Book review: GAME ON

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THE BROKEN WORLD Tim Etchells William Heinemann, £14.99

ALTHOUGH he has written books in the past – notably Endland Stories and The Dream Dictionary For Modern Dreamers – Tim Etchells is best known as one of the country's leading exponents of avant-garde physical theatre.

As artistic director of Forced Entertainment he has earned critical plaudits for such works as The World In Pictures, Exquisite Pain and Bloody Mess, and his study of the company's history, Certain Fragments, has become required reading on many contemporary theatre courses. But that might be about to change with the publication of his debut novel, The Broken World; an exhilarating and poignant tale of love, loss and computer games that ought to make the leap from "cult classic" to "popular success".

The novel takes the form of a "walk-through" – an online guide on how to complete a complex and cryptic game called The Broken World. The nameless narrator soon digresses from his self-appointed task, and the reader is introduced to his circle of geeky friends (Brainiac, Venter, Dieter and BugMap), his monumentally dull job making "cooked circular food" for two unlikely takeaway pizza bosses called Branimir and Miroslav, and most importantly, his live-in girlfriend Tory. Needless to say, Tory is less than enamoured of the fact that her boyfriend spends most of his time playing a computer game.

Etchells has a lot of fun imagining the vast virtual realm of The Broken World. It has shades of Half-Life, with subsidiary 'missions' la Grand Theft Auto, and the kind of sprawling, fantastical elements reminiscent of The Legend Of Zelda.

Reading about this game – "Chase over roofs of the buildings (nearby) and PLEASE avoid all cracked-glass and broken roofing panel. DROP AND ROLL... Lost them cops in the alleys by the Ice Factory. Rent car. Find laser mechanism. Take package to Lawyer and get payment in return. You need the cash. Pick up clues from garbage cans outside Chinese takeouts. Like I said, they make it confusing" – could have been as boring as watching someone else playing it. But Etchells beguiles the reader in a number of sophisticated ways.

Some parts of the game are little Borgesian parables about illusion and reality: a completely empty level, the strange afterlives of "saved games", the meaning of "glitches" or a realistic city where the hero has to wait for a random message. At other points, the narrator discusses the different tactics and philosophies of the game with other gamers (is it possible to find a pacifist solution? Is it permissible to play as a villain rather than a hero?). But above all it is the voice that carries the reader. Etchells takes a deliberately un-literary voice, full of misspellings, profanities, text-speak, problems with the Caps Lock and inarticulate outbursts, and finds in it a strangely haunting poetry. As he says, his favourite phrase – "I don't know" – is a soundbite repeating to eternity. Our narrator can identify every nu-Metal lyric in The Broken World, but is bemused by a quote from T S Eliot.

Beneath his hyperactive walk-through, it becomes evident that the challenges of the real world are more pressing and problematic than the carnage and chaos of The Broken World. Tory begins "an ongoing argument conducted entirely using the weapon of silence – in this case The Silence That Says I Am Not Talking To You v The Silence That Says I Don't Care If You Are Talking To Me Or Not Asshole". This ratchets up to the "all-state Door Slamming Contest", and the reader can see exactly where this relationship is heading. His employment prospects are bleak. His friend Brainiac is suffering from some kind of manic depression. The game is his escape from the world, and the reason why he wants to escape.

The Broken World is ultimately a humane and heartfelt book, with a proper emotional core wrapped up in a giddying fantasia. It manages to be desperately sad and desperately funny at the same time. It is a book of big ideas, cunningly delivered through a slacker's shrug. As he says: "I also won't answer the bigger questions that people are asking, like is this truly EARTH or is it just someplace that looks exactly like it? And how could anyone tell the difference? Hear me, bro – to all such questions I just say a big almighty PASS or NEXT QUESTION."