NASA and so could base his predictions on actual data. It made me wonder how much of it was based on real data and predictions that turned out to be wrong and how much of it was just his own speculation.

The book, ultimately, isn’t very interesting. The main character is the commander of the station, and despite attempts to give him a personality and a history — he has an angry ex-wife back on Earth and a son that he can’t spend time with — he just isn’t very interesting. In order to help with this, they introduce a romantic interest in the station’s doctor — explicitly stated to be potentially somewhat dumpy on Earth but in space the lower gravity makes her more attractive, more so than the beauty queen who is also on the station — and even a love triangle with the media representative for a Mars project who clashes with the commander, but this isn’t interesting either, because there’s little reason for her to actually like the Mars project guy, but she sleeps with him first to provide DRAMA!, and then confesses her love over the comms while drugged up due to the machinations of the main villain (he puts them into the air supply for the entire station), so it’s boring, nonsensical, and too easily resolved to really be interesting.

And that last plot reveals probably the biggest failing of the book: the villains are cartoonish, chortling over their grand machinations that aren’t in any way clever and only work because everyone else is either too cartoonish villain or too stupid to stop them, or else due to blind luck … at which point the villains pat themselves on the back for their cleverness at managing to get extremely lucky. These machinations end up causing deaths and framing people and potentially destroying their lives and yet the villains don’t care at all, only caring about their own views. Heck, one character wants to destroy the station for some radical environmentalist idea and is nothing more than a minor speed bump and annoyance, and is even redeemed at the end. There is a huge lack of clever villains and sympathetic characters in the book.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate the book. But I didn’t particularly enjoy it, either. It had some good moments and some mildly interesting characters, but overall it was bland and uninteresting, which blunts the triumphant ending. I’m not likely to read it again.

Next, I go back to a solo Bova book, with “Privateers”.

More Flirtin’ With Berton …

November 23, 2018

So, it was about a year ago that I first talked about reading books by that Canadian icon, Pierre Berton. I did buy and read a number of his books after that, but never really got around to commenting again on them or him. I’m going to rectify that today and finally allow myself to move that huge stack of books from the top of the second desk in my room

The extra books of his that I read are, in no particular order: “The Great Depression”, “Vimy”, “Marching As to War”, “The National Dream”, and “Klondike”. Some of these are collections of other works, and cover a big span of Canadian history, from 1871 – 1953. And, all told, they were an enjoyable read.

Berton, in his works, in general gives a fairly detailed view of history. But his great strength is in describing the politics of the times — including the politicking behind the scenes — and the everyday live of people. I know his voice because he was on a number of CBC shows while I was growing up, and I could hear his voice as I read the works, especially the long lists of things that were detailed and yet ordered such that the listing of all of those details was never boring. However, this ability to focus on the more common aspects of Canadian history and society was a weakness when it came to covering military action. Berton simply did not describe battles all that well or in all that interesting a fashion. Thus “Vimy”, though the shortest book, was also the least interesting. If you really want to understand the military history or the battles, there are much better authors to seek out than him.

But if you’re looking for politics or general history, Berton is your man. “Klondike” was very interesting, as was “The National Dream” (covering the creation of the railroad that linked B.C. to the rest of Canada). He covers a myriad of details and angles and yet makes all of them interesting. I also really enjoyed his comments on the politics, as with often wry humour he dissected the back-room political shenanigans and showed that politics was never really clean. He exposed some of Canada’s greatest political and historical figures, and while showing their warts also showed their strengths, showing how their weaknesses caused them problems but how their strengths, at times, saved them. So while there’s not a lot of “action” there, the details were incredibly interesting and Berton’s style kept them from being boring.

While these are often large books with a lot of stuff to pay attention to, I will likely read them again at some point.

Thoughts on “The Templars”

November 16, 2018

So, quite a while ago I read “The Templars” by Dan Jones. I’ve long held an interest in knights, and had heard a number of things about the Templar Order, and so thought that this would be a good book to get an introduction to them and find out some interesting things about them. My overall impression of the book is that it wasn’t bad for that, but really just made me want to go out and find a different book about the Templars for comparison.

The issue is that while the book follows the history of the Templars from their inception to their downfall, it does seem to have a bit of a bias towards the Templars. The scandals that brought them down, especially, are presented as being complete frame jobs that are politically motivated. Which they probably are. But the book takes such a strong position on that that it makes me wonder what, if any, of the accusations were true or had merit. Which then mostly makes me want to read a more neutral account of it to see if what Jones expresses is the mainstream historical view or if he’s taking a more pro-Templar side in all of this.

