Stone Table Books, 2017
With a wry humour reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, Morton Benning treats the reader to a quest fit for any lover of role-playing fantasy games. Playing God explores the fallacy of making yourself a god – something ‘God Avatar’ Jeff created the entire digital world of Utopia to do. When the A.I. of Jeff’s game world malfunctions and turns on him, he finds himself trapped in Utopia. His quest to get back to the real world forces him into a party of rag-tag travellers including a cleric-in-training, an elf, a loveable little cat-creature, fairies of an aquatic variety and a surly goblin. Through a series of misadventures, Jeff is forced to unlearn his selfish ways and see the importance of helping others and working as part of a team.
This is a book that will certainly appeal to a teenage audience. It is easy to read and the story feels a lot like a madcap Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That being said, while the plot is plentiful in encounters with monsters and the odd flesh-eating tree, it doesn’t delve much into character. Jeff is easily the most developed character, but at times when he isn’t present the story feels a little more stagnant with other key characters such as Keenley, Turnshoe, and Miyako coming off as a touch shallow. This is a little disappointing given that Keenley is, arguably, the main character – not Jeff.
There is also a bit of ensemble-cast-syndrome going on as sometimes it feels a little like there are too many people in the party, to the point where none of them truly get to shine – something not uncommon in D&D style fantasies in which a big party is common.. The pacing can also be slow in parts, particularly when the characters are travelling, but this is made up for by the action-packed sequences peppered in-between.
The concept behind Playing God is a compelling one. What is it like to be one of the NPCs inhabiting a game world? It’s the kind of angle rarely examined – the exceptions being the likes of Viva La Dirt League’s Epic NPC Man series on YouTube. With a similar turn towards humour, Benning takes the NPC experience a step forward by looking at how the characters in Utopia react to their creator, Jeff, whose decidedly 21st century quips and analogies leave Keenley and co baffled.
Overall, this is a playful and enjoyable debut.
Playing God is available to purchase through Stone Table Books.
Words by Lisandra Linde