Video games seem to be undergoing something of a makeover in popular culture at the moment. While previously viewed to be the preserve of anti-social spotty teenagers who are just a hair’s breadth away from shooting up their high-school, there seems to be a shift in this perception. While traditional media outlets still insist on marginalising video games, through allocating tiny sections of their publications to lip service reviews of video games, the rest of the culture seems to be catching on to the significance of this exciting and revolutionary young medium a little faster.
Evidence of this may be seen in Disney’s latest 3D animation Wreck-it Ralph, which moves away from the horrible concept of the video game script adapted for the big screen such as the Resident Evil series or the abomination that was the Streetfighter live action movie. Rather than bastardise an existing video game story Wreck-it Ralph serves up an original script using video games and their characters to create original premises. Crime novel writer Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel and first foray in Sci-Fi, Bedlam continues and expands upon this trend.
Bedlam tells the story of scientist Ross Baker, an everyman type character who is working for an ethically dubious tech company named Neurosphere. Undervalued by his colleagues and facing difficulties in his relationship, Ross is dissatisfied with his lot in life. Upon volunteering as a guinea pig in order to help a colleague test a revolutionary new medical scanner, Ross finds himself transported to a strange world which he somehow finds familiar. On top of this he is inhabiting the body of a monstrous cyborg, and a war is raging all around him. A little investigation soon reveals that Ross is trapped inside Starfire, a first person shooter videogame he played obsessively in his teenage years.
The twist is that this time he is participating in the game as one of the villains, rather than as the square-jawed hero. Ross must learn what has happened to him and try to figure out a way back home as well as dealing with the existential questions his plight throws up. If Ross is fully conscious inside a video game what does this say about his previous presumptions about reality? With his certainties about the nature of reality shaken, Ross becomes fixated on a sophistic proposition he read many years ago in Philosophy Quarterly. The proposition forwarded by professor Nick Bostrom states one of the following must be true: “ One: The chances of a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small. Two: Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours. Three: You are almost certainly in a simulation.”
Without giving too much away Brookmyre expands his concept to include the multiple video game universes which will be familiar to gamers. Brookmyre treats the subject of video games with the affectionate humour of a fan unafraid to point out the more absurd aspects of the medium. For instance, early on Ross is frustrated to find that he can’t simply pick up the more powerful weapons possessed by his opponents as it is not the correct stage of the game for him to possess such potent weaponry. Fun is also made of Non Player Characters, or NPC’s as they are called in gamer lingo, difficulty in negotiating doors. While not hilarious to the casual reader, any gamer will immediately recognise these familiar frustrations and smile. As a Skyrim fan I laughed aloud when an adventurer complained about an “arrow to the knee”.
Brookmyre also plays with notions of nationality and how they conflict with the generally default cheesy American accent of most video game protagonists played by English-speaking gamers. When speaking to video game characters that are space marines, the Scottish Ross must speak fluent macho ‘videogamese’, or as Brookmyre puts it, “he had to give it the right ring of authentically macho bollocks so that they would grasp the situation quickly. ‘The fight back starts here,’ Ross said, dropping his voice an octave… It sounded pretty good, and the looks on their faces suggested his tone had hit that sweet spot somewhere between Jesus and arrogant wanker that Americans seemed to respond to so well.”
Bedlam is written by an author who seems to have a genuine affection for the medium of video games. While pointing out some of the current flaws inherent in game-worlds, due to technical limitations, Brookmyre never looks down on or patronises the world of games and gamers. Instead he seems alert to the possibilities of a medium still in its infancy. Bedlam is, above all things fun to read. Brookmyre has a combative sense of humour which works well within his fish out of water premise. My only reservations would be whether a non-gamer would enjoy the novel as much as I did, given the amount of video game based in jokes present in the world Brookmyre has created. The novel is the first in a trilogy but is satisfactorily self-contained and avoids leaving story threads hanging.
There is also a tie-in video game published by Red Bedlam studios scheduled for release soon, the quality of which remains to be seen given the previous dire history of writer/video game maker cross overs. Perhaps this time we should have faith. Brookmyre has successfully created the world’s first video game tie-in novel which isn’t a steaming pile of crap so maybe Red Bedlam can rise to the challenge and create something a bit special. I have included a link to the Nick Bostrom proposition mentioned in the novel below if anyone is interested: