User is a three part miniseries collected in a high quality hardback edition. Originally published in 2001, the series has its roots in 1990s MUD culture – the precursor to the MMORGS of today. Back then, ‘gaming’ was all text and imagination – a way to socialize anonymously, for free, with little hardware commitment, and often used to escape the pressure of real life. Of course, modern games such as League of Legends and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft/Starcraft have since replaced the interactions with visuals and a true gaming experience. So younger gamers may not understand the allure of ‘all text’ but for older gamers, this will definitely bring back some nostalgia of sleepless nights spent online with ‘friends’ in a pseudo fantasy world.
Story: Meg is devastated when her mother walks out on the family. Her father withdraws from reality, leaving her younger sister vulnerable to a sexual predator and she herself at a loss. A chance try of a fantasy social game hooks her completely – she becomes a chivalrous night, has adventures and interactions, and discovers new aspects of herself. More importantly, she finds in the game the strength to deal with her troubled home life. But it will come at a cost – her obsession with the game has a price for her real life.
At first, this reads like a cautionary tale of how becoming obsessed with games can cost one everything in real life. Certainly, Meg’s coworkers and boss are at a loss as to what to do with Meg completely withdrawing and suddenly calling in sick often. Meg herself resents all time away from the computer – especially in lieu of what is happening in her home. But it becomes clear by the middle that this is a book about a person finding oneself – using the virtual world to envision and then enable the virtues needed to deal with life’s crises.
A lot has been said about the gender fluidity of online gaming – where men often play female characters and even have ‘relationships’ with other male online players. In this case, Meg explores cybersex and, ironically, how a male/male relationship leads to a female/female one. At heart, this is one of the main focuses of the book since this is a very personal work from the author.
There are some poignant insights – from meg’s younger sister’s cry for attention as to why she sticks with the sexual predator family friend, to the father who has completely withdrawn from reality, to the mother who has turned her back on responsibilities and run home, to the complete normalcy of the people at her work. Of course, none of the game characters are who what they seem, though all being so harmless does feel very disingenuous.
The art is very 1990s but does convey nuances fairly well. The mundane world is bland and detailed. The computer world is bright, colorful, and nebulous. If I was to be honest, it felt very dated – the computer world as interpreted by a traditional artist and full of polygons and character strings. I wanted the fantasy world to be prettier and more imaginative.
So the real question is whether this is too dated or not – has it aged well? Certainly, the art does ground itself in its milieu of the 2000 era. The story of MUDS feels like a far more innocent time than the catfishing we know today in modern MMORGS. And that our heroine finds her gumption and real life love interest from a game is idealistic at best. Most of the story is hyperreal and so loses any chance of feeling real as a result. Certainly, gender fluidity gaming doesn’t have the lurid ring it did two decades ago.
As someone old enough to have been in the original MUDs and still heavily invested in online social gaming, I found it to be a bit too pat and a bit too personal – almost a Mary Sue rather than a pointed story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.