You may or may not know that a trade exists in gaming, one where players level up accounts in games like DotA, League of Legends, and others, and sell them for tidy sums to people who want to play at expert levels without putting in the time to grind.
The business exists (even right here in the PH), and this trade is the focus of Matt Ruff’s new novel, 88 Names. 88 Names revolves around a “sherpa” named John Chu - a person who makes a living out of guiding high-paying clients through popular role-playing games on the Internet. The book is a gold mine that references plenty of beloved games from World of Warcraft to Grand Theft Auto.
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I will note straightaway, however, that this felt like a niche book for gamers. There’s a clever glossary of RPG terms in the back, but beyond that, the prose won’t slow down for you to keep up, nor will it explain tech jargon or video game logic. If you haven’t got a strong foundation in those things, it may interfere with your understanding of the book.
But hey, far be it from me to gatekeep! If you’re game to learn as you go along, then press Start and let’s dive right in.
John Chu runs Sherpa Inc., a company that services clients who want to experience high-level massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs, or “more pigs”). The whole novel is told from John's perspective. He sketches this world of VR and advanced technology out for us in a blunt, snarky voice, everything from his upbringing on a US Navy intelligence base to the minutiae of creating a “bullet” with your online avatar (this world's version of racy Snaps).
88 Names refers to how being in the sherpa business necessitates having multiple accounts - essentially multiple game identities, so there’s a variety of characters to pull out depending on the game experience the client’s asking for. (And if the mods find out you’re illegally gaming the system, you'll definitely need backups after they dramatically shut down your account.)
John runs Sherpa Inc. with his crew: Jolene, Ray, Anja, and until recently, his practically sociopathic girlfriend Darla. The book opens soon after John had to fire Darla, because her insistence on being antagonistic and offensive to customers was getting bad for business. Now John is entrenched in a contract with a mysterious, extremely wealthy client named Mr. Jones, whom John deduces is connected to the North Korean government.
What a dictator could want with virtual reality video games, John is only beginning to guess, but before he can figure it out, his deal is hijacked by a second player: a Madame Gao-like character whom John suspects is an agent of the People’s Republic of China. And throughout all this, he's still waiting for the other shoe to drop from Darla, who's not the type to let a slight like a break-up pass without retaliation.
The story comes to a head when both of John’s employers close in on the game, and the stakes are dramatically ramped up for John and the crew in real life. I will say that the twist at the end knocked me off my feet, but the resolution felt a bit too convenient - John’s ties to the US Navy conveniently packs OP weapons in his plot arsenal.
It sounds like a video game novel on crack (and whenever I elevator-pitch the story to friends, that’s exactly the comment I get!), but the outrageous premise is exactly what makes the book such a fun romp. The ordinary rules don’t apply to John’s all-powerful, all-seeing clients, so even routine game runs turn into dramatic, even ridiculous plays. Meanwhile, Darla is exactly the kind of antagonist who sets your teeth on edge, and you want to keep flipping pages to see how her horrendousness will burn itself out.
Before you know it, you’re racing through the last fifty pages of this impossible story, all the while wondering if this high-stakes masquerade is what the future of gaming, the future of the Internet is going to be.
With an emphasis on RPG
In 88 Names’ futuristic time and setting, that which we call catfishing today is the norm. No one bothers uploading painstakingly staged or edited photos of themselves anymore. In this VR world, everyone “presents” using custom avatars for their photos and even videos. No one will know what you truly look like unless they’ve seen you in real life. This is all a normal fact of life in the book, but for the reader of today, it raises issues of identity on the Internet.
How do we choose to portray ourselves when we can literally be anyone and look like anything? When we present as younger, fitter, edgier - what does that say about how much we care what others think of us? How different of an identity are we allowed to present online before it’s considered lying to other people - or lying to ourselves? And where do we draw the line when we borrow parts of races and cultures that aren’t our own?
Despite these qualms surrounding a world that’s fully avatar-ized, 88 Names remains, in essence, an incredibly entertaining read. This amalgamation of sci-fi, secret identities, and shades of shady real-life politics feels more like a popcorn-movie type caper through a favourite video game rather than an episode of Black Mirror.
If you’re in the mood for such a ride, pick up 88 Names. Then perhaps gather your friends for a game with a rousing battle cry of “G????” when you finish.