Author: Danny Tobey
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Genre: science fiction, thriller
My rating: 4/5 stars
Welcome to The God Game! This book, and the game within it, feels like something straight out of a Black Mirror episode–“Shut Up and Dance” (the one with the blackmail text messages) especially comes to mind. Prepare yourself for moral dilemmas, the horrors of technology, the complexities of teenage friendship and high school life, and above all, a riveting plot that makes this book’s 450+ pages absolutely fly past. Just remember, even as you read this review: G.O.D. is always watching.
The plot of The God Game is at once complex and simple. Five high school seniors, who refer to themselves as the Vindicators, spend their time coding and executing the occasional practical joke. When one of the group members, Peter, introduces the others to a game known as “The God Game,” run by an AI that was trained on all the world’s religious texts and literally believes itself to be God (or G.O.D., as it calls itself), the teens quickly find their lives consumed by the game’s endless quests, tests, and blackmail. Following G.O.D.’s directions earns you Goldz, which lead to real-world rewards of cash and favors, while disobedience earns you Blaxx, which bring real-life consequences ranging from embarrassment to physical violence to actual death. What starts as just some innocent pranks (changing a street sign to read “DONALD TRUMP IS A SHAPE-SHIFTING LIZARD,” for example) quickly morphs into lying, cheating, vandalism, and worse. As the game takes over the Vindicators’ lives, blurring the lines of reality through the use of AR glasses, they soon realize that playing the game is a risky endeavor…but getting out might prove fatal.
There were three elements of The God Game that really made it work for me: the eerily prescient premise, the character development, and the breakneck pace and turns.
The idea of a quasi-sentient AI is nothing new; such stories date back decades. What makes this one different is how immediate, how very now it is. Though the story is set in 2015, the technologies it contains are all based on ones we already have in our world: glasses that encourage augmented reality, security cameras in every corner of schools, smart car systems, artificial intelligence that learns from interaction and can communicate in a way similar to a human being, and so on. The author of the book is actually an expert in AI who regularly writes articles on it and speaks about it at conferences, and his expertise and strong handle on the topic is clear in every chapter. From the omnipresence and hackability of technology to the ethical complications inherent in the world of AI–not to mention the concerns that grow even greater when religion is thrown into the mix–Tobey depicts a comprehensive picture of the horrifying reach and potential of smart technologies left unchecked. Although some of the principles seemed grossly oversimplified–especially G.O.D.’s ability to create and manipulate images, despite the fact that even simple image recognition is still a very weak area in AI–the overall effect of just slightly enhancing what we already know was still chilling and highly effective.
This intriguing and relevant premise was further brought to life by the complex, well-developed cast of characters. All five of the Vindicators are fleshed out, with their own goals, insecurities, and complicated histories, and their relationships with each other are constantly in flux in a way that is consistent with typical high school student behavior. At the heart of the story is Charlie, once a golden boy with dreams of going to Harvard, whose academics and social life have plummeted following his mother’s death a year ago. Peter, reckless and always out to push boundaries, uses manipulation and false bravado to compensate for his own messy past. Kenny, a philosophical-minded boy, struggles to keep to his fiercely-held principles even as G.O.D. demands that he compromise them. Vanhi, the only girl in the Vindicators, shares Charlie’s Harvard dream, but she knows that a single blemish from her past could wreck everything. And Alex, bullied by his peers for being the “dumb Asian,” struggles to stay afloat amid a tumultuous home life and deep personal insecurity. Alternating between loyalty and betrayal, they tread the treacherous waters of college applications, popularity, and of course, the sacrifices G.O.D. demands of them, with lively banter, deeply-felt emotions, and the signature mistrust of anyone and everyone that high schoolers tend to hold.
Another point worthy of note is the sheer diversity of the characters, both primary and secondary. Three of the Vindicators are non-white, and Alex’s parents are immigrants. Vanhi is a lesbian and her little brother has a developmental disability. A major secondary character is also queer. None of these identities feel like tokenism; all are organic parts of the characters’ identities, brought up when relevant but otherwise not aggressively shoehorned in.
My only quibble with the characters in general was the fact that all of the adults were pretty awful. Several of them were cheating on their spouses, some were abusive and/or manipulative of their children, and even the ones who weren’t awful still put an absurd amount of pressure on their kids. I’m all for parents who aren’t perfect, but it rang a little false that all of them were so terrible.
Finally, what held this whole book together was its plot and pacing. It never dragged, always moving along at a fast clip, but never getting so fast that it was confusing (save for one moment where the Vindicators suddenly all come up with a complex-yet-brilliant idea in the span of about two pages). Truth be told, it was hard to put down–just as each fresh horror was resolved, a new one would crop up, demanding that you keep going to ensure that everything turns out okay. This is a thriller in every sense of the term, with everything from physical fights to car chases to psychological terror to life-or-death scenarios; the result is a dark and compelling page-turner with no time wasted.
Oh, and one more thing: there are twists galore, as one would expect, but the biggest doozy is the final chapter. I won’t say any more on that front, but that final “gotcha!” moment was a perfect unnerving conclusion to an unnerving tale.
The God Game is a tricky rabbit-hole of a book that sucks you in with seemingly innocent characters but quickly morphs into something bigger, scarier, and higher-stakes than you imagined. The questions it raises will linger long after you turn the final page–as will, I expect, a general unease around computers and a desperate need to keep your webcam covered at all times. But don’t worry. G.O.D. isn’t angry with you…probably, anyway.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: physical child abuse, abusive romantic relationship, suicide attempt, detailed depiction of depression, attempted mass attack of school, outing of a closeted gay character, illegal drug use
Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!