Published September 14, 2010
Reviewed November 3, 2010
Anyone taking a first glance at “Mogworld” could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how to take it. First, it springs from the mind of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, best known as the creator of the video series Zero Punctuation, where the emphasis is less on dialogue and narrative flow and more on seeing how many obscene game-related jokes can be packed into five minutes. Secondly, it’s published by Dark Horse Books, a company whose stables are populated by legendary comic series like “Hellboy” and “Sin City” but are virtually devoid of non-graphic novels. It seems like an outlier within an outlier, and even with the impressive resumes on each side it remains uncharted territory for both.
But much as ZP’s rapid-fire simply animated style is only the shell for some truly well-considered gaming criticism, and Dark Horse’s comic book image might obscure the brilliance of its narratives, “Mogworld’s” murky origin hides what it really is – a remarkably clever novel that not only digs at the tropes of fantasy gaming but also tells a nuanced tale of unwilling heroism. It’s a book incredibly strong in both gaming humor and British humor, and while it might not win many audiences outside of that realm it’s guaranteed to please those within it.
“Mogworld” centers on the unwanted unlife of Jim, a sorcery student killed in battle and wrenched back to life by a necromancer bent on world domination. Unable to return to death’s embrace no matter how many times he throws himself off a tower, and put out of his rat-pit tending job by a series of cataclysmic events, he finds himself drawn to the mystery of angelic white “Deleters” that are reducing entire sections of the world to nothingness. As he follows them in the desperate hope of being deleted himself, he sees that not only does the rest of the world share his immortality but that the world’s very structure seems to be unraveling – almost as if someone forgot to finish it.
And it’s those cracks in the world that provide the book’s first layer of humor. “Mogworld’s” setting subscribes to the same sense of humor as fantasy webcomics such as Rob Balder’s “Erfworld” and Rich Burlew’s “Order of the Stick,” in that the world’s natural laws would better fit into a Dungeons and Dragons manual. The spirits of the dead have to float their way to temples to come back to life, and become understandably grouchy as they wait their turn. Resident adventurers approach anyone who’s standing still and demand quests, but are more concerned with “points” awarded than the actual gold.
These are standard tropes to anyone who’s played a roleplaying game, but when presented through Jim’s disbelieving eyes they take on an added dimension of absurd hilarity. Jim’s take on these events will instantly be familiar to ZP viewers or readers of “Extra Punctuation” columns, as “Mogworld” is written in the same first-person style – and even contains a few references to its shorter predecessors. The book retains Croshaw’s distinctive caustic attitudes, but it quickly dispels any notion that he can only work in a shorter medium. The narration’s fast-paced tone means that it doesn’t get bogged down in heavy levels of backstory, and his dismissive attitudes against romance and authority figures add a definite edge to the standard fantasy setting. The colorful analogies might fly a bit too freely for some – without the visual aids of a ZP video they border on repetitive – but they’re not detrimental to the narrative and never lack for inventiveness, such as “a noise like the enthusiastic mating of giant stone golems” or a comparison between zombie flesh and apple turnovers.
It also helps that as the story progresses, the analogies take a backseat to character interactions, and it’s here that Croshaw really surprises. Jim’s world-weary tones form the foundation of the conversations, but the cast of characters – ranging from a bubbly female zombie to a shifty rogue marrying a comatose adventurer to a psychopath killing himself out of sheer boredom – are all well-realized and bounce off each other in an unforced manner. The dialogue is sharply written, owing quite a bit to the dry British wit of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse but made its own entity by its very dark sense of humor. None of these characters are heroes or even vaguely heroic – they’re all just dealing with the world the best way they know how, and that makes them more convincing as characters.
And the narrative strength makes for the most satisfying aspect of “Mogworld.” Croshaw has long railed against the poor storytelling endemic to the video game industry, and the book’s character and setting arcs prove he’s taken their lessons of what not to do to heart. When the boundaries between Jim’s world eventually break and the truth begins to enter into his world, the transition feels far more organic than expected from such a drastic shift. There are a series of climaxes in the later chapters, each one more gripping than the last, and Jim’s observations in the final chapter form a satisfying and legitimately touching conclusion to the story.
It’s uncommon for any first novel to have such a well-conceived storyline – even moreso when the creator’s most famous achievement averages a dick joke a minute – but “Mogworld” manages to take Croshaw’s writing to a new level while maintaining the wit and spirit that makes Zero Punctuation such a success. The majority of its humor may be lost on anyone without at least passing familiarity with that series or gaming culture, but it will hook fans of those elements within the first three chapters and its story and language are likely strong enough to net other readers. It’s entertaining, it’s immersive and all the other words games so desperately try to earn from Croshaw’s reviews – a book that proves he has the talent to back up what he says about storytelling.