“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”
The words jumped out at me as I meandered through the bookstore. It is a phrase every self-respecting gamer who had grown up with the video games medium from its nascent Golden Age on through the present day knows by heart. It is arguably among the most famous lines in the last thirty years of gaming, right up there with “The cake is a lie” and “Your princess is in another castle” (story of my life).
Now those same iconic words were boldly adorning the back cover of a prominently displayed paperback, flanked by stylishly-rendered 8-bit flames. Like Luke upon hearing the equally famous “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi,” I had to know the rest of the message. I read on.
“You are standing in a room filled with books, facing a difficult decision. A distinctive cover catches your eye. It is a groundbreaking anthology of short stories from award winning writers and game-industry titans who have embarked on a quest to explore what happens when video games and science fiction collide… Your inventory includes keys, a cell phone, and a wallet. What would you like to do?”
<Look at cover>
I am of course well aware of the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover,” but this one had already proved creative and compelling, and what I read next even more so. Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One, one of my favorite novels in recent years). Andy Weir (author of The Martian, the adaptation of which proved among the best films of the year). Catherynne M. Valente (whose prose style surpasses that of any living author, the best since George MacDonald himself). With that I was sold.
Over the past several years, the short story has overtaken the novel as my personal preference in consuming fictive literature. Experience has taught me that the number of worthwhile pieces in any anthology will always be outnumbered by the worthless ones, or if not worthless than at least not worth my time. In the best anthologies the ratio of these two categories approaches 50%. This is not among the best anthologies.
There are a few true gems, to be sure. Save Me Plz, despite the worst title of the collection, is easily the best of the bunch, with regards to having both the most engaging narrative and the most relevant musings on the nature of games. A particularly poignant excerpt reads:
“What’s real is just an accident. No one designed reality to be compelling… But a
world is so designed… It’s the world as it should be, full of wonder and adventure. To privilege reality simply because it is reality just represents a mental parochialism.”
The Clockwork Soldier and The Fresh Prince of Gamma World similarly combine sharp prose with a clear love of the games medium and genuine respect for the players who engage in it. All three are exactly what this anthology promise: classic science fiction aimed at video game enthusiasts.
Such is not the case for many others in the collection. Far from the exploration of humanity and its future through the speculative lens of fringe science and emerging technologies, as per Asimov and Dick and Stapleton and Wells and many others more, much of modern science fiction is merely the appropriation of its tropes and trappings in service of climate, gender, and racial politics. This is not to discount the importance our society’s ongoing conversations about such topics, nor to deny fiction’s preeminent power to slip ideas “past watchful dragons.” The problem is two-fold: 1) stories centered on post-colonialist racial politics and feminist gender politics have become so ubiquitous in modern science fiction as to drown everything else out, and 2) their presence in this particular collection reduces video games to a mere pretext, a trojan horse instead of a central theme. Of particular guilt in this regard are Outliers, All the People in Your Party Have Died, Anda’s Game, and Stats.
On the spectrum between the extreme ends of outstanding to awful outlined above falls the rest of the collection, ranging from genuinely good stories which merely fall short of the authors’ proven potentials (Killswitch and Twarrior) to others which would barely merit a passing grade in an entry level Creative Writing class in undergrad (Respawn, Survival Horror, <end game>, and Coma Kings).
Below is a short summery of each story, sans spoilers.
God Mode by Daniel H. Wilson
- A love story set against a strange apocalypse in which most of the “assets” to the supposed reality a being deleted one by one, beginning with the stars overhead.
NPC by Charles Yu
- The first of several second person point of view stories in this collection, “you” are a generic non-player character who gains volition and begins to live the glamorous life of a player character.
Respawn by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
- Upon being murdered a Japanese man learns that his memories and consciousness transfer to the first person to come across his dead body.
Desert Walk by S. R. Mastrantone
- An atmospheric horror story with clear inspirations from “The Ring” that slowly pulls back the mystery on a seemingly innocuous retro game.
Rat Catcher’s Yellow by Charlie Jane Anders
- Taking its title from a fictive degenerative disease reminiscent in some ways of autistic savants, the atypical neurology unique to those who’ve contracted it leads to novel engagement with the ludic systems of a particular game, proving to have huge potential benefits for society.
