Post-High School Reality Quest
By Meg Eden
California Coldblood Books, June 13th, 2017
225 pages, $7.21
Reviewed by Bailey Drumm
“Does it sound weird to say that my life sometimes feels like a video game? And sometimes, I’m not even the one who’s playing?”
High school graduate, Elizabeth, known to her friends as Buffy, faces the trials and tribulations every recent high school graduate faces: staying connected to her old friends from high school, while building friendships with her party-going college roommates. She is forced to see herself through a different lens. She must decide between telling her friend Tristan about her budding feelings for him, or disrupting their relationship. She encounters the unfamiliar on campus in her classes, and on rooftops at parties, all the while attempting to hold on to her sanity. She experiences all the excitement and confusion that a coming-of-age character would once graduating high school. What sets her apart is that she believes she isn’t in control of her future. Her mind is taken over by a text adventure game.
It all begins at her high school graduation. At first, the commands of the text parser intrigue her, but eventually she starts to feel overwhelmed and burdened by the instructions she is receiving. She thought college would be a time to set herself apart and have a say in the direction of her life. Instead, she feels alone, like she’s the only one weighed down by new stresses during this transition.
Meg Eden’s novel flips reality on its head. Where are the commands in Buffy’s head coming from? Will she learn to get over the problems consuming her mind, or will she get caught up in a game that wants her to go against all of her instincts? Will she be able to escape them and take back control of her life before she is forced to sabotage a friend or herself by the demands of the game?
The novel is formatted in flashbacks and flash-forwards between the day of graduation, leading up to the summer after her freshman year. It’s an effective form due to the nature of Buffy’s healing process from the psychological torture she has been through. The reader is submerged in the latter part of the story from the first chapter, picking up the pieces while turning the pages. The reader is aware of the different world the story is encapsulated in via the commands that Buffy is experiencing. But, just like her, a reason why or how she got there is never given. The commands seem innocent enough at first, entering and exiting rooms, turning corners, but eventually they become part of her problem-solving and decision-making. The reader is never able to get comfortable with the storyline, just as Buffy feels she is unable to control the decisions being made that are moving her forward. The pace is plotted with the glimpses of other-worldliness but held together by the familiarity of conventional situations.
Buffy expresses distress, as in this passage:
I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I had said something else, if I had made different decisions, would I be here right now?… Sometimes I just start shaking or pulling at my hair because there are some things you can never undo, and that kind of guilt makes me want to break my body in half as penance.
What freshman hasn’t experienced those feelings? Luckily for Buffy, if she finds herself stuck in a room making a bad decision, or needs to step back and bite her tongue, she can. All she has to do is something extreme and wait for the fateful words: “You are now dead. Thank you for playing POST-HIGH SCHOOL REALITY QUEST! Would you like to load a saved game?”
She can choose to save at any point, and can restart from any of the three save slots. She has to choose what memories to keep, and which to save over.
Post-High School Reality Quest doesn’t attempt to comfort the reader about life changes being easy so much as present an opportunity for the reader to reflect on how he or she has handled change. Though the content is sometimes heavy, Buffy’s mind is a great narrator and opens the blinds for readers to see her good and bad sides. She also learns the good and bad sides of everyone she thought she had figured out. The human brain is much more complex than a text adventure game, but it takes her living in one to figure that out. Eden invites the reader to contemplate the save slots that have occurred in their own lives and how they’ve overcome and dealt with troubling times.
The story comes off as meta at points (being in the head of the narrator, who has a narrator in her head.) Buffy is doing things and she doesn’t know why, which makes the reader question the experiences they are trying to imagine happening. Ultimately, the reader has to make the decision to give up control as well, and let the text parser be the guide.