Entertainment focused on our favourite type of entertainment
01 Constellation Games
This is intelligent and sharply funny first-contact sci-fi in its own right, and yet the real draw is not the arrival of aliens on Earth, but that they come bringing 20,000 years of extraterrestrial games with them. The hero’s capsule reviews of oddities like Recapture That Remarkable Taste are magically vivid, inventive and engaging, leaving you with a powerful longing to get your hands on the ‘Brain Embryo’ console that plays them. And human games benefit from Richardson’s masterful writing too, most notably in a bemused alien’s hilariously confused attempt to understand a virtual pony game.
02 For The Win
If you’re familiar with Doctorow, you won’t be surprised by the techno-utopian thread running through this novel for teens. He imagines vast MMOGs (run by Coca-Cola, Mad Magazine and Nintendo) uniting exploited young gold farmers into a globe-spanning virtual union, sparking real-world unrest. Yes, a character does at one point yell, “This isn’t a game!” It’s gripping, even as conversations between 14-year-olds jarringly become anticapitalist polemics, and the games themselves – including a tantalising mech MMOG that’s half Titanfall, half Power Rangers – get left behind.
03 Ghost In The Machine Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh (editors)
A suitably haunting collection of short stories that give voice and emotion to the characters we control. There’s fun in figuring out the game references – Animal Crossing is painted not so much as a wild world as a strangely sad one. And while not every tale is a success, Andrew Vanden Bossche’s Good Losers Are Pretty will stay with you, dreamily imagining a Famicom addon that brings characters out of the cart and into real life, with the bittersweet idea of a Mario who leapt out into the world but then “jumped away into the mountains… and was never seen again”.
04 Lucky Wander Boy
It’s almost a shame Weiss has his hands full with HBO’s Game Of Thrones (he’s the co-creator), because here he exhibited a rare talent for writing authentically about fictional videogames. The Lucky Wander Boy coin-op at the novel’s heart is captivatingly eerie, its memory gradually unhinging protagonist Adam Pennyman (whose writeups of ’80s games in his Catalogue Of Obsolete Entertainments are knowingly and hilariously overwrought). Weiss manages to invoke the dreamlike quality of half-remembered childhood gaming, and how our imagination fills the space beyond a game’s visible world.
05 Ready Player One
This is what you’d get if you could capture in book form the gabbled fantasies of an ’80s kid on a sugar rush. The Roald Dahl-esque plot, wherein a rich developer promises his fortune to the winner of a treasure hunt
inside a Second Life- esque MMOG called OASIS, sends the young hero on quest through virtualised ’80s culture where game knowledge handily conquers all. It’s absurd – at one point, he’s playing a game, playing Matthew Broderick in WarGames, playing Galaga – and the rules of OASIS become increasingly inconsistent as avatars wage war with a malevolent Internet service provider, but fun nonetheless.
You has a Capy-designed
Superbrothers cover and is written by an author who helped create System Shock, but savvy readers might wince as games are described like a Star Trek holodeck, and save files from a 1983 Roguelike are effortlessly loaded into a 1997 space strategy game. It’s worth sticking with, though: Grossman cleverly weaves industry history and developer lore into the tale of a game producer tracing a strange bug through his company’s games – a bug that manifests chillingly as a sentient NPC in one of the book’s best bits. Take this advice, though: skip the dream sequences.
Bedlam’s better than your average purveyor of the trapped-in-a-game trope, because the protagonist is dragged around a gaming multiverse where ’90s FPSes, Jet Set Willy and Assassin’s Creed coexist. The jokes ease up halfway through, and then it barrels along nicely towards an unexpectedly affecting finish.
08 Coin Opera 2 Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone (editors)
Treasure this rare sighting of the lesser-spotted game poetry collection, not least for its playfulness: poems are written entirely in Play Station symbols or blossom into Peggle’s colour scheme. The games and approaches are pleasingly varied – Doomdark’s Revenge and Samorost sit alongside more mainstream choices – and there’s a fun experiment in ‘twoplayer’ poems.
09 Halting State
In near-future Scotland, AR headsets and ARGs are everywhere, and MMOG economies are a magnet for real-life crime. More about virtual worlds than games, but absorbing if you can keep up with Stross’s usual crush of jargon, and an exponentially ridiculous plot curve that goes from fantasy bank heist to global clandestine surveillance network in about 150 pages.
A coming-of-age drama set in 1982: two Canadian siblings shed their innocence against the backdrop of the golden age of arcades. Schultz wanted to “mimic the movement and imagery of games”, but in fact it’s the deliberate, almost dreamlike detail that stands out. The games, though they come relatively rarely, are described with a literariness and poignancy that lingers.
Zero Punctuation’s Croshaw mashes Terry Pratchett’s dry wit with Douglas Adam’s freewheeling chaos when an undead zombie discovers his world is all just a game. Mogworld’s awash with sardonic nods to MMOG conventions, and Croshaw takes full advantage of the impermanence of game death to put his poor characters through a grimly funny series of slapstick ends.
12 Piranha Frenzy
Veteran game journalist Campbell has clearly built up a head of steam about his industry – this eviscerates the game media, while also satirising the ugly parts of every side of gaming in a way that foreshadowed many recent controversies. Between the fanboys, developers, marketers and media, no one comes out of this looking good.