Play It Again: Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

September 27, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 4 4 min read

Neal Stephenson by Bill Morris. email Bill.

coverIn his book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell writes, “More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that.” Bissell is an avid gamer whose collection of essays on the industry attempts to illuminate — and partially, he admits, to justify — the vast amounts of time he and his peers spend shooting monsters and saving the pixelated world.

Bissell wrote an engaging, beginner-friendly book that I turned to with unanswered questions — questions that had been raised, and then ignored, by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde, centers around T’Rain, a massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG) that has (fictionally) surpassed World of Warcraft in innovation and popularity.

coverMMORPGs differ from other video games in that thousands of players all exist in the same virtual world. If you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, you’re up against the game as it was designed. But in a MMORPG like T’Rain, the details of the world you’re playing in are being determined by the other players online. It’s easy to see why this kind of game is even more addicting than its more confined peers. Grand Theft Auto lies dormant without you when turned off, but T’Rain is always changing. Richard Forthrast, the founder of T’Rain, describes it thus:

This was part of Corporation 9592’s strategy; they had hired psychologists, invested millions in a project to sabotage movies, yes, the entire medium of cinema—to get their customers/players/addicts into a state of mind where they simply could not focus on a two-hour-long chunk of filmed entertainment without alarm bells going off in their medullas telling them that they needed to log on to T’Rain and see what they were missing.

The main objective of T’Rain players is wealth, both virtual and actual. T’Rain characters can earn money in the game’s feudal system or steal it from those they vanquish. It’s designed to appeal both to casual players who want to log on and battle something periodically and to Chinese teenagers who make a living from playing it incessantly.

Forthrast was a big gamer before he founded T’Rain, and from the beginning the game was designed with massive worldwide popularity in mind. He hired a geology expert to create the planet T’Rain’s geography and climate. He hired two science-fiction writers—one a Cantabridgian Tolkien-like figure and the other a prolific producer of pulp—to write the history of T’Rain—it’s species, nations, ancient feuds, and continuing mythology. They spent years creating T’Rain, so that it was a complete universe and set of cultures before they invited the players in. Fast forward a few years, T’Rain is ubiquitous and Richard Forthrast is a multi-millionaire.

I liked Reamde right away. It begins at the Forthrast family reunion in Iowa, where we learn Richard’s backstory, how he came up with the idea for T’Rain and assembled its hodge-podge team of designers and writers. He talks about MMORPGs, their particularly enticing qualities and how the game company continues to shape the world the players play in without exerting obvious influence. Bissell writes that every video game has a guiding story. “PLUMBER’S GIRLFRIEND CAPTURED BY APE!”, as he says, was the original game story, and they have evolved from that into worlds of moral quandary.

In T’Rain, characters are either good or evil. T’Rains writers created a history of wars between the two, which new players take up as they join the game. However, as the players become more personally invested in the game’s world, the battle lines started to shift. T’Rain’s two writers — the Tolkien guy and the pulp guy — are public rivals, and the game’s players start taking sides, in what Richard calls the War of Realignmnet (Wor).

“So the Wor is our customers calling bullshit on our ‘Good/Evil’ branding strategy,” Richard says to one of his writers, who replies, “Not so much that as finding something that feels more real to them, more visceral.”

T’Rain’s players are so plugged in that they’re taking over the story. Meanwhile, a Chinese hacker creates a T’Rain virus, Reamde, that encrypts the infected computer’s files and holds the encryption key ransom. The ransom, of course, is to be paid within T’Rain. As Stephenson describes it, the world of T’Rain and the real world stop feeling distinct. T’Rain isn’t so much a hobby to its players, as a second way to live out their life. That distinction between the Us and Them that Bissell describes, and what makes the Us so crazy about gaming, is one I thought Stephenson was going to keep exploring.

And then, how do I say this, enter a pack of jihadists. Richard’s niece and her boyfriend, helping to track down the Chinese hacker, literally stumble upon an Islamic terrorist’s bomb factory. For the rest of the book, there are many many gunfights.

Stephenson, known for his supernatural themes, says he wanted to try something different by writing a thriller. This he did, and the final two-thirds of the book is a lively thriller, with Richard’s niece assigned the Kim Bauer role of the constantly handcuffed and espionage agents from Russia, England, and the U.S. all getting involved as the action hops from continent to continent. The problem is, Stephenson showed his hand too much at the beginning. He teased me with a thriller that took place within T’Rain, among its players and runners, visited upon by the limitations and consequences of two simultaneous worlds—real and virtual. I so wanted to read that book. But it was pushed to the background to make way for a shoot-em-up.

