Audiobook Review: Press Start to Play edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams
Genre: Anthology, Video Games
Publisher: Audible Studios (9/29/15)
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Narrators: A.T. Chandler, Tanya Eby, Jesse Einstein, Emily Beresford | Length: 9 hrs 32 min
At first, I was hesitant about listening to an anthology in audio format, but it actually turned out working really well! I really enjoyed how multiple narrators were involved in this project, and for the most part the actors and actresses were all well-matched to the stories they read. All the narrators delivered impressive performances, considering how not every story here was written in a conventional style, or at least in one that would easily translate to audio.
The stories themselves, though, were another matter. Press Start to Play was a good anthology, but I admit I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I’ve always been picky with short stories, but I really thought my interest in the topic of video games would help me with this one, but in the end this was just a very average collection, with most stories falling in the mediocre to good range. More disappointing is the presence of a few stories that only had a tenuous link to the subject, and even a couple that I felt had no place in an anthology that should be a celebration of video games. That said, there were a handful of exceptional ones that I felt really stood out. For a more in-depth analysis and my feelings for each story, see below:
“God Mode” by Daniel H. Wilson – 2.5 of 5 stars
The protagonist of this story is an American studying abroad in Australia. He starts dating a fellow American student named Sarah, who one day suddenly fall and hits her head, and all of a sudden the stars in the sky start disappearing. I think the ending was meant to be more heartfelt and profound, but the delivery really fell flat. Quite frankly, I was disappointed by such a mediocre opener for this anthology, and even now I can barely remember that many details from this first story.
“NPC” by Charles Yu – 2 of 5 stars
The title of this story gives us all the clues we need as to what it’s about. What happens when an NPC experiences an epiphany and isn’t sure if he wants to be something more? This was an interesting premise, but sadly neither the story nor the character was fleshed out nearly enough to be interesting.
“Respawn” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka – 3 of 5 stars
A regular guy discovers when he is killed that his consciousness has “jumped” into the body of his killer. This story reminded me a little bit of Claire North’s Touch. It was a cool concept, and I would have liked to see it carried further, but whether it really belongs in a video game themed anthology is debatable.
“Desert Walk” by S. R. Mastrantone – 4 of 5 stars
This was a nifty little ghost story, which started out one way and ended in a way I totally did not see coming. When I started this anthology, I expected to get a lot of different kinds of stories, but I admit I didn’t expect anything with a horror element. This one was pretty awesome and creepy.
“Rat Catcher’s Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders – 3 of 5 stars
One of the best things about this anthology was getting a chance to read work from authors I’ve been curious about for a long time. I enjoyed this story, at least in the beginning. It’s a quirky and interesting take on a social game and a subset of its players with a unique disease that causes dementia. I was a little disappointed by the ending, though. I’d thought there would be more and was surprised when the next story started up.
“1UP” by Holly Black – 3.5 of 5 stars
This was another story by an author I’ve wanted to check out for a while! Three teens go to the funeral one of their online gaming friends, and find a text-based game that he wrote on his computer. It turns out to be a clue to solve his apparent murder. Again, I loved the premise but this definitely would have worked better as a full-length novel. What a great YA mystery it would have made!
“Survival Horror” by Seanan McGuire – 2 of 5 stars
I suspected and later confirmed that this story is based on the world of McGuire’s InCryptid series, which I confess I know absolutely nothing about. No wonder I felt so confused. To be honest, I hate finding these types of stories in anthologies like this, because as hard as the author tries to catch you up with the world and who’s who in it, it just doesn’t feel the same. If you are familiar with InCryptic you might find yourself enjoying this one, but personally I felt no connection to any of these characters and couldn’t make myself care what happened to them.
“Real” by Django Wexler – 3.5 of 5 stars
I’m a big fan of the author, so I was pretty excited to read this. Our mysterious protagonist tries to track down the creator of a game that lets its players feel involved by using social media to discover demons and hidden runes. The idea gave me ARG vibes. A very cool story with an interesting twist ending.
“Outliers” by Nicole Feldringer – 2.5 of 5 stars
I think I would have liked this one more if I had understood it. Unfortunately, I found it a bit too technical. The main character is a woman who is obsessed with a game that tracks weather patterns for the government, and was even willing to skip her brother’s wedding to play it, which really didn’t help me sympathize with her.
“End Game” by Chris Avellone – 3.5 of 5 stars
I thought this was fun! A very interesting execution using the idea behind text-based games, but unfortunately, all the suspense eventually built up to…a fizzle. This is one of the biggest issues I find with the stories in this anthology; so few of them have real or satisfying endings.
“Save Me PLZ” by David Barr Kirtley – 4 of 5 stars
A sweet little story that starts with a young woman named Meg getting in to her car to find her ex-boyfriend, Devon. The real world and the virtual world collide as she is tasked to embark on a quest to rescue him. This was one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
“The Relive Box” by T.C.Boyle – 3.5 of 5 stars
A bittersweet story about a character obsessed with using a device called a Relive Box to keep experiencing the joys and heartbreaks of his past, meanwhile ignoring his daughter and his work in his very real present and future. I like its sad message about why we might want to relive old memories instead of going out to seize the day, creating new ones. It ended rather abruptly, which was my only criticism.
