Memories of Ice – Steven Erikson

Third book in the series. I started reading it with very high expectations. I knew from forums’ discussions and reviews that this third book was considered the highest peak in the whole series. I came from the previous two that I loved and, especially, after being AWED by the three novellas of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. Those that won me over and got my unconditional love for Erikson. The difference is that before I came to the books with expectations to match, after having read the novellas I’m now ready to put aside what “I’d like and expect to read” and just let Erikson bring me where he wants. I’ve learned to respect and admire his work and forget the pettish critical eye of the always skeptic.

When I turned the last page I had three thoughts going around in my mind. The first is a sense of emptiness that isn’t new to me when I finish a book that I’ve been reading for a long time. This book has accompanied me for the better part of four months, reading slowly but regularly as is my habit. When I close the book I have this feeling of emptiness, of characters that I’ve learned to know that remain in my head like echoes, lingering feelings. Like trails whose source I’m starting to forget. I know well this feeling and I know its name: it’s nostalgia. For me it starts as soon as I turn the last page. This time there is so much to remember that the feeling was amplified and leading into another: there is nothing left to read. I mean, there’s so much in this book that it leaves you feeling like you’ve read everything. There’s nothing else that could be written. Like a big “the end”. It’s over. The book embraced everything. Like Iktovian, Erikson seems to say, “I am done”.

This is epic fantasy. The embodiment of the abstraction. This book is like a shell, through which you can hear the sea. That’s the magic. It leads to something unexpected and shows you things vividly. Those last 150 pages are so filled with emotions, so inspired that they feel intimidating now. It’s only after those 150 pages that you understand where Erikson was going, you see the ultimate end. Three books to get there.

But I also have to say that I made this happen. While I read daily 15-20 pages for those four months, for the last 170 pages I sat comfortably on my couch and read without interruption from 1AM to past 5. In complete silence. This is something I consider like an obligation. Reading a book is a one-time event. Unrepeatable. It’s a gift that I don’t want wasted and so tried to get in the best way possible.

That feeling of emptiness, absolute fulfillment and nostalgia was the dominant one. Then I thought that it was unbelievable. Imagining in retrospective, the author that is about to write the first page, and is thinking about the last. You look back now that it’s over, and it’s simply impossible. This is not a human endeavor, it’s just crazy. Insane. It’s unbelievable the goals he set, it’s unbelievable how he wrote page after page, it’s unbelievable where he arrived. A mix of genius, insanity and carelessness. And, obviously, awe on my side.

Third on the stream of thoughts, was my surprise about a particular aspect. Throughout the book I saw one of his goals and believed it impossible. On the forums I even explained and discussed this point. Often Erikson deals with feelings and concepts that transcend the human level. In order to make a reader “feel” you have to use something that “resonates”. Something that we have in common. Something archetypal that we all know and share, and that we could impersonate again. That’s the only way you reach an emotional level in every form of art. If you read the forums the common complaint about Erikson is that his characters fail to really reach the heart, so it’s easier to appreciate the books through the mind than through the heart. Even his writing style is more rationally involving than is emotionally. In this particular case I’m talking about within the book, Erikson tries to convey a feeling of endless despair that belongs to the T’lan Imass (an undead race in the book). So I was explaining on the forums that I can appreciate Erikson’s goals, I can enjoy what he wants to do and be awed, but this will only work on the rational level since I’m just unable to “connect” with an alien race like the T’lan Imass. At various points in the book Erikson tries to “force” the feeling, and instead I felt like it wasn’t quite working. It was a best effort, but it just wasn’t possible and so felt somewhat “blunt” and failing in the end. Well, the end of the book was able to achieve fully what I felt as impossible. Throughout the whole book it seemed that Erikson was rinsing and repeating, forcing something that wasn’t working well. With the end of the book he succeeds. Those feelings passed through without losing completely those alien traits. The book made me live something that was utmost unique. That single aspect.