Still, it’s not a bad introduction to the Templars and was a relatively easy and fun read, not very boring and not too detailed so that I got swamped in the details. I’ll probably read it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Colony”

November 15, 2018

So the first Ben Bova novel I’m going to look at is “Colony”. The basic idea of the story is that there is a big artificial colony called “Island One” in space, which is attempting to build a more ideal structure or society because Earth itself is wracked by political strife, with the big cities mostly abandoned with those who stay caught up in crime, violence, and starvation, with the planet run by a council whose members, other than the leader, are generally more concerned with their own self-interest than that of the planet, with terrorists fighting to gain independence and necessities, and the corporations trying to sabotage countries and the council using even the weather — with weather-making machines — to do so.

Bova talks a lot about technology in his world-building, especially the sorts of things he talked about in “The High Road”, like Solar Power Satellites. He also does a good job of creating an interesting set of political and social situations on Earth, using that to drive a lot of the drama. This is what generally works the best. The problem with the book is that it focuses a lot on the personal lives of two characters. The first is David Adams, who is the first genetically perfect test tube baby, born on Island One and who has never been to Earth until the events of the novel. The second is Bahjat, the daughter of one of the council members and a terrorist leader. Unfortunately, neither of these characters is all that interesting, and so their love affair isn’t interesting either. For the most part, it often seems like their stories get in the way of the more interesting one, despite the resolution of it being critical to resolving the main story.

Despite that, though, the book is interesting. It starts in the middle of the action, but Bova does a good job filling us in on the details without boring us. As I said, the political situation is interesting and the book flows well despite its main characters not being all that interesting. I liked it a lot better than any of the 2016 Hugo Award winners and would almost certainly read it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

October 22, 2018

So the last of the historical works that I decided to work through was “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. This book made the rounds of all the progressive circles that I occasionally frequent a while ago, if I recall correctly, which is why it stood out to me when I was browsing historical books a long, long while back. But for the life of me I can’t really remember why they were talking about it, except that I think they liked it. After reading it, I think I know what about it interested them, but let me give my overall assessment of the book first.

The big problem with this book is that I think it’ll have a hard time finding an audience. The book is too technical and detailed for a casual history fan like myself who just wants to know or find out some interesting things or theories about the rise of civilizations. It takes on too many areas in too much detail and spends too much time trying to prove its case to be just an interesting read. However, for anyone who really wanted to be able to assess Diamond’s thesis it’s no where near detailed enough, nor does it spend enough time linking the myriad details presented in the work to the overall hypothesis. So a serious scholar looking to assess Diamond’s theory will find it sorely lacking details, while the casual reader will find it to be absolutely swarming in details that aren’t all that interesting. In both cases, the failure to directly link the details to an overall hypothesis hurts the work because all audiences will at least spend some time wondering what some detail actually has to do with anything the work wants to talk about.

So, what is that overall hypothesis? Well, one of the problems with the book is that the book doesn’t really seem to know what that thesis is … or, rather, that it doesn’t really want to come out and tell us what that is. From the start, Diamond presents the work as aiming to simply figure out why one area in particular came to be dominant over most of the rest of the world, starting from the proximate cause of “guns, germs and steel” — weaponry and diseases — to get down to the heart of the matter. He even apologizes for taking on a question that could lead to a racist conclusion, that being that there are differences in the people themselves that explain that. Well, that sounds interesting, and potentially risky. But as the work goes along it becomes clear that his main goal is to actually refute the racist conclusion and to demonstrate that it wasn’t differences in the people that were responsible for that. He raises it initially as a question that he somewhat hand waves an objection to, but by the end of the book he’s taking it on directly. But nothing in the early stages of the book sets us up for this, which really makes me wonder why he didn’t just say from the beginning that he was taking on that idea and even to say that he thinks that geography plays a far larger role than biological differences. If he wasn’t so blatant about it later, this wouldn’t matter, but by the end he is addressing it directly despite dancing around it up to that point, which makes it stand out.

