Apocalypse 2020, by James Witherspoon

  • I was given a copy of this book in advance, so my review may not be 100% accurate if he’s changed anything.

Tl;dr:  3.5 stars.  The book has potential, but it does take awhile to build up to see where things are going.  I.e. the game mechanics seem fairly dull at first, until you see all the different race/class combos that are actually available, as each race gets their own unique set of builds.  Likewise, the main character is not sympathetic until a ways into the book, where his personality and attributes are built-up more.

The quests start off kind of random, but eventually build up towards a central plot and coherency.  James seems to deliberately eschew some of the conventions of the LitRPG genre, and this has both good and bad consequences.  But of course, the big one that he’s going to get is this:

yuno
Y U NO GO VR?

The book is not a VR book.  The sequences take place in the 90s, and doing a non-VR book is an interesting idea, but there’s several sequences where he wants to have his cake and eat it too.  Characters complain about smell, pain, etc. without being able to actually sense those things.  There’s also a lot of lingering questions about how characters are able to perform certain complex actions, as that would be almost impossible with a keyboard/mouse/joystick setup. (See footnote at bottom.)

If you let it go long enough and build up, you’ll get a rewarding, if different, book from what you’re probably used to in this genre.

Long Review, Spoilers:

The beginning is a In Media Res beginning.  We start off with the protagonist (Bran in the real World, Booth in the game) bound to the hood of a vehicle, with two people driving.  As he wakes up, he starts to escape his restraints, and gets into a fight with both of the passengers.

What this opening gets right is that he doesn’t try to throw in too many random/crazy elements in the beginning.  One of the big effects of Aleron Kong’s fame is that people use Aleronisms in their novel when they don’t belong.  One of the big Aleronisms is using the quest system to make snarky or snide remarks to the protagonist.

This works in The Land, where the protagonist fights with a god at the first chance and maintains that sort of snarky tone throughout, but when books do this with no real intent, it makes the book difficult to follow.

Here, the quests that he gets are all straight-forward information, which helps ground the scene by telling both us as the readers and the protagonist what he’s supposed to be doing and what’s going on.  Little things like that make the scenes more comprehensible.

Then he calls his friend, and that’s where using In Media Res as a starting technique causes problems. (See footnote 2).  Since we don’t know where he really is in the real-World, or what the game setup is like, that first time he logs off to call his friend is jarring.  His friend is playing the game as well, and he has to call his friend to get in contact.

The weird part about this scene is that if the game is as intense as it first seemed, then his friend (Paul/Cthuluwho) wouldn’t have answered.  This could have been used as a time to introduce us to the fact that Bran has no friends in his new home after his Dad moved, and he has no one to tell about his exciting encounter.

From his conversation with Paul, we learn those facts, and we get introduced to the first plot thread in the real World.  Bran’s Dad moved to find a new job, and his new house is far worse than the one they originally had.  Additionally, his Dad has to spend most of his time at work, and with the Mom absent, they lack basic culinary or homemaking skills, making the house joyless and depressed.

Additionally, Bran does poorly in school as he’s bullied constantly and has no friends.  James’ dialogue choices are very straightforward, which makes everything easy to follow, but also, a bit bland.  For an analysis of how to do characterization without literally spelling everything about for the audience, I recommend Lessons from the Screenplay.  Watch how well American Beauty does scenes without telling the audience anything literally.

Even though his dialogue is often very literal, he does a great job setting up Bran as an underdog in a terrible situation.  He’s constantly bullied, has no one to sit next to at lunch, and no one to share his feelings with.  He lashes out at his Dad even though he understands that the situation isn’t his Dad’s fault.

When he logs back into the game, his first quest is to walk across town and pick up a package.  Of course, this is done so that the game universe can be introduced, but the difficulty of his first quest stands out in pretty sharp contrast to the game’s tutorial section, given that if you die once, you’re done in the game.

This first section sets up the intro quest sections of how quests work, how joining a team works, and how NPCs work.

Booth’s next quest is to take out some mutated geckos, and this introduces some editorial problems.

One is when Booth tries to shoot a revolver, it jams.  Put bluntly, revolvers don’t jam unless the gun is completely destroyed.  Revolvers have very few moving parts unlike semi-auto and automatic weapons.  That’s the reason that they have endured for so long, they’re reliable.

Trade in the revolver for a self-made 9mm, which are common in third-World countries and would be what you’d most likely see in a madmax/fallout style World.

Because of that mishap, Booth ends up trading in his revolver for a 1911, but in a later scene, he has that revolver again.

The two other cars raced past. Boothe ran after them, firing his revolver,

James Witherspoon. Apocalypse 2020 (Kindle Location 1018). Kindle Edition.

There’s a few editorial issues like that that slip through the cracks.

Booth’s class is a hacker class, but he’s not very good in a straight-up fight.  This is one of the elements that the book does exceptionally well, and it’s one of those moments that makes me happy.  Too many books have MCs that should be support-level classes, but seem to be able to take on anyone in a straight-up brawl.  Not so with Booth, he’s a support character and has a hard time fighting in a one-on-one duel.

Booth’s next mission is to infiltrate a base and retrieve a long-lasting battery, used to power the water farms.  While he tries to infiltrate the base, he meets up with another player, Scarlett.  They agree to work together to get the battery, and after escaping the bunker, she wins the prize of the loot drop by beating Booth in a duel.

This scene works pretty well for showcasing more of Scarlett’s sneak/close-range firearms/blade skills, but it does present a minor problem in a later scene.  Scarlett will attack a player in a city directly, and there doesn’t seem to be any repercussions.  Since you can completely loot a player if they’re killed, and since they can’t come back into the game, the lack of repercussions makes a difference.

There would be some players that would figure they can power-level by just hanging back and killing PCs when they’re weak, as explored in Drew Hayes’ NPC novels.

