The heroes all meet in a tavern: a human, an elf, a dwarf, and a woman. An evil overlord sits upon a throne of skulls and plots the destruction of the world. Spells will be cast, saving throws will be failed, and rocks will fall. It’s Death By Cliche, by Bob Defendi.
To Sartre, Hell was other people. To the game designer, Hell is the game.
Damico writes games for a living. When called in to rescue a local roleplaying game demo, Damico is shot in the head by a loony fan.
He awakens in a game. A game full of hackney’s tropes and clichéd plots. A game he was there to save, run by the man who murdered him just moments ago. A game that has just become world-swap fantasy. Damico, to his horror, has become the heart of the cliché.
Set on their quest in a scene that would make Ed Wood blush, Damico discovers a new wrinkle. As a game designer, he is a creative force in this broken place. His presence touches the two-dimensional inhabitants. First a peasant, then a barmaid, then his character’s own father…all come alive.
But the central question remains. Can Damico escape, or is he trapped in this nightmare? Forever.
Wait, what? This is a comedy?
Ignore all that. Death by Cliché is a heartwarming tale of catastrophic brain damage. Share it with someone you love. Or like. Or anyone at all. Buy the book.
Based on a true story.
If there’s one thing Death by Cliche is not, it’s middle-of-the-road. My experience of the book was an extremely polarized: the parts that I thought were good, I very strongly liked; but the parts I thought were bad, I extremely strongly disliked. Not just mildly liked or mildly disliked; my feelings were violently jolted from one extreme to the other as a very funny and clever joke would be followed up by one which not only bombed but was downright offensive, and a scene that made me feel a deep investment in the plot and characters would suddenly be stopped cold for mood-destroying fourth-wall-breaking metahumor.
What did I like? Mostly, the jokes made at the expense of bad and cliched RPG adventures. The perfectly rectangular hallways leading to perfectly square rooms, the evil overlord who engages in pointlessly self-defeating behavior simply because it’s generically evil, the monsters which take a dozen sword thrusts through the torso without showing the slightest sign of pain or inconvenience but then instantly keel over dead the moment they lose their last hit point… There’s no point compiling an exhaustive list of every joke and parody in the book, so suffice to say that on the whole the jokes in this vein were fun, clever, and creative, and I found myself really enjoying the book.
What, then, did I so strongly dislike? The jokes which were made at the expense not of bad RPG tropes, but of RPG players. In particular, stereotyping them as fat, sweaty, smelly, nerdy losers who still live in their mothers’ basements and are of course still virgins. The villain of the novel is of course supposed to be an embodiment of all the most negative aspects of bad gamers rolled into one – the ultimate That Guy. But the novel doesn’t just aim its insults at him – no, it stereotypes all gamers, painting them with the same broad strokes you’ve seen a thousand times before, as if “Ha ha, nerds are virgins” was still the foremost cutting edge of humor.
“The only thing our type of gamers gamble with is their own virginity, and much to their chagrin, they never lose.”
– Chapter One
“They wouldn’t cross the street to stop a bully half their size. They seemed to have no courage at all. A single word from a girl, and they might wet themselves.”
– Chapter One
Hey, I’ve got some news for you. Here’s an example of a person who plays RPGs:
So, do you want to go ahead and repeat those comments to Mr. Diesel’s face? Or can the whole “gamers are fat, sweaty virgins living in their mothers’ basements” trope just go ahead and die already?
Another thing which really grates are the immersion-breaking postmodernist asides where the author breaks off narration in order to directly address the reader. This is an extremely difficult writing technique to use without coming off as extremely annoying and suspense-breaking. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, manages to pull it off by making his idiosyncratic narrator an actual character in the world he’s writing about. Within the framing device of Lemony Snicket writing about things he witnessed or uncovered through investigation, it makes perfect sense that he might have strong personal opinions about some of the people, places, and events which had a significant impact on him and might thus go on tangents regarding these things to the reader. In Death by Cliche, however, there is no sense that the omniscient narrator is a character within the world; it’s just Bob Defendi putting the story on hold every one in a while in order to make aside remarks to the reader. And each time he does it, it reminds the reader that the story is just a story; snapping them out of their immersion and ruining any emotional investment they may have been developing.
Finally, there is the resolution to the real-world plotline – or rather, the lack of a resolution. Throughout the book, it is hinted that time is continuing in the real world at a faster rate than in the RPG world, and that Damico’s body might still be alive in a coma somehow. So what did happen to Damico’s body after he was shot? And will Carl ever be caught and punished for his crime? Eh, who knows, the book decides to just leave those plot threads dangling. I don’t like dangling threads; I like endings where everything is nicely tied up. It’s excusable for the first book in a series to resolve certain plot points while leaving other mysteries and challenges pointedly remaining in order to serve as a sequel hook; but when a book doesn’t explicitly advertise itself as “Book 1 of the X Trilogy” or subtitle itself as “The X Saga” or “A Book of the X Series”, I tend to implicitly assume that it’s a standalone work. And while a very good book might leave me wishing for more stories set in the same universe, I am very unlikely to think anything along the lines of: “that book had a lackluster ending which left me feeling terribly unsatisfied – that sure makes me want to read more of his books! I hope he writes a sequel so that I can be disappointed by it, too!”
I give two-star reviews to two kinds of books: those which are generic, bland, and just generally uninteresting; and those which are actually quite interesting in some regards but also significantly flawed in some manner. Death By Cliche is of the latter type: it is a funny and interesting story which I could actually see myself quite liking, but it just has too many problems for me to overlook. Thus, I cannot recommend it.
So, like I said: Rocks fall, everyone dies.
Final Rating: 2/5