I was asked to review Desperate Times by the author. What sort of masochist asks the most notorious curmudgeon to review his book? Well, Matthew Sylvester does.
As I tell people, if I don’t like your book, it’s not my opinion of you. I like Quentin Tarantino movies, I think the guy is an asshole. I don’t like Michael Chatfield’s books, but he’s a really cool guy.
This is the book that puts me in that awkward situation where I like Sylvester, but I don’t like the book. The Tl;dr version is that this book should have been around 400 pages to build up the lore, characters, and back story necessary to have all the things going on.
Instead, it’s a 93 page action ride. Some will say that this simulates a first person shooter. Balderdash. What games have you been playing? Let’s go back to Halo. The core mechanics are dead simple, you have a gun and you can jump. The end.
Each level you progress, they introduce a new mechanic slowly. One new weapon here, a new vehicle there. They never overwhelm you by throwing everything all at once. In a well designed system, this is how it works. The player is introduced piece by piece to the system, then they test their skill using what they just learned plus all their other skills.
If you think about when this goes wrong, think about the end of Bioshock: Infinite. One of the top ten games ever made, but anyone who is honest knows the last section of the game sucks, you deal with endless wave after endless wave of enemies. It lacks the critical juxtaposition found earlier on in the game. And juxtaposition creates tension, as you can see by watching Tarantino movies.
So onto the review:
Review: Spoilers, obviously
The first scene is In Media Res has too much going on. If this were a movie, it lacks what would be called “An establishing shot.” There is war going on, vehicles on sand, a European Combined army fighting, people getting blown up, and a ton of other information getting bombarded all once.
This creates a problem because the next scene is the iMajor Ronald Clark, after shooting down an enemy jet, is him talking with a 9 year old.
‘We’ve got no-one, and that man,’ the child pointed at a particularly fierce-looking loadmaster, ‘says that nonsensual civlians should get out of his bloody way and wait their turn. We bin here for days.’… Thanks mister. Tell you what, if we get on, I’ll give you this Euroscard. I can count up to 1000, but this has a lot more zeros on it that I’ve seen before.
Sylvester, Matthew. [Desperate Times: A Permadeath LitRPG LitFPS Novel]. Alternative Realities. Kindle Edition.
This is why the lack of an establishing shot creates a ton of problems here. Who are these children? Why are they sitting in the war zone? Where are the soldiers physically? Why does this kid have all sorts of money on him?
The establishing shot isn’t there until the next sequence, where we learn they are on the French beaches.
Using this sort of setup is problematic because it misses that crucial establishing shot.
In comparison, the opening of Saving Private Ryan features an establishing shot for two minutes. We see the faces of the people, we see them making the sign of the cross, looking nervous. We see them approaching Normandy Beach, and then we see the first boat open up, and immediately see all the American soldiers get ripped to shreds by machine gun fire.
If the scene had opened up with them immediately being ripped to shreds, it wouldn’t have made as much sense because the audience wouldn’t have known who was there or why they were there.
The opening scene suffers from this. We meet lots of random characters, there’s no introductions, so the scene is pure chaos.
What happens when you have only chaos and no explanation for it? Well, this review from Roger Ebert of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
“If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
The second chapter starts to introduce us to our protagonists, but they aren’t likable. We have a newly promoted Colonel who can’t inspire confidence in his men and a Staff Sergeant. This is already unusual, unless the military ranking structure is different, someone who has,
“literally thousands of kills to his name. He was an absolute legend and there was a 1 Billion Credits award on his head. Whenever he was marked as a VIP target, he still managed to instil terror in all those he faced on the field.”
Sylvester, Matthew. Desperate Times: A Permadeath LitRPG LitFPS Novel.
Would be Sergeant Major, particularly if they are reporting to a Colonel? Which is the major problem this novel has, it gives us a lot of details that it never sets up. There’s a war going on. Why? What’s the war about? Who is fighting each other? Who decided that a virtual fight is better? Why the arbitrary 50 deaths until you are actually killed?
I.e. if we’re just doing virtual kills, why not just make it impossible to log back in once you are killed? If there’s some external force that’s monitoring this, as it would have to be in order to inject a lethal serum at 50 kills, why can’t they just dictate you can’t log back in after you’re killed?
In other words, who would ever agree to this system? And since most wars are fought between small powers and large powers, i.e. “War of the Third Worlds”, who is going around installing all these virtual machines in North Korea, Afghanistan’s tribal units, etc.? Or is this just a deal between first World powers?
Realistically, how long is this war supposed to go on? Because even with advanced technology, the last major, large scale war between major powers had very little deaths from the major powers relative to the minor powers. Germany only lost 5.3 million soldiers, Japan around 3.1 million.