“Roguelike” by Marc Laidlaw – 4 of 5 stars
Repetitive and simple, but oh so hilarious! Again, it makes use of the text-based game format to tell a little tale about a very persistent resistance and the fates of all their doomed agents. The story reads like an elaborate joke, but I loved the punchline. I found it very enjoyable in spite of myself.
“All of the People in Your Party Have Died” by Robin Wasserman – 3.5 of 5 stars
A darkly comedic tale about The Oregon Trail as a game of life lessons to prepare you for the death of all the people you know and love to tragic accidents, and just bad shit in general. The character in this story discovers the game and becomes obsessed with it after the game starts doing strange things. I really liked where it was going, but then everything started unraveled towards the end. Definitely didn’t like the second half as much as I did the first.
“Recoil” By Micky Neilson – 4 of 5 stars
This was one of the more complete and coherent stories in this collection, and the author created a very suspenseful atmosphere to boot. Jimmy is our protagonist, staying late at the office to test a new game, and suddenly finds himself in a hostage situation. This story also had a twist ending, but this one I actually liked. Another of my favorites in this anthology.
“Anda’s Game” by Cory Doctorow – 3 of 5 stars
Anda joins a band of elite girl gamers and kicks ass in the virtual world, but in real life she is an average and unassuming schoolgirl. Her online teammates are everything to her, but then something happens that might jeopardize all her newfound happiness. An interesting story about taking a stand for what you believe in, but not one that really stood out for me.
“Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber – 3 of 5 stars
A touching but depressing story about two sisters who bond in game, but one is in a coma so she has to play via an implant in her brain. For the protagonist, this is the only way she can have any interaction with her sister. I enjoyed the premise and thought this story showed great promise, but I wish the ending had been stronger and more meaningful.
“Stats” by Marguerite K. Bennett – 3 of 5 stars
Don’t you just hate it when your stats get nerfed? The character Joey in this story is not a very nice person, so I didn’t feel too bad for him when his body started changing. I love the attitude behind this story, and it was okay in its execution.
“Please Continue” by Chris Kluwe – 1 of 5 stars
My least favorite story yet, and frankly it annoyed the hell out of me. Essentially it was a warning not to let gaming take over your life, but it came across really preachy and pretentious. The message is good, but why go about it in such a clichéd and uninteresting way? And oh, yet another unfunny application of the old “arrow to the knee” joke. How awkward. By the end, this didn’t even read like a story, more like a lecture from some nagging parent. It didn’t feel like a good fit for this anthology.
“Creation Screen” by Rhianna Pratchett – 3 of 5 stars
Speaking of stories that have messages about becoming too obsessed with gaming, here’s another one. However, it was much more creative and elegant than “Please Continue”, and the beginning actually amused me a great deal. I happen to be one of those finicky MMO players who take an inordinate amount of time trying to get my character “just right.”
“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” by Austin Grossman – 3 of 5 stars
A gamer gets transported to an alternate world which has experienced a nuclear apocalypse. It’s a pretty interesting story, though once again, it didn’t fully engage me or stand out. I enjoyed the premise and setting, and perhaps I felt a greater affinity for it since Gamma World takes place in a post-apocalyptic Boston and I happen to be neck-deep in Fallout 4 right now.
“Gamer’s End” by Yoon Ha Lee – 3 of 5 stars
The title of this story should tell you something about what it is about, i.e. the use of war games for training. Nothing much I can say about this one, other than it was okay but didn’t blow me away either, and nothing about it really stood out.
“The Clockwork Solider” by Ken Liu – 4 of 5 stars
Alex is a female bounty hunter who captures a runaway named Ryder to bring back to his family. This is the first time in this anthology where I actually felt something more than ambivalence for the characters in a story. It’s another one that uses text-based gaming for its premise, but I found it philosophically deeper and a lot more thought-provoking than all the other stories in here.
“Killswitch” by Catherynne M. Valente – 3 of 5 stars
In this story, Killswitch is a game that starts off like any other first-person adventure game. But it doesn’t end that way. I liked what this story had to say about games versus real life, about having one shot, one chance to experience a moment before it becomes a memory. I appreciated its poignant message, but for some reason I had a very hard time staying focused throughout. Maybe it’s just the style in which this story was written, but I found it really hard to connect to the prose.
“Twarrior” by Andy Weir – 3 of 5 stars
This is a real short one, and feels more like snippet or an introduction to a bigger story, but hey, it got a few laughs out of me and that counts for a lot in my books. Andy Weir is one funny guy.
“Select Character” by Hugh Howey – 4 of 5 stars
Play as thou wilt—a message I strongly support. Maybe that’s why I liked this one so much. It’s a very enjoyable story showing how different people approach games, and reminds me a lot of the conversations I’ve had with others about different gameplay styles. Only one thing matters: that you play the way you want and have fun doing it. Also, be open to other gaming styles. Sometimes when you play only one way, you might even miss things that you’d never have known until you talk to someone else who has a whole other perspective. What a great story to end the anthology.