The depressing truth is that there is very little practical use for gaming prowess in the real world. Sure you could become an esport superstar, be the next PewDiePie, or write for a top gaming site like Power Up Gaming, but even still you won’t be doing anything of vital importance for humanity. This is far from the case in Ernest Cline’s (author of Ready Player One) second novel: Armada.
The book introduces us to the young everyday teenager Zachary Lightman, who has spent most his youth playing video games, working in a gaming shop, and getting Cs in science, even though he loves the subject. But, instead of having a mundane existence, scraping through school, and living in his mother’s basement, Zack is thrust into the middle of an escalating interplanetary conflict, purely because of his video game skills.
You see, Zack loves a particular game called Armada. It’s a space-battle title (a modern Space Invaders) played with a VR headset. To Zack’s surprise, one day he spots one of the game’s enemy space ships waltzing through the sky around his school. Slowly, Zack begins to realise that the game he’s been playing isn’t just a piece of fiction. The game’s organization, the Earth Defence Alliance, actually exists, and they have been covertly training the world to be ready for a conflict with aliens through Armada. Zack’s place as the sixth best Armada player in the world turns out to be extremely important. He’s to be one of the lead fighters against the alien invaders known as the Europans (not to be confused with the Europeans).
It’s a plot that will sit nicely with those fascinated by conspiracy theories, and Cline does a good job of incorporating real people and events, so as to give it a tinge of realism. Many of the mentions will ring bells instantly for fans of everything sci-fi, from books, films and video games. The creators of Armada includes a bizarre dream team of legends, with none other than Mr Shigeru Miyamoto taking an important role, and references to sci-fi classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind arise regularly. The more sci-fi and video games you’ve consumed, the more references you’ll get, and, while some name-drops do seem arbitrary, for most part they work well.
It doesn’t stop with the simple mentioning of gaming and science fiction. Many of the core traits associated with gaming are given a place here. Zack uses Armada as a form of escapism, and uses it as a connection to his dead father who loved video games. The enemy AI is brought up on occasion, and the level of VR integration is something we can only dream of. It’s clear that Cline is aware of what gaming is currently and where it hopes to be. The way he describes little details, like the controls in Armada and enemy AI, adds a deft touch that gamers will appreciate. Nevertheless, there’s also a lack of realism to Armada. The game is too perfect, Miyamoto, Gabe Newell, and a range of industry legends were part of its development team, and it has no problems or bugs; it’s only real flaw is that it’s too difficult. This perfectionism is a foible that seeps into the plot.
Many of the side characters are too plain and unreal, such as Zack’s two best friends who are stereotypical geeks who argue over unimportant issues. His mother is (according to him) an extremely beautiful, smart, caring woman, and Lex, Zack’s love interest, is your typical punk girl, a genius with computers, who has a pink streak in her hair. Also of note is the way they’re described, Cline rarely divulges any details of characters’ appearances, instead leaving the legwork to the reader’s imagination. While this does free the book from clunky descriptions, it also leaves you searching blindly for an image of what Zack and company actually look like.
There’s too much predictability with what’s going to happen. It becomes instantly clear that Zack is going to fall for Lex, and it’s blatantly obvious that the feeling will be reciprocated. It makes for a horrendously cringey scene in which the pair sit in a crowded room and spout a bunch of sci-fi and gaming references to one another. Oftentimes Cline introduces humour, and Zack does have some comical moments, but the moment above is not one of them, and there are times that the humour will grind on you. Nevertheless, the above scene was probably one of the most painful ones, but generally the story has enough happening that will keep you turning the pages.
I’m avoiding spoilers here, but I’ll draw a line between Armada and Game of Thrones. People do die, oftentimes unexpectedly, and while the simplicity of certain characters can be irritating, many of them are endearing, and you do genuinely care about what happens to them. Zack builds up relationships with many characters throughout, and you can really understand his pain when he witnesses the suffering of others. Also, some personalities do show some depth, and Zack manages to exhibit a wider range of emotions; he reacts with a mixture of shock and excitement when he’s recruited by the EDA, and carries his distinctive anger and recklessness into every interaction he has.
There are also some relationships that are intense, and Zack’s strong relationship with the moonbase’s general is one that leads to many heart-wrenching moments. Strong feelings of happiness and sadness are created, and, despite the plain side characters, in the end you will really care for the inhabitants of Armada. The conflict he’s been dragged into is simple but complex; the typical aliens vs humans war leads to moral and ethical questions that are surprisingly thought-provoking, with the justification of war receiving some basic but intriguing analysis. As the story reaches its climax, the casualties on Earth add a real sense of darkness; the aliens attack with unmanned ships, but the earth is filled with living breathing people. It finishes in a finale that’s surprisingly sophisticated, and leaves us with many questions.
Despite my earlier gripes, there is a great novel here. It may lack the depth that of more intense sci-fi works, but its tale is compelling and filled with simple but emotional relationships. There’s meaningful development for a few of the characters, and the actual invasion does leave some powerful scenes. For gamers, it’s interesting to imagine a world where gaming is the central key to humanity’s survival. Who knows, maybe League of Legends and Call of Duty are trying to train us for warfare, but I personally hope that the war will be more similar to Skyrim, or maybe Super Mario; I can just image all the turtles rising up against humanity.