Novel Excerpt

Buy the Book!

Download the free Kindle application for PC/Mac/iPhone/BlackBerry/etc.

The World

Before I get into all this, I suppose I should introduce myself.

My name is . . . complicated. You can call me Tam or Tom. I’ll probably respond to either one. Where I come from is also a little confusing. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago and went to college in the suburbs of St. Louis, but after that it’s a little harder to understand. My birthday’s still May 10, I think, and my hobbies are . . . well, I haven’t had much time for hobbies lately.

Fortunately, for the beginning of this story, all you really need to know about me is that I was a gamer.

There are lots of different types of gamers, most of which are defined by acronyms. There are RTS or Real-Time Strategy gamers, who devote themselves to managing resources and controlling massive armies on every possible level. There are FPS or First-Person Shooter gamers, who work to perfect that precise twitch of the hand that allows them hit their enemies in the head every time. There are RPG or Role-Playing Gamers, who lose themselves in worlds of fantasy and magic as they strive to make their characters stronger by gaining experience and collecting rare items.

What kind of gamer was I? I was an NVG gamer, “NVG” standing for “Not Very Good.”

Compared to some of the things I’ve done lately, being bad at video games can’t even be called embarrassing, but back then I was a little ashamed. When I went up against other people, I almost always lost, no matter what we were playing. I had no problem fighting against computer-controlled enemies, which is what I did most often, but there’s no glory to be had in single-player mode.

I did wonder why I was so bad at competitive gaming. The theory I came up with was that I was too nice. I didn’t want to make other people feel bad by beating them. It fit with my personality in real life: I was easygoing, always willing to accept what others wanted and never trying to force my own will on the situation. I was a nice guy, and just like they say, I finished last. It may sound like a lame excuse to you, but I really came to believe in the “Too Nice to Win” hypothesis, because the alternative was that I was just plain bad at something I had been doing for a decade and a half.

My friends (and here I mean “friend” as in someone who might appear on a friends list) had their own ideas. Many indicated that I was a noob, which was not true for its original definition of “beginner,” though it may have been for the extended meaning of “someone I don’t like.” Others had variations on my “Too Nice” theory, phrasing it in a wide range of ways, from “You’re too polite” to . . . a few that aren’t worth repeating. One person even argued that I must have offended the gaming gods somehow, and that I should sacrifice a twelve-pack of pop in their name to restore my good fortune.

In addition to insulting my manhood and speculating about capricious deities, these people were also the ones who gave me the name by which I was known in college. My legal name was Thomas Adam Benjamin, but nobody called me that. They dubbed me “Doormat,” which was probably not intended to be quite as insulting as it sounds. I have to say, it was pretty accurate.

The setting in which this name was first granted to me was one of the games I played the most during my college days: an MMORPG called Fields of Mundanar. This granddaddy of all gaming acronyms stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Basically, the way it works is that you pay the game developers fifteen dollars a month to come to your home and install a pair of industrial-strength electromagnets, one in the seat of your pants and one on your computer chair, so that you can never get up.

Okay, this may not be the exact method, but the end result is pretty much the same.

The thing I liked about Fields of Mundanar was that it allowed you to work with other people instead of against them. Sure, there were parts of the game that revolved around dueling other players to the death, but people like me who had no interest in that type of combat were allowed to ignore it. Instead I spent my time venturing into dungeons, just as I would have in a regular RPG, except that in Fields I controlled only one member of the party. I could win without having to make anyone else lose, and if I lost, we all lost together.

The game did have its downsides, of course. It took place on the internet, a land where there will always be people who believe that the basic rules of human decency do not apply. The thing that really got to me, though, was the time commitment. Because of the monthly fee, the developers had to find ways to keep gamers playing. The easiest way to do that was to make the best stuff available only to people who played for hours every day, usually performing repetitive tasks almost to the point where it felt more like a job than a game.