Most of the deaths occurred from starvation and disease, the major killers in almost any conflict. The approximate military deaths in WW2 are 21 to 25 million, which is huge, but also paltry relative to the number of people on the planet. The majority of deaths, 70 to 85 million, resulted from starvation and disease, the two major killers in any war.
Per soldier death, that’s about 1% of the total population. So how does this work exactly? Two countries want to go to war and then? They conscript everyone and hook them up to a machine that goes to war? This would literally take decades, removing war and famine as causes of death, the average soldier would be spending 3,000 years of fighting (1939 – 1945 killing off 1% of the population x 50 deaths means it would take 600 years to kill off everyone once, multiplied by 50 deaths per person).
This would more closely resembled the Blood War in Dungeons and Dragons than a realistic combat scenario for countries.
Even then, how does this work? Let’s say the US and Britain go to war. The US has several hundred millions more in population, and a correspondingly larger GDP. Does the US give up its entire advantage or does the US go to war against Britain with this major advantage in tact?
There’s a ton of unanswered questions in the first part. Even from a more basic setup, who are our characters, what are they fighting for besides staying alive, etc.?
We then get setup for our first conflict. The game allows you to log out after 100 missions, but for some reason, the Century Directive is suspended and they can’t log out? But they’ll still die? I can’t tell what exactly is going on here.
It seems as if they’re forming a new unit, the “49’ers”, who have all been killed 49 times. So these are supposed to be veteran soldiers. Why are they being treated like they have never played the game before? They’ve been doing it at least 2600 years at the point we’re introduced to them in the story.
Why would anyone want soldiers who have been virtually murdered dozens of times to go back into the real World after suffering severe PTSD from multiple deaths? Why is the game suddenly decreeing that the rules have changed? If the European High Command can just decree that a change like this, what other changes can they decree?
If they made a decree that broke the rules, why is there no punishment? Who is enforcing these rules? If everyone is basically being sent to their deaths, why don’t they just refuse to fight? After all, being a POW seems like a better gig than constantly respawning and dying.
In fact, the team with three brain cells would make becoming a POW the ultimate vacation. Don’t want to die permanently and suffer massive PTSD? Hang out in our resorts, anyone who resists gets killed fifty times and goes brain dead or permanently dead. The US used this tactic during World War II, dropping leaflets to the Germans that promised them if they surrendered, they wouldn’t be tortured or executed.
The US, being cheap, then turned them over to the Russians, who had no food for their own troops, much less the POWs, and hated the Germans. But the propaganda worked and it caused the Germans to stop fighting. If you ever need to surrender, surrender to the British, who were more favorable to the Germans.
Anyway, we then get introduced into a woman who is genetically modified? Why would that make a difference in a video game? Worse though, they are apparently two meters tall. I had the pleasure of meeting Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs.
He jokes about only surviving the explosion that took out several other men because he’s so short. He was obviously joking, but the point rings true. Being humongous in a battlefield that has bullets, mortars, drones, and explosions really isn’t that big of an advantage.
What’s also strange about the whole situation is that all of the people that are part of the new regiment, the 49’ers, are being talked to as if they are new recruits. The military treats you vastly different from when you are a newbie in OSUT/AIT/Basic than when you get into the actual military.
The sort of over-the-top imitations of “Full Metal Jacket” would only work to get you fragged if you tried it in a military setting outside of basic.
What he’s doing is constantly using noise and action to move the plot forward, but you have to first build the world, plot, and characters. Without anything to latch onto, everyone in this world looks like an asshole.
We’re then told in the middle of a major war, they’re doing… training? How? And where did the kids come from in the beginning? Were they AIs? Does the game have AI characters?
The book tries to jump In Media Res, but that technique works for very specific films. It works for a movie like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, where the first scene is a burglar robs a jewelry store and both the robber and one of the store owners is dead. Pretty simple to understand.
Another example would be Jason Cipriano’s The Thrice Cursed Mage series. The main character wakes up, he’s in a garbage dump, he’s covered in blood and bruises, he has no memory. We don’t need more than this to understand what the stakes are and what’s the problem.
In contrast, when you’re introduced to this gigantic World, you need to let that breath. Slow down. But this book is trying to go 600 MPH (965 KPH) the entire time, never letting a second’s pause to absorb a scene.
We learn that by completing tasks like going to the gun shooting range, parachuting, etc., they gain skill points. Sadly, this mechanism isn’t explored any, we’re just told they can do it.
But then they’re spending time doing hand to hand combat. Professional soldier tip: If you ever find yourself armed with rifles, machine guns, grenades, and other weapons, and then find yourself going fist-a-cuffs in a war zone, you have massively, royally screwed up somewhere.