They then leave to go to a major city to meet Bran’s best friend, and this is where the novel picks up, as introducing all of the new characters opens up the game, shows off the class/build combinations, and starts the main plot, that the main city is under attack from a band of outlaws that have slowly been taking over more and more territory.

The city looks for adventurers that it can recruit for its cause in exchange for items and leveling-up.  Bran begins to make new friends in the city and participate in the larger struggle.  There is another editorial glitch in a scene:

As soon as the gun fired, Cthulwho launched a burst of air from his throat, the air pocket caught the bullet in midair, pushing it to the side and causing it to miss Scarlett and slam uselessly into the wall.

The physics here are hard for me to believe. Bullets exit at something like 375 meters per second, his speed would need to be well beyond superhuman to stop that. If he hit someone with that kind of force, their heads would snap in half, and the Newtonian problem of equal and opposite reaction would need to be dealt with.

You can counter that this is just a game and can run counter to natural law physics, but that’s an immersion breaker.

Meanwhile, he starts making friends at school as he starts drawing pictures from the game.  There are some time/chronology problems here as it seems like only a few days have elapsed in game, but in Interlude 5, it seems like multiple days or even weeks have passed, as he comes up with multiple excuses to not go to lunch and to spend time in the library.

One thing that would make it better here is to require some real-World knowledge to work in the game.  I.e. he’s a hacker.  So the game requires him to learn basic programming to evolve in his skill tree.  He needs to learn robotics to repair and manipulate his drone.

That would make Bran have to choose between doing homework, not necessarily what his school assigns, and buying an Arduino board or otherwise learning to get better in school.  This unites the Two-World problem, where problems in the game are mirrored in the real World.  Here, the mirroring is that Bran starts to meet kids at school who are interested in the game, so he starts getting real-life friends.  But that’s very shaky/coincidental.

If he were going to robotics club meetings or programming meetings, and asking friends over to help him with problems in the game, then it would remove some of the coincidental elements out of the story, as the interest and involvement would feel more natural and less planned.  Likewise, when he starts to do better in school at the end, this would make more sense if he were studying overtime because of the game.

Of course, the big problem with it not being VR is that so many scenes only make sense in the context of VR or would be impossible without it.  In some scenes, they feel pain:

…expected to feel the searing pain of lead piercing through his body.

James Witherspoon. Apocalypse 2020 (Kindle Locations 714-715). Kindle Edition.

Boothe spent a minute working on the wound, as she winced in pain.

James Witherspoon. Apocalypse 2020 (Kindle Locations 748-749). Kindle Edition.

In other scenes, they don’t.

“You’re hurt?” Boothe asked. He didn’t see any wounds on her. She looked down and pulled back her cloak to reveal her leather armor underneath. Blood seeped from a hole in the side of her abdomen. “Oh,” she said. “I guess I caught one.”

James Witherspoon. Apocalypse 2020 (Kindle Locations 742-744). Kindle Edition.

 

Also, they can smell things.

Inside, the rotten smell of death hit him immediately, threatening to make him sick.

James Witherspoon. Apocalypse 2020 (Kindle Location 783). Kindle Edition.

Certain tactile sensations like sound could be done through headphones, but smell and pain don’t exist in a non-VR game, which is why I said that there’s a lot of “have the cake and eat it too” scenes.

Even without a full VR setup, there’s things that could help. A visor that projected the vision of what you were seeing in game. A tactile glove that allowed you to perform complicated movements in game. 

This would also solve another problem, which is it’s not clear how this company plans on making money.  They sent out a hundred free copies, and for completing extraordinary quests, you get a token that you can use to give someone a player in the game.

He could rework this so rather than just sending the game, they send out the new technology as well, which would explain the very low initial player size and the need for a token system to get new players into it. (Tokens would get released as more beta hardware gets released.)  And that would explain the extremely limited release, if the game company was collecting tactile information or player feedback from the limited test run.

So overall, the story and character development are good, if you can give it a while to start kicking up into high gear.  The non-VR nature of it does take you away at certain spots and it is fairly predictable, but still enjoyable.  I’d give it a 4 if it were a VR game, not necessarily because every book has to be a VR book, but because so many scenes just don’t make sense outside of a VR context, (being scared of heights, holding hands, etc.)

It also suffers from “Dat Ending”, which is where the novel sets something up from nowhere and ends abruptly.  Given what the book feels like, the ending is really out of place, switching from post-apocalypse to sci-fi in 30 seconds.

Footnote 1:  The VR preference statement is a combination of four things: going by interviews with various LitRPG fans, the Royal Road reviews, my own biases, and the author’s feedback from other readers.

A lot of LitRPG fans read LitRPG because we/they can’t get the type of games that are described in the books. Some people complain about the lack of good RPG mechanics in some LitRPGs, (a valid complaint) but frankly, even the worst LitRPG/RPG mechanics would be vastly better than anything we currently have if it was VR immersive.

There’s always that disconnect between who you want to be as the person in the game and who you are as the person at the computer or console.  There was a poll done on LitRPG or LitRPG Society facebook page that polled what sort of book people enjoyed reading the most, and full-immersive VR won by a large majority over headset or non-VR based gameplay.  And there’s a lot of VR related threads in those groups.

Footnote 2:   He definitely is wearing a headset with microphone, as that gets brought up a few times. When he contacts his best friend, he says that he can hear the keyboard clacking as he contacts him. So it seems like keyboard/mouse/headset setup. That’s why some of the complicated things that he does in the game are really hard to imagine, setting up a UI on even a moderately involved game is challenging, the UI for a game that involved would be ridiculous.

That’s why the non-VR setup is jarring, because there’s just a lot of things that happen in the game I have a hard time picturing actually happening.

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