Eventually I quit. Fields of Mundanar was absorbing too much of my life. I wanted the chance to play other games. Maybe I wanted the opportunity to try something completely different. Either way, I didn’t want to spend so much time stuck in front of my computer. I wasn’t one of those gamers. So one day I uninstalled Fields, tossed the discs under my bed, and did my best to forget the whole thing.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried to quit cold turkey.

Chapter 1:

It was spring. The showers of April were coming to an end and giving way to . . . well, this was the Midwest, so hailstorms were just as likely as flowers. I wasn’t thinking about the weather. Nor, before you can ask, did I have my mind on video games, because I was overwhelmed with homework. People had told me that sophomores had it a lot tougher than freshmen, but if I had known just how bad it would be, I might have considered failing my first year so I could do that again instead.

I was a psychology major. I can’t say that it was my lifelong dream to become a psychologist, but it was supposed to be easy, and the professors were understanding if you, say, couldn’t turn in a paper on time because you absolutely had to beat the final boss the night before it was due. Unfortunately, my school also had some strict writing requirements, and the English professors were capable of about as much sympathy as a pet rock. Thanks to some poor schedule planning, my spring was dragging on worse than the second movement of the Vivaldi concerto of the same name (even my History of Music class, which I had been told would be easy, was trying to chew me up and spit me out).

One day, a day not quite like any other, I returned to my dorm after a series of lectures in which, by exerting my greatest effort, I was able to keep from falling asleep more than four times. I slumped into my room, dropped my heavy bag on the floor, and said hello to my roommate Rob. Rob did not respond for a few seconds. He had seen me come in (there is nothing even resembling privacy in a college dormitory double), but as usual he was in the middle of an intense battle on his computer and had to wait until he finished before it was safe to devote attention to the real world again.

Rob was one of those gamers. He attended class, though never without his laptop, and he slept, but only when it was absolutely necessary. His side of the room was a monument to gaming, with nearly every available inch of space covered in disc cases, posters, and controllers. My side was similar, but it was like putting up a couple of doodles in crayon across the street from the Louvre.

“Hey, DM, guess what?” “DM” was short for Doormat. Anyone who spends a significant amount of time on the internet is extremely concerned with the conservation of letters, and I had always believed it was possible that Rob was born on the internet.

“What?” I didn’t have the energy for guessing games.

“Genesis has a new game coming out in a couple weeks.”

Genesis, in case you don’t know, is a software development company. A few years ago I had never heard of them either, and neither had anyone else, until they came out with the record-setting blockbuster Fields of Mundanar.

Fortunately for my weary brain, it did not take much power to solve this riddle. We had heard rumors for months, though never anything official. Apparently that had just changed. “So they’re finally releasing Fields of Mundanar 2, huh?”

“They’re calling it The World of Mundanar.”

“Sounds exciting,” I agreed without any excitement. I sat down at my desk and flipped on my computer, but I did not bother starting on my homework, because the conversation was not over. I knew what was coming.

At the next break in the action, Rob turned away from his computer, which was a sign that we were talking about something really important, like what we would call our rock band if we had one or which FF game was the best (he was a misguided soul laboring under the delusion that it was 9). “Do you think you’re going to get it?”

It had been weeks since I last played Fields of Mundanar, and I had no desire to start up again. “Probably not,” I answered, not because I was considering it, but because it sounded politer than a flat-out no.

“Come on! You know it’s gonna be awesome!”

There was a time when I had called Fields of Mundanar awesome, but there were other things that were equally awesome and not nearly as life-absorbing. I just couldn’t think of any of them at that moment. “So where are the commercials? The banners? The ticker-tape parades?” I asked, trying to redirect the conversation. “I would’ve thought they’d go all out for this.”

“They don’t need to,” said Rob, the master of Internet Behavioral Sociology (this was, as far as I knew, the closest thing he had to a major). “Everyone already knows it’s coming. Now that it’s official, the news’ll spread through the tubes like wildfire. Genesis saves money on ads they don’t need, plus they can say something like the whole thing was developed in secret and jack up the hype.”

