Book Review: Mogworld

November 3, 2010

Mogworld

By Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

Published September 14, 2010

Dark Horse Books

350 pp.

ISBN 1-595-82529-0

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.

Extra Credit:

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Text-to-Screen Ratio: Dexter

May 12, 2010

(Editor’s note: there will be spoilers here, but the only things I intend to spoil are plot threads that deserve it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the good stuff hidden in a rosewood box inside the air conditioner)

Due to the difference in each medium’s scope, it isn’t often you see books adapted for television. Novels – and films to some extent – are self-contained works with a set beginning and end, while a television series that airs multiple episodes a season is a living entity that often evolves weekly with changes in cast or writers. Additionally, books aren’t usually facing up against yearly battles for renewal, and shows rarely have the luxury of limiting themselves to one source of material unless they’re committing themselves to a limited run or miniseries.

Consequently, mainstream television shows that do use books as their inspiration have a few options if they want to stay alive. They can either leap away from their origin story and create a new world to operate in, such as FOX’s “Bones” (based on Kathy Reichs’ series of novels); they can rely on an extensive library of source material to keep a story rolling, such as the “Jeeves and Wooster” series; or they can bank on a really interesting main character to push it through, as is the case with Showtime’s “Dexter.” Likely the most successful contemporary show based on a book (specifically, Jeff Lindsay’s series of thriller novels), “Dexter” is interesting because it manages to show not only how an adaptation can be hampered by its source material but also how it can rise above it.

Both versions of the story maintain the core plot structure. Dexter Morgan, a forensic scientist with the Miami Metro Police Department, is a completely normal citizen except for one rather glaring difference: he kills people. Traumatized in his youth by an unknown horror, Dexter is a sociopath devoid of emotion who only feels alive when taking someone’s life. Nurtured closely by his cop father Harry, Dexter has channeled these urges into a form of community service, only killing those who are themselves killers, and arranging the events so precisely that he is never even considered a suspect.

Only the first season and the first book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” have major similarities and plot threads, focusing on an uprooting of Dexter’s status quo when a new serial killer enters the picture who seems to have very detailed knowledge of his bloody activities. Dexter’s chameleon-like life and bloody extracurriculars are adapted faithfully, though (understandably) with a bit less emphasis on torture – kills are handled swiftly and mostly out of sight, with a more orderly cleanup rather than the improvisation of the book. All main characters are also present, including his foul-mouthed ambitious sister Deborah, his loyal and damaged girlfriend Rita, the suspicious Sergeant Doakes, man-eating Lieutenant LaGuerta, dutiful homicide detective Angel Batista and smarmy lab assistant Vince Masuka.

But fittingly for a show and novel with a titular character, it’s that character that makes or breaks the story – and it’s hard to think of how “Dexter” could do better than Michael C. Hall. I’ve preached on his merits in my Capturing the Voice column, but suffice to say he continues to prove his worthiness to stand alongside the strongest central male leads. Slightly goofy when interacting with the rest of the world, coldly brutal when hunting and detached in inner monologues, Hall delivers on each side of Dexter’s persona in a very convincing manner. The monologues in particular exhibit the flow of words that make Lindsay’s novels devourable, particularly the first book and its sequel “Dearly Devoted Dexter.” In fact, Lindsay has gone on record as saying that seeing Hall’s performance was “a jaw-dropping experience… he really nailed it” and that he consults the actor while writing new books.

Of course, Hall’s position as the show’s center has also been accentuated by a frequently limp supporting cast – an issue that highlights the core problem with making a TV show (or even a movie) out of a first-person book. The novel focuses solely on one character’s views and actions, with other characters defined only in their interaction to the narrator, while the B story and C story subplots that form the structure of conventional television have to develop those characters independently. As a consequence, characters have to branch out in ways their creator never intended them to, and in “Dexter’s” case they never quite seem to escape their one-dimensional nature.

The show makes an effort to expand these characters beyond the templates Lindsay created, but the results tend to be hit-or-miss. Dexter’s sister Debra, portrayed as a more soured individual in the books, is carried competently by Jennifer Carpenter as “dearly damaged Debra,” her constant swearing betraying the damage of an absentee father. However, when they try to push her too heavily out of her comfort zone, such as her dalliance with a much older FBI agent in season 2 that has some seriously cringe-worthy scenes (I don’t need to see Keith Carradine smacking the ass of a woman half his age).

Again, the characters that work do so because of their defined reaction to Dexter and how much that relationship diverges from the book. Erik King as Doakes makes an excellent “panther” stalking Dexter (if only because I feel he needs his own blacksplotation film on the strength of how he says “motherfucker”), and Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is smarmy enough that he matches Dexter’s book observation that he also seems to be pretending to be normal. Conversely, David Zayas and Lauren Velez never seem to have enough to do as Batista and Masuka respectively, and their subplots feel scattered like bags of body parts thrown into the Atlantic. Julie Benz as Rita probably gets closer to him than others, but when her ex-husband or mother come in there’s a lot of angst that seems to detract from the way the character works.

But while “Dexter” as a show has its share of storytelling cracks, in many ways it’s still stronger than its source material, chiefly because that source material has been on a downward slope. The “Dexter” novels, after two very entertaining outings, fell victim to what video game journalist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw dubbed Indigo Prophecy Syndrome in his video review of “Condemned 2: Bloodshot”:

“The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy Syndrome is a plot that in the second half goes what is medically known as ‘snooker-loopy,’ with lesser symptoms including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their ass.”

