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Press Start to Play
edited by Daniel H Wilson and John Joseph Adams
Vintage, $15.95, 528pp
Published: August 2015

I liked the idea of this anthology; of short stories which aim 'to recreate the feel of a video game in prose form,' as John Joseph Adams ably puts it in his introduction. The video game industry is a behemoth, one that puts literature, music and even film to shame. Many of our cultural icons nowadays come from video games, so I'd argue that an anthology like this is long overdue.

Unfortunately, it starts rather poorly. The first two stories, one from co-editor Daniel H Wilson and another from Charles Yu, feel like they were knocked out in one sitting without any real thought, just to throw into an anthology. Fortunately, it picks up notably from there.

Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 'Respawn' is an enticing tale of death and respawning that riffs on the ideas featured in 'All You Need is Kill,' his 2009 novel that was filmed as 'Edge of Tomorrow.' It didn't knock my socks off but it refreshed my faith in the book having possibility and it added a neat cultural shift in the process.

And then two stories captivated me: S R Mastrantone's 'Desert Walk' and 'Rat Catcher's Yellows' by Charlie Jane Anders. These stories are exactly what I hoped to find in this anthology even through my sinking feeling that it might carry on as it began.  'Desert Walk' is an odd tale that uses video games not only as a subject but also the springboard for an exploration of obsession and a gradual slide from the utterly banal to the horrifically surreal. My video gaming days are mostly long behind me, as I gave up after Quake 3's extra dimension of movement gave me motion sickness; but I found a great deal with which to identify in this story. While it's a prime candidate for expansion, it also says precisely what it needs to say and stands well as it is.

'Rat Catcher's Yellows' is even better, because it imaginatively takes the concept of games not as mere entertainment but also as therapy and hurls that into a world that's both fascinating and acutely painful. The title refers not to a game but a disease, which often causes neurological damage. The focal point of the story is a young lady and her wife; the latter is no longer able to even recognise the former, but the hope is that playing a MMORPG called 'Divine Right of Cats' through cutesy immersive tech and laced with customisations to remind her of her real life, will help her. It does, but not in the ways that either we or the characters in the story expect and the ramifications are a blast. This appeals to my belief that disorders are often odd specialisations and it's underpinned by a touching human story.

While 'Press Start to Play' is unable to maintain that standard for long, it does continue on with a decent selection of varied stories from authors who saw different possibilities in the theme. For instance, Holly Black's '1 Up' is a refreshingly unique murder mystery featuring four young people who know each other through gaming even though they've never met in person before, while Seanan McGuire's 'Survival Horror,,one of many short stories in her growing 'Incryptid' series, introduces a game that isn't just a game, it's also a supernatural curse.

And at this point, I'm about a third of the way into the book. Anthologies tend to be mixed bags, especially when they're the product of soliciting submissions, though a great anthologist can elevate the content. This one continues with good stories, not very good stories and stories in between, in no apparent order of quality. I couldn't determine why the editors had put these stories into this particular order, either, as there didn't seem to be rhyme nor reason to it. I won't run through all the seventeen remaining stories, merely highlight the standouts and the apparent themes.

One theme common to many stories, including 'Save Me Plz' by David Barr Kirtley, Marguerite K Bennett's 'Stats' and 'RECOIL!' by Mickey Neilson, is to blur the boundaries between real life and games. In each of these, we're not sure for a while if the characters we're following are playing a game or living a life. That only becomes clear with the progression of the stories.

Another that fits that theme is 'Gamer's End' by Yoon Ha Lee, one of two stories here whose titles neatly riff on Orson Scott Card's 'Ender's Game.' The other is Cory Doctorow's 'Anda's Game,' which is one of the few older stories trawled up into this anthology. Only this one, 'Save Me Plz' and Catherynne M Valente's 'Killswitch' date back further than the majority of stories, written in 2014 or 2015, presumably for this book.

I'd read 'Anda's Game' before, though not in its original form; I had, however, reviewed 'In Real Life', Jen Wang's adaptation of the story into graphic novel form, here at the Nameless Zine. I prefer the latter but the former is a longer, more substantial story. Synchronicity also hit on Robin Wasserman's haunting 'All of the People in Your Party Have Died,' in which she spins a very human story with a video game as an element. That game is 'Oregon Trail,' a game that my son started playing the night I read this story; I plan to let him read it, too, just to see how it resonates.

Anda's Game' also fits into another couple of themes: health issues and social issues. The latter is the point of that story, as it is with Chris Kluwe's 'Please Continue' and Ken Liu's 'The Clockwork Soldie.r. The former is explored in passing, as it is in Rhianna Pratchett's 'Creation Screen,” but health resonates out from those stories anyway.

The other common factor I saw here was that, even given such a wide variety of videogaming experiences to play with, many of the writers went back to text adventures. Perhaps that could be seen as inevitable, given that they write prose, but it's good to see that venerable genre not quite as forgotten as it might appear. '1 Up' and 'The Clockwork Soldier' are surely the most interesting takes on this, certainly above weaker stories like Chris Avellone's '<end game>', Marc Laidlaw's 'Roguelike' and Aaron Grossman's 'The Fresh Prince of Gamma World.'

The book ends on a real high note, with 'Select Character' by Hugh Howey, one of the best stories in the book and a notably strong way to wrap things up. Initially it appears to be about a husband and wife who connect through one of his videogame's, after she realises that he isn't going to laugh at her for playing it in secret and actually thinks it's rather cool; but it soon becomes deeper. It's really all about how people don't necessarily play games in the ways in which they were intended. This is a first person shooter game that mixes up war with alien invasion, but Donna doesn't shoot anyone; in fact, she actively avoids it. She finds something else in the game, which utterly bewilders her husband, and it takes her to a very cool story ending indeed.

If the downside of anthologies is that quality rarely sustains, the upside is that they often contain wonderful stories from authors that we've never read before. I'll certainly keep my eyes open for books by Howey as well as Mastrantone, Anders and Black, among others. This isn't perfect, but its five hundred pages are well worth exploring. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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