He stared at me eagerly, as if this demonstration of wisdom would wash away all my doubts and force me to see the light. I preferred to stay in the dark. “I’m still recovering from Fields. I don’t want it to completely take over my life again.”

Rob rolled his eyes. To him, a life—at least in the figurative sense—was a small price to pay for getting to play the greatest game in history. “The thing is,” he began hesitantly, “I was talking to Sunhammer, and he was saying that we could really use you for the team again.”

Sunhammer was not his real name, obviously, but I had no idea what was. He was the antithesis of an NVG gamer; not only was he very good, not only did he know he was very good, but he saw it as his mission to show everyone else how good he was in as many different ways as possible. He was great to have on your team—and after Rob met him, he was pretty much always on ours—provided you could stand being constantly belittled in between his ridiculous boasts.

I am sure that even before the internet there were people who let a little success at a game go to their heads and turn them into total jerks, but I bet in those days there were not enough of them to have a national convention. At that convention, the delegation representing the continent of Mundanar would undoubtedly have nominated Sunhammer as its candidate for the Lord High Insufferable Bastard.

That explained the hesitation. Rob knew that Sunhammer was one of the reasons I had decided to quit the first game. Maybe he thought it was the main reason. Someone else might have cleverly phrased the statement in a way that concealed Sunhammer’s involvement, but no one would ever say that Rob was blessed with a silver tongue.

Still, it was a compliment, and compliments from Sunhammer were as rare as days when the dorm’s internet connection didn’t fail. “He thinks you need me?”

“Well, we’re going to need a Demoncaller.”

As in many RPG’s, the players of Fields of Mundanar picked a class for their characters based on how they wanted to play. People looking for a fairly simple game could go for a Berserker, in which case all they typically had to do was pick up a great big weapon and race at the enemy, swinging wildly. The more benevolent players could pick an Acolyte, whose primary job was to keep the rest of their group alive in battle. They also had the ability to bring fallen party members back to life if they turned out to not be very good at the first part of their job. And of course, because gamers always love a character that just sits back and shoots fireballs at everything, there was the Conjurer.

The best groups had a balance of different classes. Players who preferred to rely on stealth could pick the dagger-wielding Assassin or, like Rob, the bow-wielding Ranger. On the other hand, there was the Crusader, Sunhammer’s class of choice, which was similar to the Berserker but had the ability to use some magic as well. It should come as no surprise that Sunhammer liked to claim this blending of roles made Crusaders the most difficult class in the game to play.

My character was a Demoncaller. I picked it because the background description appealed to me: Demoncallers wanted to wield powerful magic like Conjurers, but unlike Conjurers they weren’t willing to spend the necessary decades locked up in towers reading foot-thick books filled with thousands of things that “Thou must not do,” so they just called on powers from the demonic realm instead. As a college student, this kind of lazy shortcut really resonated with me.

If I had read a little farther, however, I would have learned that five hundred years before the game, the Demoncallers had nearly unraveled the universe, or something, so the powers of the class had been limited by society to prevent Armageddon. They could no longer drop colossal fiery meteors from the sky, but they could shoot blasts of dark energy that did slightly less damage than clubbing someone over the head. The demons they summoned were no longer able to level cities just by laughing at them; instead they were more likely to cause people to say, “Hey, that little thing might be kind of cute if it didn’t have fangs, horns, six legs, and no eyeballs.”

What the class lacked in raw might, however, it made up for in useful little tricks. Demoncallers could move groups from place to place by creating tunnels through the demonic realm, and they knew a variety of other spells that were handy to have if you ever remembered that you had them. Any adventuring group that was even a bit lazy would want a Demoncaller in their party.

It probably was the class that fit my personality best. Demoncallers weren’t flashy; they were just there to help out with whatever the rest of the group was doing. I suppose you could even think of them as doormats, in a funny way, since they were always standing next to the interdimensional portals that allowed people to get where they wanted to go. But they certainly weren’t the most fun characters to play.

