A gamer finds life imitating art a little too much. Like the film (and Ernest Cline book) Ready Player One, stories that involve computer games in the narrative are in great demand. Does this opening have what it takes?
Language: US English
Synopsis: Thousands of people have mysteriously vanished from Earth with one linking factor: a video game. Jake soon finds himself among the missing, along with a small group of online friends. Together they set out in a world of swords and magic to become the heroes they are needed to be.
I don’t remember what time I went to bed, but I clearly remember waking up just after 1 p.m. Going through my morning ritual, I climbed out of bed, then went to my desk and flipped open my laptop. The first thing to pop up on screen, in big bold letters, was a curious headline posted on my social media feed just minutes earlier. “Shocking Disappearances Leave the World Baffled.” It screamed clickbait, but I clicked on the link anyway.
While an ad played, I grabbed a snack. Tripping over dirty laundry, I crossed the room. I wrinkled up my nose as I snatched up an open bag of chips off my bed. Crumbs littered my sheets, my pillow, and the carpeting. How did this even happen? I desperately tried to remember the events of the night before.
A beer bottle clinks near my feet. “Ugh. I’m never drinking before bed again.” No, I’m never drinking again. Ever.
Bag of chips in hand, I returned to the desk and sat down on the edge of my computer chair.
I expected to see a wall of text from the next wannabe news sensation, yet a short video is all there was.
A college-aged girl appeared on the screen, a smirk on her face. She rolled her eyes as she started to speak.
“What started as an ordinary day has quickly turned into one of confusion and panic. Numerous reports of friends, family or loved ones simply disappearing without a trace have officials baffled. Chemical leak, alien abduction, disease, and even foreign weapon testing have all been blamed as possible culprits. The most common explanation though, comes from the gaming community, which claims they’ve all been trapped within a video game. ‘If you ask me I believe they are just holding onto the hope that the popular Japanese anime, Sword Art Online, has become a reality,’ replied the mayor when asked about the theory. ‘As the majority of the missing individuals were using a computer or mobile device around the time of their disappearance, it is not a stretch their overactive imaginations jumped to that conclusion.’ Thank you for joining us. Tune in at nine for more details.”
I sat stunned for a moment. There hadn’t been any reports of a gaming system being released that was capable of doing anything like what happened in Sword Art Online—if it was even possible to create such a thing. Besides, as the victims weren’t strictly using computers, it was safe to assume it would have to be a mobile game, which further decreased the odds. Though that didn’t explain the disappearance of those who weren’t on their devices at the time.
I have to admit it seems pretty laughable that I was even considering it to be a possibility.
Later that night, during our weekly raid sessions, the disappearances were all the gaming community was talking about. It wasn’t just a sick joke anymore. It was clear that something really was going on and it wasn’t limited to just the U.S. as I had once thought. It was happening throughout the world.
My unease steadily grew worse. I finally asked my guildmates on voice chat, “Hey, have you guys paid attention to the news today?”
The seven-foot-tall half-orc on my screen froze when I took my hands off the keyboard. His gargantuan broadsword hung uselessly by his side.
“The middle of a boss fight and you want to talk about the news?” asked our raid leader, Keith, as if I’d just insulted his mother. A nimble halfling thief raced across the arena, a behemoth of a fire demon hot on his trail.
“Don’t you think it’s strange no one’s figured out how people can just disappear? I don’t know how many were gone this afternoon, but someone just said that it’s almost fifty thousand people.”
The thief jumped and rolled midair, narrowly avoiding a column of flames.
“Really? A few hours ago it was only like five thousand,” said the only female member of the group. “How are so many more gone?” A female elven cleric with long, sleek black hair cast a couple healing spells. Her spells landed off target and bathed the uninjured half-orc in heavenly light.
“Can you guys just focus on the fight? We can talk about this aft—and I’m dead.”
Sure enough, our dear raid leader was brutally charcoaled by the boss’s flame attack. Only the faint black outline of a halfling remained on the ground.
“Do you guys smell chicken?” joked one of the guys.
“Burnt chicken maybe,” added another. I couldn’t help but laugh, despite my uneasiness.
With the fall of our main damage dealer, our endeavor was doomed to fail. When the timer finally expired, a tenth of the boss’s health bar still remained. The ultimate attack that followed left broken spirits and no survivors. Begrudgingly, Keith called off the raid for another night when we wouldn’t be so preoccupied. Marking the conclusion of the run, my guildmates headed off one by one until only five of us remained.
“Shawna, you mentioned this afternoon there were a lot fewer missing?” I asked, now that we could hold a real conversation.
“Oh, um, yeah. I’m not sure if I have told you guys before, but my dad works for the government. When I asked him about it, he told me not to worry…”
“Are you kidding me? Five thousand people go missing and we’re not supposed to worry!” yelled Ryan.
An outburst like that was out of character.
“Probably because only forty-three are from here,” said Keith. “You should know by now that it’s only big news if it’s a threat to the U-S-of-A.”
“The joke is on them then, because I’m watching the news right now. Fifty thousand reported cases worldwide—seventy-five percent Americans, five percent here in the UK, and the other twenty percent are from Japan, Germany, France, and Russia,” said Elliot.