No commander that has one week until… something? would waste their time on this scenario. Particularly if, as in the second portion, they are able to select what mission they want to be able to do.
We then get to the mission, and we don’t know who or what they are fighting. Is this another country? Because the explanations don’t make any sense.
Slowly, metre by metre he crawled closer. A circle appeared on his visor, marking the sentry’s aggro range. It was broken into three sectors. Green was nearest to him, then amber, then red, just a metre or so from the guard.
Sylvester, Matthew. Desperate Times: A Permadeath LitRPG LitFPS Novel (Kindle Locations 397-398). Alternative Realities. Kindle Edition.
I’m 30% of the way through the book and I don’t know what’s going on. Apparently these are bots (?) and again, no rules for this. How many bots are allowed to play, is it only bots? He then gets a stealth kill and an up vote (?) which allows him to call in an airstrike, which he somehow manages to shoot on his own position.
Is he and the woman he’s with supposed to be badasses or utterly incompetent? Calling a missile strike down on yourself is hellaciously incompetent. Also, since they are there to pick up an asset (?) how do they know that the asset wasn’t in the place they just blew up?
In the next scene, after being told that they are at 49 deaths and that the last one is permanent, we get this:
Hotston shielded himself from the heat of the burning command platoon. Bodies littered the entire area, some naked from the power of the blast. Pain wracked his whole body and he called up his stats, popping a stimpill in an attempt to heal himself.
Hotty, you okay? That was fucking amazing! We’ve levelled up!’… ‘ Remind me to never fucking do that again, Windsor. That bloody hurt!’ ‘ Roger that, Hotty, bet everyone’s talking about us now!’ He joined her as she laughed,
So, his teammate called down an airstrike on both of them that would have permanently resulted in both of them dying, and instead of being furiously mad at her, they’re both laughing about it?
I could keep going, but I’ll stop here because these problems keep reoccurring. We don’t know what the stakes are, who the characters are, why anyone is doing anything, etc.
How would I have suggested a rewrite? Well, it’s only 94 page, which just isn’t a long enough time to tell a story that has this much going on. Back to Cipriano, his books clock in at around 200 pages for the Thrice-Cursed Mage series, and the plot there is vastly more simple.
You can’t tell the story of Lord of the Rings in 94 pages. It just doesn’t work. Either the story needs to be radically simplified or each section needs to be elaborated.
- Section 1: Introduce the Real World: Introduce the problem of massive collateral damage and the need for an alternative solution.
- Section 2: Main character: We meet the main character. This should be someone who is down on their luck, an every man who is running late on bills, has a job that he hates that only gives him a shoestring budget, he can’t take care of his family, and starts playing the video game as a release.
- Section 3: The video game: The main character discovers during this section that he’s good at the game. We learn the rules of the game, how the World works, etc.
- Section 4: Conflict: The real world conflict is building up, someone introduces the idea of using the VR world to mitigate real world damage. We learn the terms of agreement, so now we understand both how the real World works, what the rules of the game are that are being imposed, and we know the game mechanics.
- Section 5: Side characters: While this is going on, we meet up with the side characters for the story and find out what they’re like in the video game. We learn their personalities, which ones get along, which don’t, etc.
- Section 6: Tragedy: The main character loses their job, their kid gets sick, etc. Something is going to push the character out of their comfort zone.
- Section 7: Enlistment: To pay for the bills, help their kid, etc., the main character enlists in the new war and agrees to be stuck to the machine, along with a contract of what he/she cannot do.
- Section 8: Bad times The unit he is with is dysfunctional or unable to compete, leading to where the book starts off.
You can see that’s a long list of things that haven’t been established in the novel at the point we jump into it. The sections are set up so we have a action/rest between each section.
- Section 1 would have action and world building, we’d see the death/destruction in the real World.
- Section 2, character development + world building.
- Section 3, action + character development.
- Section 4, World building + character development.
- Section 5, action + character development.
- Section 6, character development + world building.
- Section 7, character development + world building.
- Section 8, action + world building + character development.
This keeps the pace strong while not just constantly having people shoot/scream/yell every fifth line.
Overall, the book should be 400 pages long to get everything setup and it attempts to do that in 93. The idea of a FPS LitRPG novel could work, and would be a nice change from the more fantasy/fiction oriented works and expand the genre. But there’s a rush to get everything over and done with in this book, and to introduce this many thematic elements requires time and patience. It’s overall 2 out of 5 stars.
Reel it in, calm it down, and let the scenes breath so that the action scenes have a dramatic feeling to them, people running around screaming and having things blow up everywhere is the Michael Bay school of drama.