Back in the 2000s, GameLit wasn’t yet a prolific science-fiction genre. For those of you who don't know, GameLit is basically stories where protagonists enter a virtual reality simulation, often a video game setting (hence the "Game" in GameLit), and have to fight monsters or try to level up. If a story is filled with a lot of mad statistics and technicalities akin to a role-playing game, then that GameLit is considered a LitRPG.
Besides a few LitRPGs, Ready Player One, and the mad works of Reki Kawahara, stories about people venturing into virtual reality has always been a niche genre. It certainly wasn’t the most tempting for literary agents to represent due to its complexities. But in recent times, due to the popularity of self-publishing and social media, more and more GameLit works have been published and given the spotlight.
Popularity however, also resulted in staleness. And staleness later bore deconstructions. As more and more GameLit and LitRPG books with pretty much the same plot lines were getting published, so was the need for something new to put into the table. One of those unique works to come out in recent years is the novel Escapist Dream by Louis Bulaong.
To call Escapist Dream a GameLit novel is a controversial topic at best. One might consider that it is the most bare GameLit of them all since video games is only one part of its story. It basically takes place in a virtual reality world where geeks can have superpowers and act like their favorite fictional characters. Emphasis on the word "geek" here since not only do gamers can finally live a life similar to a video game character, but comic geeks, anime otaku and even literature nuts also come here to live the life of their own fandoms. But bugs and conspiracy then ensued which led to a lot of violence inside the place.
There are no power-ups or RPG stats elements in the Escapist Dream; every geek is automatically allowed to use whatever power they want to use. This led to a lot of humorous pop culture references, which makes up the magnificence of the book.
Another great thing about the Escapist Dream is its main character. Charlie Anderson, a geek and a massive fan of Star Wars and comic books, is far different from the typical angsty YA protagonist. Like all the others, he too suffers from a lot of trauma and problems, but instead of brooding, he actually tries his best to be cheerful instead. Unlike other YA stories where adults are the bad guys, Charlie actually tries to help t out to accomplish objectives. He exemplifies the image of an American geek; one who’s innocent and happy-go-lucky, which makes you want to love him even more with that cute geeky attitude.
Besides the main character, another best thing to note is the writing style. Author Louis Bulaong may not be the most descriptive when it comes to world-building, but he knows how to write character reflections and emotional moments. Since he’s a graduate of psychology, he knows well on how to write emotions and mental disorders. His writing style is also unique. You seldom see three-four word sentences and everything is connected with “and” and “but”, to create this smooth flow of thoughts similar to poetry.
Characters and writing style aside, the plot is good too, though not that special. It is a strict adventure novel, with Charlie and his allies going to these different places that were inspired by comics, anime, video games and literature. It certainly is fun when shenanigans ensue, such as the time where the comic nerds have to fight against an otaku who had hacked the system and created his own waifu. But its strength lies not only on the pop culture references, but also on its use of character psychology. Everyone has suffered at least some depression, isolationism and trauma, and it’s pretty great to see such characters be victorious against them. Awe-inspiring even.
That being said, the novel is not perfect. There are a few problems in it that I concluded after my first reading. First thing is its use of "geek slang", which is not a problem at first since it is a book dedicated for geek culture. The only problem is that some of these slang words are not properly explained, so a lot of non-comic book, anime and video game fans may not know what these are. Many new readers might be scratching their heads asking what "infinite mass punch", "zampakuto" and "bullet-time" are.
The twists too are also kind of a problem. It slightly pissed me off when one of my favorite supporting characters in the story, one which was really well-written, suddenly turned out to be the villain. Lastly, the writing can also be a bit wordy at times, which isn’t really a problem if you are one who is used to reading self-published books. But literary critics and professional editors might see these words as something omittable.
Nonetheless, Escapist Dream is an amazing read, not only as a GameLit but a novel as a whole. Its themes of depression and hope will resonate to those who have suffered the same fate, and it certainly praises and highlights geek culture around the globe.