Mo’ Blades Mo’ Problems

The developers of one of the iPhone’s biggest non-bird-themed games has done an astounding zig-zag with my expectations and hired a legitimate author to put out a novella based on their intellectual property in the form of an ebook called “Infinity Blade: Awakening“.  While plenty of games have book tie-ins, there’s a lot of of hurdles to be cleared when trying to conflate some of Infinity Blade’s specific game mechanics and lack of a protagonist with a coherent storyline.

Infinity Blade is a divisive game, and not for bad reasons.  It’s the nicest looking game on the iPhone by a wide margin, and has exceedingly well handled twitchy gameplay that punishes mindless play far more than clumsy fingers.  It’s also, in many ways, a pure treadmill sort of affair.  I’ve seen the first two of these aspects both used to praise it and damn it, but the treadmill aspect seems to be the most offputting part of it.  The art style (lots of desaturated earth tones and greys) as well as the fictional language conveyed only through sparse dialogue, evokes something of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.  The music is good, though I tend to play with it off.  I enjoy the game.

I feel that the treadmill of it- going through the same castle repeatedly, swordfighting the same roster of increasingly challenging enemies, and collecting more and more impressive loot- is what makes it such a nice thing to pick up and play during lunch breaks or while waiting to meet up with friends.  Fights take a minute or two at the most, and you never really have to think too hard about what your long term goals are.  It’s allowed me to ignore the game for months at a time and pick it back up without any despair.  The game ramps up the difficulty just slightly faster than you improve your statistics, so there is a definite requirement to hone your skills and memorize attack patterns- but all in all it only really requires full on attention when you’ve hit the end of the castle and are squaring off with its Infinity Blade-having owner, the God King.

The plot’s simple enough to be expressed in a Penny Arcade strip, though this Kill Screen article (turn off adblock) does an amazing job of reviewing the game justly while evoking its cyclical nature through a rare bit of ergodic literature.  You fight on and on until you reach the God King and you either win or die.  Either way, you go back to start.  The game acknowledges generations passing either way, telling you how many years have passed.  This is quite a bit different than the usual videogame conceit of the game telling you, in an aside, that the game is over, but if you’d like you can rewind and keep playing.  When you die, the game basically implies that the hero did his best but his son’s gonna have to step up to the plate in a few decades.  My instance of the game, within its context, has been a two-centuries long slog of dei-regicide attempts, with quite a few successes.

It’s a fun game that you can sink infinite time into.  But I’ve only explained my take on the game here to provide a concrete platform upon which I can bodyslam the book into, by way of explaining its flaws.

So I hadn’t played Infinity Blade in a while and saw that there was an update that added some hefty new content.  Upon installing it I was greeted with the news that there was going to be an Infinity Blade 2, and that there was an Infinity Blade novella out that I could check a sample chapter of.  The fact that it was payday lowered my monetary defenses, and the news of the upcoming sequel had me curious about the game’s setting.  I bought the eBook sight-unseen for $2.99, or 3 dollars for those of you who don’t automatically filter that little trick out.  I actually checked out the Amazon reviews right after jamming on the ‘buy’ button and saw a few 4 and 5 stars, and nothing below 3.  Since I’d already shelled out the cash, I decided that for the time being, I’d be happier pretending the reviewers were on the level than reading and seeing that they seemed to be fans of the author.

Brandon Sanderson, the guy that Chair/Epic selected to bring their game to the literary world is apparently famous for a few series I’ve never read, and has worked on a few Wheel of Time books which I’ve heard good things about.  He’s also known for Sanderson’s First Law, which I’ve never heard of, and a podcast called Writing Excuses which I’ve actually had stashed in my bookmarks for over a year but have never gotten around to listening to.  So, I’m not familiar with the guy at all, and feel that this allows me to assess Infinity Blade:  Awakening without preconception based on the author, and allows me to grade the author solely on how well he handles the intellectual property of the game.  Given how sparse the setting is (there’s one location- the castle), he has lots of space to work in.  I was completely looking forward to what he would do with it and how he would do it.

