Press Start to Play (***)
 
I got Press Start to Play as an unsolicited review copy, presumably because I've read and reviewed Ready Player One, and reviewers who actually review anything they receive in the mail are rare these days. Ready Player One felt like crib notes to people who have actually played the games portrayed in the book (the D&D stuff Ernest Cline got wrong really rubbed me the wrong way), so I viewed this collection -- hyped as a spiritual successor to Ready Player One with a foreword by Cline -- with a skeptical eye.

Basically, writing a book about video games is a little bizarre in this day and age. It's a bit like writing a book about conversations over the telephone or about "shows on television." Back when video games were new in the 80s this was a valid excuse for a collection; now it looks like a lame cash grab to capitalize on 80s nostalgia. Okay fine, but are the stories any good? There are 26 of them. Take a deep breath, this will take awhile:


  • "God Mode" by Daniel H. Wilson is about technology in gaming, where it's not clear what's real and what isn't. This is a common theme, because when you hit 26 stories about video games there's only so much you can write that has to do with the game. It's a little all over the place and feels disjointed, but the writing works for the story. 3 stars.
  • "NPC" by Charles Yu is about the life of a video game character in a first-person shooter. It's about people stuck in routines and personal growth. 4 stars.
  • "Respawn" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka is about a man who can jump bodies and, because he can't die, begins to treat violence like a video game. It's certainly interesting and well-written. 4 stars.
  • "Desert Walk" by S.R. Mastrantone is a horror story about a video game that nobody can replicate, erases itself afterward, yadda yadda. The good news is it's actually good -- I can remember the plot easily after reading all 26 stories. 5 stars.
  • "Rat Catcher's Yellows" by Charlie Jane Andrews is a story about socially-impaired people who dominate in a world of video games and how the two universes begin to blend. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it's very well-written. 4 stars.
  • "1Up" by Holly Black is one of my favorites, a form of interactive fiction that is a coded murder mystery. Also, it actually uses video game mechanics (which with IF, can be portrayed in a book). 5 stars.
  • "Survival Horror" by Seanan McGuire hits all my pet peeves: co-opting horror like high school shorthand (incubuses are just another race, like cuckoos, natch), Buffy-style chatter without enough character development to make us care, goth-stylings with a heavy dose of humor that's not that funny. I'm sure this is a fun novel, but as a short story it's just...twee. 1 star.
  • "REAL" by Djano Wexler is another story about another video game that's secretly another gateway to another dimension with another Big Bad lurking behind it. 2 stars.
  • "Outliers" by Nicole Feldringer is The Last Starfighter with an ecological bent and a sinister secret. 3 stars.
  • "<end game>" by Chris Avellone is an interesting digression in a hellish, repetitive IF. If you've ever played Zork then you know the feeling. 4 stars.
  • "Save Me Plz" by David Barr Kirtley is about a relationship trapped in a game, or is it the other way around? 3 stars.
  • "The Relive Box" by T.C. Boyle is about how video games and memories can become an addiction. It's haunting and sad. 5 stars.
  • "Roguelike" by Marc Laidlaw is another IF-style story with a touch of humor and a lot of murder. 3 stars.
  • "All of the People In Your Party Have Died" by Robin Wasserman asks the question: What if Oregon Trail was real? It's about surviving your own life. 3 stars.
  • "RECOIL!" by Micky Neilson is about another video game that's secretly another test that involves another bout of violence. 2 stars.
  • "Anda's Game" by Cory Doctorow actually manages to challenge video game tropes without being tangentially about video games, or not about video games at all, or resorting to tired video game tropes. Should you care about social inequality when it affects games too? The answer is worth reading. 5 stars.
  • "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber is about another person in another video game that's much better at gaming than real life and another complicated family relationship. 3 stars.
  • "Stats" by Marguerite K. Bennett is about how a video game turns some people into murderers. 2 stars.
  • "Please Continue" by Chris Kluwe is a meta-discussion about gaming that uses football parallels (because Kluwe is a former NFL punter). It's confusing at best. 2 stars.
  • "Creation Screen" by Rhianna Pratchett is about a video game creator from the view of one of his characters. Interesting stuff, but a little too brief to properly explore the topic. 4 stars.
  • "The Fresh Prince of Gamma World" by Austin Grossman is about another romance in another video game universe. 3 stars.
  • "Gamer's End" by Yoon Ha Lee is about another video game test that's actually a real life test involving absurd levels of violence. 2 stars.
  • "The Clockwork Soldier" by Ken Liu is set in a sci-fi setting but it features an IF as a platform to discuss the legitimacy of artificial intelligence. 4 stars.
  • "Killswitch" by Catherynne M. Valente is another video game that deletes itself and has a mystery at its center that nobody can beat. 2 stars.
  • "Twarrior" by Andy Weir takes the concept of a Skynet-like computer taking over and actually does something different with it that's surprisingly upbeat -- and yet hilariously true-to-life. 5 stars.
  • "Select Character" by Hugh Howey is another video game that's actually a test. The difference is that the test isn't, for once, about violence. 3 stars.

Overall, this is a wildly uneven collection that leans heavily on video game tropes that end up being repeated. There's too many stories about too wide a topic, but there are some gems here worth reading. The odds that anyone today has played all the types of video games in this collection are slim, because video games are as varied as movies are -- the medium is no longer relevant. The best stories remind you that video games reflect our lives; the worst remind you that even book publishers will prey on our nostalgia for a quick buck.


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