Saturday, March 01, 2008

Entertainment about entertainment

Vivian Vande Velde's science fiction novels User Unfriendly and Heir Apparent brought back memories of the computer adventure games I used to play as a kid. I enjoyed even pure text adventures better than arcade-style action games, because of the unique mixture of creativity and logic required to win them. I will briefly discuss these games before reviewing Vande Velde's two books.

When I first began playing Infocom's text adventures at age nine, I felt hopeless without the clue books that came with the software. In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for example, Mr. Prosser would have his bulldozer in front of my house, and no matter what I typed into the command prompt, he would demolish the house. So I consulted the clue book, which told me the solution: "Lie down in front of the bulldozer." It makes sense, if you think about it. Prosser won't kill to get his job done. But I simply didn't consider that possibility--partly because I lacked experience or cleverness, partly because I had never read the Douglas Adams novel on which the game was based.

Beyond Infocom, most text adventures did not come with clue books. But they helped prepare me for games like The Legend of Zelda that are part arcade-style action, part strategic adventure. With or without graphics, computer adventures all have the same basic setup. They can have any storyline, though they are traditionally magic tales featuring kings and castles and wizards and dragons. You always make your way through some kind of complex setting and collect various objects in your path. Figuring out the solutions to problems usually involves trial and error. Find a piece of cotton? Try throwing it, or eating it, or sticking it in your ear.

How well do science fiction books fare in portraying these sorts of games? A few weeks ago, I discussed Killobyte, Piers Anthony's 1993 novel about characters who become trapped in a role-playing VR game. I decided to dig up a particular young adult book with a similar plot, Vivian Vande Velde's User Unfriendly, which I first read in 1992. I remembered very little about it other than that I enjoyed it.

The gaming machine in this novel actually places you into REM sleep and hooks directly to your brain to make you think you're in the virtual setting. The session lasts no longer than an hour, but feels like five days. You can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste your surroundings. You're able to experience pain, and you must eat and sleep in the course of your journey. You are provided with new memories and skills, corresponding to the character you occupy.

That almost makes the technology in Killobyte sound primitive by comparison. It brings to mind Orson Scott Card's warning to novice sci-fi writers about presenting an extraordinary invention without considering other uses it might have. If one hour can be made to seem like five days, then (doing the math) three days can be made to seem like an entire year. Such a device could in effect greatly prolong a person's life--or at least provide a little extra time for reflection.

As for the implanted memories, if a computer can do that, what need is there for school (much less Jeopardy)? Just hook your brain to a machine, which will feed you all the information you need to know.

Needless to say, the book does not deal with any of those possibilities.

The narrator is Arvin, an eighth-grader who enters the game along with several of his friends. One of his challenges is figuring out which of his friends appear as which characters. His mom is also playing, much to his chagrin. I may have missed it, but I didn't catch what she thought of the fact that they're using a pirated version of the software.

Vande Velde's greatest strength is her attention to detail. She has plotted out the game in great depth. She structures the book in numerous short chapters that end in cliffhangers, as the characters encounter wizards, elves, trolls, orcs, goblins, and dragons, not to mention enchanted boots, sand hands, and giant rat zombies. The book kept me reading, with its fun blend of excitement and humor. (One example of the latter involves a dwarf who feels compelled to recite his entire genealogy any time someone asks his name.)

But the book compares poorly with Killobyte, which spent many pages in the real world, fleshing out its two main characters. User Unfriendly begins in the game itself and stays there until the very last few pages, without any flashbacks along the way. There are more than a half-dozen characters, all vaguely drawn. Arvin comes off as a typical teenager, embarrassed in front of his mom, eager to prove himself before his peers.

In Killobyte, the characters weren't just trying to win the game but were literally fighting for their lives. The stakes are lower in User Unfriendly. Because the game is pirated, some bugs and glitches appear, and the kids cannot exit the game prematurely. But the book bases a great deal of its plot around our vicarious experience of the game rather than anything more urgent.

