Dark Horse, 2010, 413 pages, $7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59582-529-2
Our latest instalment in the “books I’m reviewing because they give me an excuse to talk about online stuff that I like” is Yahtzee Croshaw’s Mogworld, a humorous fantasy novel written by the creator of the Zero Punctuation weekly videogame reviews series. Executed as five-minute video-clips, Zero Punctuation distinguishes itself through an uncompromising sense of humour, a blistering pace, a cynical outlook on the nature of contemporary game development and an iconic visual style. While Mogworld can’t match the yellow visuals and punctuation-less vocal throughput of the videos, it does combine humour and a solid understanding of modern gaming narrative conventions to deliver a satisfying fantasy comedy.
The fact that the narrator (Jim, he of limited wizardry capabilities) dies at the end of the first chapter isn’t much of an impediment to adventure –especially when he’s resurrected at the beginning of Chapter Two. And again a few more times in the next few pages. Curiously enough, he seems to be resurrected every time he should stay dead, along with everyone else in that world. From that point on, Jim’s main goal in life is to die as permanently as possible. In his quest, he’ll end up making unlikely friends, traveling widely and discovering the true nature of his world.
While Mogworld waits a bit more than a hundred and fifty pages to reveal a connection between Jim’s problem and the issues faced by programmers working on a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), the back cover readily reveals it, so I’m not about to consider it a spoiler. In fact, Mogworld may work better if the reader understands from the get-go that Jim is a sentient character in a MMORPG: Part of the books’s charm is the way it plays the narrative conventions of a novel against those of a role-playing game: There is a lot of dramatic irony between what the character finds out and what we, as denizen of the twenty-first century, already know. In-passing, Croshaw gets to comment on the inherent power fantasies of MMORPGs and the storytelling compromises in trying to provide satisfying narratives to multiple players.
Does that mean that you already have to be a level-60+ World of Warcraft addict to enjoy Mogworld? Absolutely not: Heck, I have never played an MMPORG. In writing his debut novel, Croshaw shows a deft touch in balancing fantasy elements with humour so that fantasy genre readers can get to enjoy the story. The obvious touchstone of comic fantasy is Terry Pratchett, and so it’s almost obligatory to say that Mogworld does remind me of middle-period Pratchett novels in sending up fantasy conventions through judicious use of very dry British humour.
What’s more interesting from my reviewer’s point of view, however, is the kind of conceptual generational shift that fantasy novels such as Mogworld represent. It’s no secret that fantasy videogames trace their origins in fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, themselves heavily influenced by fantasy literature. Now here’s fantasy fiction influenced from fantasy videogames, which either completes the self-referential circle if you’re the fatalistic kind of pundit, or contributes to a renewal of fantasy tropes and archetype if you’re somewhat more hopeful about genre fiction. It will make optimists happy to note that Mogworld is the first prose novel published by comic-book publisher Dark Horse Books and, as such, represents a modest expansion of the market. I suspect that Mogworld will be read by a lot more gamers than traditional fantasy readers, which is another interesting development by itself.
Fortunately, the result itself is worth a read: Jim’s adventures are entertaining, and while the novel is meant to be funny, it’s not entirely too silly to lose its dramatic potential. There are a few good scenes, ideas and trope inversion in the book (it’s no accident if there’s a TV-Tropes page dedicated to Mogworld; warning, spoilers!) and the reading experience is pleasant. There’s even a little bit of real-world relevance in looking at how MMORPGs are created. Now, what about a second novel?