a review by Nalini Haynes
Walter Jon Williams’ This is not a game may not be a game but it is an epic science fiction thriller (gamer definition of epic, it is only 369 pages). Dagmar is the central character, a thirty something gamer who now runs Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) which are role playing games that bridge the computer/reality divide.
The story opens with Dagmar stranded in Jakarta during a military coup incited by a collapse of the country’s economy. Her story paints a vivid picture of every tourist’s nightmare, being trapped in a developing world during a revolt complete with lootings and shootings. Dagmar remains trapped as she watches other countries’ nationals being evacuated – everyone except Australians, whom Indonesia will not allow in because of poor relations over Timor, and the Americans (including Dagmar) because all US assets are in the Persian Gulf. Dagmar’s personal experience in Indonesia paves the way for the following story, where real life and an alternate reality game are skilfully blended together by the puppetmasters, but who is the real puppetmaster? There are enough twists and turns to confuse the reader, with the suspects narrowing during the course of the plot.
The people who will appreciate this book the most will be gamers, however non-gamers can bridge the cultural divide helped by the many movies and TV shows that have used this plot device previously. For the uninitiated, acronyms like ARG are explained, but I think MMORPG was not explained. An MMORPG is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, or an online game where you are a character in an unfolding storyline playing with other players (real people who are also online) and NPCs (Non-Player Characters, or characters that are part of the game and not played by real people). Examples of free to play MMORPGs are Allods, Dungeons and Dragons Online and Guild Wars. Lord of the Rings Online is currently pay to play but about to change to free to play, and other pay to play games include World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online. Playing any MMORPG is an experience in itself, which will add to the understanding and enjoyment of books such as This is not a Game and series such as The Guild. Anyone passingly familiar with the internet, email, forums and chat rooms should be fairly at home with most of the concepts in the book.
Other people who will get a kick out of this book are IT people, especially anyone who has worked on a help desk. If in any doubt, read the chapter ‘This is not the Bat Cave’ then you will be hooked. This is where the reader meets BJ, an underemployed computer geek working on an IT help desk (“Try restarting your computer”) who is a gold-farming ninja (a ninja is not a Japanese warrior, a ninja takes loot not rightfully his) to supplement his near minimum wage. The characterisation in these four pages alone was worthwhile reading. Many years ago I had a description of car engine from a future perspective (I think an excerpt from Heinlein’s Time for the Stars) stuck on my toilet wall. I might reinstate that tradition just for this chapter!
I thoroughly enjoyed This is not a game, reading it nearly in one sitting. It was a roller coaster ride with twists and turns, and although I quickly narrowed down the likely suspects for puppetmaster, I was never quite sure until the close of the book. A recommended read.
This review was previously published in Dark Matter issue 1, October 2010, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.