Choice of the Deathless

by Max Gladstone


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Attendant Lords on the Holodeck, January 24, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

Choice of the Deathless has the most richly-developed, distinctive, ambitiously-written world of any Choice of Games work I've played to date. Its setting has previously been explored in two static novels by the same author, and it shows: the world feels concrete and confident, able to veer well outside standard genre templates without getting bogged down in exposition. It's a world in which souls are standard currency and soul contracts are the principal focus of law; law, here, being a largely magical discipline that serves as mankind's best defence against alien demons and not a few gods, beings with massive (but circumscribed) power. This aside, law firms function more or less like their real-world versions, only with more entrails. The player is an entry-level lawyer in one such firm, saddled with student debt and eager for advancement in a cutthroat field.

The world is skilfully evoked, and I'm a sucker for world-twist fantasy driven by venal sins and human frailty. Like Emily, I found that it perhaps evoked an intensely high-pressure career a little too well; I broke up my play into multiple sessions, because playing this in a single sitting would have been a bit much.

Structurally, it closely follows the standard CoG pattern: you follow the promising career of a talented PC of user-determined gender and sexuality, leaping months or years to keep the narrative focus on Critical Life Decisions. Choices that you make shape character stats, and in general it's a good idea to play to your character's strengths. Romance or rivalry may be established with various NPCs.

Deathless reminded me to some extent of the board game Arkham Horror. Arkham is designed to give the player a constant impression of being really, really screwed - but in fact, with some light strategy and planning it's not all that hard to succeed. Rhetorically, Deathless implied that my character would have to make major sacrifices, but by the end it seemed as though I was doing pretty well on all fronts: my character had resounding career success, was well-liked by every tracked character and maintaining amicable romance with one, had heroically saved the day several times, hadn't suffered any great loss or had to compromise any principles close to his heart. The student-debt mechanic seems to be mostly a rhetorical flourish, intended to make the player feel as though they're making bad decisions regardless of what they do.

Deathless attempts a bit of narrative framing, with shades of triangle-of-identities shenanigans. To me, this felt like a lot of setup for something that, ultimately, ended up falling a little flat. (Spoiler - click to show)At the climactic moment, fighting in the demon realm, the antagonist shatters the PC's very being into pieces; the entire story up to this point is a process of putting the pieces back together, of reconstructing an identity. This was meant to feel, I think, like a moment of existentialist triumph of the will, of transformative power derived from defining and asserting one's identity. It's not intended to be just about overcoming this one attack: at the climax of a story that's about being a beleaguered cog in a vast and threatening system, the idea is meant to be that the protagonist has developed and retained a strong sense of self that surpasses their functionary role, an identity that is in itself power. The hero creates their own rescue by understanding who they are and what truly matters to them.

So it's clear that the author has been thinking about the thematic implications of the game structure, of the way that the CoG template is all about character-defining choices. But in the event I think that the climax fell a little flat, because it doesn't make sense unless the character is able to come across as a strongly-defined individual - something that's very hard to accomplish in a game that leaves character definition largely in the player's hands. Because, as RPG players know, there's vastly more to character definition than can be encapsulated in a form: the form is a starting point that you need to elaborate on. The player, here, is filling out a character sheet; they cannot improvise. It falls to the game to construct something on that foundation - and this is a really hard thing for a game to do to any meaningful degree. This is material that deserves a meatier protagonist.

So like most CoG stories, this does a good job of revealing a world and a trade within that world, but ends up being unsatisfactory at depicting character. This is more of a problem for Deathless because its world is not a fun genre exercise, so its hero can't really be a cheerful adventurer; and unlike (say) Fallen London, it's not an open world but a bounded story with narrative velocity, so it's less feasible for the hero to work as a Virgil, a backgrounded guide to a strange world.

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Ghalev, January 25, 2014 - Reply
Many thanks for this review. I had given up on "Choice Of" games based on the earliest ones, waiting for a signal to give them another try. Will dive right into this.
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