Niven, Larry; Barnes, Steven -- The Moon Maze Game

Dream Park was not from Niven's "early and awesome" period, but it was an early favorite of mine, because it was about gamers and it understood what gamers wanted out of interactive drama. (Yes, the Games themselves were a stilted collection of LARP and D&D tropes, but that's what would actually happen, right? I mean look at today's videogame industry. But then check out the description of the haunted-house attraction at the beginning of DP. That's proper game design.)

So then I liked the second Dream Park book a lot (interesting ideas about the use of gaming), and the third one not so much (too much real-world drama intruding on the gaming). I don't mean to sound like a one-key pianist. The point of this series is a thriller drama intertwined with a fantasy game, with a mystery underneath, and all the parts have to work. I feel that The California Voodoo Game failed to make the fantasy game work. Its mystery was weak. Its spy story didn't repel me, but it didn't particularly drag me in either, especially since its underlying motivation was "He was so sexy that her brain stopped working."

That's background, so I can say: The Moon Maze Game also fails to make its fantasy game work. On purpose. But it's still a failure. Let me back up. It's a generation later; Cowles Industries is buying dome space in the Lunar settlements for the first big off-world Game. At the same time, revolutionaries are plotting to kidnap one of the Gamers. The Gamemaster has a hate on for the Loremaster, billions of dollars are on the line, the revolutionaries have hired psychos as kidnappers, everything is about to go splat.

(That's introductory. Real spoilers begin here.)

So. The point is that the Game gets seriously interrupted, and the last half of the book is everybody speed-running through a broken-down Game environment, while trying to kill each other. On the Mooooon! As a thriller plot, this makes sense. But I'm not in it for the thriller plot, which is -- anyhow -- basically plotless beyond the "run! hide! run! fight!" level. There is no mystery plot to solve. The Gamer characters are a half-assed ensemble. (As in previous books, I admit, but the previous books had colorful half-asses.)

And the Game, well, it breaks down. The shards make good scenery but the magic is gone. I think it never gelled, because the authors knew from the beginning that they would break it. I felt the hesitancy from the beginning. (Too many introductories about kidnappers, Lunar construction, and unstable African dictatorships. I could tell, in retrospect, that this was never a novel about Gaming.)

The worst part is, the bastards did take care to invent a great Game. They let us see it in the pieces.

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