05 June, 2020

Review: The Erogamer

The ErogamerThe Erogamer by Groon the Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way.

First, this is porn; if you aren't okay with reading porn, then you won't be able to enjoy this story. Yet I'm asexual, I don't generally read that much pornography, and while many of the porn scenes in The Erogamer did squick me out, I'm still giving the book 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Second, I tagged this book as both hard and soft fantasy. Yes, this seems to be impossible for me to honestly do on its face. But I would maintain that both tags are warranted, and I honestly like the combination. (You'll understand after you read it.)

Third, this is not really a traditionally written book. It's written as a series of posts on a forum, and in between each post you can see other real-world readers like you talking about the story. The author holds polls, including ones where readers can write-in their own options, and then the next part of the story will respect those votes. Apparently this is an actual genre that I don't have much experience with; regardless, I am convinced without even doing more than just skimming others in this genre that The Erogamer may very well be the best written story in its genre. I know it seems that I can't possibly be so sure of this without being more familiar with "questing" stories, and yet here I am, publicly maintaining just that, and feeling assured that if you read The Erogamer too, you may very well come to agree with my assertion.

The Erogamer is about a young protagonist girl who finds herself suddenly as a character in an erotic video game. She's still the same person, in the same house she grew up in, except now she can see a status screen at will, and her quests inevitably push her toward sex scenes where she gains experience and can level up. Being genre-savvy, she tries to munchkin her way through things, except she also has very human flaws that cause her to only stumble through at first. Without spoiling anything major, I will say that when she finally reaches the point where she can really start minmaxing, she suddenly finds that the eroge itself is also genre-savvy, and its goals aren't the same as hers.

I don't want to give away too much here, as the surprises you encounter when reading this story are all worth experiencing this on your own. Suffice it to say that if you have an interest in philosophy, or at least are into rationality (any story that includes a pun on the "ominous agreement theorem" gets bonus points from me), then so long as you're okay with reading porn, you may very well get as into this story as I have.

With that said, I have a couple of spoiler-lite things to say. If you want to go in blind, stop reading this review and just get started on The Erogamer yourself.

The first spoiler-lite thing I should mention is that it may be worthwhile for you to not only read the story posts that the author, Groon the Walker, posts on the thread, but also to read the thread posts written by others. None of them is an alt of the author; that would be against forum rules. Yet the story itself is dependent not just on the author writing the main story, but also the discussion generated by the readers as each new post goes up. At the time of writing this review, the story is not yet finished; ordinarily I would recommend that new readers wait until it is finished. But because this story revolves so much upon audience participation, I actually think it would be more worthwhile to start reading now.

The second spoiler-lite thing I want to mention is something that I'm a little uncomfortable about: trigger-warning-adjacent stuff. Obviously, explicit sex is in the story. As is heavily nonconsensual stuff, torture scenes, body negativity, etc. We all know that trigger warnings should occur first, before anyone reads the text, which the author does: certain sections of the story are actually only visible if you click after reading a trigger warning for the scene within. But I'm writing the following in a spoiler-lite section because I have something _meta_ to say about the trigger warnings.

There's some pretty bad ethical ideas presented in this story. The body negativity is especially bad. And it's not just written so that a character has bad ideas on body positivity, but also the narrator's voice and ways of describing scenes is really bad about body positivity. You might think that this means the author thus has bad views on it, and that the story is promoting something bad. But (and I really don't want to spoil too much here, so I do recommend you read the story before reading this full review) I believe that this is actually a story beat. There are some weird meta-things going on in this story that go pretty deep into metaphysics and other philosophy, and some of those things happen due to the frisson occuring when what the reader (aka YOU) experiences a dissonance with what you're reading (aka the TEXT). This gets deeper when you start to consider that what the author writes depends on what the readers vote on in polls, including write-in options. So YOU affect the TEXT which sometimes disagrees with you in a way that produces frisson.

For example, a character at one point describes a person as getting "more beautiful" and does gives as evidence that her breasts are bigger. At first you may think this is just that character's view, but it doesn't get challenged and then the story itself then completely legitimizes it by having the BOD stat of the video game positively correspond with breast size. Which kind of means that the author himself is legitimizing this point of view, by making the main system of the story they are writing have this be actualized. Yet at the same time, it becomes clear that this is _not_ what the author actually thinks is true, when you later see scenes outside the view of the main protagonist playing the erogame. The body negative view of equating larger breast sizes with having a better body is then shown to not being played straight, even though from the text itself at the time it looks quite a bit like the author is holding these views either explicitly or implicitly.