The game itself is lacking in the qualities of computer adventures I mentioned before. Most of the time, the kids seem to be winging it, and their successes feel arbitrary. Again, Killobyte does a better job on this front, which is doubly impressive since Piers Anthony admits to having very little gaming experience.

In 2002, Vande Velde published Heir Apparent, about another game from the same company. It is narrated by a fourteen-year old girl named Giannine, who was a relatively minor character in the first book. It makes no mention of the events in User Unfriendly, and it may take place earlier. The front, inside, and back cover do not mention the older book at all.

Vande Velde writes on her website that she does not consider Heir Apparent a sequel, just a story taking place in the same universe. I have another theory. I think she was attempting to do User Unfriendly over again, but better. If so, she has succeeded. It improves on User Unfriendly in all the areas I mentioned.

For the first time, we get to see the world these kids occupy when they remove their VR helmets. In the first chapter, we encounter a robotic bus driver and a tiny, genetically engineered dragon. The setting can't be too far in the future, however, for we also see conventional-looking email, Windows Freecell, and a $50.00 gift certificate enabling Giannine to play a VR game of her choice. (By the time all this advanced technology exists, wouldn't fifty bucks be pocket change? Never mind.) She chooses a medieval fantasy about a peasant girl who becomes king. The session will last thirty minutes but will feel like three days. The catch is that any time her character dies, she will have to start over from the beginning, which she can do indefinitely.

That reminds me of the old Atari game Pitfall II. Possibly compensating for the fact that the original Pitfall was almost unwinnable, Pitfall II was made literally unlosable. Any time you'd get hit by an enemy, you'd merely be transported back to the last red cross you touched. The only way to end the game without winning was by turning off the computer. In the VR game depicted in Heir Apparent, however, you cannot just turn off the machine, or leave it sitting and come back to it later. You're stuck until you win the game or a technician pulls you out. That's practically asking for trouble.

The trouble comes in the form of an activist group called Citizens to Protect Our Children, or CPOC (pronounced "sea pock"), who feel that VR games are corrupting the youth. To show just how concerned they are for the children's welfare, they break into the arcade and sabotage the equipment. The problem is, Giannine is already hooked up to the game.

A technician briefly enters the virtual world to inform her that if they detach the equipment, she may suffer brain damage. But if she stays hooked up for too long, her brain will surely fry. All she has to do is win the damn game--and avoid getting killed too many times.

Easier said than done. The game is set up so that that there are many ways to succeed, and a lot more ways to fail. At first, it seems that every time she stumbles, a character pulls out a knife and slaughters her. Then she finds herself back on the sheep farm at the beginning, where she has to do the whole game over again. This aspect of the novel has an intriguing Groundhog Day vibe to it, as she meets the same characters in a host of different situations that change depending on all the little choices she makes.

There is, for example, a boy caught by guards who claim he stole a deer. The evidence is lacking, and Giannine has no desire to sanction the boy's execution, even though he is only computer-generated. But if she simply frees him, more problems will occur.

The technician gives her only two clues on how to win the game: find a magic ring, and keep a weird, mystic nun away from Kenric, one of Giannine's three half-brothers vying for the throne. (The nun, who seems to worship Oneness rather than God, is made nondenominational by the game's manufacturer so as "not to offend anyone.") Among the many challenges she faces is a knight who will chop her head off if she does not create a poem he likes. The poem can be absolutely inane, so long as it's original.

Unlike User Unfriendly, she is the only real person in the game--the rest of the characters are computer-generated. But they all have personalities, and they seem able to carry on nuanced, naturalistic conversations. I presume they're simply responding to cues in her speech, but the effect is quite convincing.

One way or another, I enjoyed the book much more than User Unfriendly. The game is still not much like the computer adventures I remember as a kid. It's ten times better! Maybe that's the point of books like these, to depict games we wish we could play, but which exist only in the author's wildest imagination.

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