Daily Archives: December 14, 2010

Games of Higher Learning

I received a note from Amazon.com this morning.  It said:

Dear Amazon.com Customer,

Customers who purchased textbooks from Amazon.com may be interested in an easy way to get great prices for used titles through our Textbook Buyback Store.

It included links to the textbook buy back page and pointed out that I had, in fact, purchased a textbook from them in the past.

And the textbook they were looking for me to sell back?

Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver The Official Pokemon Kanto Guide National Pokedex: Official Strategy Guide

So, do I get semester credits for completing the National Pokedex or what?

Mogworld

Something not completely unlike a review of “Mogworld” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw.

The book and the man

(picture from Massively)

“Mogworld” is the story of Jim.

Jim had the bad luck to be born in the rural backwater of a kingdom that was itself a nowhere backwater in the greater scheme of things in the world.

Jim managed to escape a lifetime of mind-numbing rural monotony by getting himself enrolled in a wizard school.

It wasn’t a very good wizard school, but Jim wasn’t a particularly good student and neither side could really afford to be picky.

And then Jim died.

(I don’t think I’ve gone past page 10 at this point, in case you’re worried about spoilers.)

In death, Jim found peace and contentment.  It was a stark contrast to his life.  He was happy at last.

And then the necromancer raised him from the dead.  Jim wanted no part of it.

However, much had changed in the decades since Jim’s demise.  Death had been banished from the world.  Despite numerous attempts to kill himself, Jim just kept coming back to… um… unlife.  (He’s undead, after all.)

So he resigned himself to an unlife working for the necromancer.  It wasn’t a tough life.  He spent his shifts standing around chatting or playing cards while waiting for adventurers, often the same ones he’d seen previously, to show up so that he and his fellow undead could try to thwart them.

Life… erm, unlife… took on a routine, one familiar to some of us.

Then the angels came and began erasing his fellow undead servants of the necromancer in a way that indicated that they were not coming back, ever.

An innate sense of self preservation kicked in and Jim, along with two fellow undead, escaped from the angel apocalypse.

Then Jim realized that the angels were offering exactly what he was looking for, release from this world.  Suddenly his unlife had purpose.  Like the adventurers he previously opposed, he now had a quest.  Now knowing it was possible, Jim went off to figure out how to die in a world where death had been all but eliminated.

Meanwhile a group of programmers were trying to figure out what was going wrong with the cutting edge fantasy MMO they were creating.  Something had gone awry in Mogworld.

For a man who does not like Muh-More-Puh-Gahs, Mr. Croshaw certainly spent a lot of time writing about one.  We have here a virtual virtual world, of sorts.  Of course, for absurdity, life in an MMORPG certainly has potential.  Many of us have asked the question, “What is the life of an NPC like?”  We just haven’t padded it out to 400 pages, and probably for good reason.

You can sense the influences of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams on Mr. Croshaw’s writing.  After all, his major success to date, Zero Punctuation could, with minor changes, be renamed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Video Games and seem almost totally in character.

But Jim is not Rincewind nor Arthur Dent.  While he shares some characteristics with them, like a stubborn desire to go the opposite direction that everybody thinks he should and a high degree of helplessness in the face of overwhelming events, unlike the other two, the further story moved along, the less I cared about him.  Once you’ve confirmed that he is just a character in a virtual world, and frankly the title tells you that much (MOG World… Massively Online Game World), you can see where things are headed.

And while he enjoys brief bouts of being the one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I did not find his anti-hero persona compelling in, say, a Thomas Covenant sort of way.  Jim just gets annoying at times.  This lead to a rather uneven level of interest on my part, where I would be glued to the book for a while, and then I would hit a bad patch, lose interest, toss it on the pile of books on my nightstand, and have to work myself up to picking it up again.

Minor things also grated.  The programmers, whose email and IM communications are how their views are made known in the story, have to be the worst typists ever.  Yes, I know, people in general are sloppy in instant messages.  But it has been my experience over the last 20 years that people who write code for a living tend not to be prone to excessive typos, or if they are then they eventually end up in careers outside of programming.  Mr. Croshaw seemed to feel the need to milk instant messenger sloppiness for humor so vigorously that I’d have to say that that cow went dry very quickly and ended up with a painful teat rash well before the book was a third of the way done, the pain of said rash being shared by the reader.

Or maybe that was just me.

Anyway, for me it quickly lost any comedic charm or value and became an annoyance and a distraction.

In the end I had to think that Mr. Croshaw was hemmed in and betrayed by his own premise.

An MMORPG as a literary vehicle served the purpose of allowing Mr. Croshaw to poke fun at a gaming genre for which he has little love, but it had its revenge on him.  Once you’ve declared that it is all an MMORPG, certain rules and expectations are then only ignored at the peril of losing suspension of disbelief… or whatever the gamer “that’s not how it’s done” equivalent is.

And while I won’t give away the ending, or even hint at it, I will say that I didn’t like it.  But the reason I didn’t like it was mostly due to the corner into which the story had painted itself.  It wasn’t bad, but it was not satisfying either.  It was just the end.

Generally when I get to the end of a new book, I make one of three choices.

If I really like the book, and I know I am going to re-read it at some point, it goes in my bookcase on the upper shelves with Tolkien, Larry Niven, and Derek Robinson.

If the book left me not wanting any more, it goes in a box where it will end up donated, at a garage sale, or off to the used book store.

And then there is the middle ground.  Books I might read again, some day, if the planets aligned just right.  Books where I feel there is something there for me, but not enough to ensure that I’ll be up to the effort of re-reading them.  Those books huddle on the lower reaches of my bookshelf and in the closet with Harry Turtledove alternate histories, all those Kurt Vonnetgut novels I read one very depressing summer, and my German copies of Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye.

(A girlfriend of mine was traveling to Germany way back in the 80s and I asked her to pick me up a paperback copy of Catch-22 in German.  She came back with Catcher in the Rye.  Several years later, somebody else was headed to Germany and managed to bring back Catch-22.  I read both, which was a challenge given the level of my German and the heft of my German-English dictionary.  Now I have too much emotionally invested in the books to part with them, but my German is so atrophied by now that I haven’t a hope of reading them again.)

“Mogworld” falls in that third category.  There is something there, but I am not sure it is worth the effort of a return visit.

I do hope that Mr. Croshaw finds a better muse for his next book.  He has talent.  It just did not seemed to be well served by the path he chose this time.

Mogworld” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, published by Darkhorse Books, 2010.