That’s why I think the book is the embodiment of epic. It’s insanely ambitious, sets goals impossible to reach, staggering. And gets there. “I am done”. And it’s because he is done that I wonder where he found the energies to write further. There isn’t anything else to write. It’s over. This book reads as the final chapter. The hanging threads are superfluous sophistications that may as well stay there floating in potential. I read book 1, intrigued, though the ending was rushed and too forced in its spectacularity. I had my mind filled with questions that I wanted answered (as after watching an episode of Lost). I started reading book 2 to get my answers. Loved Heboric because as an historian he was the symbol of all my longings. By half of this second book I got most of my answers. By the end of the book all those answers were turned on their head and all my theories fell apart. In fact I was upset because I didn’t think the plot was going to make sense. Too many contradictions. Besides, the last 250 pages weren’t written as well as the rest of the book. The usual convergence felt again a bit too rushed and two of the three plot lines were dull in the way they were presented (as usual I explained this better in the comments to the book). Great book nonetheless, but I was still there longing for answers and to start making sense of the whole thing. Then I read the novellas that suprised me for all different reasons. No more caring much for the intricacies of the plot, but being awed by the *writing* itself, the sheer creativity and surprises at every page. A careful masterpiece, word by word, in a completely different way from the other broader books. I started this third book to get back to the hanging plots left by book 1, once again to get my answers. By half of it I got most of my answers, by the end of it, I didn’t care anymore.

While reading through book 1, 2 and most of the third I was wondering why there weren’t more discussions on the forums about the mysteries and hidden plots. The great majority of readers are much further with the books so I believed that they OUGHT to know more about what I wanted to know. Instead not only they didn’t, but in many cases they didn’t have any clue about *what I was asking*. Like if I was reading an entirely different thing. Well, it was true. There are two aspects to consider. One is that this series is like a parallel to Lost, the TV series. Both use some of the same tricks and Erikson uses some of them even better. One of the tricks is to force the attention of the reader onto something else. You fill a first part with mysteries, then continue to shift the focus till the reader/spectator is enthralled by brand new mysteries and forgets about the firsts. Erikson does some of this through some kind of chinese boxes, and it works great. What you think was a mystery onto itself, reveals to be part of a MUCH bigger tapestry. The box contained in a much bigger box, and the bigger box into another. Those questions and mysteries kind of fall to irrelevance when you realize that all you got was nothing in the bigger picture and you were trying to put together a puzzle of 5000 pieces by matching together just an handful. If you look for Agatha Christie kind of flawless weaving you are going to be disappointed as it is very likely that some of the pieces are mistakes and not just masterful misdirection (and multiple level of meaning, something Erikson does well), but the way he manages these unexpected transitions from a lower level to an emergent one is eminently enjoyable. It’s also with this third book that something changes. In book 1 and 2 you were just trusting the writer and just add more pieces to a borderless puzzle. It was pure chaos as there was nothing conventional or expected. A blank board with a stream of pieces coming in, the reason why most readers are welcomed with absolute confusion and bafflement. The third book instead starts to fill the gaps. After having drawn the horizon, you start to grasp the big picture and “belong” more to the world Erikson created. So starting to understand the pieces, recognize them and play with them. I was saying how the mysteries “escalate” to upper levels so broad that the details fade out, and how Erikson diverts the attention to new “live” threads, making others less important. Secondly, and here we come to the point, it succeeds where he was failing. Characters, emotions. After working so much on the rational level he finally succeeds to bring the characters to the front, and with the ending of this third book all of the sophistications of the plots that crowded my thoughts during the previous books became suddenly less relevant. I wasn’t thinking anymore about why Dujek was contradicting Laseen, or who killed who during the sieges of Pale. I was thinking instead of the characters and the sense of emptiness (nostalgia) they left in me. I was there sharing something with them.

After this endless stream of unbelievable praises do I think the book is flawless? Well, if I have to rate it, it would score a perfect. Simply because it is a success on what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is something I’ll remember for a long time. It doesn’t mean that the book is perfect, but that the problems fade out and I don’t consider them as relevant as in the previous books. For most of this third book I thought that the writing quality and style was overall a little below of book 2 (or at least book 2 minus two plots at the end of the book as I explained in that commentary), I also thought that if I had to rank them I’d put the second on top. That before reaching the end of the third book. Now I really couldn’t put this third book below and I understand all those readers who think that it’s the highest peak of the series. Deadhouse Gates has an overall better execution, beautifully written, but the ambition (and payoff) behind it just can’t compare with what Erikson does here.

