When I was 8 years old I would argue there were two shows I watched religiously. Sure, I’d catch cartoons as I could, but good luck prying me away from the television if these two shows were on. The first was the hit gameshow Press Your Luck, which to my young mind was a neat juxtaposition of trivia and people pushing their luck too far. The second was Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by Robert Stack. I was not a usual child.
As a teen and an early adult, I learned that just as eating hot peppers was an acquired taste, so was the desire to be spooked by horror movies. I had little taste for either of these things. I prefer my food to have the Scoville Heat Units of water, and my horror to be light and jovial. I’d wave the later, however, if the mystery of the events behind the horror caught my attention. I wasn’t particularly big on shows that featured elaborate kills, but getting to the bottom of the *why* of it all… that was the payoff for me. Like how one might eat a hot dish to impress a date, suffering through anxiety ridden jump scares would ultimately lead to that moment where the focus character would finally know enough about what was going on to put a stop to it.
Recently, I read author Raymond Johnson’s book The Nightmare Game System, and it features everything I hate about the horror genre, and everything I love about it. And yet, it’s so much more. This novel will be a book I share with friends and acquaintances who let me know that horror is their niche. I’d argue it’s perfect yet flawed in the way only a good horror movie can be. Bonus, it crosses over into the LitRPG subgenre that I’m particularly fond of, although admittedly that’s more a vehicle for the horror than it is a real focus.
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Fair play, this book landed in my lap for promise of a fair review. Also, fair play, I liked it so much I’ve already bought three copies for friends. Third fair play, there are some scenes in this book that hit me with serious anxiety, so don’t take the horror portion of the story lightly. You’ve been warned.
The premise is that in a near-future Russia, long-time thief Ramzan has made a series of poor choices that have lead to him being captured by members of the Checknyan Mafia. They’d like their stolen money back. Their torture device of choice to make Ramzan talk? A heavily modified version of a game that allows players to live out their favorite horror movie scenarios. The original game features leveling systems, titles with benefits, and fun PVP. This version has had a lot of that stripped out, stepping away from a “game” and really ramping up the realism. Players who die in the game lose a point of Sanity, and when they’ve lost all their sanity they die in real life. Also, they have hit points, and those hit points never replenish… even if they die. As such, it is important for players to keep their wits about them and make sure they don’t die in such a way that they die permanently – losing a head might mean a respawn, but burning to death might not offer the same respite.
Understand, however, Ramzan is a bit of a right bastard, and he also wants to protect his sister whom he gave the money he stole to, so he’s not going down easy. He also has a survivalist attitude that most American horror movie characters just wouldn’t understand. He’s not afraid to kill to stay alive. He’s not going to be the first guy at camp to fall in lust when the big bad makes its move. He’s quick on his feet and he’s always looking for the next solution. He’s sure of himself, sometimes to a fault but never recklessly so. He doesn’t lose his cool even when he recognizes the danger he’s in. Ramzan is a god damned T-14 Armata.
When it comes to escaping the game two things play into Ramzan’s favor. The first is that the game creates stats based off of his real life attributes, and as a result he gets high scores for resisting certain effects. The second as that the game has a rogue AI named Blair that offers Ramzan a little help, for hish (yes, that is the proper pronoun, two h’s and all) nefarious purposes.
Many things work against the poor sod. The game is watched over by its modder, one hideous son of a cunt named Timofey. Timofey needs to be in charge pretty much all the time, and his hobbies include finding new ways to break the game in his favor and breaking the sanity of women contestants so that when he allows them to escape back into the real world they do his bidding. There is a hitman named Stanislav who is waiting for Ramzan, should he escape the game world, and he kills people about as effortlessly as most of us would swat a mosquito. The game itself is both unstable and exceptionally devious, leading to a myriad of unpredictable torture. Ramzan finds himself in a game of Texas Hold ’em, holding nothing more than a hand of two Old Maids.
But damn it, does he triumph.
Readers will easily recognize horror scenarios from movies of the late 70s and the 80’s being played out for the Nightmare Game’s contestants, both straight and skewed for maximum fright. There’s a slasher at a campground scenario, there’s a werewolves in the forest scenario, there’s a zombie mall defense scenario. They aren’t entirely stand-alone affairs, however, and it’s neat to see how these scenarios play off of each other as the unsettling nature of the game becomes more fixed and understood. There’s a few loose ends about how it all works as a game, and that might be an annoyance for some, but I imagine most will handwave it just as they handwave flaws in their favorite scary franchises.
Throughout the whole story, there are several respectable mysteries. One of them is about the game itself, and how it is more than what any one person really lets on. Another is Blair’s true intentions, which despite hish come-ons have little to do with actually having sex with the protagonist. A third is the true nature of the main character, and just how good – or bad – of a person he really is, and his coming to terms with that fact. It plays out really well. The twists and turns were surprising, but fitting.
The story isn’t perfect. There were times where I felt that the horror vibe of the novel really strained against the believability of what a game world could actually present. As an example, I remember predicting the reveal for the Werewolf Forest scenario before the character did and straining under some minutia that I thought just wouldn’t make sense. And yet, that issue frankly just didn’t matter. I still wanted to push forward and see what would happen next. I can acknowledging these issues and still find the story to be a solid romp that scares as much as it entertains, and none of them are so grievous that they lower my opinion of the novel any.
I’m not going to rush out and start reading more horror novels, LitRPG or otherwise, but I will waste no time in recommending this one.
The Nightmare Game System was written by Raymond Johnson and is listed at being 501 pages in length. This novel can be purchased for $3.99 for an electronic copy, or as a physical edition book, from the Amazon store. It is also available to be read at no additional cost as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription.