After four months and two push-backs of the release date, I finally received my copy of Yahtzee Croshaw’s book Mogworld. It’s a miracle.
It’s a well-established fact that I love Croshaw’s work. Thus, I really hoped that the book was going to be good, but I fully expected it to suck. After all, Croshaw’s work has been exclusively in the short-format humor piece, which can tear a bit when moving on to the longer format. But I really did want him to be successful. Well, I read it over the weekend, and it was pretty good.
Not fantastic, but pretty good. But I’m jumping ahead.
Mogworld revolves around Jim, a recently resurrected mage that finds himself as a NPC in a futuristic MMORPG where the AI has been given free will. But enough reading off the Amazon blurb; in a nutshell Jim wants to die, but can’t. Many have described Jim as the one person in Mogworld that is “self-aware”, but most of the characters seem to recognize that something is off, so I don’t think that it really applies.
Whether a story can be carried by humor alone is a question that has been posed again and again, one that I can answer by a offhand gesture at Douglas Adams. Crowshaw’s story’s strengths run parallel as Adams, Asprin, and so on. Not on the same level, mind you, fuck no. But the general idea is there. And the humor is well done, but you should already know that. Calling the humor good is like saying that reading Nietzsche will turn you into a prick for a month. And it’s a good thing that the jokes are great, because as a sci-fi/fantasy story it’s actually pretty horrible.
The biggest issue that the story fumbles with is the characters. Ironically, a man that always harps on the value of good characterization created a story with very static characters. That’s not to say that they’re flat, quite to the contrary, there’s quite a few interesting folks to be found. However, the characters never change, or if they do then it’s done in a very rough way. Most of the changes are in the very last part of the story, and the alteration is drastic when it doesn’t need to be. Gone are subtle alterations of characters throughout the fairly long story, it’s just “push button to dispense dynamics”. For example, without revealing too much, there’s one character at the end who ends up revealing a major personality trait that he kept hidden from everyone by acting the opposite. It would have been nice for this character to hint at this fact throughout the story, perhaps by subtly using other people to ultimately achieve his goal, but no. It’s just thrown out there in a way that borders on deus ex machina. This is not good character dynamics.
Which brings me to the second characterization problem: the motivations. Jim wants to die, that’s said again and again. But there’s really no motivations for any of the other characters in the story; they all seem to simply “go with the flow”. Yes, there is the idea that people want death to return, but why would they work with the main characters in particular? Because they are also immortal? Only a few people know the Big Secret and yet everyone seems to want to get involved with them. It’s odd.
The worst offenders are Jim’s traveling companions. They follow him wherever they go for reasons that I can only guess at, a combination of nostalgia and abandonment issues. Neither of them has any knowledge outside of the mundane “we are all undead”, so it’s not like they see Jim as a special person. And yet they seems to find him wherever he ends up, which strikes me as rather contrived. How is it that Jim keeps getting killed and thrown off into a far-off place, which creates a “new part of story starts here” barrier with an audible crash, and these two keep finding him? It gets rather contrived sometimes, but I could write it off as dedicated searching if they thought that Jim was The Chosen One or some other such nonsense. But they’re just tagging along, really, and probably are better off without him. And yet, they keep finding him like he has a undead-attracting magnet lodged in his brain. Really, they seem to be there simply to give Jim someone to talk to while wandering around, or more to the point someone to annoy him. They’re stock characters that could be easily written off, which is odd in a book with such a colorful cast. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if he left them behind in the first town. Of course, it could have been intentional that they are annoying to everyone around, but as Croshaw said, “intentionally annoying is still annoying!” (Okay, I get ONE quote. It’s relevant)!
So, in all, the characterization is horrid. However, the big concept of the book lies more in the setting than anything else, and that particular part is done incredibly well. The book asks and answers three questions: “How would a populace react when suddenly given the ability to ressurect indefinately?”, “What circumstances would lead to the environment that MMOs exist in?”, and “What role would PCs (player characters) play in such a world”? The entire situation is done in masterful satire, taking a microscope to the various facets of MMOs that we take for granted. For example: Imagine what a PC’s repetitive and exactly similar attacks would look like to a NPC. Stab slash stab slash, and so on. Of course, there’s the irony in that Crowshaw called out webcomics for taking game concepts and putting them in the real world, basically calling them pathetic excuses for humor, and then turns around and does the same thing in his book. But moving on.
I won’t delve deeper into the setting as the backdrop is the story and digging in would just be a big spoiler sandwich. Suffice to say that it’s brilliant and anyone who has played MMOs or even normal games would appreciate a lot of it, especially when they start breaking stuff.
Of course, that raises the big question: is it accessible to the layman, someone who has little-to-no gaming experience? My answer: eehhhh. I’d say that the first half of the book is definitely fine for anyone, but the later bits might come as a bit confusing for non-players, especially for some of the more subtle cracks at MMOs. You’d definitely need to know something about MMOs to fully appreciate the book, but it should be at least passable for non-gamers. How much information you’d need is up in the air, I’d say that if you have a passive understanding of the basic game mechanics then you should be fine.
Don’t get me wrong, Mogworld is a great book that kept me wanting to read farther just to see what happens next, something that hasn’t happened in quite a while.
If you read it and really want to enjoy it, then take the MST3K mantra under advisement: “It’s just a show, you should really just relax”. Treat it as a humor piece, not as a sci-fi novel, and you should really love it.