This is the first Stephenson I’ve read, and I now gather it was a bad place to start. From Reamde, I know him to be a thoughtful, meticulous, and very funny writer (of an MI6 agent going dark in British Columbia, “How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?”), but his talents were misplaced here. He continued to bring T’Rain into the plot. The characters use it to communicate with each other, and the Reamde virus scenario still plays out, although with nothing like the significance the title suggests. The T’Rain novel and the thriller feel like two separate books, the lesser of which gets more attention, sending me running for Tom Bissell to satisfy my new-found interest in gaming. If Stephenson ever decides to finish the T’Rain novel, I’m interested.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. Okay, here would be my “review” of this book:
    If you have a problem with religious, right-wing gun-nuts living on a nowhere farm in Northwest Iowa, then think again: These experts in all guns might come very handy in a stand off with a band of evil Al Qaeda terrorists. I can believe that. I do have some trouble believing that said family would adopt and love the black heroine from Eritrea, Zula (aren’t they opposed to all these foreigners taking over the country?) It’s almost equally hard to believe that this family would spawn some kind of genius entrepreneur who makes a shitload of money no matter what he touches. Said entrepreneur is billionaire Richard, who used to smuggle marihuana across the Canadian-US border and is now the head of multi billion dollar corporation running the MMOG (massive multiplayer online game) T-Rain. T-Rain is basically a World of Warcraft game. Remember Second Life? Didn’t we read in the media that people were actually making a living of selling stuff in that virtual reality? Same is the case in T-Rain. Poor Chinese kids are making a living mining gold in that virtual world, a job much too tedious for Westerners who can just go an buy the gold from the Chinese to make their virtual characters stronger.
    But mining is tedious even in China and so some brilliant Chinese kid, known in the virtual world of T-Rain as REAMDE with an avatar of a Troll, had a better idea: He and his friends inserted a virus into T-Rain which encrypted people’s harddrives, kept them hostage and would only release the kidnapped files if you deposited $73 for him in T-Rain. Bad luck has it, that some of those kidnapped files belonged to a Russian Mafia. They didn’t take that very well. So off they go to China to find the and just kill that Troll. They are accompanied by a cast of more or less willing characters, but most of all, they force Zulu to come along, the adopted girl from Eritrea, who is also employed by the owner of T-Rain, Richard. But of course with Zulu those Russian bad guys have a very tough chick on their hands, and one who knows everything there is to know about guns. Zulu is aware that once they catch the Troll REAMDE, she will be of no use to these Russians any more and she will be killed. Zulu also doesn’t want the Chinese kids to be killed. This is why she leads the Russians into the apartment above the Chinese REAMDE hackers, and that was really just very, very bad luck. Of all things that apartment is housing the baddest of the bad Al Qaeda terrorist Johnson and his minions.
    From then on all hell brakes lose and a great number of characters are doing all sorts of heroic and ingenious things, mostly trying to not die, kill the terrorists and get form A to B, B = all converging in the end in the wilderness in B.C. To the great disappointment of all nerds and geeks, T-Rain is not playing a very big part in this book.
    Everything is spelled out in great minutia, every step they take, every stone they trip over, but most of all, every single gun in this book is described in great detail, the brand, the maker, it’s range, the way it functions, the way the bullets will kill, for what sort or for what kind of shooting it is best suited. Sometimes this almost 1000 page minutia is very entertaining. For instance when three very unnautical characters end up on a fishing boat, run out of gas and have to convert their vessel into a sailing boat and even have to make it through a storm. In the last, let’s say 150 pages that kind of minutia becomes tiresome. The final showdown, when everybody is finally in one location, trying to kill the bad Al Qaeda guys while not getting killed themselves, we already know what’s going to happen: All the bad guys will die, some sacrifices will have to be made, which means a few minor good guys will have to die, and especially all tough chicks will prevail and even find love. Once you know that, then the endless descriptions of favorable or unfavorable fighting terrains, every bolder, all the endless description of switchblade and the like, every mishap and of course every gun involved is just tedious.
    There are some other problems with that book. If you read an action thriller where the author pays attention to this many details, then it’s glaringly obvious when something vital is overlooked, and that happens quite often: For instance, characters frequently have to relieve themselves. Peeing and crap, it’s an issue. It has to be done. At some point Richard is playing T’Rain. He badly wants to find his niece Zulu and realizes that the Troll REAMDE is online and he might have information about his missing niece. Richard then fortifies himself with enough food and drink for many long hours in front of his computer to confront the Troll and lure him into a trap. Richard also has a bucket handy to piss in. On the other end in China the Troll is the Chinese version of an internet café, a public place and equally unable to leave his computer. Now how does he solve that bladder problem? Normally I wouldn’t really care, here I do wonder.
    I am also mystified by the technology. . Computer technology is going forcefully mobile but Neil Stephenson’s characters are still in a very stationary frame of mind.
    People do use mobile phones for phone calls, text messages and taking pictures …and that’s it. For absolute everything else they do need computers. I do understand that an MMOG has such massive data that it cannot be played on a mobile device. But these people, they don’t even google on their phones, nothing. No matter what kind of computer related activity, it is always done on stationary computers or laptops. This I find peculiar especially because we are never given any kind of a reason for that kind of old fashioned behavior.
    All in all this NOT a Stephenson book, and have read them all. If you want to read a fun book about crime inside an MMOG, go read “Halting State” by Charles Stross – and I do wonder if Stephenson has not ripped this writer off, just too similar for coincidence?

  2. Stephenson’s books have always conflicted between action thrillers & geek out theories.  Ask 3 people what Cryptonomicon was about & you’ll get 3 answers. Geeks remember the equations and philosophy of Captain Crunch, others remember the psychosis of Shaftoe.  This book is no different. Sure the 150 page shootout takes over at the end… But only after a 100 page description of a computer game.  Was this book about guns & jihadist or about the notion of setting up real trade in a virtual environment or about learning to survive and adapt in changing (real or virtual) environments?  I suspect you’ll get 3 answers from 3 people.  Read it & take what you can from it.  I doubt it will change anything… But then again people didn’t think Snow Crash was all that until cyberpunk fans got jobs at Google.  

  3. @Marianne: Have you read Cobweb & Interface? Because they read pretty much like this one & Stepheson wrote them.

  4. “If Stephenson ever decides to finish the T’Rain novel, I’m interested.”
    Me too!!!

    Which is the outcome of the WoR, the War of Realignment?
    How are the new narratives incorporated to T’Rain technology?
    How are the passwords to decript the files secuestered by REAMDE delivered to the users? And, how is that the Troll becomes a main person of the game but never decripts the file that caused all the problem with the Russians?

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