Press ‘A’ for Characterization: Video Games, Fiction and Drew Magary’s ‘The Hike’

The story in Drew Magary's The Hike is a sequence of separate, cool ideas strung together tenuously with flimsy video game logic.

In an advertisement for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a schlub tells a Sony executive his gorgeous girlfriend will not stop watching him play Uncharted 2 because she believes it’s a movie. That’s an interesting choice of advertisement, considering that the closer video games become to resembling movies, the less they become games. Many contemporary video games do resemble Hollywood movies in their pacing and structure, and they resemble literature in rarer cases. The Uncharted series is just an Indian Jones rip-off right down to the third act supernatural nonsense and Silent Hill 2‘s guilt and redemption themes, I’ve heard it argued, are informed by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

There’s the occasional example of a game being directly influenced or based on books. One would be the Randian nightmare paradise setting in two-thirds of the Bioshock series. Another is the various Dune real-time strategy games — though those have more to do with Lynch’s movie than with Herbert’s novels. Rarer still are examples of video games influencing the pacing and structure in a novel. Drew Magary’s second novel The Hike does employ video game ideas and structure within the narrative.

In The Hike we follow Ben as he wonders off from his hotel looking for a nature trail to walk, to kill time before a business meeting. On the trail he encounters a dog-faced man with a dead woman in a state of dismemberment. Ben flees and the man pursues. Soon Ben discovers he cannot find his way back to the hotel despite retracing his steps. Instead he has breached some sort of fantasy world where all he can do is continue forward on this predetermined path if he wants to return to his wife and children.

Along the way Ben encounters an old woman who implores him to not stray from the path and gives him some magic seeds in exchange for light yard work. Soon after Ben encounters a horse-sized cricket in the attic of a beach house. He kills it and notices a control panel with a level and knobs. Here’s a quote from the scene where Ben and a sass mouth crab named Crab examine the panel and the room:

Ben gave the left knob a turn and felt it click. The black square next to the dial turned red. He turned it another click and the square turned green. Then yellow. The white. Then purple. Then pink. The back to black. He turned the other knob and the same colors appeared.

He tried the lever again but it wouldn’t budge.

“There’s some combination here that’ll make the lever work,” he said to Crab.

“So what is it?”

“I have no idea. Usually, with puzzles like this, there’s some other element. There’s a clue to solving it. We just have to find the clue.”

There’s a clue in the room and when the puzzle is solved a hovercraft appears, and thus the continuation of the path.

Anyone familiar with Myst, Resident Evil, Silent Hill or any adventure game will also be familiar with puzzles like this. A math or logic puzzle hides a key object necessary for the player to proceed with the game and the story. Similar video game logic is present in the encounter with the old woman. A simple, early game task is performed by the player for a reward. Fallout 2, for example, has the player ‘weeding’ a garden for experience and healing potions before the journey truly begins.

These moments in a game challenge a player by providing an artificial barrier to progress. Once solved, there is a (masturbatory) feeling of achievement. The experience is somewhat diminished, however, when recreated in a novel. What does this moment with the control panel show us? We learn nothing more about the characters, the puzzle tells us nothing about the world and the solution does nothing except allow the protagonist to move forward. It might be a different matter if the panel and the gardening were encapsulated within two or three sentences. Far too much space is given on the page in an attempt to recreate this experience. Reading these moments is much closer to what it’s actually like to watch someone play a video game.

The video game elements in The Hike never coalesce into a critique or examination of video game stories or the action of a novel. I take it neither was ever really the point. The Hike isn’t doing anything new. Sure, the video game influences are new, but the story is the standard action-adventure fair you might find in any popular fiction novel. As dismissive as this review may seem so far, this is a fun and funny book. The story becomes engaging and the ending is far better than I predicted. Ben’s motivation to see his family again and to discover who has placed him on this path keeps his choices and actions believable in this completely unbelievable world.

I don’t say the world is unbelievable because of the fantasy elements, but because The Hike never fully suspends my sense of disbelief. Ben traverses a variety of locales and encounters numerous fantasy inspired characters, but with no underlying logic or rational. A woodland trail throws Ben to a beach side suburb, a hovercraft from said suburb takes him to an ice flow, then a mountain, then a hotel. There are vampire-like creatures, smoke ghosts, friendly man-eating giants, zombies and other fantasy extras with humorous twists.

The story’s conclusion does some work explaining why Ben has found himself in a hodgepodge of fantasy scenarios and settings. It doesn’t, however, erase the impression of The Hike being a sequence of separate, cool ideas and scenes strung together tenuously with flimsy video game logic.

The unique aspects of video games are precisely the parts that are the most difficult to convert into printform storytelling. Feeling success when passing a level, solving a puzzle or beating a boss character are not something you can experience passively as an observer, at least not in the way presented here.

RATING 5 / 10