Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sam Sykes, Tome of the Undergates (2010)

Though its title chimed in my inner ear as Tome of the Undergarments (or sometimes, like chimpanzees in workmen's overalls moving a piano downstairs, as From-you-to-me of the Undergates), this is by no means a terrible novel. Very readable, certainly. A band of adventurers on varied adventures. But it made me think of video games. I don't mean that in the sense you think I mean.

About a year ago John Lanchester published 'Is It Art?', an essay in the London Review of Books on video games which deserves to be better known than it is in the SFF community. Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he's good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine's 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:
As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)
In the spirit of that admirable sentiment, I say: Tome of the Undergates is too easy.


Niall Harrison said...

I love the fact Lanchester puts plasmids in scare quotes, as though they're some exotic made-up sfnal thing.

Adam Roberts said...

What ... you mean they're real?

Niall Harrison said...

Bloody humanities scholars.

JP said...

Damn. I thought it was called TOME OF THE UNDERGRADUATES.

rreugen said...

What a great quote and article, thank you!

Andre Smith said...

Great synopsis of commenting and how to very well written and all that link love you just poured out, great post, if this was a forum you would have a sticky on this.
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