I haven’t been reviewing as much for SFCrowsnest this year. Too busy writing all the things. This one really is my kind of book, though, so I wanted to share my review here.
Alexis Hall is one of my favourite authors. His Prosperity series is some of the best and weirdest steampunk I’ve ever read. He’s also an avid gamer, so when I heard he had a nerdy gaming book coming out, I pre-ordered.
The title of his new novel is Looking for Group, which is a phrase rife with anticipation. Some of the highlights of my World Of Warcraft and other MMORPG years were finding that perfect group. The team of four or eight (or forty) who seamlessly work together from the first fight to the last and is able to portion out the loot with rationality and respect. There is nothing more satisfying than being part of a perfectly aligned machine, with every cog not only knowing its role, but being confident in it. Even when the fight is more than a statistical gamble and, impossibly, the last surviving party member downs the boss while clinging to 0.001% health.
Then there are the groups that make up the other 95% of the gaming experience. The unbalanced and the ridiculous. The random disconnects, the rogues who think it’s all about DPS, healers who don’t know how to heal, the poorly geared tank, the guy who thinks he’s the only one in the group and so on. Yet, even after yelling at the monitor for thirty minutes to an hour or longer, when the instance fades, you’re queuing back up for another go at it. Why? Well, it’s fun in an oddly delusional way. And, as with any skilled activity, there is the high to be gained from a perfect score. The rush when chance actually works in your favour is very addictive. Or maybe you’re just after the axe that will complete your set, making you the best geared tank on the server.
Drew rage quits his old ‘Heroes Of Legend’ guild, Annihilation, over a failed loot roll for that damned axe and goes looking for a new group to raid with. He finds it in the form of a guild called Same Crit, Different Day. In the company of a more relaxed group, he is able to gain a new perspective on the game he’s been playing for three years. Instead of faffing about on his own, completing dailies, checking auctions, farming whatever he needs for the next raid, raiding, then preparing for the next raid, he’s…fishing. Sitting on the top of a half-submerged ruin at the far end of a zone hardly anyone ever quests in, plunking a virtual rod into virtual water and talking to a guild mate. And it’s fun. The flight there stirred that sense most of us lose after existing in a virtual world for several years: the wow factor as we first marvel at the scope of these maps and quests, appreciation for the love someone put into designing a single cavern or an entire zone, the game mechanics we take for granted and the fact there are real people behind every avatar.
I’m an intrepid gamer, meaning I will sail to the far corner of every map, attempt to scale every peak and usually achieve whatever explorer achievement there is before getting much of anywhere with the main quest. I die a lot. But even after playing a game for months or years, I never lose that sense of wonder. I still snap screen shots of everything: the view from the top of that impossible peak or super rare shield I found buried at the end of the world. I also used to win the fishing contest on my WoW server every week. I had more Arcanite Fishing Poles than I knew what to do with.
Drew finds more than a new enthusiasm for ‘Heroes Of Legend’. He’s making new friends and maybe falling for the sassy elf who keeps inviting him fishing. As he spends more time on-line, however, his university friends begin to worry he’s losing his perspective on how the real world operates. There’s also the question of who is behind the avatar. Is the sassy elf girl actually played by a girl or a middle-aged man with a wife and two kids?
Here, Alexis Hall plays with the questions and answers that aren’t as unique to the current generation or two as they might think. Do the people we meet on-line count as real friends? Can we fall in love with someone we’ve never met? What happens when the face behind the avatar isn’t quite what we expected? Is there a need for balance between virtual and real world endeavours or has this new world, the one all of our children seem slavishly devoted to, a boon for those of us who might not have been able to make as many friends otherwise? The shy and socially awkward. The nerds.
I met my husband playing an on-line role playing game. For the first few months of our friendship, he was an evil, winged horse and I a not-quite-innocent spy for a not-quite-good king. He was our nemesis and we were plotting to steal his kingdom. You can’t put that much time into building stories with someone while pretending to be otherworldly creatures and not get to know them…sometimes very well. About half of my friends are people I’ve never met or people I originally met farming primals in Azshara. So I get the whole on-line friendship thing. I know that behind every avatar is another human being, many of them as anxious about the face they’re showing the world, however disguised, as I am. I know that attraction can form out of something that’s not physical.
On the other hand, I’m a parent and worry about the time my daughter spends with her on-line friends. A part of me thinks she should be socialising more in the ‘real world’. Then I hear her laughing and sharing stories about her day. I hear her arguing with three other kids about the rules for their ‘Steven Universe’ role play. They show their art to each other and talk about their college choices. They exchange recipes. They listen to one another when someone needs an ear. They’re…friends. Good friends. When my daughter is old enough to travel on her own, she’ll have someone to visit in California, England and France. They’re like pen pals, only mostly more reliable. They’re like distant cousins who only know one another through letters. They are random instances of friendship and people who have chosen to be together.
So, back to the book. This is a review, after all. The sassy elf is not played by a girl. She is not she played by a middle-aged man. She’s played by a guy about Drew’s age who is attending a neighbouring university. It’s a surprise, definitely. But what Drew does about it forms another of my favourite bits in the book. (There aren’t actually any bits I didn’t like, except maybe that the story comes to an end and the intense craving to sign back into WoW after a six year hiatus.)
Drew is shocked at first. Hurt and feeling a little betrayed or played. After a time, however, and some advice from his friends, he has to admit he knew this would be a possibility. Yet he forged ahead anyway. He flirted. He invited the friendship and more. What I love about his attitude is not only the tolerance factor and the fact Drew is open to exploring his sexuality, but the transparency of his thoughts here. That, while he feels a bit weird falling for a guy, he admits he might have known what he was doing all along.
That’s an important part of friendships that form on-line. The fact you might be fooled. It’s no different from the way we form friendships off-line, however. People often cannot be taken at face value. Drew already knows the player of this elf better than he might have had he picked him up in a bar. They’ve already shared a significant amount of time together. They’ve clicked.
After that, the story veers into the figuring out the relationship territory, but never loses focus on the main event, which is Drew figuring out himself. Along the way, Same Crit, Different Day completes several raids, and reading about them is a lot of fun. I remembered the excitement of doing a dungeon with a group of friends. The highs and the lows. The story also includes evenings with uni-friends spent arguing over board games, and a twenty-four hour ‘Batman’ movie marathon. Seriously, this was like reading my life in a book, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. I understood all the lingo and had a ready argument for every gaming conversation. In fact, I hadn’t realised how much of a gamer geek I really was until I kept getting the jokes.
If you’re not a gamer, this book might lose you on the first page. There are a lot of chat logs and gaming references that might only make sense to someone who has played an MMO. For me, these blended seamlessly with the story. They were an integral part and definitely gave the feel of being in the game or at least experiencing life right alongside Drew. The romance aspect is very sweet and mostly innocent as this is not a sexy book, which fits the theme perfectly. The story is about more than who you might meet on-line. It’s about how these experiences are now a part of our lives. More, though, the book is about the love of the game. All games. About the people who love the game and why games are so important to us. Highly recommended.
Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.