The same kind of thing happens when you see a character thinking that fat is bad. Followed by other characters thinking fat is bad. Followed by the world of the story itself thinking fat is bad. After reading all this, you the reader might then rush into a conclusion that the author himself is thinking fat is bad, and is actively pushing that view onto his readers. But I suspect that this is more of a modest-proposal-type situation than the author actually espousing those views. The point of the story is that you are being pushed further and further into situations that you get less and less comfortable with until you realize that the earlier things you just went along with in chapter one were also things that you should have felt uncomfortable about, too.

Now I realize that not everyone can handle this kind of fiction. Maybe you can't handle reading about rape. But even if you can, can you handle characters arguing intelligently (and perhaps somewhat convincingly) that some forms of rape are actually good? Maybe you're okay with that, too, but then do you continue to be okay with it when the description turns especially graphic? Maybe you're okay with even that, but then what about when you reach the end of one of the author's posts and see the next post by a reader who apparently viciously enjoyed reading that description? You _will_ reach a point where you feel uncomfortable in this story, especially when you truly realize that the story itself is propelled by the readers voting on what happens next in the story. It is the desires of those reading that cause the story itself to be written as it is. You cannot just scapegoat the author, because YOU are also the author. Even if you don't post in the forum thread, you _could_. Your non-participation makes the votes of those you disagree with even stronger. YOU are a part of this story in a way that you probably won't realize until _after_ you read the story yourself.

This is not to say that the author is blameless; Groon the Walker has cleverly taken a page from how John Marshall dealt with Marbury vs. Madison, granting himself power by negating votes in ways that follow from the rules of the 'questing' genre itself, acting like an evil genie monkey's-paw-style.

And there do seem to be some legitimate blind spots in the ethics of the author that bother me, though they aren't dealbreakers. He uses the word "harem" positively; I'm polyamorous, and I realize that this is legitimately the name of a specific eroge genre, but that word has too many negative connotations in today's non-eroge world to be acceptable to an outside audience (like the non-protagonists' world in The Erogamer). (This is unacceptable in the same way that the n-word isn't acceptable in a story about non-blacks participating in black culture by appropriating that word, but to a much lesser degree.) And while there is a difference between rape-with-physical-force and rape-where-the-rapist-was-using-deceit, that difference might not include a local human-scope-comparable moral difference in the same way that destroying just the Milky Way isn’t locally human-scope-comparably good compared to destroying the Virgo Supercluster. (This will make more sense after having read the text.) These are not modest-proposal-style disconnects. They seem to genuinely be a difference between how I and how Groon view the world.

Finally, the biggest issue I have is one of shame. This is a major negative trait of the protagonist that MUST be resolved by the end of this story or else it will feel unsatisfying to me. In a pretend world where a character can jump higher than physics might otherwise dictate, you can have characters be fat and/or old and yet have no drawbacks. If you can erase the health drawbacks, the speed drawbacks, the endurance drawbacks, etc., then the only reason left to look down on them is to say that they aren't desirable aesthetically. But if an erogame wants variety among hair color, freckles, race, etc., shouldn't it also include variety among body sizes and ages? This is a lesson that the protagonist should be made to learn, and so far I see only the smallest steps toward learning that type of lesson in-story.

However, even if these small flaws don't get resolved, I'll still maintain that this is among the best books I've ever read and it is very likely to be near the best in its own 'questing' genre. If I can enjoy The Fountainhead and Ender's Game despite objectivism and gay-bashing being present within them, then I can enjoy The Erogamer despite it taking a few ethical positions that I'm not okay with in real life.

Some of the math systems aren't that great, and if I were an editor, I'd suggest several changes before recommending its publication, but overall I've found The Erogamer to be an excellent example of philosophical fiction that anyone into philosophy or rationality should at least consider reading. It's the best sex-oriented fiction I've read. It’s the best choose-your-own-adventure style story I’ve ever read. It’s among the best meta-meta-stories I’ve ever read. It’s among the best weird metaphysics stories I’ve ever read. And while I disagree with the philosophies of many of the characters, the author, and even the reader-voters, I truly enjoyed the various philosophies described within. I also appreciated the unexpected ace-representation in an eroge story.

Very well done.

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