18 June 2012

Computer Games... in Space!

Trade paperback, 357 pages
Published 2012 (content: 2011-12)
Acquired March 2012

Read June 2012
Constellation Games: A Space Opera Soap Opera
by Leonard Richardson

What kinds of videogames would aliens make? Maybe I'm simply unaware of it, but I'm pretty sure this topic has never been tackled by science fiction before.  In Constellation Games, humanity makes contact with the Constellation, a Star Trek-esque conglomeration of alien species working together in a post-scarcity society.  The first thought of the government is that it's an invasion. The first thought of Ariel Blum, a freelance computer programmer who mostly works on a series of Brazilian games about ponies for girls, is that he wants to review the aliens' games on his blog.

Constellation Games alternates between Ariel's blog and straight first-person narration from Ariel, with chat conversations and letters and such interspersed.  The Constellation takes a multifaceted approach to their contact with Earth, and so Ariel soon finds himself in possession of a replica of a millions-of-years-old Constellation gaming console, along with tons of games.  It's a short hop from the idea of reviewing a game to porting one; he wants to help his fellow human understand aliens by releasing one of their games.

Without a doubt, the best parts of Constellation Games are the game reviews.  There are several alien species in the Constellation and we not only see games for multiple species, but games that one of those species made off another, and yet Richardson never fails to communicate the alien nature of the games while still making them seem like plausible games.  I loved these sections: the game Sayable Spice, where the player collects components of taste molecules, comes up a lot, but Blum (and Richardson) show how a good game doesn't just have an interesting mechanic; it can say something, too.  There's one bit where Ariel plays a game called Gatekeeper where you guard the boundary between life and death, "let[ting] normal traffic through, while flicking away dead people who shouldn't be living (zombies) and living people who shouldn't be dying (suicides?)" (33). Ariel's alien contact, Curic, sends him a message to dispute that they are not zombies, they're people who "want a refund." Ariel says that's the same thing, and she replies:
Curic: Zombies are fully dead people who come back to life for no reason.
What you are seeing is when one half of a person dies, the other half wants a refund.
Otherwise the entire person will die in a few hours.
ABlum: who gives out the refunds?
Curic: There are no refunds.
That's the point of the game. (35)
A whole alien biology and culture, expressed via inscrutable game mechanics!

Even aside from that, it's a surprisingly good novel.  I guess I was expecting something like Taft 2012, the last high-concept sf novel I read, but Richardson gives Blum a strong narrative voice, that while idiosyncratic, never grates, and surrounds him with characters that perhaps initially seem stereotypical, but soon begin to betray extra levels of depth, both human and alien. Tetsuo Milk, the alien paleontologist who eventually becomes a history lecturer at the University of Texas, was probably my favorite, and the transcript of his first lecture is amazing. There are even some bits that approach being genuinely moving.  It's also funny at times-- you can't underestimate the importance of that!  The Constellation are a well fleshed out group of aliens, who avoid feeling too stereotypical in their types of social interactions (I loved the idea of "overlays").

At 357 pages, the plot meanders a bit.  The back cover and some early passages imply there's a conspiracy to uncover, but that turns out to not be true at all; the plot is much more character focused.  As such, the book ends the way that people's experiences actually end: frustratingly open-ended.  What happens to Ariel and his friends next?  I find myself wanting to know, but I'm not dissatisfied with the way the book ended; it came to the exact right spot.

Constellation Games is a love letter to videogames and certain elements of geek culture, that's for sure, but it's not a polemic; it shows both the marvelous possibilities of gaming, but also how it often fails to achieve its full potential-- and why.  It's an engaging, original way to explore an alien society, but also ourselves, like all the best science fiction should.  I rocketed through it (often drawn into a chapter on the basis of just reading that next game review), and I'd happily read more sf by Richardson should he choose to write it.

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