It’s weird when a notable critic attempts their own creative venture. It’s like a puppy trying to meow. Technically it can try all it likes, and you’re certainly not going to stop it, but it has to really nail it or else you’re just going to think the puppy is weird. Especially if it won’t stop trying. Really, puppy, we liked you best as just a puppy.
Yahtzee Croshaw is caught in that predicament now, with the release of his first novel Mogworld (Dark Horse). You may know Croshaw from his “Zero Punctuation” series of video game reviews, which run weekly at Escapist Magazine. The reviews are extremely distinctive in style and a great step above any other video game review you can find in regards to conciseness, sharpness of humor, and clarity of opinion. They’re really stonking good, to borrow a phrase from Croshaw himself, so he has a better chance than most critics at pulling off his own fiction novel.
The story of Mogworld is pretty well encapsulated by its back cover blurb:
In a world full to bursting with would-be heroes, Jim couldn’t be less interested in saving the day. His fireballs fizzle. He’s awfully grumpy. Plus, he’s been dead for about sixty years. When a renegade necromancer wrenches him from his eternal slumber and into a world gone terribly, bizarrely wrong, all Jim wants is to find a way to die properly, once and for all.
On his side, he’s go a few shambling corpses, an inept thief, and a powerful death wish. But he’s up against tough odds: angry mobs of adventures, a body falling apart at the seams—and a team of programmers racing a deadline to hammer out the last few bugs in their AI.
That last bit is pretty obvious from the get-go, as Jim encounters more and more logical and behavioral incongruities in the world around him, the foremost being that he can’t die, even after he’s become undead. Yahtzee Croshaw writes with the same cheekiness that he conducts his video game reviews in. (Sorry, I know calling him cheeky is lazy, considering that he’s British, but it’s the law—also he genuinely earns that description.) It puts one immediately in the mind of an early Terry Pratchett book, so the incongruities mesh well with the context they’re being described in.
The main characters in the video game are a bit rote. You get the impression that the author knows that he can’t quite depict emotional scenes or internal monologues without coming off like a robot, so for the most part he avoids them in favor of letting the character’s actions speak for themselves. Croshaw writes the scheming Mogworld developers very on the nose, however, depicting them with a childish petulance that doesn’t seem too far off from how one imagines video game developers actually acting like. It rings true without being insulting, and is probably the funniest aspect of the book. The developers are so fun to read, in fact, that I found myself flipping ahead to see when they would pop up again.
Jim’s revelation that he’s a character in a video game world is handled well, too, and the book becomes emotionally hefty as a result of it. The climax is satisfying and does a great job of finally putting you in Jim’s shoes without turning maudlin or feeling unearned.
It’s just that you need to haul through a fourth of the book before you get there! This is the biggest issue with the book, that the writing style, though humorous and slightly madcap, can’t hide the plot twists. You know that Jim is a video game character right away and that makes you impatient for the story to get on with it and start dealing with events past that reveal. Once it does, you’re impatient for the story to get the character itself to that reveal, as the book gets better and better the more it blends these elements together.
Whether Croshaw should stick solely to critiquing video games is up for debate. Mogworld isn’t going to bowl anyone over, but Croshaw undoubtedly has a strong, unique voice and I would hate to see that limited to only critiques. I’m very interested to see what he’ll do next in the world of fiction.
Chris Greenland can only hope his own artistic efforts will be as well done as Croshaw’s.