On top of that, without that direct challenge to the racist conclusion, his hypothesis isn’t all that interesting or controversial. It essentially boils down to the fact that a number of peoples who stayed in the hunter/gatherer mode instead of moving to towns or the more “civilized” mode did so primarily because geographical factors made that move at the very least impractical if not impossible. At a minimum, the geography meant that towns and so on weren’t obviously more beneficial than the hunter/gatherer models that they were using at the time. The reasons for this can be interesting, such as it being the case in the Americas that there were few remaining large animals that they could domesticate for use in agriculture (although I find his reasoning for this — that they were too trusting and so were hunting into extinction — a bit specious). But overall it’s a mildly interesting theory that I might listen to at a party but not one that I want to spend a 400 page book reading about, which includes a survey of all areas to try to explain all of those things. It’s only if one is attached to the idea that it has to be biological differences that one would really care about his theory, which is precisely why it is so baffling that he doesn’t focus on that more throughout the entire book and be obvious that that is the theory he is directly challenging.

Even his refutation of the racist conclusion is lacking, however. While all of those factors certainly were the base causes of the distinctions, most people who care about the racist conclusion do so because of its implications for today. And since those geographical distinctions persisted for thousands of years, those conditions could have an evolutionary impact, and so the people could indeed have different capabilities today based on how they lived for those thousands of years. Diamond even ends up at least the specter of this while trying to show that the people of a particular area that he worked with are as smart as we are. He does so by appealing to them being able to do spatial mapping that he and most Westerners wouldn’t be capable of, explaining it as being necessary for them to survive. But if that’s the case then that would have been selected for and the sorts of capabilities that are necessary for our Western societies wouldn’t have been, and so it might still be the case that their biology makes them less capable for our world as our biology makes us less fit for theirs. Or it could just be the result of lots of practice. Either way, he leaves much room open for those who want to claim biological differences while spending too much time arguing against that for people who have no attachment to that hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it was an okay book. I didn’t hate reading it, but it didn’t thrill me either. I highly doubt it will get the 3+ reads that “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” got.

And that’s the last of my history reading. As already stated, I’m now reading some older science fiction by Ben Bova, which is a huge departure from the formal academic stuff that I’ve been reading for the past while. Hopefully, I’ll also find it more enjoyable, if less educational.

Back to (old) SF …

October 15, 2018

So I’ve updated my reading list. As you know by now, I’ve finished my third read-through of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and in addition to that I’ve finished reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” (I’ll comment on that book in the near future). This pretty much clears out my list of historical books that I wanted to read. Thus, I need to decide what I’m going to read next.

I actually have a historical book left to read, about the battle of Waterloo. I picked it up in Chapters recently while browsing for books. But I think I’ve read enough history for a while, and so wanted to do something different. The biggest non-fiction thing on the list is my long, long list of philosophical works that I want to read, but I wasn’t really in the mood for that. I considered just taking a break from trying to get things finished and just read the X-Wing books, but I tend to read those in December and it’s not quite December yet. So I’d still like to try to get something read that I can say that I made progress reading things and to generate content for the blog before taking a break from that with something that is simply pure enjoyment.

So I kinda split the difference. A while ago I went through all of my books and divided them into a number of boxes that contained books that I definitely wanted to read in the near future, books that I might want to read at some point, and books that I would never read again. I have hundreds of books in the first two categories. Among them was a collection of Ben Bova novels, whom I discovered after reading and enjoying his non-fiction work “The High Road”, which talked about using solar power satellites to solve power generation problems. Since I noted the name, I started buying fiction books that he had written. So I have ten of those, and while doing the sorting figured that I should just sit down and read them all at some point. This seemed like a good opportunity to do so. I also decided to finally read “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand” that I bought during my rant at the Hugos and and started reading but abandoned because I wanted to read some things just for fun. Since I’m now reading things not just for fun, it seemed like a perfect time to add it to the list and get one more thing accomplished.

I’m treating these like the Sheckley books I read last year: I’m going to read the books and see how well they hold up today and how much I personally enjoy them. The interesting thing is that with the Bova books I might well have read some of them before, but don’t really remember it. I had a tendency to buy books and never get around to reading them (hence some of the Sheckley works, actually). I did this less when I was really young, but more as I got older and had less time to read and more time and money to buy books, and so kept getting distracted by new and old things. Part of that sorting of books was to sort out the books that I should have read at some point but probably never did. So it’ll be interesting to see which of them I remember and which of them I don’t, which wasn’t the case for Sheckley because the only book I remember reading was “The Status Civilization”, and was pretty sure I didn’t read any of the others.

So watch for comments on these to appear in the near future (obviously, these books are easier to read than 1000+ historical texts [grin]).

Thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

October 12, 2018

So, it took a while, but I did manage to finish reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the third time. However, this time was interesting because I read it right after reading “The Storm of War”, and I was interested in seeing how I’d feel reading this book immediately after that one. But it worked out really well. “The Storm of War” focused more on the events during and after WWII, while “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” focuses a lot more on the lead up to the war, as one might expect. So while some of their events overlapped, they really complemented each other. In hindsight, it would have been better to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” first and then read “The Storm of War” to fill in the details of the later parts of the war that Shirer skims over, but it works out pretty well regardless.

For such a heavy book — both in terms of content and in actual weight — “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is a remarkably entertaining and accessible read. Shirer mixes in some personal insights with detailed descriptions of events as well as copious quotes from actual memos and other documents, and yet the book rarely seems dry or technical. Shirer’s writing style works well, and he organizes the book in such a way that, in general, one set of events follow from the previous ones so you really do seem to be just progressing through history. In general, it’s a solid read.

I also recommend that people who are interested in calling other people Nazis read this book, because it gives a detailed yet mostly unbiased view of how Nazis worked and why things turned out the way they did. For example, anyone who wants to insist that one of the main reasons Nazism managed to expand was because they weren’t punched enough will note that violence was a common strategy used by all parties in the elections, and that even though they killed more members of other parties the Nazis at least claimed to have had a significant number of deaths as well. The big differentiator was the control of the media, which had been used against the Nazis until they managed to get enough government power to use those controls against their opponents. It also shows how deeply and how shallowly most Nazis adhered to Nazi values, making things more complicated than they might appear at first. For the most part Shirer avoids psychological explanations for the phenomenon and just outlines what people believed, taken at least in part from his own personal experiences, which makes them extremely valuable.

All in all, it’s a great book, and might be the best historical book that I own. Despite it being over 1000 densely packed pages, it is clear that I will eventually read it again for the fourth time.

Some General Thoughts and a Longer Dragon Age 2 Discussion

September 26, 2018

So, there was a bad storm out here recently, and I lost power for an extended period of time. Not being able to do most of my regular pass-times I instead did a little light reading: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (I took a short break to read the entire comic series “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” at one point). This, of course, worked out really well for my general reading, as I went from about 600 pages before the weekend to sitting at over 1000 today, when the book was going slowly not because it was a bad book but because it is a rather heavy book — in both content and actual size, since I’m reading a hardcover version of it — and so I can only get through a relatively small number of pages in an evening. But now I’m almost finished, and then that just leaves “Guns, Germs and Steel” out of my list of historical books and then that list will be finished! Right now, after that I’m planning to turn to fiction and read my collection of Ben Bova books, and instead of going on to philosophy after that I’m thinking about going through some serious literature for a while. But that’s in the future, and the X-Wing books will have to go in there somewhere.

Of course, being without power didn’t do wonders for my watching DVDs. However, I had just finished watching Dynasty — I’ll put up my final thoughts on that Monday — and have started watching Wonder Woman. Yes, I’ve comitted to finishing it this time. I’m working my way through She-Ra, and can’t wait to finish that one, for reasons that I’ll expound on at length when I talk about the series as a whole. So that’s still going along.

If you’ve been following my list of video games, you’ll note that I’ve put the Persona games on hold and started playing Dragon Age: Origins again. So far, I’ve finished my Dwarf Noble playthrough and am now working on finishing my Dalish Elf (she’s an archer, which is a bit of a different playstyle for me. I think I might need to start bringing along two warriors instead of having only one — Alistair — and then bringing along Leiliana). But you also might have noticed that after that I mentioned Dragon Age 2 and talk about it being an “Analysis run”. What’s all that about? Well, at work I was listening to a lot of Chuck Sonnenberg’s old video game reviews while working, and that included his Dragon Age 2 run. The first time I had watched it, I had disagreed with some of his conclusions in Act 2 and Act 3, but at the the time didn’t really go into it because some of them were things that I kinda griped about in my own thoughts on the game. I think, though, that it might be worth taking a look at them again and replaying the game with that in mind.