The book starts out by establishing an underground city called Drem’s Maw that has just gotten news that the God King has been slain.  There’s a minor power vacuum going on when a mysterious cloaked warrior shows up and kills some thugs.  The protagonist reveals himself as the one who was the latest in a long line of warriors trained from birth to seek and destroy the God King.  His name is Siris, and it’s made very clear that he does not have a personality outside of his training.  He’s never had candy or cut wood, or done anything at all but practice swordin’.  He’s exceedingly bland, which can sort of be excused by him being the embodiment of any number of faceless warriors from the game, but at the same time can’t be excused at all because individuals with personalities make way better protagonists in books.

So, the God King has been slain and Siris’s lifelong goal has been fulfilled, despite no one actually expecting him to come out on top.  He mopes for a bit and is told to leave town.  He heads back to the setting people who have played the game will recognize, the God King’s castle, and meets some of the now masterless monsters (now named daerils) who can also speak now.  Sanderson uses some flashbacks and kind of half-glosses over the events that would have happened to someone who had done everything the game has to offer- killing the God King, discovering a secret panel in his throne, delving down into the basement (a sort of ‘true ending’ alternate path in the game) and what went on there.  This is all phrased as vaguely as possible, so that if one hasn’t played the game, one feels like the book takes place after all of the cool stuff.  This feeling isn’t unjustified.

I don’t want to go into a full on synopsis, so I’ll speed on through the points that stick in my brain like broken glass.  Siris meets up with a woman named Isa who is a world travelling assassin with a horse.  I don’t think her appearance is described ever, so I basically imagined her as Vala from Stargate.  That’s exactly who she is in every other way as well.  She’s smarter than the perpetually confused Siris, misleads him repeatedly, tries to rob/murder him a few times, and makes dick jokes.  She’s allowed to tell Siris what to do because he doesn’t know what he’s doing at all and has no knowledge of how anything actually works, like Daniel Jackson.  She decides that they have to go meet another Deathless (a rival of the God King) and figure out where the Deathless that made the Infinity Blade lives.  In the game, we learn that the God King is an immortal being from a race called the Deathless.  In the book, the God King is more of provincial lord who collects taxes and sacrifices from the aforementioned underground mining colony.  A few days away is another province (an Asian themed one with lots of bamboo and gabled roofs and all that.  The Deathless here has a name.   One of the first things that really ruined the story for me was that the God King has a name, too.  I won’t say it, because it’s absolutely gutting to take a being known as The God King and give them a name and have characters start calling them that.

The God King has some screen time here too, doing evil plotting things via satellite images and generally being characterized poorly.  In one spot he’s described as being perfectly fine with sitting motionless for days at a time waiting for computer results, since he’s immortal, and in another scene he’s absolutely described as playing with a dagger out of boredom.  Either he’s an emotionless superbeing or a whiny brat with some high-tech gizmos, but plotwise here he mainly exists for  letting Brandon Sanderson exercise Sanderson’s Law by giving the magic in the setting a ‘scientific’ basis.  The magic rings from the game are computerized and gather ambient compounds to create the desired effects, and Sanderson prevents Siris from abusing them by making them all stop working aside from one that can heal him.  That one is reigned in by having it make Siris age a few weeks instantly, which he understandably does not like to do without good cause.

Shields are also mentioned as having forcefields which can allow people to block blows they would not otherwise be able to, but can be drained.  This is in keeping with the game but is only mentioned once.  Aside from that, none of the armor or weapons or swords in the story are really described at all.   Even the all-important Infinity Blade is sort of left up to the reader’s imagination or cover art, unless, again, they’ve played the game far enough to see it.

Aside from a handful of nameless monsters to be killed, there’s only two other characters that do anything:  Isa’s horse, and a golem named TEL that sort of just shows up and begins following Siris.  The horse is easily my favorite character, since he bites Siris, and there’s some recurring animosity between them.  Siris makes a pointedly juvenile joke, claiming that the horse ate a baby, and Isa rightfully tells Siris he’s dumb and not funny.  That exchange is the most solid exchange of characterization of the entire novella, Isa and her horse putting up with the dumb guy they’re conning.  The golem, on the other hand, is pretty horrible.  First off, he can basically turn into anything by absorbing matter from around him, being made of wood or rocks or leaves, shifting between cat-sized or huge.  There’s no basis for this in the game, and while I appreciate trying to expand on the setting, it kind of clashes with the sort of fantasy feel of the game by being overly scifi.  This had to be intended of course, because the golem is C3PO as much as Isa is Vala.  He shows up to help out and is finicky and politely avoids answering questions because he’s on a secret mission and actually says “oh dear oh dear!” a few times.  It’s shameful!

