To explain that rather incoherent title: I started the Library of Alexander nearly a year ago after several times being told I was good at recommending books. I always like to tell people, as articulately as possible, the merits of books I have been reading, films I have been watching.
This little double feature is in recognition of the novels written by the individual by whose example I owe this project of mine: therefore, Mogworld and Jam, by Yahtzee Croshaw.
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is the authour of Escapist Magazine’s online video series, Zero Punctuation, where he reviews video games in a rapid-fire, vitriolic and breathtakingly vulgar fashion. If you’re a gamer or just appreciate clever and uproariously funny humour, do go watch a few, but best not to do it where your boss or your children will hear you!
More recently, Yahtzee has produced novels, deriving inspiration from his area of expertise – video games – and from the humorous style of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, authours whose work he is well-aquainted with.
First, Mogworld, the story of a young student of the magical arts named Jim. Killed during a war between his and a neighboring kingdom, he is unexpectedly resurrected, along with his crypt-mates, by a sorcerer and forced to endure a life, undying, as one of his workaday minions.
When a mysterious force descends on the castle and erases the sorcerer and his castle entirely, Jim and a few survivors flee, Jim trying to reconcile his survival instinct with his craving for demise, and together they’re caught up in a series of bizarre entanglements with blockheaded adventurers, mad cultists and bizarre entities that ends with the discovery that, in fact, the world in which they live is being mangled by overworked programmers trying to get the kinks out of their new Massive Online Game.
Mogworld is a study in Yahtzee’s brand of humour. Puns, snark and satire abound, and the sheer absurdity of the situation, from the civil-service way the zombies run the castle to the simple fact of the fantasy-undead-sorcerer protagonist named Jim, is all a massive send-up of fantasy in general and online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Age of Conan in particular.
Jim and his much-resented companions wandering aimlessly into peril is highly amusing, and forms the links in a chain of themes about the concept of heroes as opposed to protagonists that comes up periodically, and the comedy of some of the basic nature of multiplayer games taken to its logical conclusion.
While a great showcase of Yahtzee’s sense of humour and grasp of gaming, the story holding it together is a bit muddled. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the big twist, that the whole story occurs in an MMO, is, as my revelation implies, declared up-front on the back cover. This makes the story lacking in any verve and turns it into essentially an elaborate joke book. The characters are sympathetic and have a charming arc, but it isn’t built as solidly as it might be as the plot seems to consist of trudging around a great deal. So it’s funny and clever but not as structured as might be.
Jam, coming out a year and a bit later, is best described by Yahtzee himself: “It’s about an apocalypse. With Jam in it!” It derives specifically from a reference Yahtzee made in a review of one of the many zombie apocalypse games he was called on to review:
“Honestly, at this point you people just won’t be able to cope if civilization ends any other way, will you? If the @#%*ing Daleks invade or the entire world gets covered in carnivorous jam, you’ll have to make papier-mache zombie facsimiles just to get through the day.”
He took this one of his many bizarre throwaway remarks and ran with it. Travis, an unemployed nerd and his roomate and neighbours wake up to find Brisbane covered in a layer of three-foot-deep strawberry jam, which devours any organic matter it comes in contact with. Thrown together with a pair of suspicious American military officers, they navigate the silent city and the sea of spread, tangle with the various deranged survivor cults that arise, and try and discover the origin of the jam and the fate of civilization.
Jam flat out fixes most of the shortcomings of Mogworld. The story has a clear direction, and the characters are more varied and have stronger arcs that reconcile humour with satirical realism. The humour is more precisely applied, whereas Mogworld seemed determine to cram a joke into every sentence, so I found myself laughing more often. The scenery is also more vivid, possibly because Yahtzee lives in Brisbane and doesn’t need to make it up, save only the jam.
The time with the survivor cults is funny but the plot gets bogged down in places, just making jokes for their own sake. They represent doldrums of the narrative which ultimately serve a purpose but often feel like asides.
In general, Mogworld and Jam both feel like great ideas with too little structure. Remove the extraneous stuff and both would end up being dreadfully short. Given Yahtzee’s manifestly busy life as gamer, reviewer and columnist, one suspects that he had limited time to dedicate to editing. With more time invested, Yahtzee could be the match of Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman.
Given my high regard for his work, it seems odd to find myself somewhat let down, but his own example is to always point out the flaws, the better to see them someday improved upon.
Both are fun, but unless you are a gamer, only Jam is likely to commend itself. It is, in any case, the better-written and conceived of the two, as well as being extremely funny, but unlike some of the Zero Punctuation videos, neither is burdened down with sexual innuendo or swearing. Definitely light, but definitely fun.