A few years ago I was at a diner with my wife and another couple. We were waiting for our order to arrive when I espied a book on the shelf. With a title like The Book of Horrible Questions, I just had to see what it was all about. We spent the rest of the evening squirming in our seats as we discussed horrible options such as “Would you rather lose everything you own and are reduced to a beggar OR your parents endure 30 seconds of an electric cattle prod in their butts?” Needless to say, my wife was not happy when I proudly came home with the book a few days later and started every dinner party with a discussion topic chosen from a random page.
Fast forward to Christmas of that year. There were a couple of board games released with roughly the same premise as the book. My wife, knowing how much I love this book, decided to order me one of the games as a present (I love my wife!). When I opened the present, I was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to engage various friends in squirming conversations and chance rolls of the die for hours on end.
When the big night finally came, I was let down. The game was over in fifteen minutes. We all sat in stunned silence before someone finally said, “What’s for dessert?” While the game had a great premise, and plenty of promise for great conversation and uncomfortable revelations, in the end, it fell well short of expectations.
The same can be said about the graphic novel, A Friendly Game by Joe Pimienta, Lindsay Hornsby, and Lauren Affe. The book centers around two school age friends who tire of board games and lazy summer afternoons. The discovery of a dead rat soon leads them down the slippery slope of a made up game where points are earned through the capture, torture, and killing of ever larger animals.
This set-up is simultaneously revolting and compelling – the kind of scenario the reader never wants to actually be a part of, but desperately wants to see resolved. Unfortunately, the creators fail to move past the initial setup. The characters are never more developed than they appear in the earliest pages. They are two dimensional figures attempting to navigate what should be a morally complex and twisting environment. Instead they are reduced to playing out their expected roles in a predictable fashion with little time for the reader to feel anything for them besides disappointment and revulsion.
The creative team attempts a story where friendship and loyalty are squared off against morality and guilt. However, these emotions are far too complex for their simplistic characters. Neither the protagonist nor his antagonist best friend move beyond the base levels of the conflict. There are no real conversations – no moral or philosophical discussion or analysis of right and wrong. In the end, neither the reader nor the characters are changed in any meaningful way.
A Friendly Game should be a character driven story where the reader is pulled along through a moral dilemma. There should be plenty of opportunities for the reader to believe in and feel for the characters. We should see them struggle with their surroundings and understand how they can overcome the revulsion that we, the readers, are feeling. However, characters do not change or develop. They are stuck in the same place we found them. As such, our feelings never change either. The reader is stuck in a disturbing situation with nowhere to turn and no clear character to follow. It is an unpleasant and unenjoyable read.
If you are looking for a book about complex moral issues that lead to deeper conversations about friendship, loyalty, and responsibility, then avoid A Friendly Game. Instead, pick up The Book of Horrible Questions and invite me over for dinner. My wife won’t let me talk about it at the table any more.