Monday, October 8, 2012

"Mogworld" by Yahtzee Croshaw

A couple of years ago Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame made the step into writing with the publication of his first novel, Mogworld. It's not the first novel he's ever written - you can see some early unpublished works on the old version of his website - but it's the first one he's had published and the first one since he became a celebrity outside the amateur adventure game community. With his second novel, Jam, on the way, I thought I'd re-read Mogworld and offer some thoughts.
Mogworld plays it safe. Yahtzee knows his readers are going to be geeks who watch Zero Punctuation, so he's written a novel which is both a fantasy and a satire on video games. Anyone who has read any particularly generic fantasy literature or played an online game like World of Warcraft will get many of Yahtzee's points straight away. With that in mind it's worth considering that Mogworld is possibly too safe. It tries to make a point about the genres which dominate what I might hesitantly call "geek culture" without being too alienating to a non-geek audience - if you've never played an online rpg or read fantasy before you probably still won't have too much trouble - and so a lot of what he writes about comes across as a little thin or underdeveloped. The main instances of this are that the plot takes a very, very long time to reach what is really quite a rushed conclusion, and the fact that the characterisation is limited and the setting is painted in strokes so broad that it doesn't necessarily grasp the imagination.
This causes the plot to in many ways feel very artificial and even dreamlike as basic characters float past vague backdrops through a series of improbable coincidences strung together in a rather predictable way. The protagonist is Jim, a recently-resurrected undead mage who believes that he was on the verge of a great spiritual revelation immediately following his death, and who is thus seeking to end his unnatural longevity. This ambition is frustrated by the Deleters, mysterious angelic beings who insistently return him to his body. What was given away from the off in promotional material about Mogworld and thus spoiled a good deal of the dramatic irony and surprise is that Jim's whole world is a completely procedurally-generated MMORPG whose history has been simulated to ensure a realistic setting for the video game. Having reached the level of development they sought, the game's developers have now halted death so that the game's NPCs and the player characters, who are all existing individuals in this computer-generated world, can continue in perpetuity. Jim is accompanied in his quest by Meryl, an airheaded undead girl, Thaddeus, an undead straw fundamentalist priest, and Slippery John, a thief who constantly refers to himself in the third person for unexplained reasons.
If you've read early Discworld or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you've encountered Mogworld's style of humour already - punning English words turned into foreign-sounding names, incompetent characters constantly getting into trouble and the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane. The necromancer who resurrects Jim and his companions, for instance, is an evil dark lord who lives in a "Doom Fortress" (one of Yahtzee's favourite phrases, I've noticed) who also happens to provide excellent job opportunities and is referred to like a well-loved executive in a corporation. The equally dangerous Baron Civious' wife talks like a cooing English matron. Melodramatic fantasy behaviour is always lampshaded or immediately undermined by something prosaic or stereotypically lower-class. The world is also built as an intentionally generic swords-and-sorcery environment in the vein of, say, Dungeons and Dragons or Conan the Barbarian. This would be enough if it hadn't been done a million times before; as it is it just feels like it's retreading ground already totalled by Terry Pratchett's first few Discworld novels and to me at least seemed stale and unambitious. The funniest moments in Mogworld derive from the characters, especially the game developers, and their interactions, not from crafting a deliberately silly universe. Jim is, similarly, a typical cowarldy, sneering, unlikeable comic-fantasy protagonist in the style of Rincewind from Discworld or perhaps Rimmer from Red Dwarf whose personal tragedy is constantly weighed against his misanthropy and arrogance. Indeed much of the characterisation of the core group, as well as the programmers, the villain Barry and his benefactor, the egotistical game developer Simon, fall rather heavily into the Red Dwarf or Blackadder zone of a group constrained for whatever reason to only interact with each other, which is effective for television but can't necessarily carry the narrative of a novel. It might explain why so much of the plot is a string of bizarre episodes and encounters.
Yahtzee, to his credit, uses Mogworld to explore some interesting ideas about the value of life and the possible dangers of immortality, as well as, perhaps most effectively, questioning what constitutes self-awareness and consciousness. These ideas, however, are not necessarily borne out as well as they could be. Jim, for instance, only discovers at the very end of the book that his world was created for entertainment, and the ramifications of this particular scenario are given little attention. The novel could possibly have done without its epilogue, which offers up a conclusion which seems to not follow through on all the possibilities of the plot of sentient game characters and the consequences for their existence. Yahtzee flits in and out of examing an idea about a hero vs a protagonist which seems to distract him at the end, and I think this is the main issue with Mogworld: it's trying very hard to say something but seems undecided about what it wants to say and therefore all of its arguments end up not being fully realised. It's not helped by, as I've stated, the underdeveloped setting and the routine quality of some of the humour. In addition, at the risk of coming across as a bit of a snob, Yahtzee's vocabulary is a little unspectacular and probably could use fleshing out; there were times when the heavy reuse of certain words made some of his writing fall flat.
Mogworld's definitely a decent enough novel carried by some interesting ideas and a patter of humour which is rarely laugh-out-loud but compelling enough. Its main issues are the meandering narrative and its somewhat scattergun approach to ideas. I have a great deal of respect for Yahtzee creatively and it's interesting to read a novel by him, but as I say it feels like a safe first publication relying heavily on references to and conceits from other works, and I'm hoping that in the upcoming Jam Yahtzee will take the opportunity to expand his potential to something hopefully a bit more audacious.