Might that be the fate of Nonplayer? Maybe. Eventually. Nate is clear on his blog that the series will take as long as it does, as it can in no way be financially self-sustaining and it is certainly time consuming, so it might take us a lifetime to answer that question, but there are some small (and large) touches, even in the first issue, that indicate that lifetime or whatever, he’s not plotting by the seat of his pants. This, to me, is the tell-tale sign that he’s chosen to embrace the medium for its visual storytelling potential instead of just as an outlet for pinups.
Firstly, and most obviously, is the reality layering. Nonplayer will, eventually, delve into some kind of AI-gone-rogue scenario: We start out in a VR fantasy game, where two players chit-chat about some of the surprising ‘buggy’ behaviors of the NPCs. When they leave the game, we find ourselves in a questionably illogical world with beautiful people and above-the-cloud-layer houses and, if you’re anything like me, it’s at this point in the story where you assumed Simpson was going to fulfill that art-first stereotype by constructing a tale out of facile ideas. But then our two players bid one another adieu and wake again, this time from a reality much like our own. Save with some pretty badass VR tech. It’s a small wrinkle bit an important one that sets the story apart from a lot of peers (Nate could have easily cast that middle layer out of his story), and the way we then follow one of these players through her daily routines sets us up for the end of the first issue, when she decides to “skin” her ride to work with a visual overhaul of her VR world.
I’m not claiming the blurring of reality and fantasy as a new concept, but it’s handled very gracefully here, and without any over-the-top morality stances i.e. “if we don’t love life THIS will happen!” It reminds me more of Neal Stephenson’s embrace of tech in books like Snow Crash or Reamde: Life is life. It’s normal, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But life in tech (in the texts) is purposefully prettier, and that doesn’t necessarily have to take away from our actual experiences. Nonplayer’s reality layer is also dotted with various ‘upgrades’ to suggest this as a future/near-future where such convincing VR exists.
The second issue is where things get not exactly cluttered, but maybe just extended too far for a book that has long breaks between chapters. On the plus side, as he did with the establishing details in issue one, Simpson shows skill at introducing more terms and concepts for his world without over-showiness or exposition. We get a police force that monitors the sentience of AIs, hints that AIs have gone rogue before – which, like the reality layers, is a good faith step showing that Nate is aware of the stories of this type that have come before – indications that the game we were watching in issue one continues on without gamer interaction, and some type of linked overmind called C.U.B.E. that acts like the final word on, at least, the AI board’s actions. Separately, all of these elements are really well-handled, and the way they’re woven together is smooth as well. But, again, though I’ve praised the depth of the story, if you’re aware of the time it will take to tell that story – which Nate seems to be – I’m curious if one or two details should be shorn off to allow for focus on the central plot. There’s at least one piece of the puzzle (a worker on the VR with an android at home) that feels unnecessary at this point, even if it is intended to pay dividends later.
But… Time, hopefully, will tell.
Art-wise, that Nonplayer garnered much attention for its detailed, rich panels means I don’t need to praise that aspect. But I will add that Simpson shows not only good comedic timing in issue 2, but also awareness of how/where to guide the eye, even with his very stuffed panels. Both of these are skills often lacking in such meticulous layouts. If there’s one thing to criticize, it’s that the Tony Harris photo-real humans (although Simpson uses less exaggerated expressions and a finer line) occasionally betray what looks like computer drafted art, just a little too stiff with eyes focused nowhere.
Still, to be able to say this much positive about two issues – both the look and story – is a rarity, and having reread these several times now, it’s apparent that they hold up as fully enjoyable on their own. But of course we hope the story continues.