Strange Horizons, February 4, 2013
Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia
“Live Arcade” by Erik Amundsen follows a boy, “kid,” as he puzzles out a frustrating game whose rules differ greatly from other video games from the outset. For instance, the player character refuses the kid’s profane attempts to name him, and instead names itself Murr, and Murr continues to talk to the kid periodically in the game. The more the kid researches the game, looking for solutions to its strange puzzles, the more he discovers that the game adapts to each player in highly unique, individualized ways that another player calls “haunted.” At each turn, the kid is aware that his choices are to “Play or Don’t Play” and the narration comments several times on the right scrolling nature of the game, which forces the players always to move to the right in order to progress. I found these repeated phrases fascinating, and as the game interacts more with the kid’s life, a parallel develops to the steadfastness of linear time IRL. Time is always marching in the same direction, and sometimes the kid’s real life choices are as simple as Play or Don’t Play.
I found the details in “Live Arcade” to be thought-provoking, if sometimes a little baffling. Thankfully, this is a story where you can “miss” the significance of some of the minutiae, but still get the bigger picture and dig the story. The main plot compares the kid’s interaction with the game to his interaction with the rest of his life, as the two intermix, but there’s also a bit thrown in about gender and another undercurrent about violence. Both of these sub-themes underscore how far video games are usually removed from real life, whether it be because your character can differ from you, or because the requirements of the game would land you in jail if you committed them on the street. Game lovers need not fear – rather than painting the game as the bad guy, Amundsen takes the road less traveled and wraps up this short story with a pleasantly atypical ending.
Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.