Tow Books, 2008, 238 pages, C$14.95 pb, ISBN 978-1-58297-534-4
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Christopher Monks’ The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, except that it was sitting cheap on the remainder cart, was billed as humor and anything with a subtitle like “The Video Game as Existential Metaphor” interests me. Flipping through the book showed a few cute illustrations; what else could I hope for? Life’s hard enough –don’t we all need a comforting walkthrough?
For a while, though, it looked as if I may have made an error in picking up the book. The first few pages are a tough slog, as the game/life metaphor initially fails to gel, and the putative protagonist of the walkthrough hasn’t yet been developed enough to sustain the comic narrative that later emerges. There are a few good lines about you, the baby, not yet being too sure about “mom’s friend”, and how the game’s control at this early stage aren’t just unlabeled but don’t do the same thing. Still, the first chapter seems like a fairly conventional way to talk about infants and toddlers. Where’s the substance?
Things show some clear improvement in Level II (“Your Childhood”) as the rules and complex meta-fictional devices of the narrative start settling down. Suddenly, the life being described becomes a story of sorts, with recurring characters emerging through the successive narratives (that darn Dennis!). By Challenge Eight (“Losing your sister at the Huddy Sizzlebolt Happy! Fun! Learn! Show!”), the book loosens up and finally benefits from a protagonist old enough to have adventures and feature more darkly absurd material. By this time, we’re also becoming more familiar with the conventions of the book, as The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life isn’t just a gaming walk-through, but an unauthorized one that sometimes second-guesses what the designers were thinking.
Like life itself, the book reaches a certain narrative velocity as it hits the protagonist’s teenage years. Making it through high school is amusing, and the fun doesn’t stop by the time the character reaches college and then takes a job at the donut store. Hilarious bits include high school cliques, a memorable reunion with a high-school crush that somehow involves freeing minks, and using hostage crises at the donut shop as an advancement mechanism. There are also a few throwaway gags about an optional robot war. The first chunk of the early adulthood stage ends with the hero becoming a father…
…and without getting too personal, this is where the book sucker-punched me. You’d have to be at my place in life and read pages 169-172 to understand why. Maybe I suspected something in picking up the book.
Much of the rest of The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life seems to be downhill from that moment, as (and this is where the book’s existentialism becomes obvious) much of life also seems to be. Kicking back from the content of book for a moment to indulge in a bit of idle thoughts about video-gaming and life, there’s some wisdom in realizing that most people never get a satisfying dramatic arc; that lives go on after their main stories end, and that preparing another generation to play is the closest we’ll ever get to “winning the game”. No wonder new parents give up gaming… at least as they focus on something else.
Back to The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, it’s not much of a surprise if the last third of the book seems to turn grimmer as the end approaches. Despite the jocular consistency of the game’s challenge, it doesn’t take much of a subtext to cringe during the last challenge set in an Assisted Living Facility. As the line goes, “Old age isn’t for Sissies.” Appropriately enough (this isn’t a spoiler), the book ends at the end of the protagonist’s life… that is, Your Life.
One thing is for sure: I wasn’t expecting such a kick in the pants from a humour book making parallels between gaming and an ordinary life. It’s enough to make you sit quietly in a chair and ponder the meaning of it all. We all, I suppose, create our own mythological frameworks for what happens to us, and the future we can reasonably expect to have. At the moment, it’s a surprisingly effective tactic to draw upon the modern mythology of the age, video games, to tackle the question. Uneven but amazingly effective when it works, The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life is a memetic wolf in sheep’s trade binding. Open it carefully if you’re going through one of life’s big transitions.