Review: Existentially Challenged

I first discovered Yahtzee Croshaw’s work through his highly acclaimed freeware point-and-click adventure game, 5 Days a Stranger. Being a teenager with an insatiable hunger for freeware adventure games, I soon played through the rest of his catalogue. Having a parallel insatiable hunger for free written content, I read through the archives of his comedy site and all of his free fiction, including two unpublished novels.1 Yahtzee’s prodigious output of freely available writing seemed squarely aimed at a nerdy teenage boy with lots of spare time and a mobile internet connection over which only text was affordable.2

Since then, I’ve kept up with Yahtzee’s work in the realms of both game development and fiction writing, but for a while I found myself less and less interested in each book he released.

I liked Mogworld, a comedic fantasy that takes place inside an off-brand World of Warcraft, but in some ways I felt like I was reading a third iteration of the two novels mentioned above.

Jam, the post-apocalyptic novel featuring man-eating jam, was okay – the central joke wore thin quite quickly and so did most of the others.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food, a comedic sci-fi work about space adventurers, just felt like a rehash of previous work, and at this point I thought that maybe I was just overexposed to Croshaw’s particular tics and subject matter and should stop buying his books. Particularly grating was his need to elaborate on every synonym as if his books are just extended Zero Punctuation episodes, showing how one can over-play to one’s strengths.

The next book he wrote was Differently Morphous. I bought it on Audible3 and it quickly became my favourite work of his. Rather than yet another sneering wise-guy protagonist in a semi-parodic fantasy/sci-fi setting, the story follows a nervous young Type-A woman in basically modern Britain, with a supernatural twist. Between a grounded setting in a real place the author knows well, a shake-up in the usual character roster, and certain amount of tonal similarity to his horror games (his strongest work IMO), Differently Morphous was a much-needed breath of fresh air in Yahtzee’s written oeuvre.

Existentially Challenged is the sequel to Differently Morphous and delivers much the same experience as the original. Characters are fleshed out a bit more, ongoing plots are furthered, and all this is illustrated with an oversupply of tortured metaphors and similes (although he has toned this down somewhat since Will Save the Galaxy for Food).

Few writers can resist making some reference to or comment on current events in their novels. Much of the humour in Differently Morphous comes from applying 2010s social justice language to supernatural beings – demon-possessed individuals are called “dual-consciousness” and the book’s title, “differently morphous”, is a euphemism used to refer to slime monsters. In Existentially Challenged, Yahtzee turns the clock back to the 2000s and tackles organised religion. A significant chunk of the book deals with the question of how today’s organised religions would react to incontrovertible proof of the existence of magic and supernatural beings.

Whatever strengths Yahtzee may possess, subtle and insightful cultural satire outside the narrow domain of video games is not one of them, but I think this is largely for lack of trying. An entire section of Jam revolves around a one-note joke about hipsters doing things ironically (tired even in 2012), and Existentially Challenged’s treatment of the divine is about as deep. On the side of organised religion, Yahtzee gives us a meek Anglican vicar who loses every argument and quickly replaces him with a caricature of an American evangelical preacher who can say about five different sentences, all of which contain the word “Lord”. And so the whole subject of religion versus magic ends up being little more than a plot device.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t expect Mr Croshaw to present a sympathetic portrayal of religion, but his treatment shows a minimum amount of thought in this subject that plays such a large part in his plot and gives the book its very title. Disappointing, but then, we can’t expect too much from a guy who literally used to wear a fedora.

Missed opportunities aside, I enjoyed the central mystery plot of Existentially Challenged, which kept me guessing all the way to the final reveal, without sacrificing logic or previously established rules. I was also intrigued enough by elaborations on the series arc that I’m eager to pick up third book in the series when it comes out in a few years, as opposed to the third book in the Jacques McKeown series, which I will also pick up, but mostly out of loyalty and appreciation of the many hours of free entertainment Yahtzee’s work has given me over the years.

  1. Around this same time, I read John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, Jason Pargin’s John Dies at the End. This was after exhausting myself on stuff from Project Gutenberg and looking for free fiction that was a bit more modern. ↩︎

  2. Croshaw is most famous for the Zero Punctuation video game review series, but mobile browsers didn’t support video in the 00s, and if they had I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the data. ↩︎

  3. Yahtzee’s fame largely rests on the rapid-fire narration of his video reviews, and so the author-narrated audio releases of his books tend to precede their written releases by a number of months. Fortunately he narrates them at a slower clip than his ZP videos. ↩︎

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