Book Review: The God Game by Danny Tobey
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (January 7, 2020)
Length: 496 pages
Some books simply deserve five stars because of how thoroughly and overwhelmingly it hooked me. The God Game by Danny Tobey was definitely one of these, a novel which first captured my attention because of its augmented-reality gaming angle, but soon I found myself completely wrapped up in its other aspects as I ravenously devoured its pages.
Although the story largely follows a group of five gifted teenagers at a Texas high school, The God Game is a mature thriller heavily influenced by the likes of Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and the works of Stephen King. The characters are generally seen as outcasts, gifted kids who don’t really fit into any of the other social cliques, so they formed their own. Calling themselves the Vindicators, they began as a group of overachieving geeks who met frequently in the school computer lab, bonding over a love of video games and coding.
But as the teens entered their senior year, much has changed in the recent past to alter the group dynamic. Charlie, who used to be a top student, saw his life and grades spiral out of control after he lost his mother to cancer. His close friend Vanhi, whose family immigrated to the United States from India to seek a better life, has her sights set on Harvard, though one lousy grade in AP History may have just put an end to those dreams. Then there’s quiet and unassuming Kenny, an aspiring journalist who is caught up in his own troubles at home and rivalries at the student newspaper at school. Next is Alex, whose strict Asian upbringing places high expectations on education. Unfortunately though, he’s been struggling in math and every time he brings home a failing test his father beats him black and blue. And finally, there’s Peter, the charming and popular rich kid who everyone likes. He can flit from group to group, rubbing elbows with jocks and geeks alike, though secretly, the other Vindicators take some pride in the fact that out of all the social cliques on campus, Peter has chosen them.
Then one day, Peter introduces his Vindicator friends to a big secret—the G.O.D. game, an old-school style text-based program he claims is run by an A.I. chat bot that believes it is God. Once you accept the invitation to play, he explains, the game will issue instructions. Good actions by the player will earn them “Goldz” currency, used to buy perks like special privileges and rewards, while disobedience will result in “Blaxx”, demerit points that can lead to bodily harm and even death. If you win though, the A.I. promises to make all your dreams come true. Intrigued by the idea, and believing it to be just a harmless game, Charlie, Alex, Vanhi and Kenny decide to play. At first, the teens are awed by the augmented reality technology, especially once they earn special glasses so that they can be connected to the game world at all times. However, what started as a handful of innocent instructions from G.O.D. rapidly begins escalating into more dangerous, malicious, and underhanded attacks on others, including their fellow Vindicators.
The issue of moral choice plays a huge role in The God Game. Although the characters are in their late teens, their ambitions are wholly relatable, sometimes gut-wrenchingly so. After all, whether you’re a senior in high school or an adult in the workplace, deep down all human beings need and want more or less the same things: to achieve their goals and to succeed, to love and be loved in return, to gain affirmation and be accepted. What makes the game in the book so sinister is the way it feeds on the Vindicators’ worst fears while dangling their deepest desires in front of them as bait. In this way, even the brightest, most mild-mannered kids can be pressured to commit senseless violence and do the most ruthless things to get ahead.
But no doubt the driving force behind the novel is the thriller aspect of it, which on occasion crosses over into horror territory. Tobey is well-versed in AR gaming, knows his pop culture, and has clearly spent time trawling through online social media communities such as Reddit, incorporating memes and other references into The God Game. The AI entity in this story is pretty scary indeed, made omnipresent and all-powerful by the internet and the fact that more and more facets of our lives are now being supported by monitoring and reporting technology. G.O.D. has eyes everywhere, knows your likes and dislikes, your darkest secrets, and can even accurately predict your next moves. While the concept of the game and many of the scenarios in this book may seem farfetched, somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about online privacy and how information can be abused and used against you, and that part is definitely no fiction.
Still, I would recommend The God Game to fans of sci-fi, as long as you don’t expect too much in the way of explanations. Like I said, the plot can sometimes get a little over-the-top, the game itself doesn’t operate on clear rules, and the world-building surrounding it is a bit fuzzy. I also wouldn’t categorize the novel as traditional YA fiction, but if you have low tolerance for teen drama like high school crushes, bully problems, or conflicts between kids and parents, do be aware there’s quite a lot of that in here. That said, if you like stories involving crazy, out-of-control bots and AI, then you’re in for a treat, as that is the book’s most prominent theme. Fans of thrillers should take note as well, since the storytelling style is a good match for the genre. I was kept riveted by the great characters, fascinating concept, and the plot’s fast pacing, and I’m pleased to say the momentum never ends.