Thursday, July 26, 2007

Novel Quest

GAME QUEST by Leopold McGinnis

(A Review by King Wenclas.)

I wasn't raised with computers. I grew up tinkering with cars. Computers were a strange mystery to me. The question was how to enter into them-- how to grasp, unlearned, their codes, symbols, and language?

I've never played a computer video game.

Game Quest is an excellent novel, likely the best novel yet written about the computer gaming industry, but I had a difficult time entering its narrative-- like trying to navigate on-line when you don't know what you're doing.

This novel's strength is narrative, yet author Leopold McGinnis wastes the first three chapters failing to leave a proper thread for the reader to enter that narrative.

One can see his strategy. The book opens with computer gaming talk designed to appeal to computer gamers. Non-Gamers are alienated.

"The Sea Hag stands cackling at the cave entrance, her green knobbly hands clasped together with evil, arthritic glee.

"'You'll never find Princess Shareen now! Ha ha ha ha!' The sorceress has just spirited her away to the palace. . . ."


(What is this: Harry Potter?)

It's clear McGinnis is trying to give a sense of what video game playing is like. In retrospect it works-- but not when a new reader is first encountering the book.

For me, the second and third chapters didn't do it either. I found nothing there I wanted to read.

Only with Chapter Four, after numerous tries, did I discern an entrance into the game. An employee at Madrea, THE major game company, sits at a meeting having been up all night playing a product of their major competitor. Personalities around the table become identifiable. Possible conflicts, rumbles of dilemmas, appear at the table. The narrative begins to take shape.

The book quickly develops two main narrative threads. They're good ones.

Most compelling is the on-line romance between Heather Roberts, daughter of Madrea's founder, and a young wonder-kid from another company. McGinnis uses Walter Scott-style tricks of hidden identity updated to the 21st century. No, it's not a disguised Ivanhoe at a joust, but it's very exciting.

McGinnis's characters, especially Heather, are believable and appealing, NOT flat video-game simulations.
* * * * * * *
As an art form the novel is the greatest video game, a journey into the mind; the most complicated and compelling adventure. The quest of the novelist is to take readers through pathways of his knowledge, memory, and imagination, and in the process, hopefully, tell us about life, the world, truth, and people.
* * * * * * *
The other plot thread involves Heather's father, Will Roberts, in battle for control of the company he founded. As his daughter Heather's young life reaches a climax, so does the life of Madrea Games as it faces an attempted takeover by a larger corporation. ("Tray Cool," a consultant examining Madrea and its staff for coolness, is a deadly and hilarious characterization.)

The novel of narrative is like a chess game. It should begin with a strong opening then quickly lay down its strategy, setting up moves which won't appear until much later in the game.

McGinnis is a master at the middle game-- keeping his material together, weaving his plotlines into the general flow, maintaining momentum, slowly but steadily increasing the drama.

While the finish is anti-climactic, it's logically derived from what went before. The author never loses control of his material (as so many popular novelists like Michael Crichton regularly lose control, wasting good scenarios in flurries of ridiculous and illogical climaxes).

This is a serious novel, artistically sound, knowledgeable about the business world, addressing in an exciting way the real-world issue of the monopolization of business and culture.

Are takeovers good for creativity? Game Quest shows one instance when they're not.

At the end of the tale, McGinnis presents the other side of the debate-- the monopoly point-of-view. We realize the question isn't black and white. The reader is more sympathetic with Will Roberts, the original entrepreneur. At least I was.

Roberts's vision created Madrea, yet it's this vision, this instinctive knowledge, which is dismissed by Johnny-Come-Lately know-it-all outsiders, who assume they know better than he how to run his creation.

Are they wrong? The narrative says, about the company, "You have gains and you have fallbacks." Was Madrea merely at a temporary flat spot-- or would the outsiders' predictions of decline and failure have come true? The reader will never know.

Game Quest is a fascinating look at business in the postindustrial era. Leopold McGinnis understands the essence of the novel, seeing the big picture, holding that picture in its totality in his head and not allowing the structure, the form, to fall apart. McGinnis isn't a stylist-- his prose is clear and serviceable, but not spectacular. He's a novelist. The long form is his metier. He shouldn't stray from it.

It's a cliche to say this about a young novelist: If he can write a novel this good, he can write a better one. If he can improve his openings. . . .