There are other aspects I can criticize. The book is, shortly put, wasteful. To those who think that books this long (1100 pages) are unnecessary, I’ll say that these are not 1100 pages written by a writer who’s trying to fill 1100 pages. These are 1100 pages written by someone who’s trying to *squeeze* into them all he has in his mind. The pacing of the book is relentless and those pages without action are the pages that in the end are more important and filled with revelations (so moving the plot). I say this is wasteful because there’s just too much. While the end works on its own and justifies the journey, for the first half of the book Erikson wastes a number of valid ideas without playing them to their full potential. He fires them into the air clumsily and brings them down shortly after. He wastes opportunities. He builds up mysteries only to spoil them two pages later (if not on the same page). The pacing is so sustained that you have no time to let characters and feeling linger enough. A case of excessive creativity and drive. In retrospective I now understand better where this “urge” came from. There was to much to do for the destination that he already had an insane number of balls to juggle in the air. As I said, this book is insane.

At some point halfway through the book there’s an idea extremely interesting. One of the main characters has a crisis of faith and starts to question what he believes in. His words are pure beauty and deep. This is also an extremely important transition in the plot. I’ll quote it again:

And perhaps that is the final, most devastating truth. The gods care nothing for ascetic impositions on moral behaviour. Care nothing for rules of conduct, for the twisted morals of temple priests and monks. Perhaps indeed they laugh at the chains we wrap around ourselves – our endless, insatiable need to find flaws within the demands of life. Or perhaps they do not laugh, but rage at us. Perhaps our denial of life’s celebration is our greatest insult to those whom we worship and serve.

The character here has made a vow to his god and is now wondering if the gods are really caring about these demonstration of faith. Maybe that vow is instead an insult to the gods, what he calls a “denial of life’s celebration”. Why life shouldn’t be experienced fully? Why “our endless, insatiable need to find flaws within the demands of life”? It’s beautiful not just because of how it was written, but because those words have depth, truth (and not, like Gene Wolfe, just a way to “adorn” in fancy, sophisticate words a simple concept).

‘You question your vows.’
‘I do, sir. I admit to doubting their veracity.’
‘Has it been your belief, Shield Anvil, that your rules of conduct has existed to appease Fener?’
Iktovian frowned as he leaned on the merlon and stared out at the smoke-wreathed enemy camps. ‘Well, yes-‘
‘Then you have lived under a misapprehension, sir.’

I won’t spoil the solution of this passage, but I’ll use it as a concrete example of how Erikson doesn’t play many of his ideas to their full potential. This whole transition and character development (and resolution) I’ve hinted here is contained in TWO PAGES. It is beautiful, deep, not at all simple. Filled with potential and interest to my eyes. Kept me glued to the book. But completely contained in 2 pages among 1100. This is the pacing of this book. All the book is like that, filled with different threads and crazy ideas that come and go page after page. Every page is a pivotal point and this rhythm so sustained becomes somewhat detrimental as there’s no way to make all these things “settle” in the mind of the reader. Once again, familiarize.

This is what lead me to write that other commentary about character development. Without “slices of life” or time to familiarize, the readers will feel disconnected from the characters in the book. If deep transitions and shift of motivations happen in the space of two pages, like the Iktovian example here, then it will be hard for the reader to relate to them and share/understand their feelings. At the same time this is a strength for Erikson. His unique style. The journey isn’t a typical, already seen one, the characters aren’t conventional, and they develop in unpredictable ways that demand a big effort to the reader in order to keep the pace and understand this type of complexity. Lacking the redundancy that is typical of the genre (these days I’m reading Goodkind and the parts of it that work well work exactly because of the redundancy). The more I think about the book now that I read it from beginning to end, the more I realize that there wasn’t any other way to write it.

Typical deus ex machina associated with Erikson are part of this case. There are many in this book. They make sense, are part of the world. But the tapestry is so broad and the threads so disparate that when it all comes together in the end you can’t avoid the feeling that all of that was “guided”. This will annoy purists, but in this case the “intent” is itself the reward. There wasn’t any other way. This story told itself. The hand “driving” plot threads and characters along isn’t an intrusion, but just the way the story told itself in the way it should. Iktovian is an example because Erikson builds the character through the book to “get there”. There wasn’t any other way to do it. “Destiny” as a destination that ultimately follows a sequence of steps. Similar to the Greek myths and legends that Erikson uses as inspiration, and whose metaphoric value he tries to give life to. Salvation, tragedy and a whole lot of other undertones. Themes high and low mixed together. Sleight of hand and awe.

