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Nonplayer Review by Wesley Street

Sunday - May 08, 2011

If I were to create a Venn diagram using comic readers and gamers (electric and unplugged) as my subjects the overlap would be near 100%. So I find it strange that there are few comic books about the subject of gaming. Yes, there are niche online comic strips like Penny Arcade and Order of the Stick as well as print story adaptations of existing game franchises, like Mass Effect, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Mirrors Edge. (Does anyone remember the great Atari Force of the mid-1980s? Seriously, Atari Force was a wonderful sci-fi comic.) But there are few traditional comics that address games and our interaction with them as the actual subject matter; for example, Joe Casey's tearful I Kill Giants which featured a little girl obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons and monster slaying as a coping mechanism for grief.(

Nate Simpson's Nonplayer, published by Image Comics, begins as an innocuous but lavishly illustrated fantasy tale replete with fantastical riding beasts, languid nobility and armored soldiers who seemed to have stepped out of Middle Earth. Queen Fendra, her brother, Heremoth, and her general, Jarvath, journeying through dangerous lands, exchange sullen dialog and lovelorn glances. In the trees, a purple-haired elf and his red-headed female companion spy on the procession and it's during their dialog that you realize what you're witnessing is a game. Specifically a kind of virtual reality MMORPG in the vein of World of Warcraft, where the game is as real as reality and all the senses, including touch, are engaged. However, like most video-gamers, the two highwaymen ignore immersion and banter about needing players from Korea for their raid, experience points and hoping to find commercial endorsement for their exploits.

During an attack on the Queen's procession the two players cut their way through the soldiers and their beasts with emotional detachment, caring little for the artificial yet realistic blood shed. Jarvath, obviously in love with Fendra, does his best to protect her but the red-headed player gets within striking distance. And then the story twists. Reality and fantasy cross as the game seems to glitch and Jarvath, who the two attackers believe is simply another player, begins to strike in very obvious grief and rage as the Queen vanishes.

In the end the two Player Characters (as opposed to the digital Nonplayers) are killed in the battle and their avatars are dumped into their personalized online waiting room, a sort of floating Second Life environment as if designed by Alphonse Mucha  complete with miniature pet Godzilla, flying whales, and a Gigantor-ish assistant. More banter ensues, complete with an awkward online attempt at a date and admissions of shyness in meatspace.

The sequence ends as our red-headed protagonist, Dana, comes to in her bedroom, her mother badgering her about school, her job and her life in general. Dana is a bit of a virtual world design prodigy but like many of the gifted wastes her talent due to a lack of proper motivation, she chooses to deliver tamales instead. Its something that resonates with anyone who is, or knows someone who is brilliant but on the obsessive side, especially when it comes to escapist fantasy  comics, games, science-fiction, etc. But living in the hyper-urbanized Akira meets Blade Runner world she and her family exist in would this be the only way to cope?

Nonplayer flawlessly combines elements of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy and The Matrix and Lord of the Rings films with the detail of Japanese anime and European cartoonists  all the while leaving the reader wondering, What is real?. Behind superheroes, science-fiction is the genre best suited for comics and Nate Simpson attacks the subject matter with gusto and flair.

By day, Wesley Street is a project manager for a software company. By night, he serves as a cartographer of superhero academies, near-future urban landscapes, space stations and ork dens.


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