So Sunhammer wanted his personal taxicab service back, huh? Well, I had better things to do. Different things, anyway. I had my pride. I wasn’t going to get the game just because he was willing to grant me a spot in his lofty party. I gathered up all my indignation and combined it with every bad memory I had of playing with Sunhammer. Unfortunately, I was too polite and much too sleep-deprived to say anything at all definite, so what came out was: “I don’t know.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Rob pleaded. “C’mon!

There is no counterargument to the sheer logic-free force of “C’mon.” I just had to say no and start on my homework.

But time was against me. Two weeks from that notable day was precisely when I would finally be done with all my work for the semester. In addition, it would be just after my birthday, which meant that I would be in possession of the usual gift card. Money would not be an issue, nor would schoolwork.

I could have bought another game, but there wasn’t anything else interesting coming out, probably because no company was stupid enough to compete with the release of The World of Mundanar. Plus I wouldn’t have been able to play a different game with Rob, and that wouldn’t have been as much fun for either of us. Rob had been a good sport when I stopped playing Fields with him; even though I know he must have been a little upset, he never said anything. I felt that I owed him something for that.

Besides, going off and doing something else wasn’t my way. I was the Doormat, the supremely movable object. I went along with what other people did.

“I guess . . . I could try playing it for a little while . . .”

* * *

The box was on my desk. It was open. The install CD was sitting right next to it. I was staring at them, wondering what to do.

It was Friday evening, and I was alone in my room (yeah, go ahead and laugh). Rob was downstairs, having rented one of the activity rooms, a projector, and a screen in order to have the greatest possible first experience with the game as measured in square feet. I had declined to join him, saying that I was nervous about carrying my computer down and up the stairs, stairs that were especially sticky on weekends. The real issue, of course, was that I was still not sure that I was going to play at all.

It was the first time I had ever brought a new game home and hadn’t started playing it immediately. Citing exhaustion from doing nothing but writing papers and taking tests for three solid days, I was able to convince Rob not to get in line at midnight on the release date. When we showed up the next afternoon, however, there was a trail of people stretching out from the store for almost a mile. At least we didn’t end up waiting all that time only to discover that they were out of the game. Apparently Genesis was above the common tactic of not shipping enough copies in the initial release just so they could brag about how fast the game sold out.

I had given up hours of my life standing around in what had turned out to be unseasonably cold weather (if such a thing exists in the Midwest), all to get this game. On the other hand, I knew that if I started to play it, I would give up so many, many more. The World of Mundanar was the hardest game I had ever owned: I hadn’t even installed it yet and already I was stuck.

What would probably happen, I reasoned, is that I would just sit there, paralyzed with indecision, until Rob came back upstairs to tell me how awesome the game was and ask why I wasn’t playing yet.

I took a series of non-committal steps—insert CD, sit through painfully long installation process, fill in bank account information so Genesis could start sucking my money away one month at a time, bring up log-in screen—while waiting for my roommate to return. There was no guarantee that it would be any time soon. Rob was not the kind of person who took breaks for trivial things like talking to friends, going to the bathroom, or evacuating a burning building.

“Hey, Tom. How’s it going?”

Obviously it was not Rob. There was only one person in the dorm who ever called me Tom. He was also possibly the only friend I had who had never touched a video game, which you might think would mean he was unlikely to give me the push I needed. “Not too bad, David. What’s up?”

“Just decided to swing by on the way to a party,” he replied, dropping down onto my bed in a position that allowed him to observe both me and my computer screen. “I was wondering if you might want to come along.”

Now, while there are certainly gamers out there that enjoy a party, I have to say that I was not one of them. I preferred one-on-one social interactions. As the Doormat, it was a little too easy for me to get drowned out in a group.

David knew this. And yet, he still came by a couple of times a month, inviting me to come with him. It would have been highly annoying if he wasn’t such an incurably good-natured guy. “No thanks. I just got a new game.” This was true, though it would have made a better excuse if I was actually playing said game.

