A group of friends win an opportunity to play a secret level in the virtual reality game they’re involved in. They will be compensated for their time. When death only means respawn (and pain can exit the equation at the touch of a button), what’s the worry?
The secret level turns out to be a full map populated with multiple factions already involved in an ongoing conflict. The friends join a faction. Between exploring the weapons and tech on offer (and inventing some of their own), they embark on quests on behalf of their faction.
I found ‘Arteess: Conflict’ really difficult to read. The writing didn’t trip me up. James Starling has a great sense of timing with combat and the book is peppered with plenty of feeling and humour. The camaraderie between the players is obvious. But, for me, the book lacked two essential things: back story and plot.
The characters land in this virtual reality without much explanation, which is fine. The reader quickly figures out what’s going on. In fact, some of the situational explanations are a little overlong. But we don’t have a sense of who these people really are. They have their own personalities – I warmed quickly to Splint and her love of all things explosive – but without a hint of back story, how they met and what these people mean to each other in the real world, it’s hard to appreciate how cohesive a team they are in this virtual world.
I wanted to know why they played these games. Was it just for fun, pure escapism or were they escaping something more dire in the real world? I also wondered, continually, what their bodies were doing. Who were these people that they could disappear for hours or days into a virtual reality. Did no one miss them? How did they sustain themselves? Did they live in a future where they could hook themselves into a rig that would inject fluid in one end and suck it out the other? (Gross, I know.) Or were they so obsessed with the game that their real bodies were withering and dying? Or were they merely plugged in with a headset and merrily munching Doritos between slugs of Mountain Dew? Might not seem important, but knowing a character helps the reader care for it. Understanding why they are in a particular place, doing a particular thing helps the reader understand the purpose of the story.
Which brings me to the lack of plot. ‘Arteess: Conflict’ reads like a quest log. The players venture forth to free comrades and capture territory. They survive the bombing of their base. Within the game world, they make decisions that affect future actions. But what is the point of it all? Is it just about winning the most territory? Is it just a beta-test to see whose team can come up with the most amazing new tech? What’s the story? I wondered this constantly as I read through scene after scene of gloriously detailed battle. I wanted to know why I should keep reading and then I just stopped reading, like a quest without a reward, I had no incentive to finish the book.
I did go back and finish it, just to see if my questions were answered. They were not. Frustratingly, the story ends with a teaser for another quest and the promise the ‘story’ will continue. ‘Arteess: Conflict’ is a concept that hasn’t been fully fleshed out, a story idea that needs a few more tweaks. Starling can write, definitely. But a book should be more than just words on a page.
(pub: Elsewhen Press. 256 page paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-90816-820-7. Ebook: 250 pages. £ 2.99 (UK) $ 3.99 (US). ASIN: B00E5SGJ9O)
check out website: http://elsewhen.alnpetepress.co.uk/index.php/catalogue/title/arteess-conflict/