The Internet has been, as Chico Escuela would say, very very good to me — but still, as a general rule, I’ve never had much patience for any kind of computer-themed or virtual reality-based entertainment. I maintain that this is because most of it falls somewhere between the 1995 Sandra Bullock train wreck The Net and Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk in terms of quality, but I’m also man enough to admit that there’s a certain amount of geek-fic prejudice in there — so imagine my surprise when I found myself thoroughly engrossed in Tim Etchells’ The Broken World.
On its face, it doesn’t seem to have the makings of a successful book — it has an anonymous, not terribly likable narrator, and consists of blog entries posted as a walkthrough for the vast (fictional) game from which The Broken World takes its title — but Etchells ends up pulling it (mostly) out of the bag anyway. Even though his narrator isn’t terribly bright or motivated about anything other than the game, Etchells has a knack for pacing — the chapters are short and fast-moving, pulling the reader easily into the story, which quickly moves from the game into “real life” and back again. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the lines between the two start to blur after a bit — but not in the way you’d probably expect.
Etchells’ other ace in the hole is his terrifically detailed vision for the game — the walkthrough delves into level after wonderfully imaginative level, including a few that made me want to play it, and I haven’t gotten into a game since the N64 version of GoldenEye. His narrator might be a slacker in a dead-end job, but as you get wrapped up in the book, you can understand why he finds it so hard to pull away from the Broken World. For a freeloading pizza shop worker, he shows surprising flashes of insight, and as the book wears on, you can’t help but root for him to win…or whatever it is he’s trying to do.
In the end, that last bit is the book’s Achilles heel — for me, anyway, it was difficult to determine what the point of the whole thing was supposed to be; Etchells nails the first two acts, but he doesn’t stick the landing. Without spoiling any storyline details, The Broken World‘s conclusion left me feeling underwhelmed — and then, after further reflection, a little annoyed. Still, the first 90 percent proved to be unexpectedly addictive, and if you’re a more forgiving reader than I am, the ending might not be as much of an issue — and either way, you’re likely to find this a charming and impressively original first-time effort. Now when’s that game coming out?