The main problem Sanderson has is that he can’t decide on how to handle the tone of the story, and that sort of thing is more important in shorter works than in novels.  As I said before, Isa makes a dick joke.  She’s got a foreign accent and and uses penis as the plural of pen.  It’s not really funny, and it certainly doesn’t belong between a scene where she tries to kill Siris with a crossbow and Siris killing a bunch of daerils while in a mysterious trance state.  For a story about swordfighting, there’s not really much bladework described, and the attention Sanderson lavishes on goofy dialogue compared to action scenes has a huge disparity in volume and quality.  After their lengthy journey to the gardens of the Asian-Themed Deathless, Siris dons his generic armor and readies the Infinity Blade, surveying the enemy warriors arrayed before him.  And then the chapter ends and cuts to the next one which practically opens with Siris exclaiming “Man I certainly sure killed all of those guys!”.  It’s the author admitting he couldn’t or didn’t want to make it interesting.  Again, swordfighting is the only thing the protagonist knows how to do, and the author chooses to skip the climactic scene of the novella that would highlight his passion.  And then a few pages after that, when some repetitive exposition has set up the next game, the story runs out and ends.

There’s some twists to the plot that I actually thought were alright, though they were handled poorly.  Siris keeps having recurring ‘dark thoughts’ that are ridiculously blatant, and though they weren’t caused by what I called, they could have been built up gradually rather than having his internal monologue switch to bold all caps “YOU SHOULD KILL HER FOR HER INSOLENCE” moustache-twirling.  Portraying what amounts to the player/reader’s character from the game as a total idiot who doesn’t know about anything is sort of insulting, especially when the things he’s the best in the world at are never really allowed to shine.  I understand that it was done specifically to allow a nameless swordguy become a protagonist, but instead of having him mope about not knowing how to cook and how he never got to eat cake growing up, and being a vaguely-good-guy, I feel that giving him actual reasons to be self-loathing would have been great for the story.  Maybe he once stole some candy and had carried that guilt for ages, fearing that those small pieces of sugar would’ve hindered his training to the point of ruining him, but now that he was successful, he still feels bad.  Maybe he wasn’t as dedicated to his training as everyone thought, and is actually sort of a crummy warrior who just got lucky.  As it is, it’s like the author is sort  joining a D&D game and being handed some level 1 fighter’s sheet and being told to play as him, without any real idea of a backstory outside of “likes swords”, and instead of trying to fill in the blanks or even going full throttle on the “likes swords” thing, he highlights how dumb the character is at every conceivable turn.  That could easily allow for some amazing ironic stunting, but it’s just not excusable in this situation solely because Sanderson had a blank slate to work with and chose, instead of carving into it, to hang a sign on it saying “blank slate”.

I’m pretty sure this was a quick paycheck for Sanderson.  I’ve not read his other works, so I’m not going to say he’s an irredeemable writer.  There’s a few perplexing phrases, like a character having a few “bites of soup”, but I can kind of forgive some of that since it was probably cranked out over a week or two.  I don’t know how short a leash he was on for the project, and I respect that he tried to explain some of the aspects of the game and develop it into a setting, even if he did go overboard.  We don’t need to call computers ‘deadminds’ or have magic (science) rings with different system packs.   We certainly don’t need to know that the God King has a name.  The characters are poorly handled, but given the short project deadline I assume he had, maybe he just didn’t get time to let them breathe, or he didn’t really care.  Since none of the setting information exists in the game, there’s certainly a lot of infodumping to be done, and Sanderson just decided to have every character tell Siris (and by extension, the player/reader) how much they don’t know.

If I hadn’t played the game, I’d hate this book.  It takes place after all of the cool action of Infinity Blade, and before all of the (I’m hoping) cool action of Infinity Blade 2.  I don’t imagine that when the second game comes out my view of the book will change, depending on what elements are kept and which are ignored; but depending on those elements, it is definite that my enjoyment of the game could easily be impaired.  Unless Isa’s horse is an unlockable boss with an insta-kill bite attack.

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