This description could almost verbatim be defining the critical failures of “Dexter in the Dark,” the third book in the series, which decides on a new twist for the “Dark Passenger” metaphor Dexter gives his murderous urges. In this book, it turns out that his Dark Passenger is in fact a shard of the dark god Moloch, and a cult that worships the god is tracking him in an effort to recapture this entity, and they do so by bringing him to their temple on an island to be sacrificed in a flaming pit – okay, I’m going to break character and stop here because now that I’ve typed it it sounds even stupider than it did upon first reading. Anyways.

The fourth book “Dexter by Design” tried to remedy this by treating the earlier book as if it didn’t happen, but Dexter felt like he’d lost something as a character, stumbling when he came to difficult circumstances and without the cool patience and resourcefulness that had been one of his strengths in the earlier books. Plus, with a fifth upcoming volume that will be using cannibalism as a main plot point (titled “Dexter is Delicious”), the books are quite clearly trying to push the envelope a bit too far in an effort to keep the character interesting.

“Dexter” on TV, meanwhile, never took that tact with the character’s homicidal leanings but rather took on aspects of a psychological study. Season 2 dealt with several jars to Dexter’s previously unflappable perception of himself and his code, while Season 3 saw him dealing with his impending fatherhood and the fact that another man had discovered his secret. Thanks largely to Hall’s performance, the show takes on elements of a character study that deals with questions of addiction and parental obligation, never divorcing itself from reality or going to the pulp extremes of the book. Dexter feels more like a character that can be rooted for despite his horrific acts, someone you want to come out on top and keep doing what he does – a depth his novel incarnation always felt divorced from.

At the close of “Dexter’s” second season finale, Dexter makes the observation that his experiences have changed him from the template killer he always saw himself as, “an idea transformed into life” – and that descriptor applies neatly to what the show has done for the character and storyline. Despite the burdens of poor plotting, Hall and the writers have carried Dexter to a new dimension past the alliterative killer the books introduced him as. Several critics have complained that the show feels somewhat strained the longer it goes on and the more situations Dexter gets out of, but it’s a world worth immersing oneself in – as long as they can avoid the Babylonian gods.

Extra Credit:

  • For exceptionally solid writing on “Dexter” the show (including examples of that critical complaint I mentioned in the last paragraph), check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog and the A.V. Club’s reviews. Spoilers abound, so be cautious.

Links of Literacy: Good News in the Book World

December 15, 2009

As I spend my nights carving into a pile of articles sure to challenge your perceptions on literature (or at least tell you what I think of various books and films based on books), a few things that make me happy have popped up in the world of bibliographic news. I would like to share them with you in the hopes they bring you good cheer in this holiday season.

1. Yahtzee moves to maximum punctuation!

Dark Horse Books have quite a reputation in the world of graphic novels – Sin City, The Mask and Hellboy are only a few of the unique intellectual properties that have been distributed under their imprints – and now it appears they have a solid stake in traditional literature. This October it was announced that their stable of authors will be joined by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, creator of the Escapist video game review series “Zero Punctuation,” with his debut novel “Mogworld” in August of 2010.

In Yahtzee’s own words from his website:

Mogworld is the culmination of a few years’ work from an idea that took root back when I was playing World of Warcraft. It’s NOT a graphic novel, as you might assume from Dark Horse publishing it. It’s a proper wordy thinky brainy book. I feel that if I give myself free reign to go on about it here I’ll end up calling it a lot of pretentious things that it isn’t, so at the most basic level it’s a fun little comedic fantasy. But it’s also a bit of a satire on MMOs, the games industry, and the concept of heroism, and incorporates perhaps a hint of existentialism WHOOPS there I go.

I personally could not be happier about this – not only because Dark Horse is based in Portland and I support any and all creative minds who find links to the city. Yahtzee’s ZP videos were an endless distraction for me during my darker unemployed days, and his writing style has been a considerable influence both in my critical and humorous writings (as you may have noticed in the more colorful analogies I try to insert, as well as more subtle ways). I’ve enjoyed many of the longer pieces on his website – even though he disowns much of his early work they’re worth skimming – and his weekly “Extra Punctuation” column on the Escapist shows his thought processes and writing techniques are far more advanced than simply swearing at Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, August 2010 – mark your calendars for that. I believe this is a book worth anticipating, even though Yahtzee has called hype an invention of mean-spirited marketing executives who never discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

2. Natalie Portman aims for the head!

While I heard author Seth Grahame-Smith dropping hints about this during his book tour (mostly mumbling titles like “The Professional” and “Garden State” when asked about films) it’s a relief to see the formal news break. Natalie Portman, star of films as diverse as “V for Vendetta” and “The Darjeeling Limited” has been tapped to play the lead role in the film adaptation of the critically acclaimed title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

I’m slightly disappointed that my original idea of reuniting the original cast of the 2005 film in a brilliant burst of metahumor won’t come to fruition, but I have nothing to complain about with the selection of Portman. An actress who can move from drama to action films seamlessly – and survive the briny slop that was the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy – I have no doubt she has the talent and charisma to be on par with the college girls and amputee strippers who thrive in the zombie apocalypse.

At least I hope we’ll have a chance to find out. The film is pegged as in development with a potential 2011 release, and any number of things could happen between now and then. Hopefully this won’t wind up eternally in development hell, unlike some other book adaptations I’ve been waiting around for.