Author: Ursula Poznanski
Translator: Judith Pattinson
Published: First published 07 January 2010 by Loewe in German. This edition published 1 February 2012
Publisher: Annick Press
Genre: YA, mystery, thriller
My Rating: 6/10
Nick Dunmore’s classmates are acting strangely. His basketball teammates keep missing practice and a lot of students are staying home sick or look like they’ve been up all night. They’re all being very secretive about their behaviour, including Nick’s friend Colin who shuns Nick but is seen sucking up to two boys who are so uncool Nick calls them “The Freaks”. It’s all got something to do with a DVD that’s being passed among the students. Those who have it refuse to talk about it, and Nick – a popular jock – can’t understand why he’s being left out. When he finally gets his hands on a copy he finds that it’s an amazingly realistic multi-player online fantasy role-playing game called Erebos.
The game has weird rules. Always play alone. “Never mention your real name in the game. Never mention the name of your character outside the game.” Never speak about the content of the game to other players or post information on the internet. Don’t copy the DVD unless instructed. The strangest rule of all, is that players only have one chance to play – if they die or break any of the rules, it’s over and they cannot play again.
Like all those who started playing before him, Nick finds the game highly addictive, so when the Erebos starts giving him instructions to do things in the real world – like picking up a package in one location and dropping it off in another – he complies just to keep playing. But the instructions get increasingly demanding, and eventually Nick fails to comply and is banished. It’s only then that he starts to ask the important questions – why does Erebos make people do things outside of the game? What is the purpose of all those strange, restrictive rules? And who is benefitting from it?
I love the idea behind Erebos, but I had a few issues with the novel, mostly involving the game itself. Firstly, it’s way too sophisticated. Yes, it’s supposed to be a revolutionary piece of programming, but it’s still a PC game and that imposes certain limits on how realistic it can be. I can just about accept that the game allows players to aim their weapons at certain body parts while fighting. For example, during one of his first fights Nick tries to disable a troll by cutting the tendons in its legs. I can also accept that accurate and detailed wounds are inflicted on players and monsters, so that when Nick stabs the troll in the leg he can actually see the wound he made and watch the blood running out of it, and he can also see that his avatar’s shoulder is bleeding where the troll’s weapon hit it. As far as I know this isn’t possible in any game at the moment, but Erebos is special. Fine.
However, it goes too far. Some movements are just too subtle, such as when “Sarius feels for the sword at his belt”, touches an object “very cautiously” and then puts it in his inventory “[w]ith the greatest care” or when a barbarian named Bloodwork “straightens up a bit and reaches for his ax, but then… seems to reconsider”. Exactly what keys would you use to perform these kinds of movements? Is it even worth it to programme that in?
The problem here, I think, is that the author is writing in a way that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. Nick doesn’t just have an avatar named Sarius – in his mind he IS Sarius. The narrative doesn’t speak about Nick manipulating his keyboard controls to make Sarius run, jump and fight; rather, the perspective switches so that everything is seen from Sarius’s point of view, and he even talks about Nick as though he were another person.
This is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s a rather nice tactic that gives you a sense of how immersed in the game Nick is. The problem is that Poznanski seems to forget, at times, that parts of the narrative are in a game world and consequently it becomes so realistic that it’s actually implausible.
But even if I could accept that level of sophistication in the game, I still struggled to believe that it was as addictive and controlling as the narrative requires you to believe. On the contrary, it seems boring and frustrating much of the time. At the start, for example, the player runs around in a forest with nothing to do and no clear goals until he or she stumbles across a man who then provides directions. For one player, this takes 20 minutes and it could easily take much longer. There’s no tutorial teaching players how to manoeuvre, and although experienced gamers like Nick would manage to find their way, it must be extremely frustrating for anyone to play by trial and error. Non-gamers would have been baffled and unlikely to continue. After all, they’re playing on PCs with a whole keyboard to figure out, rather than the more limited and user-friendly controllers of an Xbox or Playstation. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that such a large number of players made it through the tedious first stage.
The gameplay also lacks many of the features that I find appealing and motivating in RPGs (although I have to admit I haven’t played any of the online versions). Firstly, it’s too restricted. You can’t improve your skills or raise your level in normal gameplay. You can’t run around raiding tombs, caves, ruins, etc. for treasure because there isn’t much lying around. These things are almost entirely dependent on the messenger – a gaunt, yellow-eyed figure riding a giant armoured horse. If players fulfil their real-world instructions or fight well in battle, the messenger will reward them with gold, armour or weapons, or by raising their level or improving their skills. The only other way to raise your level is by ‘winning’ levels from players when fighting them in Arena battles. However, players are forbidden from fighting each other outside of the Arena, so that option isn’t always available.
Missions and real-world tasks also come from the messenger, with the result that there’s not much to do if he doesn’t give you something specific to do. Players spend a lot of down-time having online chats around a fire. However, they’re can only chat where there’s a campfire, they’re only allowed to light fires when the messenger gives them permission to do so, and their conversations are highly restricted by the rules of the game. Fun.
Seriously, I can’t understand why everyone goes nuts over this. Yes, it’s unbelievably realistic, but when Nick talks about why he loves the game he doesn’t talk about the graphics and the controls, he talks about the fighting and campfire chats. If that’s what he wants, I thought, why doesn’t he just play World of Warcraft?
Now, if you find it hard to believe that Erebos is such an addictive game, it then becomes equally hard to believe that players allow it to manipulate them in the real world, especially when they’re given instructions to do things that are illegal or come at significant personal cost. I also felt that the gameplay bogged down the narrative. The first half of the novel is a tad slow, and much of it is spent within Erebos as Nick/Sarius fights monsters, pits his skills against other players in the Arena, or has chats around a campfire.
Onces he fails to complete a real-world task and gets banished from the game however, the pace really picks up and the novel becomes a proper, exciting thriller. Nick and others start asking serious questions about the game and investigate its real-world significance. It’s also only in the last quarter of the novel that I started to warm to Nick, who wasn’t the most likeable of characters. He’s got the arrogance and cruelty of the stereotypical popular jock, and when he starts playing he becomes just as much of an asshole as the other players who got addicted to Erebos. When his best-friend Jamie expresses concern about him, he reacts with anger. However, I’d say there’s a purpose to Nick acting like such a dick – he gives us an idea of the effect that playing Erebos can have on people. They become extremely defensive and secretive about the game, and thoughtlessly hurt their own friends in the process. Their lives are consumed by the need to play, and they begin to destroy their own lives and relationships in the process. A comment on gaming in general perhaps?
Anyway, as I said, the narrative ensures that Nick becomes a nicer guy towards the end, so in general the second half of the book left me with much more positive feelings than the first half. Overall, I found Erebos to be a decent read, with some disappointing aspects. I’m curious as to what other gamers would think of it. On the one hand, the game-based plot makes them the obvious target audience, but gamers are also more likely to be critical of the game itself, as I was. Perhaps its better enjoyed as a mystery/thriller than a book about a game.