This Is Not A Game, Walter Jon Williams' new novel, shows how "reality" and Alternate Reality Games blend and become more and more indistinguishable - just as our culture, money and society melt down. Spoilers...
With so many science fiction writers working on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) nowadays, it's not surprising that Walter Jon Williams has written an ARG novel. (In the acknowledgements, he mentions something about playing poker with some of the most prominent SF writers who also create ARGs, including Maureen McHugh and Sean Stewart. (ARGs are sort of like role-playing games which take place in the "real" world, and involve websites to a large extent. Most big SF movies and TV shows now seem to have ARGs, involving made-up companies and fabricated conspiracies.)
In Not A Game, we follow Dagmar, who is a "puppetmaster" for a series of super-popular ARGs, which serve to promote various virtual worlds or other products. Dagmar is very good at manipulating thousands, or even millions, of players into buying into her made-up worlds, sympathizing with her fictional protagonists and jumping through tons of hoops.
At the start of the novel, Dagmar is traveling in Asia and she gets trapped in Jakarta as the Indonesian government basically falls apart. The city is being looted, the cops desert their posts, and the army lets it happen. Thugs and gangs take over the city, and nobody is safe. Some foreign nationals are evacuated, but not Americans, because the U.S. government is too tied up in the Persian Gulf to do anything. So Dagmar is trapped in her hotel and waiting until the looters reach her.
Luckily, she still has internet access, which means she can contact the small army of hardcore gamers who take part in her ARGs. They're good at solving problems, and they have tons of social connections all over the world. The only problem is: will they think Dagmar's real-life situation is just make believe, part of yet another ARG?
The ARG gamers struggle with the boundary between fiction and real-life, while Dagmar's situation gets ever more perilous. A nearby hotel burns to a cinder, killing everyone inside, and then thugs get inside Dagmar's own hotel and start tearing it apart bit by bit.
The first 100 pages of Williams' book, dealing with Dagmar's Jakarta nightmare and the ways in which it intersects with a world of fabricated adventures, are breathtaking and thought-provoking. Even as Dagmar fights for her life, she can't stop thinking about how to turn her experiences into an actual ARG. We learn more about how ARGs work, and how people get drawn into caring about these elaborate fantasies. The ARG people get drawn into helping Dagmar, even as they're also creating fanfic about her plight:
This game is amazing. How did Great Big Idea get the Indonesian government to cooperate with all this?
Yah, right. My guess is the setup is something like this: we get 200 points for getting Dagmar out of Jakarta to someplace safer, 500 points if we get her out of Indonesia entirely, and 1000 points for Total World Domination.
You're joking, right?
Hanseatic, this really isn't a game.
Maybe yes, maybe no. But what difference does it make?
After the bravura first 100 pages, the novel takes some very sharp left turns and the storyline becomes much more muddled. There's a murder mystery, which is solved awfully quickly, and then we discover a deeper mystery behind that. Most of it works pretty well, but the middle section of the novel feels like a letdown after the strong opening.
Luckily, it picks up speed again in the final chapters, as we discover that Dagmar is not the only one who's a self-appointed "puppetmaster." Her boss, Charlie, keeps making more and more unreasonable demands on the ARG she's creating, and this forces her to keep rewriting the storyline. The ARG gets twistier and twistier, and real life starts intruding more and more, to the point where a fictional terrorist plot is intertwined with the activities of a real serial killer, and almost nobody can tell them apart. Meanwhile, Indonesia's collapse turns out to be connected, in an unexpected way, to the events in the rest of the book, and now the same thing threatens to happen to every other country, including the United States.
It turns out that the really, really great players of games have the capacity to win so big, they can destroy the whole fabric of capitalism and society. After all, money is just a convenient fiction that we all agree to believe in - just like the weird packages and shiny websites that make up most ARGs. Ditto for society, and culture. In the end, it's all just a game, albeit more longstanding than most ARGs, and with deeper backstory.
Where Williams' book really shines is in showing how the ARG community really does become a community, with its own rituals, its own rules and its own pariahs. (One guy in particular, known as "Joe Clever," tries to win ARGs by dumpster-diving and spying on the puppetmasters, and he becomes a major part of the book's plot.) The ARG world starts to feel cohesive, like a real society.
Bottom line: I'd say the first 100 pages of Game feel like one of the best novellas I've ever read. And then the rest of the book extends that storyline outwards, with mixed, but mostly great, results. Williams asks some tough questions about the boundary between games and reality, and shows how in the end, the only thing we can be sure is real is the communities we create, and the games we play together. [Amazon]