Either you follow (and be willingly to follow) Erikson or this whole thing just won’t work. On the forums I read all sort of criticism and a good amount of it is poorly motivated. This leads, even from myself, to claim that those readers “do not get it”. Too often what happens toward the whole genre, and is promptly defended by everyone, happens again within. People attack the book because it has an excessive use of magic, powerful characters, huge battles. Well, my opinion is that these books are great IN SPITE of those. It is when Erikson is most realist and delves deep in his themes that he is most successful. But why using the spectacularity as an argument to diminish the books? It’s “serious literature” vs fantasy all over again. The same mistakes repeated by those who are this side of the fence (appreciating the genre) and that should know better than criticize something through stupid, superficial arguments. It’s diminishing without understanding. So I say that when those arguments are used, readers “do not get it”. Erikson is a lot more than what drifts on the surface. If all you notice is the powerful magic and characters then it means you are gliding on. Losing the great majority of the meaning of those words.

The payoff is then only proportional to the dedication. Erikson will never work too well for the large public. It will never be an easy and almost safe recommendation (like Abercrombie or Scott Lynch). It will never be for a “majority”. It will never work for a variegated public on different levels (and ages). But if you are on the same line and are interested in its themes and intent, then it will be nothing short of grandiose. More than a book, a journey.

Please give Erikson a good artist, someday

On another blog it was mentioned that Tor (US publisher) is relaunching Steven Erikson by adopting the UK covers, at least for the first book.

As commented there I think it’s a good choice as the US covers are really bad for that kind of books. They give an idea of childish fantasy, young adult at best, with the classic stereotypes. They just don’t fit. The UK covers are nothing spectacular either, but at least they look more elegant and classy and don’t discourage the reader the same way Tor covers I think are doing.

That said I hope one day I’ll see these books getting not just acceptable covers, but good ones. As I wrote in other occasions I think the artists Michael Komarck and Raymond Swanland are those who could better represent Erikson’s work and vision.

Speaking of Swanland, he’s already doing Glen Cook’s omnibus covers and they are great (even if Glen Cook himself isn’t too pleased about those new bundles). Here’s the next incoming:

The cover is great as always, even if I have to admit I’m not a fan of a character posing in the center of the stage. I prefer much more panoramic vistas that focus on the mood than the close-ups on the characters. I prefer the characters to say exclusive of the reader’s mind. Or at least, if they have to be there, not facing straight at the reader and posing.

Applause

The applause is for the words of Sanya and Lum. It’s refreshing to see people to step out of the proper path to defend what is worth defending.

I can’t say anything because I don’t know anyone at Mythic, but I appreciate when people talk straight. Even the fanboys didn’t swallow this.

My only hope is that all this, again, isn’t about wasted words, but lessons to learn and then used to change things radically. It’s a crisis and maybe it is likely to be paid by the wrong people. But, ultimately, I hope it all comes back and those who really deserve it will be rewarded. Hopefully sooner than later.

Just one last thing: That Mythic lost a lot of very good people is obvious. It didn’t start the 3rd February 2009.

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Monster AI

I had promised myself I wouldn’t waste more of my time writing about game design but today goes like this and I want to stop that itch.

Lum on monster AI:

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

I know he is generalizing, but I don’t quite agree.

Today, if I play a game where I feel I have to kill an easy monster over and over because it’s the faster path I’d unsubscribe faster than I can gain two levels. Sure, I WILL behave exactly like you describe, but not for long. It’s the wrong way to approach the problem. You also give for granted a bunch of arbitrary (but common) conditions. That the game is based on levels, that experience points are not linked directly to something specific you do and that the main draw of the gameplay is to grow the character’s power.

It is true that what you describe is a pattern that exists and is fairly common. I just don’t think you can take it and deduct rules and generalizations about it.

I’m writing this post because the other day I was thinking again about what’s wrong in Fallout and Oblivion combat. My answers are also pertinent to the topic here.

What’s wrong in Oblivion is that the combat “feels” generated through an editor. The monsters you encounter all share the same system. They just change a bunch of numbers relative to stats and dice rolls. It’s different graphic and animation linked to numeric variables (just different chances to dodge, parry, attack). The result is that it plays the same from the beginning to end.

The difference with games whose combat system I consider well done (like God of War) is that in these (those well done) monsters don’t share all the same rules or just have different variables regulating their actions, but they actually come into play and challenge the player in new ways.