I’ll outline the two main issues here, but will revisit them and go into more detail on them later. The first is that in I think Act 2 — I’ll look it up more specifically when I directly address it — Chuck comments that Dragon Age 2 was the canary in the coal mine for Bioware. What he means by that is that DA2 was the first game where there was a huge discrepancy between professional review scores and player review scores, with professional reviews rating it so much higher than the players did. This was only exacerbated in Mass Effect 3. While I think he’s right about that, I don’t think that it was the canary in the coal mine for, at least, the issues that led to it. I think that honour belongs to Mass Effect 2, because as outlined in Shamus Young’s massive treatise on the Mass Effect games Mass Effect 2 was the game that moved away from giving you interesting choices and having those choices matter and instead towards railroading the character into doing what the writer wanted, which in that case was work for Cerberus. Chuck laments that choice was an illusion in DA2 but at least there that your actions couldn’t prevent the times to come was itself an important part of the story, as it seems to me that DA2 definitely aimed at being far more of a tragedy than the first game was, and in a tragedy no matter what you do you won’t be able to stop the tragedy from happening, either because it is inevitable no matter what you do or else because the reactions of the characters in the story will always be ones that lead to it due to their natures. They’re just not capable of doing the things they need to do to prevent it because those things are so anathema to their own personalities and who they think they are and how they think the world should work, and thus they create their own downfall due to who they are as people.

But Mass Effect 2 was not a tragedy. The player is not forced into working with Cerberus due to their own character, and in fact their own character likely would forestall them from actually doing it. Nothing in the characterization from Mass Effect suggests that the Council would ignore the Reaper problem after one attacks them on their doorstep, that the Alliance would simply abandon their colonies that are under Collector attack, that Cerberus is interested in them, is trustworthy enough to work with, or is even competent enough to make a difference here, or that Shepard would even consider working for them and not returning to the Council anyway. ME2 derails the plot and characters to make this fit, but covers it up with cool characters that you want to play with. DA2, instead, builds the railroading into the story but doesn’t have the interesting characters to make that more palatable.

Which leads to the second issue. In Act 3, I believe, Chuck comments that given all that’s happened in DA2 he can’t understand why Hawke doesn’t just leave, and that he/she only stays because they’re railroaded into it. Shamus, on the other hand, remarks that there is no reason for Shepard to work with Cerberus at all and only stays with them because the game won’t let them quit. The thing is, I think that unless you’re a character that is mercenary to the point where even Isabella would look at you funny, DA2 actually is careful to give almost all characters plenty of reasons to want to stay. First, Hawke for almost all of the game has family that they care about in Kirkwall, from your surviving sibling to your mother. Even in Chuck’s playthrough, Hawke isn’t likely to leave as long as Bethany is still in the Kirkwall Chantry. Second, even if your family is all dead — as mine was in my playthrough — you have friends that can’t leave as easily. Avelline, for example, is captain of the guard, while Varric still has some contacts there. I’d mention Anders’ seeming attachment to the place, but does anyone consider him a friend in that game [grin]? Third, you have a family estate and history there that you’ve recently reclaimed. That’s a reason to stick it out there instead of simply giving up that thing that you did so much work to get back, and that was very important to your mother. Fourth, it wasn’t that long ago that you had to uproot yourself and begin a new life elsewhere. Now that Kirkwall is finally feeling like a home again, Hawke might not be anxious to pack everything up and start over again. And, finally, Kirkwall’s not even all that bad compared to the rest of Thedas. What we have are unstable situations and one really disastrous event — the end of Act 2 with the Qunari — in the number of years you’ve been there. Ferelden, where you came from, had a civil war in the middle of a Blight. And a lot of the simmering issues in Kirkwall are simmering elsewhere as well. Hawke has some power and authority here and so is likely to think that at least they can make a difference here, which isn’t possible elsewhere. So almost all characters can find some reason to stay and try to make Kirkwall work rather than moving on.

Compare that with ME2. The main issue is disappearing colonists that no one seems to care about and that Shepard really has no reason to care that much about either. Cerberus is at best a small-time organization from the first game, and at worst is at best incompetent and at worst evil. Joining Cerberus actually causes Shepard to have less authority — because no one trusts Cerberus and so are reluctant to help someone working with them — than they would if they went back to the Council or the Alliance. Moreover, the Reapers are the bigger threat and one that Shepard should be more interested in pursuing. Yes, the two plots tie into each other, but no one seems to know that at that point in the game. ME2 doesn’t really give you any reason to think that working with Cerberus is going to in any way help you achieve any of your goals.

When we look deeper at DA2, we can see that the motivations were actually there, while when we look deeper at ME2 we can see that the shallow motivations it gives make no sense. DA2 might have failed to make the emotional connection, but from a plot and characterization standpoint we can see that it did the work to add the things to the story that we could then use to drive us forward. However, deciding that is the point of the “Analysis run”: to play the game with this in mind and see if it does or doesn’t work and what the game itself actually does here. It’ll take a while for me to get there — I do want to finish the DAO stories first, and then pick one to start from — but that’s the goal, at any rate.