For videogame series with deep fictions – from Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect to Halo and WOW – supplementary novels provide alluring opportunities for world-building and help to keep fans hooked between iterations. Whether penned by pulp-fiction journeymen or barely disguised literary authors (such as Brian Evenson, who wrote Dead Space: Martyr as BK Evenson), novelisation has historically been the exclusive privilege of big-budget blockbusters. But with Rovio expanding the Angry Birds universe into movies and toys, more modestly scaled games are now getting in on the old-media action. This month, we review four new novels from upstart publishing house Casual Gaming Press.
Tetris Fugue by BK Evenson
Despite the light pseudonym, Evenson’s unique brand of epistemological horror is evident in his harrowing adaptation of the classic puzzle game. A spare and enigmatic novella set during the Cold War, Tetris Fugue inhabits the mind of a taciturn man identified only as ‘Alexey’ as he wanders through a grey and crumbling Moscow. For reasons unexplained, chunks of masonry continually rain down from unseen elevations, rotating this way and that, forming barricades and passageways. Alexey, a synaesthetic amnesiac, gradually begins to perceive a secret language in the tumbling tetrominoes. He resolves to inform the Kremlin, which looms tantalisingly on the skyline but never seems to draw any nearer as Alexey wends through the maze-like city. What seems at first like a thriller shapes up into a dark Kafkan allegory and a postmodern meditation on the limits of knowledge. What is the essential nature of blockness? Why must they rotate? Whither do they go? Are they even real, or are they symbols of Alexey’s psychosis? Evenson probes – never quite answering – these intractable riddles, in lean prose with Old Testament undertones.
Cut The Rope by Stephen Kang
Kang’s sprawling novel attempts to provide epic scaffolding for the physics game of the same title. It begins with a simple premise and makes its way, across 900 pages, toward a baffling metaphysical cosmology. In a quaint yet somehow creepy Northeastern American town, five children discover an adorable monster who lives under an old bandstand, and spend an idyllic summer lowering candy down to it on ropes. But tragedy strikes as summer turns to autumn and the monster suddenly comes out from under the bandstand to devour the children. This is the point at which Kang’s Cut The Rope mythology goes completely off the rails. The children’s ghosts enter a metaphysical realm where lies something called The Rope That Binds All Ropes, which is held at one end by the killer mime Patchouli and at the other by Jugjugbaboom, an avuncular 6,000-year-old sea anemone. Will the ghost children be able to sever the Rope and end an ageless cycle of death and destruction, returning themselves to life by some ill-defined magic? Kang’s plotting and set-pieces are gripping, though the borderline-pornographic scenes between his underage protagonists, who all speak in strangely antiquated dialects, are distressing.
The Minecrafter’s Tale by Shmargaret Atwood
In this elegant dystopian fable, Shmargaret Atwood captures the texture of daily life in a commune where unnamed workers spend their days moving earth from one place to another for mysterious purposes. The bucolic setting ironically underscores the grimness of the characters’ Sisyphean curse: to eternally rearrange their topographies as days and nights pass meaninglessly. Are they prisoners? Cultists? Or do their actions have a secret design? Atwood gives nothing away. However, the novel’s shrewd social commentary and existential pressure are knocked off-balance when hordes of malevolent skeletons descend upon the commune. While those unfamiliar with the source material may chastise Atwood for this giant deus ex machina, Minecraft devotees will appreciate her close reading of the fiction.
RanchVille by L Moore Leonard
Transporting the world of FarmVille to the southwestern American frontier of the late 19th century, this expertly paced, tough-talking potboiler is centred on Valdez, an iron-nerved federal marshal who retires to a quiet life of farming, animal husbandry and passive-aggressive gift-giving. But his peaceful reverie is shattered when the infamous and heavily armed Zynga gang shows up at his ranch demanding an obscure tax, the ‘microtransacción’. When Valdez monosyllabically refuses, his jaw firmly set under the shadow of his hat, the gang roughs up his llama, threatens his chickens, and rides off with scornful laughter, lighting the fuse on a vengeful orgy of violence that takes Valdez deep into hostile Apache country. Leonard’s idiomatic dialogue is pitch-perfect, and Valdez’s folkloric potency is transfixing. But the implausible black-heartedness of the villains is an easy out, morally absolving us for our celebration of Valdez’s righteous atrocities.
Illustration: Marsh Davies