Since the beginning I didn’t talk about “AI”, but about “patterns”. From my point of view no mmorpg needs an AI system (even less need it built and then all monsters in the game referencing to it), they just need fun variations. Different approaches.

We need NO AI. Think of WoW’s instances. Every monster there has all the tools to kill players at ANY time. But not. It will shout to you “Hey, I am going to use my special power in 60 seconds. Pay attention to the counter on screen, or you’ll die!”. What we have is “patterns”. Planned exits. The game and the encounter is only as good and fun as the pattern offered. What we have is clearly defined ways to win. To learn and execute within a margin of error. If you add too much randomness or unpredictability to the system you would just obtain something “opaque” that ends frustrating the players.

When it comes to MMOs we are still at the level of Space Invaders. If the waves of ships would come with some variation it would be already something. We need mobs that act as a group, that use their own unique tricks and skills differently from any other mob in the game. We need them to be environment-aware and not just random spawn points around a map. Oblivion feels mechanical like a MMO. The reason is that no monster is truly unique and built as a single entity. It’s just a database reference with different variables. All the game was generated through that system and the game reflects that. No modder could ever fix that because it’s not the *use* of the database to not work well, it’s the system itself that lacks versatility. You can “rearrange”, but it’s always the same game. The same gameplay.

As always the truth behind this is the same: there are no shortcuts.

Making (good) games is hard, takes time. Creating a monster, with lore, behavior and role in the game takes a whole lot of work. If you take shortcuts, because games need to be made within constraints of time and budget, then the result will reflect that.

But the problem isn’t that players enjoy dumb combat against database references and so dumb combat is what you should give them. Don’t learn the wrong lesson.

EDIT: I wanted to complete the concept. What I examined here is not specific to a MMO, but common to all games. It is more visible in a MMO because they are “stretched” single-player games. Right now no game company can afford to make 400 hours of gameplay. This is why a MMO dilutes the experience and uses other hooks to keep the players interested. The “grind” is just the revelatory feeling that comes from lack of actual gameplay. There are no shortcuts.

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What’s up with EA? EDIT: Warhammer 300k

This is not about Warhammer, but since it was mentioned in early December on the forums I’ve been keeping an eye to the financial charts.

It was mentioned in December (and on a bunch of business sites) because the chart had a new dip, but if you look at how it was going along the year you can notice that the crisis started in September (yeah, Warhammer again, but it’s likely a coincidence and more a problem of world crisis).

Today I think is the day of their earnings conference. I have really no idea on how to read these charts as I know little to nothing about economy, but the chart today reached a new low and is under 15 (whatever 15 means).

STOCK PERFORMANCE: Shares of the Redwood City, Calif.-based company tumbled nearly 57 percent during the quarter to finish at $16.04. In Monday morning trading, the stock hit a new year low of $14.78.

I guess the next few hours will be important? Maybe investors are waiting to see what happens with the conference.

About Warhammer:

EA’s earnings call is in a few weeks and after that, there will be a lot more clarity about our numbers.

First reports already in:

Warhammer® Online: Age of Reckoning®, an MMO from EA’s Mythic Entertainment studio, ended the quarter with over 300K paying subscribers in North America and Europe.

This means 300k as December 31 2008.

Indeed. And flawless victory.

EDIT: Mark Jacobs only comment at this time:

Because not everything that I hoped to talk about was in the earnings call (they had other things to talk about obviously), I’m waiting on guidance from corporate to see if I can add a few additional bit of information that weren’t contained in the call before I write a longer post than this.

Apparently he’s pissed because EA didn’t spin the numbers enough to make them look better.

EDIT2: Comments from EA:

And while we expect to benefit in the future from increased sales from these franchises, generally games with a two on them sell better and do sell with a lower R&D budget.

drive our content direct-to-consumer. This is a strategic initiative that is very important for the long term. In FY09, we made $150 million online investment with limited associated revenue. In FY10, all significant online spending, except for the LucasArts BioWare Star Wars MMO, will be generating positive income. These investments are working. We expect over $500 million in direct-to-digital revenue in fiscal year ’10.

And also for fiscal ’10, we are going to get a full year of Warhammer subscription revenue. We talked about the fact that we are already at 300,000 subs. That is a very ratable and more predictable business, and so that is new for FY10 compared to fiscal ‘09.