Survival Quest by Vasily Mahanenko
In keeping with my theme this summer—LitRPG novels (stories that take place in part, or entirely within, a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game)—I recently read Survival Quest. It is a series on its seventh entry in its native Russian, and the first three have been translated into English.
Publisher’s Description: Barliona: a virtual world jam-packed with monsters, battles-and, predictably, players. Millions of them come to Barliona, looking forward to the things they can’t get in real life: elves and magic, dragons and princesses, and unforgettable combat. The game has become so popular that players now choose to spend months online without returning home.
In Barliona, anything goes: You can assault fellow players, level up, become a mythical hero, a wizard, or a legendary thief. The only rule that attempted to regulate the game demanded that no player be allowed to feel actual pain. But there’s an exception to every rule. For a certain bunch of players, Barliona has become their personal hell. They are criminals sent to Barliona to serve their time. They aren’t in it for the dragons’ gold or the abundant loot. All they want is to survive the virtual inferno. They face the ultimate survival quest.
Possible spoilers beyond this point.
As with the other LitRPG novels I’m reviewing this summer, this one is listed on Goodread’s 119 LitRPG novels list. It caught my attention initially because it is, or was at the time, listed first. It deserves to be. In Survival Quest, virtual reality games are the norm, and one has become so big that the government even has a stake in it. Prisoners serve their time in pods, loaded into the virtual reality world of Barlonia where they work in the mines, earning the virtual currency that the government then benefits from thanks to to the immense popularity of the game. If they serve their time well, they’re granted in-game parole and let out of the mines into the virtual world at large, with a red headband marking them criminals and a 30% tax that goes directly to the government on any money they earn.
This is a fascinating idea and, honestly, not as far-fetched as it may sound at first. With the popularity of online games such as World of WarCraft or Second Life at its peak, the idea that corporations, governments, banks and other organizations would become involved and profit from it becomes a realistic prospect for the future. Vasily Mahanenko takes this to the next level, and pulls it off brilliantly.
When presented with a LitRPG synopsis, a suspension of disbelief is required. The technology simply isn’t there yet. Thankfully, Survival Quest is written in such a way that I had no trouble believing this to be right on the horizon. I own an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset. With it, I go rock climbing in China, live the life of a Viking warrior, time travel, and dive the depths of the sea from my chair. The idea of serving time in prison is not appealing. Serving that time in a VRMMO? Still not my idea of fun, but definitely interesting to consider and a fresh reason why the main character is “stuck” in the game. This helped keep me immersed in the world of Barliona.
The Good: There are interesting gameplay mechanic ideas here. In Barliona, players do not have to feel pain as they can set their sensory thresholds – unless they are criminals. Unfortunately for our main character Mahan, when he hacks a sewer security system to impress a girl he gets caught and sentenced to serve eight years in the virtual world of Barliona, with the full sensory experience. While serving his time we see standard gameplay mechanics like skills, leveling up, acquiring better gear—all the normal LitRPG mainstays. Thankfully in addition to this familiar ground, he introduces a few neat twists, such as a skill based around how mean you can be. In a prison, this particular skill is a favorite. It is also addicting to level up, as a feeling of euphoria is given to the players. The criminals have no filters, so this is an all encompassing feeling for them, giving them the motivation to keep going despite fatigue and pain.
The story begins in the prison but it is made clear that Mahan will earn his parole and leave. Knowing there are more entries in the series to come (and three are currently available), I enjoyed the pacing presented in this first entry. Familiar with game mechanics due to playing prior to his sentencing, Mahan is quick to accept his situation and start figuring out how to make the best of it. One of the standard techniques in this genre is for the main character to become extremely lucky, or find loopholes in the code, that sets them apart from every other player. Mahan is certainly lucky at times, but it felt more organic and acceptable and less that the author simply needed to give the character a way to succeed.
The Bad: For those that find it hard to overcome phrasing, please note that this novel is translated from Russian. I happen to think the translation was very well handled, but there are times where it’s obvious that I do not share a cultural perspective with the author, in terms of how I would comment on things I see or experience. There are also moments when the perspective changes from past to present tense within the same sentence. I do not know if this is a result of the translation or the original intent, but I felt it worth noting for readers.
Above, I mentioned that the author handles the character getting lucky better than some other entries in this genre. However, there are still moments where the story falls prey to that technique. Far less so than some other novels for sure, but they’re still present.
The Conclusion: I love this story. Being familiar with both MMORPGs and Virtual Reality games, I had a lot of fun becoming part of Mahan’s struggle to serve his time, and survive his eight years in-game. Accepting that it is a translation from the get-go allowed me to push through any phrasing issues that may otherwise have bothered me. The main character gets lucky or comes off as a genius for what may otherwise seem perfectly logical things to the reader, but less so than other LitRPG novels I’ve read, and with that perspective, it didn’t hinder my entertainment in the least. I immediately bought the second entry and finished it in record time. The third was recently translated into English as well, but as of this writing, the fourth is not yet available. I am eagerly awaiting the next four (or more?) entries.