crap i have read recently #13

adventureland

Sometimes you just want a good escapist fantasy…SPOILERS AHEAD!!

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Dream Park (Larry Niven, 1981)  Imagine a world in which live action role-playing is cool and financially lucrative.  Where there exists a giant amusement park in which computer generated holograms help immerse attendees in whatever scenario strikes their fancy  (You want to battle underwater zombies in a flooded downtown Los Angeles?  We’re on it!).  Where once every year is held an immense, player-designed fantasy adventure, for which the live-viewing, movie, and future game sale rights are worth a fortune.  A world where people of all ages and walks of life dream of being good enough to get in on the Game.   This is the world of Dream Park, a moderately interesting and compelling blend of fantasy and science fiction.   Set in 2051, the novel concerns two interwoven stories, that of a murder committed at the park, and that of a South Seas Island adventure role-playing game.   The murder occurs during an act of industrial espionage and Alex Griffin, the park’s Head of Security, becomes convinced that one of the gamers committed the crime.   The plot contrives to have him enter the Game incognito as a player to try and discover the identity of the criminal and recover the stolen research sample.  The game itself is a grudge match between two of the world’s top-ranked gamers, both of whom take the Game very seriously.  The adventure is loosely based on South Sea island Cargo Cult mythology and the experience is made realistic by the use of actors, holograms, massive sets, and occasionally good old-fashioned psychological manipulation.   Millions of dollars (how quaint!), the fate of the park, and the reputations of a dozen or so top-ranked gamers rest on the outcomes of both the story lines.

Dream Park simultaneously seems both futuristic and outdated.  On the one hand, the book projects the perspective of a 1981 gamer mentality into the future.  When this book was written the term LARP did not even exist.  D&D was seven years old and playing it pretty much defined being a social outcast.   (Yes, children, once upon a time nerds weren’t the coolest kids in school.)   What ostracized young gamer didn’t dream of a world where they could be popular and admired because they were a gamer?  Dream Park itself is Disneyland on a marvelous blend of hallucinogens and steroids.   Aside from the Game, which is run in a special section of the park that can be modified for whatever scenario the Game Master chooses, the rest of the park includes adventure areas for regular tourists, many of which were based on past successful Games.  And it is totally where I’d choose to spend my entertainment dollars, if it actually existed.  It presages Survivor-type reality TV, bluetooth-style headsets, lifelike holograms, and people making a living off of gaming.

On the other hand, these days we have entertainment options that Dream Park failed entirely to foresee.  In 1981 computer and console games barely existed; in 2013 they are ubiquitous and in some cases barely short of immersive.  Enhanced graphics lend an air of such realism that it is possible to forget about the real world entirely.  People routinely log in to virtual worlds of all sorts in which thousands of other people participate and occasionally their adventures there approach the epic.    In my relatively short gaming life I’ve been an elf hunter, a death priestess, a human ranger, a test subject, a wanderer of vast post apocalyptic wastelands, and a superhero with electric bolts for hands.  I’ve battled grue in dark corridors, ridden dragons above tropical jungles, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with supermutants.  Reading the book in the modern gaming environment produces this weird sort of “future past” sensation, sort of like seeing those old drawings people in 1900 made when asked to envision the world in 2000.  I suspect that far before the book’s 2051 setting I’ll have the equivalent of a Dream Park in my living room.

On the third hand (wait, what?) Dream Park totally nailed the “in the future geeks will be cool” thing.   It also nailed the sensation of role-play gaming.  The book has a slow start and there are way too many participants to keep sorted (many of whom are referred to by both their real names and their character names).  The murder/espionage plot gets lost quite a bit and is never very compelling.   Characterizations of the native islanders in the Game are borderline offensive at times and there are a few of the sorts of (non-graphic) sex scenes that people who’ve never actually had sex might write.   But once the Game gets going all of this fades into insignificance as the players and the Game Master try to outwit and outplay each other.  The Game itself is structured like a classic D&D game, with the players coming together under somewhat contrived circumstances (at least they didn’t meet in a tavern…), running into a few easy monster encounters to let the group get its feet wet, and then meeting with the NPCs that outline the central quest.  From there on the game really is the thing, as the players encounter increasingly fantastic and difficult challenges, racing both the clock and the Game Master.  It gets compelling enough that player deaths (in the game, not for real) are dramatic and quite touching.  There is greed and pride, heroism and sacrifice, selfishness and team work, and above all the love of a good adventure.  So just look past the more glaring anachronisms and, well, game on!

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on June 9, 2013.

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