The God Game by Danny Tobey

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The God Game presents an interesting spin on the thriller genre – it is called a science-fiction thriller where the ‘enemy’ is a VR [virtual reality] computer game which has distilled ‘every religious text known to man’ to create GOD.

Enticed by Peter – ‘smart, handsome, charming … both rich and reckless’ – a group of young school friends form the Vindicators to play the game against GOD.  Each has his/her own reasons for being prepared to join and play.  There is Charlie an honours student destined for Harvard who has recently lost his mother; Vanhi of Indian descent whose parents want her to go to Harvard; Alex whose father belts him when he fails a subject; Kenny whose parents are deeply religious; and of course Peter with a ‘dangerousness just below the surface’.

As the Vindicators are all in their last year of secondary school and aged about seventeen, there are the usual personal issues to be confronted and overcome.  Charlie loves Mary who is in a relationship with Tim who is abusive and controlling; Peter is having sex with Caitlyn who is supposed to be in a relationship with Kurt who is a bully and secretly gay; and Alex – openly weird – is bullied by almost everyone.  However, all these issues are a distraction from the main event which is the game with GOD where success earns the player Goldz and failure earns Blaxx [earn too many and the punishment is real].

As GOD is omnipotent and all-knowing, he [or it] is tracking the five Vindicators in real time and sometimes what they are up to is shared with the people who are the last ones the Vindicators want to be told of their activities.  When it suits his purposes, GOD will send through social media false messages to one or other of the Vindicators to encourage betrayal of the others.  The ground on which the Vindicators are playing is very fluid and unreliable.

All this creates a tension which is palpable through almost all the novel’s pages.  As the Vindicators become more deeply immersed in the game, the team spirit begins to evaporate and tensions arise which ultimately fracture the group.  As in all good thrillers, there are close calls and for one or two the pressure of the game and its consequences bring them to the brink of suicide.

Danny Tobey has created a thriller which stands outside the usual.  Because its main ‘character’ is a computer game which is driven by Artificial Intelligence, the enemy is harder to combat and even harder to win against.  To add depth to the story, running alongside the main plot are various subtexts – the consequences of cheating, the challenge when grieving for a loved one to be sensitive to those who may also be grieving, the meaning of friendship and its limits, and – perhaps most importantly – the addictive impact of computer games and, for the vulnerable, their triumph over reality.

The plotting of The God Game is skilfully done and there is hardly a beat missed as the Vindicators struggle against a power much greater than them.  The dialogues and natures of the five characters consistently ring true and the reader can readily visualise the circumstances in which this story could be reflected in real life.

The conclusion when it comes is completely unexpected – for this reader at least – and adds a chilling twist to the story and to the future of the GOD Game.  It is a book well worth reading if you have an interest in the dystopian future of computer games and artificial intelligence – and even more so if you enjoy a good tense thriller.

Danny Tobey is the author of The Faculty Club and was anthologised in 2017’s The Best of the Harvard Lampoon: 140 Years of American Humour.  He was a successful software entrepreneur and has spoken on AI [artificial intelligence] at numerous events.

The God Game

[2020]

by Danny Tobey

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 473 22448 3

449pp; $32.99

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