★★★ The premise of ‘Constellation Games’ is a playful and wholly original take on an alien invasion, as told through the eyes of a slacker My-Little-Pony game developer called Ariel Blum. When the Aliens come, with a friendly armada of every race in their ‘Constellation’, Ariel is only interested in their old video games, so he can mine through the millennia and port out a hit game of his own.
It’s brilliant. Ariel is a cocky, snarky dick, but like any true ‘otaku’ he suspends his sarcasm for good content, and ‘Constellation Games’ delivers that content in spades. As I started out reading this book, through the choppy first blog posts, the unclear switches in time and timeline as suddenly the aliens were everywhere, sending diplomats and starting-up cultural embassies like franchise Chinese ‘Confucian Centers’, I increasingly began to wonder how on earth the writer, Leonard Richardson, was gonna show me alien games without them being a massive let-down.
Then he did, and it wasn’t. The alien games were absolutely the best thing about this book. The one I remember most was the ‘up-skirt’ view (not pornographic) prevalent in the games of a sea-dwelling race. Clear? Think about the games we play, a very large number are ‘top-down’, looking at the character’s heads or at their profiles in an isometric. Now imagine reversing that, watching from the ocean floor from the up-skirt view as the hero (you) went wherever he/she/it was going.
That’s just one of the ingenious little reversals that make this book a gem. Others focus around other senses, with smell and memory getting intertwined in the game Ariel decides to port, with identity being important in another, many of them subverting our idea of what a game really is.
The book froths with other ideas too, as Ariel works his way up the chain of the Constellation’s computer-mind ‘call-waiting’ system, as he bonds with Curic his contact in the Constellation, as he encounters the other alien races and starts building his own game.
The problems come when Richardson has to start ending the book. In effect, he tacks on a ‘big’ kind of ending, to what was really only ever a sweet little story about video games and making friends with aliens through video games. He goes big, goes soppy, makes his sarcastic narrator suddenly twee and needy, undercuts all the importance I as the reader had come to place on the porting of the new game, and just stuffs up the landing.
This was a shame, and annoyed me. It made me feel like I was spending time with a hungry wuss, just because I kept reading it- when before Ariel had always put himself across as too cool for school. Perhaps he had always been like that, perhaps his sarcasm was a front for it, but it just didn’t belong in this book as it was. The strongest part of the book is the games, so when the last third becomes all about Ariel’s needs, and Ariel’s love, and Ariel’s ego, with the games dropped on the cutting room floor, I disengaged.
That said, it’s still a great little book if only for the first half, which does deliver. I found the snarkiness of Ariel annoying at times, as was the hop-scotch narrative, but the sheer fun-ness of the ideas made up for it. Except for the ending, of course, which was also wracked with, hmm, guilt? Maybe.
So, 3 out of 5.
Highlights– Up-skirt game perspective
Lowlight– Snarky protagonist turns needy wuss, cover sucks…
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