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Books: Infinite Dendrogram

By Shelley Pallis.

Infinite Dendrogram is the best game ever invented, a “virtual reality massively multiplayer online game” but not a crap one like all the ones that came before. This one has got everything, starting with a 10,000-yen price point (and that’s in the year 2043, when 10,000 yen will probably barely buy you a coffee). And you can experience it as a 2D anime, as live-action virtual reality, as any format you want, and you can customise your character and stuff, and you get a sort of Pokémon thing called an Embryo that functions as a customised super-weapon.

Nobody believes this is true. Well, a tiny percentage of the world’s population believes in it, and as protagonist Reij Mukudori is swift to point out, Earth is a big planet and even a fraction of a percent of the population is enough to generate a huge online cast of characters. With a specificity common to the experienced gamer in our world, he outlines some of the big boons of his imaginary VVMMO, including the fact that its creator guarantees that everybody, yes, even a hundred million players if they sign up for it, will all be hosted on a single server.

In a touch common to many light novels, writer Sakon Kaidou devotes page after page to the humdrum accountancy of character generation. A dozen pages plod along as a Cheshire Cat explains the game mechanics and the rules, and Reiji faffs with his character’s hair colour and in-game clothing. It made me want to write a spoof light novel about someone playing chess: “First he put down a pawn. Then another pawn. Then another pawn. Across the board, he saw the other player doing the same thing, but with pieces of a different colour.”

But yes, your eyes did not deceive you, the in-game tutorial is indeed delivered by a Cheshire Cat, by no means the last reference to a well-known story that we might call the mother of all wonderlands, particularly since the game designer of Infinite Dendrogram is rumoured to be a man called Lewis Carroll. And Kaidou devotes so much time to the generation of a new character, because the nature of characters is going to become a crucial issue in his story.

An afterword by author Kaidou shyly expresses his surprise at the appearance in his in-box of an email from a professional publisher, offering to print his online prose as a bona fide book. But the Japanese publishers do indeed watch the Shosetsuka ni Naro (“Let’s Become Novelists) site like hawks, in search of nuances and intellectual property that might be leveraged into something bigger – there is already an anime series based on these books. And while Kaidou tips his hat to Alice in Wonderland, a big chunk of the story in Infinite Dendrogram is embedded in the concept of artificial intelligence. Reiji is shocked by the degree of realism in the non-player characters he encounters, and then starts to fret about the degree to which they have the freedom to escape their situation. He comes to see himself as a creature of privilege. If he exists in Infinite Dendrogram as a cluster of mere data nodes, then what really separates him from the attractive NPC he is starting to fall for?

Inadvertently, I suspect, Kaidou has stumbled on a mode of storytelling that turns such sci-fi considerations on their head. It’s not so much that the NPCs are living, breathing entities (for which see Free Guy and Tron: Legacy), it’s that Reiji himself is such a box-ticking, mechanics-obsessed cipher that he might as well be one of them. Kaidou describes clothes and costumes with nudge-nudge references to old computer games he dares not name. An iconic, freeze-frame moment of Gatling gun mayhem is parsed as being a bit like that scene in that film he doesn’t expressly reveal the title of. Like the hero of The Unwanted Undead Adventurer, Reiji is determined to master the system in which he finds himself, but his mind has become so inured to gamified realities already, that he seems only able to think in terms of hit points and armour classes.

But Reiji becomes increasingly fretful about his status as an owner and master in this world. He has literally bought his way into it, for a bit of fun dungeon-bashing with his brother, who plays as a bear with a machine gun. But is he dies, he will simply respawn. There is no jeopardy for him except the inconvenience of some wasted time. For the NPCs he comes to care for, death is final, and Reiji starts to find the thought unbearable. Not unlike the heroine of Her Majesty’s Swarm, he begins to develop a sense of a duty of care, not towards his experience point total and his levelling up, but to the people of the world that he and his fellow visitors are plundering and disrupting for their own entertainment.

Infinite Dendrogram by Sakon Kaidou, illustrated by Taiki, is available from J-Novel Club in the UK through Anime Limited.

Source: All The Anime


“If you’re not remembered, then you never existed.”

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