Sunday, April 14, 2013

Twistaplot #7 The Video Avenger

Video games are the greatest human invention, ever. They transport us to wonderful worlds of fantasy and wonder, worlds rich in horrific imagery, morbid violence and shoe-horned in for no good reason sexual content. They allow ten-year-olds we've never met to yell semi-coherent profanity, improperly applied racial slurs and other assorted gibberish at us through special headsets. They encourage a culture of inactivity, social retardation and binge eating. But it's all worth it because it sure is fun to pretend to shoot stuff on the television.

I'm an old school gamer at heart, cutting my teeth on cigarette-burned Ms. Pac Man cabinets at the local bowling alley. Back then home consoles were crude and unimpressive, so the action was out in what today's gamer fearfully calls "the real world." It was even kind of edgy, in an awesome "falling in with the bad people" way instead of the pathetic "sat in own waste in front of television for 72 hours" malfunction now associated with joy-sticking. Back then we could only dream of somehow taking the magic of the arcade into our own house, possibly via some sort of super-computer. Well, today's subject is all about that idea and how it goes horribly wrong. We're about to unlock an achievement: getting trapped inside awesome video games!

 I like the "avenger" part, as if you're seeking bloody retribution against the Space Invaders.

We start with trademark Twist-A-Plot snark. I've won a "super-smart" MEE-II (get it?) computer from the local Burger Bomb. "Those 4,789 cheeseburgers you ate paid off!" I'm told. Yup, that sounds like your typical video gamer. Surprisingly, in the accompanying illustration the "you" avatar is thin, which suggests that either there's some sort of super-metabolism going on here, that childhood obesity did not exist yet in 1983 America so the illustrator couldn't even imagine what it would look like, or I'm on the old scarf 'n' barf diet.

Another "Mallet University" Snob. I'd love to take that Beaver League stuffed shirt down a few pegs!

What would you do with a super-powerful, self-aware computer? Make a fortune from insider trading? Conquer the world? Create the world's most comprehensive pornography collection? Obviously, none of the above. No, it's time to play some Death-Beam Dinosaurs. Yes, this came out in 1983, why do you ask? Anyway, there's no controller, but The Computer gets all televangelist on you and wants you to touch the screen. As you would assume, this immediately sucks you into the game.

I just had a word of knowledge...someone is struggling with death-beam dinosaurs.

The computer explains that if I die in the game I'll die for real and is all "good luck!" I'm in a spaceship being menaced by a seven-headed dinosaur, presumably a dinosaur of the death-beam variety. In fine "Defender" tradition I hit the hyperspace button. This takes me to the "inner circuits," which, as you might expect, is a giant landing strip for video game space ships. After landing I follow a "strange woman" because why wouldn't you?

This leads to falling down a "long black hole," but it's not nearly as righteous as I accidentally made it sound. Instead I meet a sort of computerized La Resistance that are hiding out in "a forgotten packet of circuitry," presumably the circuits that are used for running that financial program that comes packed in. I'm told some of these digitized partisans helped to build the computer. Whoa. That's some good irony, dude. They're all "join us!" 

Are you bad enough to select O RLY?

Without any better options, I agree to join. The plan is to have a gamer "distract" the computer with their leet Space Invaders SkIlLz while they shut the computer down. Yes, the computer knows they're going to try to do this, but is so overconfident that it doesn't stop it. Yeah, good plan. They immediately start proposing the I be the "human sacrifice." (!!!) Yup, I know how to pick 'em. Unsurprisingly, I opt out for a "better idea" without even knowing what it is yet. 

The other plan involves challenging the computer to a game and then "playing dumb" which will somehow trick an emotionless, super-intelligent machine. I think the mystery of how all these people got trapped in here has been solved. We go round and round a bit more. Man, this book has turned into "The Local City Council Meeting Avenger." Anyway, I get randomly assigned my "game assignment," I guess like those Chinese political prisoners that are forced to play online games all day. 

Action! Adventure! Plans! Negotiation! 

I'm led to a darkened room where an object that looks a little like a flashlight (just a little?) is on the floor. I'm supposed to use it for the game. It's some sort of laser, but I'm getting rushed by "hairy lumps." Yes, I'm battling Critters. As I start fighting I realize what game I'm in: "Last Stand in Space." Everything was space in the eighties. Also this is bad news because it's "the hardest video game of all." No one has ever defeated the "Mad Munchers" (!) and I'm no exception, being devoured in fairly short order. Game over.

The real "last stand" video game.

This one was all right. It benefited from having fewer self-aware jokes than the last Twist-A-Plot book I read, which helped a pretty risible plot line. The idea of "trapped in the computer" wasn't really mined for all the bizarre weirdness it could have generated, at least in my play-through. Instead the bulk of the story revolved around listening to horrible plans and rejecting them. I guess C-SPAN wouldn't make a very good video game.

Aaron Zehner's first novel The Foolchild Invention is available in e-book format at and Barnes & Noble.

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