Computer games resemble novels to the extent that both are narrative art forms that most people, most of the time, interact with alone. On the other hand, most computer games are no longer text-based. And with most novels you don’t have to get the protagonist to solve a puzzle or kill a certain number of bad guys before you can progress to the next chapter. But there is a place where narrative text and even the most bewilderingly multimedia computer game meet: the walkthrough. If you can’t be bothered to solve all those problems yourself, or you find yourself completely stuck, you can be sure that there’ll be someone out there who’s enough of a show-off to have written a step-by-step guide to completing the game and posted it on the internet.
Tim Etchells’s new novel, The Broken World, takes the form of a walkthrough for the fictional computer game that shares its title. ‘This is the first walkthrough that I ever wrote and I hope you can forgive any error in my advice or in the English.’ Some of the problems faced by the writer of a walkthrough are the same as those confronting a novelist: ‘I have kind of a problem with DETAIL. Like I cannot figure out which details really matter and which it’s better to ignore.’ As it goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that as a walkthrough the narrative is beyond inadequate: it skips over crucial episodes, promising to return to them later or simply telling readers to work those bits out for themselves. The narrator, an anonymous young man in an anonymous town somewhere in America, is also endlessly distracted from the game by the even more intractable problems of the rest of his life: his dead-end job manning the phones at a third-rate pizza joint, his shaky relationship with his girlfriend, the antics of his unstable friends.
All this mundane, irrelevant stuff makes its way into the walkthrough because, so Etchells would have us believe, the prose is entirely unedited, uncorrected and unrevised. The narrator simply bangs out whatever is uppermost in his mind and posts it straight onto the net. His keyboard occasionally gets stuck in caps lock mode, but rather than change the affected words to lower case he writes ‘fucking capslock’ in brackets and keeps going. When Microsoft Word crashes and he loses a document before he’s able to put it online – ‘the stuff I wrote is shredded to fuck’ – he simply posts the corrupted file instead, nine pages of nonsense punctuated by intermittent sentence fragments: ‘because she is blind . . . nightvision and tracer fire . . . crawling. craWLING . . . rooftop//swimmingpool’. He never bothers to ask the software to check his spelling: he just puts ‘I don’t know how to spell it’ in brackets if he’s not sure about a word. Usually he’s right about being wrong. Once, however, in a nice touch of authenticity on Etchells’s part, he apologises for his correct spelling of ‘anxiousness’.
The unprocessed stream of consciousness doesn’t make the narrator popular among his would-be readers within the novel, which is to say people looking for help with The Broken World. He receives a growing number of sarcastic, angry and even threatening emails. ‘No solution to the Gridlock Puzzle? Ha Ha’ is the subject line of one of the more harmless ones; somebody calling himself Marvel F. Killer Rifle says: ‘YOU ARE GONNA GET IT.’ But for readers of Etchells’s novel, the unfolding personal disasters of the narrator’s life maintain the momentum of the story. Will he get sacked from Domenico’s? Will his girlfriend leave him? If so, will she come back? And what exactly has happened to his depressive friend Brainiac, who vanished so abruptly the evening after another friend’s funeral? For a long time the narrator seems bizarrely untroubled by Brainiac’s disappearance. It would be easy to interpret this as denial, or as the failing grip on reality of someone who spends too much time playing computer games, but perhaps the narrator should be trusted to know his friends better than the reader does.
The vicissitudes of loserdom are described with wit and self-awareness. ‘I admit it tho, I’m getting too distracted now. Jesus. It’s not like a walkthrough anymore – more like a forum for some guy with Attention Deficit Disorder.’ The occasional descents into self-pity are brief, and sometimes even conscientiously flagged: ‘Anyone that doesn’t want to read just personal stuff please go ahead and skip it.’ The narrative voice is funny, likeable and impressively consistent, though Etchells has come up with an ingenious way of shoehorning in a few literary effects when he wants them: the narrator lifts uncharacteristic passages of lyrical description from other websites dedicated to The Broken World, and there are allusions in the game to The Waste Land, The Trial and Bleak House, which the narrator quotes but confesses himself baffled by.
