So I’ll be out of town for a few days and I don’t know how long until I’m really up and running, so this is just a quick review.
I read two books that almost have the same plot in some major ways, Level Zero: The Next World Series and The Feedback Loop. It should be noted that Level Zero came out first (all the way back in 2011). It came out so long ago that the words “LitRPG” are nowhere to be found on the cover. That’s basically prehistory.
Both books feature an unlikeable protagonist living in a dystopic World. The Feedback Loop‘s main antagonist is a man stuck living the exact same day for years on end. Level Zero’s protagonist is a teenager around 15 if I remember, who spends all his time playing video games. He’s a typical Otaku (or NEET) character who doesn’t do anything other than play video games.
Both have a main character that gets trapped by the game World because the game thinks he’s too important to let go of. Both feature a final choice about the game World and how/if it will continue to survive.
However, it always amazes me when two shows or books that are follow similar formulas can be vastly different in quality. Digibro does a breakdown of two shows that are similar, The Asterisk War and Chivalry of a Failed Knight and finds that the latter is far better than the former. It’s the reasons why that are illuminating.
In the case of The Feedback Loop vs. Level Zero, the biggest difference is that The Feedback Loop has a real character arc that explains his anger towards the World, and this character arc gets explored throughout the story. Whether or not you agree with the protagonist’s attitude, you do understand why he acts the way he does by the end of the book, and the changes he goes through along the way.
Level Zero’s unlikeable protagonist has an incredibly weak story arc. It barely exists. This is a big problem because the final “choice” is based upon the weight of this character arc. Since the arc is weak, you know what the end is going to be long before it ever occurs. In addition, the main character is a worthless twit. He has no real problems or struggles, he has no likeable characteristics, he’s a worthless main character.
There are times you can do this,Jake Gyllenhaal in NightCrawler did this. But Nightcrawler uses a strange protagonist to ask questions about why society is so fascinated with death and tragedy. Why is someone as morally bankrupt as Jake’s character able to thrive in the World of video taping tragedies?
However, Level Zero’s protagonist is not used to illustrate a distorted World to us or reveal any moral drama. He’s emo cause. This is a horrible choice from a writing perspective since we’re stuck experiencing the book through this character and there’s not a single joyous occasion to be gleamed traveling with this character. As already mentioned, since he has no ties to the real World, this means his final choice which is *spoiler material* about whether he should stay in the game or exit back to the real World is a stupid final choice. From what I have told you thus far, can you guess what he’s going to do?
There’s other annoying scenes in Level Zero. The main character keeps asking, “Why does everyone act like real life is out there and not in the game World?” And no one has the brains to say this, “Because if you die out there, you die in here. But if you die in here, nothing happens to you out there.” Only in games where the person has become part of the machine itself and transcends mortality does a story about the question between VR/not VR become relevant. Otherwise, the answer to the difference between dreams and reality applies. You can die a thousand times in your dreams. You can die only once when you’re not dreaming.
There’s also a huge difference in style. That is, Next World has none. In terms of tone, structure, and composition. it’s good enough, but there’s nothing even mildly new going on in it. It’s about a 3 star book, and be warned, the book doesn’t pick up until well past the midway point. And by a 3 star book, I mean that if someone gave it less than that, I wouldn’t argue that it’s an unfair rating.
So let’s talk about The Feedback Loop. The main character is trapped in a game where he’s lived the exact same day 500+ times. After over a year and a half of doing the exact same thing, he’s mentally cracking around the edges. So we have an unlikeable protagonist, but we know why he’s an unlikeable person. Doing the same thing every day for over 500 days would drive anyone insane.
Additionally, this is actually used like NightCrawler to talk about the human condition. Yes, he has an actual point to it. Harmon Cooper’s point is that humans like to say they’re adventurous, or looking for action, but then do the exact same things day in and day out. How many people say they want to lose weight, but don’t go to the gym? Or say they want to write a book, but then never set any timeout to do it?
The Feedback Loop‘s style is based on the old noir novels and this is both a strength and a flaw. A strength in that it makes it unique, but a flaw in that Harmon Cooper doesn’t have the writing chops of Marlow, Hammett, and Chandler. He’s also not up to the task of neo-noir fictions like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim or the anime Cowboy Bebop. While he clearly loves the noir genre, his “patter”, the name for the distinctive way that characters talk in noir literature, isn’t up to the legends of the genre or even the better neo-noir writers.
The Feedback Loop also uses what writers call “Red Kryptonite”. Red Kryptonite in the Superman series is a one-shot dose of Kryptonite that changes Superman for 24-72 hours before reverting him back. Each time he’s exposed, something different happens. A Red Kryptonite plot is where the writer can do anything they want each time and change the setting.
The downside to a Red Kryptonite plotline is best seen in the cancelled show DollHouse. The dolls can do something different each time by becoming a new personality on each mission. But then they’re wiped and reset. Each storyline is a red kryptonite plotline, though of course, the main doll is retaining bits of her memory. The downside to it is viewers found it hard to invest in the show, the plot barely moved after the first few episodes.
As a general rule, Red Kryptonite is to have fun, but usually not for building entire story lines around. I don’t know how Harmon will deal with the Red Kryptonite issue, but it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with. His first book makes me want to continue with the series.
The Feedback Loop definitely has problems, and when I get time to do a full review I’ll go into them, but it’s a solid 4 star book. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth it.