THE GAME IS ALTERED
By Mez Packer.
Since Lionel’s accident he has always felt somewhat disconnected from his life, with his family being one of the main elements of that. His sister Lilith still loves him, but his adopted parents and siblings have little to do with mixed-race Lionel, and he lives a lonely life. He still visits his childhood barber and clings onto what few happy memories he has left. His life has become static, at least that is until he sees the ‘anime girl’ standing across the street, and for a few moments they are connected. Little does Lionel know what kind of world she will expose him to.
Set in a near future to our own present, technology has developed and gaming plays a large part of that for Lionel. He lives a second life online through CoreQuest, a virtual environment that allows him to play out those aspects of real life – sex, love, adventure and bravery – that he is too reserved and timid to do so in his real life. From his shabby flat, with just a dying cat for company, Lionel can hack in, upload his customised character, the heroic warrior Ludi, and live a second reality that shelters him from the truth of reality.
The Game Is Altered brings us alternating chapters of Lionel’s real life struggle with his family, work, morals and relationships, and of his successful gaming adventure as Ludi. As the story progresses the link between his real life and his virtual life becomes clear and the storylines that feel so adrift from one another to begin with eventually start to converge. The themes covered in the book, particularly with regard to identity, are relevant to our own society, and Packer explores these in all their gritty detail to great effect.
The chapters of the CoreQuest action were written in a futuristic dialogue that was very reminiscent to me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and so there were elements throughout the story that felt familiar and clever, if not unique. This sense of repetition or echo is only heightened by the frequent use of the world ‘replicant’ and Lionel’s reflections on playing Bladerunner with his brothers when they were younger.
These references to other futuristic stories and interpretations of our world did help to remind the reader, along with the relevance of the action, that the story is set only slightly ahead of present time, and the danger of that possible future gave real strength to a tale that otherwise would have been reminiscent of any number of familiar crime stories or television episodes.
The book flows well and on the whole I very much enjoyed reading it. It is different to my usual reading choices and ordinarily I would steer clear of genre crossing. In here we have fantasy, science fiction, thriller and crime, but they all work together successfully and somehow Packer has pulled it off. I came across this book whilst speaking with the publishers at London Book Fair and, without their bringing it to my attention, I would probably never had read it, so for that I am grateful.
The power of the story is very much in the revealing truths that become clear towards the end of the book. My major niggle is that unfortunately I had already worked out one of the main elements very early on in the story, so the shock and awe was lost on me in that respect. This is one place where it does not do to think so deeply about what you are reading and to just let the story play out in its own time.