Some ten years ago I was heavily addicted to the much-missed MMO City of Heroes. My friend Mike and I would ‘meet’ most evenings in Paragon City, chat as we blitzed through missions and even tried out some superhero concepts using the detailed character creator function.
Often during our sessions online, I would wonder out loud what kind of masochist would choose to live in Paragon. There were constant random attacks on bystanders from NPC (non-player character) thugs, magically empowered Satanists, aliens, zombies – the average citizen must have lived in a state of constant terror. Just getting to work each morning was running the gamut of cosmic horror. Maybe, maybe, players like Mike and me would save one. You know, if it was worth the XP.
Nate Simpson’s beautifully rendered Nonplayer takes that notion of video game reality nihilism and uses it as the inspiration for a genuinely epic comic series.
To summarise the plot so far of Nonplayer – MMO, Warriors of Jarvath is the popular gaming choice of bored, young players who live in a world that is technologically far more sophisticated than our own. One such player, Dana Stevens, took part in raid on the game’s royal family, severely wounding the stoic King Heremoth and murdering Queen Fendra.
Instead of winning fame and, more importantly, experience points for the kill, Dana is quickly dispatched and Fendra mysteriously vanishes from the game. As a gamer she puts down the unusual outcome to a bug and returns to the real world to her dayjob as a tamale delivery person.
Meanwhile in Jarvath, the royal court is in mourning. By the conclusion of the second issue, King Heremoth is plotting vengeance on his wife’s killer. The game’s AI is incredibly sophisticated, suggesting a degree of personhood that the likes of Dana are completely oblivious to.
Issue two opens with an interview between the game’s creator Jeph Homer and excitable games journo Kimiko. Simpson establishes Homer’s god complex immediately, confirming that the game is a self-contained world with non-player characters that grow old and die – and all for the entertainment of the player.
It is a fascinating concept, reflecting the frustration of contemporary gamers with titles such as Skyrim and its use of repetitive dialogue – cf the infamous ‘I took an arrow to the knee’ meme – that questions at what point do games distinguish between sentience and in-world immersion.
While Dana only briefly appears in this issue, the consequences of her actions continue to unfold. Simpson sets up a B-plot, a hostage situation at a fish market involving a Latin-spouting Mecha, to introduce Officer Hanley, a secondary protagonist.
The hostage scene demonstrates exactly what Nonplayer does very well. The unlikely setting – featuring some deadly use of fish – is playful, but also establishes important elements of the arc plot hinted at when Dana’s attempted assassination of Queen Fendra went wrong. There is also a sly dig that while a police Mecha might look impressive, they’re very expensive.
In addition to the thoughtful treatment of AI, as well as the suggestion of an ‘as above, so below’ MMO Hermeticism in the transition between the real world and Jarvath, it has to be stated – Nonplayer is a fantastic looking book. Also in terms of information conveyed through panelling, nerd culture references and foregrounded objects are efficiently used to establish setting and character motivations without the crutch of exposition in dialogue. Nonplayer allows its art to breathe.
The artistic detail also underlines the narrative through-line of video games giving players the opportunity to experience an idealised virtual self. It is interesting to see how one of the few physically overweight characters, Alan, chooses to present as an inhuman demon within Jarvath. A not-so-subtly positioned phallic dagger also hints at an improved physical endowment (there’s that sly sense of humour again).
Simpson delivers work that beautifully blends Winsor McCay, Moebius and Miyazaki. The time taken in between the first issue and this can be seen in every detailed panel. Simpson’s background is in video game art, and it is refreshing to see how he uses that experience to give the comic page added depth.
It is rare that I come across a title so good I consider it no so much well produced, as ‘well-crafted’, and Simpson is a sure thing comic book artisan. Nonplayer is nothing less than a blend of Little Nemo and Neal Stephenson, in every whimsically cyberpunk sense that description suggests. Essential reading.