The Broken World by Tim Etchells (Shane's book 35, 2008)

The majority of this novel takes the form of a videogame walkthrough, by which I mean an online article written to help computer gamers who are stuck. The article 'walks them through' the solutions, helping them to complete the game. The author of this particular walkthrough is so obsessed with his guide to The Broken World, a sprawling, ludicrously complex game, that it begins to affect his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. It becomes the only topic of conversation with his friends, one of whom seems precariously balanced on the edge of reality. We know this because his private life gradually consumes more and more of the walkthrough, to the irritation of some of his readers.

[amtap book:isbn=0434018333]

It's an interesting concept and I'm always keen to read books that use unorthodox narrative structures but The Broken World is a failure. The sloppiness of the walkthrough itself, which gives detailed descriptions of cut-scenes (those in-game movies that players can't influence and would never need help with) and skips over complicated puzzles (which players almost certainly would need help with), can perhaps be blamed on our unreliable narrator. It seems he's as hopeless at writing walkthroughs as he is at managing the rest of his life.

Harder to explain is the game, The Broken World. It's absurdly constructed, packing in every videogame cliche alongside some genuinely clever ideas that would be impossible to achieve on any gaming platform that exists today - and in some cases are simply unimaginable as gaming concepts. This is important because it raises the question of how seriously we're supposed to take the game. Is it a satire on those videogames that consume the lives of their players or is the story within the game meant to act as some kind of counterpoint to the book's 'real world' story? If it's the former, then the game doesn't need as much space in the book as it gets and if it's the latter then the game simply isn't plausible enough to do the emotional job required of it.

I can't think of a way that it can work as both. Perhaps it works better if you've wasted less of your life playing videogames than I have.

The fact that the book is written in the narrator's sloppy English or, I should say, slightly unconvincing American, robs it of any literary power or skill. This puts a lot of pressure on the plot to deliver. It doesn't.

I didn't particularly care what happened to the main character. He comes across as a fool who is screwing his life up without noticing but he's not a dislikeable fool. The trouble is, nothing that happens to him seems to carry much consequence. There was no narrative tension and I never felt curious to know what would happen next.

The idea at the heart of this book is an interesting one and I really wanted to like it. It's had some very positive reviews online but for me it failed on every level.