Editorial comment: First off, I’d urge you to finish this and do a good job of it, the reason being I know of at least one publisher who is looking for exactly this kind of book. Narratives where the story is intertwined with progress in a video game are quite possibly the next big thing (you read it here first!)
Next point—editors need to be flexible. I try and remind myself of this periodically. No one wants a dogmatic editor who is stuck in the mud and can’t see how one particular writer might be able to get away with something they (the editor) would normally put a red pen through. This opening is a case in point. I saw “waking up” in the first line and my heart sank, I have to say. Followers of this site will be aware that I’m not very keen, in fact, antipathetical in the extreme, to openings that begin with a character waking up. However, my instinct is to let this one slide. Why? Because it’s not like you make a big deal of it, and the “waking up just after 1pm” does give big hints as to the age and character of the narrator that might otherwise need to be laboriously explained. So there. I am flexible.
Now, the piece itself. It needs a thorough copy-edit, so it’s not really ready to go in front of an agent right now. You asked in your notes to the submission if the sentences were “too wordy.” I don’t get that feeling, particularly. What I did get a feeling of was a strong sense of disassociation from the events that the narrator is talking about. In this modern era, when everyone is connected, 50,000 people just disappearing off the face of the earth would be HUGE news. As Keith says, news tends to increase in importance the closer to home it gets (all nations are guilty of that, to some extent). While it might only be 43 people disappearing in the UK, that would still be major, major news. In the UK, if one poor unfortunate gets taken out by a fallen tree in a storm, or dies falling off the roof trying to save their cat, it makes the national news bulletin (although it helps if they’re a minor celebrity). If 43 people were reported as having “disappeared” in a single day that would be huge news, blanket media coverage, questions asked in the House, Prime Minister or Home Secretary appealing for calm, riots in Aldi as people stock up on loo paper and pine-scented air-freshener. And it goes without saying that media coverage in the US would be comprehensive, with Presidential addresses from a bunker underneath the White House, the National Guard called out, and chaos in Walmart as the shelves are emptied of wiener-dogs. Let’s put the numbers you’re talking about in perspective. 75% of 50,000 people is 37,500 Americans. That’s well over half the US military fatalities in the entire Vietnam War. We are still globally traumatised by the 9/11 events, where the death toll was a fraction of that.
But no, these gamers aren’t that bothered. I get the feeling they’re more incensed that they were defeated in their raid, than that 43 of their compatriots, 50,000 globally, have disappeared in one day in a puff of pixels. The narrator is “uneasy” and finds the headline “curious”. Really? Is that all? I know twenty-somethings can be a little self-absorbed, but … Now add that the “disappeared” are of their own tribe, on-line gamers, and their insouciance seems almost pathological.
So how to fix? Make it much more personal. I think you need to bring this “disappearing” right into this little cozy gamer’s gang and shake it up a bit. They’re all on-line, joking about last night’s beer etc (if they do meet up IRL), they’re in a fight with the Boss, “Keith” turns (virtually) to “Shawnee” and says “Now, hit him with your triple-boosted double-strike glaive counterpunch”. Eerie silence. “Shawnee, I need you to do it now! … Shawnee?” “She’s off-line” “What?” “I don’t know. I was just talking to her on her mobile and we got cut off. Now it’s just ringing out.” “Weird. Maybe her internet got cut off or something. Anyone know where she lives?”
Now this would be interesting. Instead of telling us about some vague headline that we may or may not believe, Shawnee’s sudden disappearance from the group at a critical moment could then be parlayed out to be part of the wider happening. Your MC could be romantically involved with Shawnee, to up the emotional stakes. There are all sorts of reality/virtual reality parallels to be drawn. “She’s gone.” “Well she’s not logged on right now, but …” “You’re not listening to me. She’s gone. Hasn’t been seen in work/school/college. Her flatmates haven’t seen her. She’s just disappeared. In real life. Now do you get it?”
Suddenly we have drama and intrigue and real involvement, rather than just reading a computer screen over someone’s shoulder. Your synopsis implies that this does happen, eventually. With every book you write you have to ask yourself, where does the story begin? I think here, the story begins when Jake and his gang get sucked into the game (or whatever it is that happens). You don’t need to preface this with a character waking up and reading a news report that 50,000 other people have been sucked into the game before them. That almost acts like a spoiler. Let it happen to us, your readers, first hand, without being diluted by secondhand reportage.
You have a good premise here, and I know that there’s demand for stories of this nature, but this needs a little work. Try to visualize what you would be doing and how you would be feeling if someone you knew, even vaguely, just plain disappeared. I hope and pray you wouldn’t just shrug and sit down and play Warcraft. 🙂
Thanks for posting!
“Where does the story start?”
This really struck a chord with me. There was something about my opening that bothered me with every chapter I wrote. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. After reading your review, I finally realized where I went wrong. Not only is this not where the story starts, but it also misrepresents the characters and the story as a whole.
Thank you for your time!
This is exactly why I set up this site. Very glad to have helped.