WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Imagine ‘Ready Player One’, but the main protagonist is the villain of the game world rather than a hero. ‘Awaken Online’ is a brand new virtual reality MMO set in a medieval/fantasy world in which players are given full freedom to go and do whatever they want, all under the watchful eye, and subtle guidance, of the AI who runs the world, Alfred. The usual dynamics of the traditional good vs evil story and the characters involved are flipped around with the “evil” necromancer instead being the man in the right, whereas the “warrior of light” is firmly the antagonist. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, this kind of setting always appeals to me, I love the idea of twisting and reversing expectations to create engaging and fresh stories full of grey rather than simple black and white.
The first book in the ‘Awaken Online’ series is a strangely engrossing page turner. The writing, especially a lot of the dialogue, isn’t especially awe inspiring. Travis Bagwell (for this book at least, however I haven’t yet read any of his others) isn’t a literacy master who is going to be confused with Patrick Rothfuss or Phillip Pullman. However, his story and the ideas he includes within the book are fantastic. Yes, some people will call it a bit of a rip-off of ‘Ready Player One’, but that is very unfair. Aside from the starting idea of the story mainly being set in a virtual reality game, the two are almost completely different.
It is very clear that Travis has spent a lot of time and thought in creating the game that the book focuses on, ‘Awaken Online’. Obviously it’s a game unlike any we will see in the foreseeable future, but it feels like a complete game with its own clear rules and limitations. My biggest gripe with ‘Ready Player One’ (it’s the obvious comparison) was that throughout the book it never felt like there were these things, that players could literally just do anything. The rules and limitations weren’t clear which weakened the story. ‘Awaken Online’ on the other hand, is a game where I could genuinely imagine this game existing. The idea of Alfred, the AI who controlled the game was a cool one. I liked how it was subtly suggested as the book went on that ‘he’ might not be all good and that potentially something a little off was happening. This did a really good job of setting up the rest of the series without having to resort to the clichéd idea of an incomplete ending just to hook you into buying the next one. Also, something I really liked was the idea of players’ affinities with different magic being a reflection on how they play the game, almost like a morality system. However, much like in real life, too much of anything can easily become a bad thing, no matter how good it starts off. For example, it is said within the book that the “light magic” is a reflection of confidence, however too much can quickly turn into arrogance.
My biggest problem with ‘Awaken Online’ was the characters. Although I liked the main character, Jason, there was never any real question about him not being the hero of this story, despite being, for all intents and purposes, the villain. Yes he does some pretty dark things, such as causing a zombie uprising and wiping out an entire city, but the majority of those he kills are just computer NPCs. Jason’s heart is always in the right place and the times when he does do things that could be construed as “evil” are almost always mostly justified. Who hasn’t played Skyrim and occasionally killed everyone in a town for no other reason than boredom or just to see if you can (always have a back-up save kids). Doing that is a much more malevolent act than what Jason does. On the flip side of this, Alex, our antagonist, is far too legit evil. He is a clear sociopath with utterly zero redeeming qualities. I would have much preferred the characters to fit in a bit more of the grey areas rather than being so clear cut. If Jason had been more of a “villain-hero” a-la ‘Vicious’, someone more of an anti-hero than a good guy, it would have given his character more depth. Likewise, if Alex had just been a bit of a dick and rather than a full-blown sociopath then the story would have had more tension and the climax would have been far greater. Alex was so evil and bad that it was obvious from the moment we met him how it would end. By bringing him down a few notches and giving him a few redeeming characteristics, it would have made the outcome potentially more uncertain. An intelligent tactical genius vs an arrogant rich boy was only ever having one ending. Despite this however, the character development of Jason throughout the book is very well executed. His journey from being a downtrodden, harshly bullied and neglected ‘wimp’ to being confident and independent is well done and believable. It is not just a jump from one to the other, he questions himself throughout about what he is feeling and what he wants, slowly morphing into the character he becomes by the end.
On this train of thought I felt that Travis really missed a trick with the character of Riley. A good, nice girl who is being blackmailed by the sociopath, eventually building up the courage to stand up to him. Due to the fact that we were basically already getting this character development from Jason, it would have been cooler if hers had been different rather than more of the same. If Riley had started out as a bit of a bitch and less of the good girl she was, then her changing and developing into a better person would have been far better. If she’d started off in a similar place as the (not so sociopathic) Alex, then as a reaction to the events in the story she could start to see herself for what she was and strive to make amends. This would have worked in a wonderful contrast with Alex who could have become a worse person after the same events. In all, I felt that the main point of this book was that people are in control of their own lives and can be or accomplish anything they set their mind to. It would have just been a cool extra if it had shown that people can also be redeemed. All this being said however, whereas I was initially not that into it, I grew too really like the character of Onyx the cat.
Overall I really liked ‘Awaken Online: Catharsis’. The weaknesses of the characters were more than made up for by the ideas and story presented by Travis Bagwell. The pace and structure throughout the book were well done and I was engaged from start to finish.