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Yes, this is a post about video games.

Creative Assembly obviously took a long, hard look at Paradox Interactive games–Victoria and Europa Universalis 3 in particular–while designing their latest Total War title.

Empire Total War‘s strategic-level map and its pretty and in-depth information windows is a dead ringer for EU3’s. The new technology research trees and national prestige tally calls to mind Victoria. The problem is that the similarities are only so at first glance.

One of the best things about Victoria was the way it modeled a balance of power between nations. Prestige was more or less a scoring system, but with many more implications than simply “nation with the highest number by Year X wins,” a la Empire. Prestige could be won or lost depending on your actions: furthering Western culture and technology was a boost, declaring excessive wars of aggression against nations, especially those of Western Europe, a massive detriment. Lose too much prestige and you earned those infamous “bad boy points,” a representation of international hostility toward your country. The number determined the effectiveness of your diplomacy and the willingness of civilized nations to declare war on your unsavory practices.

There lies another of Victoria’s innovations, the split between “civilized” (Westernized and industrialized) and “uncivilized” nations. A colonial power suffered no bad boy penalty for subjugating countries deemed uncivilized, so playing as said “savages”, you had a vested interest in pushing your country toward civilized status by building up prestige, culture and technology. I’m somewhat surprised CA didn’t implement a similar system into Empire. The effect was that, at least in Western Europe where every nation was oh so civil, a balance was struck. No one could really go blitzkrieg on the continent without international outrage and an endless stream of declarations of war dropping on top of your head. So, naturally, you looked outward. No historical basis to that, right? Pure sci-fi.

The pick of time period for Empire is a little strange as well. Not to say that the 18th Century, with its upheavals, aren’t interesting, but just to a layman of history it seems like CA chose a “safe” century in between two others filled with so much ripe material. The thing is, CA’s technique since the beginning has been to go with time periods readily identifiable to the layman. Everyone has a general idea of what samurai, Roman legionaries and medieval knights are like. My guess is that they skipped over the Renaissance and the Thirty Years’ War because the layman doesn’t readily associate the Renaissance with warfare at all, and what the hell is the Thirty Years’ War? My question then is why did they choose the 1700s over the incredibly ripe 1800s?

It seems shocking that the game ends in 1799, right before Napoleon, until you realize that’s almost certainly cut off to be packaged into the expansion and/or the sequel. As for the sequel, the “evolutionary” game, the logical assumption for this gunpowder-based engine is either the 19th Century or a Thirty Years’ War game, the latter of which is already hinted at as most nations start out with a few regiments of obsolete pike squares. Perhaps if that happens it means we’re seeing the beginning of a newfound urge in CA to venture into lesser-known periods in history and we can finally get that Asia Total War game set in the pre-Mongol 13th Century that plenty of Total War fanatics want so badly (including me).

Watch as everyone’s predictions go wrong and we get Pern: Total War.

Last Dragon is the most depressing piece of “fantasy/sci-fi” literature I’ve read since, well Nova Swing by M John Harrison. That was just a few months ago at the end of last year.

More on that later.

Last Dragon opens on a dying old empress in her bed, preparing to write her memoirs in the format of a series of letters to someone. In recalling the memories into her deteriorating mind she imagines said realm as a tangle of spider webs where the people she has interacted with throughout life remain tangled and strangled. A sideways reference to eidetic memory? It’s never said.

The style is what makes Last Dragon. The compact, page-long sections of parsed text, the narrator’s voice which stays relentlessly contained within the context of the universe it inhabits, the asides that rip away from the history-style narrative like cold water and the unreliability of the voice all hark to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The similarities only grow stronger later in the story.

As reviews have already stated, once the fragments fit into a full understanding, the reader finds a relatively simple story. I do not understand, however, why some make it out as a flaw in the novel and novelist’s armor. Style itself can be substance, good substance, especially when the cultural bandwidth is overwhelmed with voices who want to tell their stories without learning an engaging way to do so.

The author has come on record and said that he did not approve of the comparison made between Gene Wolfe and him. It is fair, where much of Wolfe’s works are literally puzzles, inviting multiple rereads and shot through with minutiae that mean much more than the page real estate they occupy, Last Dragon retains a strong sense of cohesion and a laser’s focus in pacing and plot. Everything makes sense, if not on that exact page, then certainly within the next one or two, until the very end. There there can be little confusion to any careful reader.

The lack of lingering confusion is a testament to the author’s skills in plot craft considering the fragments’ staccato progression approach the level of Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist.

Last Dragon is depressing. There is an overlying meta plot that hangs over the entire book, is the entire reason the “memoir” is being written. It is referred to in passing continually and never addressed directly. It is never resolved or even fully explained. An obvious saudade dominates this plot-that-isn’t-really-a-plot, but since the reader never learns the context of it, the effect is a gaping strangeness.

The author has said the book is about a sense of duty. To me, Last Dragon is about the destructive aspects of a notion like duty, bushido, honor, whatever name is attributed to sets of self-imposed “moral” obligations. The preconception is that your duties are solipsisms. They pertain to you as an individual and hence affect only you. The rebuttal in Last Dragon says that duty requires action upon others, drawing them inextricably into our spreading webs.

“Day after day, all that we touch entangles us, and the mind struggles in that net: vast and calm, deep and subtle,” someone once said.