“Ah, this must be the one that Rob’s been going on and on about,” he declared knowingly, leaning over to examine my monitor. “That new MNOP thing. It doesn’t look very interesting.”

David may not have known anything about MMORPG’s, but it didn’t take an experienced gamer to figure out that the log-in screen was not intended to excite. The screen contained nothing more than a battlefield background and a large red button that had “Log In” written on it in a fancy golden script.

If it had been anyone else I probably would have blown him off, but if David was anything, he was easy to talk to. He was either genuinely interested in what you had to say or an extremely convincing faker. I had always thought he would make an excellent psychiatrist, or perhaps a pastor. In fact, he was a religious studies major, though he was the least uptight (which in this case means “only”) one that I had ever met. “I’m not really sure that I want to play,” I conceded.

“Why not?”

It would have been convenient if he just told me what to do one way or the other, played either the devil or the angel on my shoulder, but that was not his style. He was the opposite of Rob, who tended to focus his arguments on taking your brain out of the picture. David made you think.

I pulled my gaze away from the tattered flags and cloven shields on the screen and leaned back in my chair. “These games just absorb so much of your life. I mean, they’re fun, and it’s cool to have something that I can play with Rob, but I want to have time for other games, too. I don’t know. Maybe this one won’t be as bad as the first one.” I believed that as much as I believed that I could beat people at video games by sticking candles into a hat made out of my own inside-out underpants and throwing cans of pop into an open fire. “Maybe I’m overthinking this.”

“You know, if you’re worried about thinking too much, maybe you should come with me to this party,” David suggested. “We’ll have some other games there that will ensure that you don’t think at all for the rest of the night, if not the whole weekend.”

Difficult though it may be to believe, I had never tried alcohol, not even at college, where the legal age was “just make sure no one’s watching.” Somehow I doubted that I would have any more success winning at drinking games than I did with video games, and the consequences would be a lot more serious. Losing at something I had been doing since I was six years old was embarrassing enough. Going streaking across campus because I was too drunk to know any better was something else entirely.

David stood up and began to pace the room, looking thoughtful. “It seems to me that what you need is to get a look at the game before you decide if you’re going to play it or not.” I shrugged. That wasn’t really the problem. David moved around my chair with surprising speed, grabbed my mouse, and moved the cursor to rest over the “Log In” button. “So how about I play for a bit instead?”

“Don’t you have a party to go to?”

“I don’t want to show up too early.”

Edging my hand stealthily over, I seized back my mouse and returned the cursor to its waiting position in the corner of the screen, a safe distance from the big red button. The idea of David trying to play was laughable. I didn’t think it would be terribly hard, but for someone without even the basics of video game knowledge, it was like a kid who couldn’t skip rocks showing up for the Olympic shot put tryouts.

Obviously he wasn’t planning to start the game himself; he was just goofing around to try to cheer me up. I decided to play along, because it would prevent me from having to make a decision for a little while. “I don’t believe you have the necessary skills to succeed at this game,” I explained, doing my best impersonation of one of my stuffy English professors.

“You might be right. In that case . . . maybe we should try playing together!” David lunged, grabbed both my hand and the mouse it was holding, shoved them over and clicked the “Log In” button.

The world went black. And no, that’s not just a fancy way of saying I lost consciousness. It was like my entire dorm room suddenly ceased to exist in a world that possessed any notions of color and light. Other senses gradually left me as well. I could no longer hear the gentle hum of my computer fan or feel the floor beneath my feet. On the plus side, I could no longer smell the cigarette smoke drifting in through my window. I was unable to turn around to see if David was still standing next to me, not because my eyes couldn’t see him, but because my rapidly degenerating universe included no concept of turning. I was merely a mind, and possibly a body, surrounded by nothing. No matter, no space, no energy, no physics, no ideas.

Then I lost consciousness.