1UP by Holly Black
- While attending the funeral of an online friend a group of mourners discover a text-based game on the deceased teen’s computer, the completion of which promises answers to his mysterious passing.
Survival Horror by Seanan McGuire
- An awkward admixture of pop-culture callouts and supernatural elements, a succubus and his cousin get trapped inside a cursed video game.
Real by Django Wexler
- A reclusive former developer and current drunk is tracked down and divulges the the horrific secrets behind a series of deaths related to his popular alternate reality game.
Outliers by Nicole Feldringer
- A self-righteous heiress-turned-bohemian further estranges herself from her family as she rises through the leaderboards of a gamified crowd-sourced analysis of climate models till she begins to take issue with the underlying algorithms.
<end game> by Chris Avellone
- A horror story inspired by classic text-adventure games.
Save Me Plz by David Barr Kirtley
- A perfect blend of real world touchstones, familiar game tropes, and philosophical explorations of real scientific concepts, all of which cohesively feed into one another. These perfect opening lines set the tone for a story you need to read for yourself: “Meg hadn’t heard from Devon in four months, and realized that she missed him. So on a whim she tossed her sword and scabbard into the backseat of her car and drove to campus to see him.”
The Relive Box by T. C. Boyle
- A widower spends an increasing amount of time in his life living in the past after purchasing a console-like device that allows one to re-experience old memories with perfect recall.
Roguelike by Marc Laidlaw
- Another second person story, “you” are multiple characters throughout, all short-lived and experiencing a deadly gauntlet reminiscent of Roguelike games.
All the People in Your Party Have Died by Robin Wasserman
- A closeted lesbian during her first years teaching elementary school in the mid-‘80s begins an affair with the computer lab instructor who introduces the former to an Oregon Trail analog.
Recoil! By Micky Neilson
- A would be game designer alpha testing a friend’s new shooter is forced to pick up an actual gun when the plot of Die Hard begins to play out at the game developers’ offices.
Anda’s Game by Cory Doctorow
- Ender’s Game, albeit instead of precocious children fighting bugs from space, in this story a clan of powderpuffs engaging in the slaughter of gold farming child slaves from third world sweatshops, bringing awareness to a real world problem through poor prose and unlikable characters.
Coma Kings by Jessica Barber
- The top-player of a game called Coma seeks reconciliation with her vegetative sister after the latter hardwired herself into the game.
Stats by Marguerite K. Bennet
- A ham-fisted story about empathy sees the stereotypically evil, privileged white man experience the everyday hardships of various minorities as his body undergoes drastic changes.
Please Continue by Chris Kluwe
- An autobiographical account by a former NFL player using terminology reminiscent of esports.
Creation Screen by Rhianna Pratchett
- The soliloquy of an avatar in a massive multiplayer game to the player, beginning with character creation and eventually exhorting the player/reader to quest in his real world.
The Fresh Prince of Gamma World by Austin Grossman
- A fascinating exploration of the experience open world games offer players to seemingly live in two worlds simultaneously, this wonderfully written work is especially timely as the titular Gamma World draws obvious inspirations from the imminent Fallout 4, being the irradiated remains of an alternate history Boston.
Gamer’s End by Yoon Ha Lee
- Of the numerous stories in this collection in which the seemingly real stakes a revealed to be a simulation, this is the least accessible as it takes place in a dense science-fiction universe fleshed out in the author’s other writings.
The Clockwork Soldier by Ken Liu
- Two stories, one of an intergalactic bounty hunter and her princely captive, the other of a fairly-tale princess and her clockwork companion, beautifully parallel each other in a fascinating meditation on sentience, free will, and artificial intelligence.
Killswitch by Catherynne M. Valente
- The brief history of a game with true perma-death, which deletes itself after a single failed attempt, and has gone decades without ever being beaten.
Twarrior by Andy Weir
- A former hacker gets a mysterious message from a strange benefactor with ties to his college days.
Select Character by Hugh Howey
- A husband is delighted to learn that his wife has taken up his favorite shooter during maternity leave, watching from the couch as she plays the game in an unintuitive manner.
> Recommend book?