Etchells has long been interested in the idea of guides to things that don’t exist, or fictional sets of instructions. The Dream Dictionary for the Modern Dreamer (2001) is an encyclopedia purporting to explain what it means when you dream about such things as karaoke machines, broken freezers, coins in a urinal, the former Soviet Union or a change in housing benefit regulations. In the late 1990s Etchells devised a complicated set of rules for a satirical drinking game to be played while watching the news: ‘for any footage labelled as “amateur video”, all drink a pernod’; ‘for footage of men or women in spacesuits, drink gin and tonic, take off an item of clothing and kiss the person to the left.’ The social awkwardness that would be involved if some of the instructions were followed to the letter (‘for a churchman or churchwoman talking about morality, boys fuck the person to their left’; ‘for an item on the Spice Girls or other supposedly nubile girl pop sensation, everybody masturbate’), not to mention the game’s absurd complexity, mean that it’s unlikely ever to be played in earnest.
The Broken World is a computer game that could exist only inside another work of fiction. It’s like Doom, Tomb Raider, Second Life, Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt 2 and every other game you have or haven’t heard of rolled into one: not so much a computer game as the sum of all computer games, the silicon equivalent of Borges’s Aleph. ‘The whole game has seven or eleven (or fifteen) levels, depending how you look at it. Of course there are always more levels that appear as options plus sublevels, bonus and hidden levels. It’s hard to keep track.’ Half the time your avatar is a man called Ray; half the time it’s his girlfriend, Rachel. The game’s sprawling vastness and the lack of clarity as to its final aim mean that trying to write a walkthrough was always going to be a quixotic enterprise. ‘It is a world, not a game of snakes and ladders.’
Parts of the game sound as if they would be both numbingly tedious and impossible to play, though for Etchells the frustration is the point. In the section known as ‘The Crowded Earth’, which sounds like a variation on Second Life, Ray has to find one person among millions who will give him a secret code. Who it is changes each time you play, and could be anyone. There are no clues. It could take years. Ray usually dies first. Computer games, like movies and novels, tend to skip over the boring bits when nothing of consequence happens. Not The Broken World, which involves an inordinate amount of hanging about. ‘Try talking to people in the Market or in the long depressing queues that you find at the Petrol-ration depots all over the place – you will certainly have time to kill in those lines.’
Playing the game disturbs the narrator’s sense of time passing in the real world, too, as he hunches over his keyboard, alone in his apartment with the curtains drawn, not having eaten or slept for too long:
No light coming in from outside except just like tiny cracks to remind you that it’s probably still day out there . . . The day is still young and I’m already confused. The clocks in the apt are either showing the wrong time or else flashing 0:00:00 like after a power-out, but I’m not fooled coz I can still tell what time it is, bro, just from looking at the TV. I MEAN, DEPENDING ON THE KIND OF PROGRAM THAT’S ON on DIFFERENT CHANNELS YOU CAN PRETTY MUCH TELL THE TIME LIKE IN THE OLD TIMES WHEN PEOPLE USED TO LOOK AT THE SKY TO TELL THE TIME. (OK. Capslock was jammed again – if this continues to get worse I’ll have to finish the whole freakin walkthrough in SHOUTING mode.)
The various layers of his reality bleed into one another. Once he thinks he sees the delivery guy from Domenico’s in one of Rachel’s dreams in The Broken World, though he knows ‘that’s impossible.’ He receives an email from someone calling himself Geronimo who ‘claimed that he came by Domenico’s yesterday to “see me personally and sort out some things” and adding that I “wasn’t there” but he will “for sure come round another time; and bring a baseball bat”.’ The narrator chooses to believe, or hopes, that this is impossible too.
If he sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between the different worlds he inhabits – the ‘real world’ of pizzas, low pay and untidy apartments; The Broken World; the internet – that is partly because they are in fact inseparable. The narrator can be playing The Broken World, talking to his girlfriend and instant-messaging a friend across town all at the same time, simultaneously inhabiting all three realms. And what happens in each of them affects what happens in the others. This isn’t to say that they’re all the same. Things can be real in the real world in a way that has no meaning in the game. One of the narrator’s friends says that a flower in the game ‘is plastic, not even real’, but this is a nonsensical claim: since the ‘flower’ consists only of pixels, the material that those pixels represent is endlessly open to interpretation. The narrator is occasionally sickened by the explicit depictions of slaughter in The Broken World, but he knows the difference between a fictional death and a real one. One thing that The Broken World thankfully isn’t about is whether or not computer games are somehow bad for you. Things that certainly are bad for you, it suggests, are the grind of pizza-parlour wage-slavery and the occupational hazards faced on a daily basis by bike messengers.