*Some spoilers within!*
Hardcover, 369 pages
Published May 7th 2013 by HarperCollins
The “Game” that the title refers to is a fictional alternate reality game created by our young narrator and protagonist Michael. In the post-zombie wasteland America the novel is set in, Michael is the only person there to protect his five-year-old brother Patrick. Seemingly fragile both physically and psychologically, Michael attempts to shelter his brother from the brutal reality of this world by maintaining that this world is not, in fact, real. It’s only a game, created for their enjoyment by the mysterious and all-powerful Game Master. The zombies are the Bad Guys, and the way to win the Game is to follow the instructions of the Game Master, avoid the bad guys, and make it to the Safe Zone. All they have to do is follow the Game Master’s instructions, and they’ll be fine. And of course, they’re perfectly safe the whole time – the Game Master would never really let them get hurt.
Is it right to lie to someone if we do so out of love? What if we do more than lie – we construct an entire imaginary world they become completely dependent on? Do our intentions matter at all to the person we’ve deceived when this artifice crashes down all around them? Are we really doing it for them, or for our own sense of power? And is it possible that we can need our own lies more than the people we tell them to?
The story doesn’t give any straightforward answers to these questions. And that’s perfectly okay. What T. Michael Martin is interested in doing is to let these questions play out in front of us. As tense as the zombie action got – and there were some truly terrifying moments – there’s a whole different layer of fear in whether Michael will be able to continue to maintain the illusion that he has crafted for his brother. It’s like watching someone dance as the floor crumbles beneath their feet, barely one step ahead of falling to their doom. While also, you know, being chased zombies.
The End Games also belongs to that school of post-apocalyptic stories that draws explicit parallels to the character’s lives before and after. Without delving into the intricacies of the plot and character development, the more we learn about Michael and Patrick’s past, the more we understand that for Michael, creating and controlling imaginary worlds to the core of his personality.
The language the characters use is an integral part of this novel. The most common criticism of The End Games has been regarding its narrative voice. Many reviews have stated that the dialogue between the brothers, and as well as Michael’s inner narration, goes too far in trying to come across as authentic. Or, to put it less charitably, saying that the characters come across as the way a nerdy, 30-something writer would imagine “those kids today” talk.
I understand why some critics might say that. The teenaged-sounding language is pretty heavy, and can occasion come across as jarring. Still, I think that most of those who criticize the narrative voice are missing the point. Yes, the language can be exaggerated, strange, and sometimes childish, but I don’t think this is a flaw in the author’s style. Rather, I think the dialogue is an extension of the character’s relationship with each other, and a vital element in maintaining the world that Michael creates for his brother. Looking closely at the relationship between the characters, we can see how Patrick copies and re-interprets Michael’s language, which is itself an imagined version of what Michael believes Patrick wants to hear. The two brothers construct a shared language as another form of barrier to keep out the world, and this language both shapes and is shaped by the characters new experiences over the progress of the book.
And there are other words or phrases that Michael essentially invents to describe his experience also others: “feeling the blood,”" yes-yes", "the Game Master.” These are concepts specific to Micheal, and they can be explained only through the action of the story. Over the course of the book, Michael and Patrick construct a shared language, an extension of their mutual reality. Ordinary words become loaded with meaning. Like the Game, their shared language serves to keep each other safe. They create, essentially, a subculture of two, and share the same inner world.
With any genre as big as the post-apocalyptic story, there are different and contradictory ways in which different cultural creators approach it. There’s one way that sees the new world as a setting for an exciting adventure. This is a trope very familiar from the broader fantasy stories, particularly young adult fantasy stories in the vein of the Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter You have an ordinary protagonist in a typically, safe world, who is suddenly pulled out of that world by forces beyond their control to have all sorts of adventures. In zombie stories, we this particularity often with in video games, where being attacked by the hordes of undead is supposed to be, well, "fun." And then you have a more “gritty” version, which attempts to show the horror of the situation, scraping back the veneer of civilization to show the horror that lurks beneath. Cormack McCarthy’s The Road is one major example of this.
In The End Games, both of these exist as separate, self-conscious layers on top of the story. Michael uses the language of fantasy to remove his younger brother from the experience, preventing him from understanding what’s actually happening. He desperately wants his brother to see their experience as an exciting adventure, because it’s much better than the alternative. And this leads to possibly the most dangerous and powerful idea touched on in The End Games, which is that telling fantastic stories about our fears – up to and including this very book – can serve as a way of surviving and thriving in adversity, but can also become a way of distancing ourselves from uncomfortable truths rather than confronting them.
Martin has addressed this exact subject several times in his vlog series, where he regularly interacts with his fans. Many times, Martin has spoken about how reading has has shaped him by giving him to tools to understand and reinterpret his own story:"The truth is," he says "every person alive is a constant author." And in another video about his experience as a self deined "geek," he talks about those who deeply love stroeis internalize them in a way that gives them "an ability to reimagine ourselves heroically" through the metaphors of fiction.
In The End Games, we can see this philosophy in action under extreme circumstances. Throughout the book we see how stories are able to keep people alive, but also how holding too tightly to any one story can ultimately become a limiting trap. Power in this world comes from being able to recognize stories for what they are, and to move between them as the moment demands. The End Games is about about recongizing the power of stories, and using them in a way that honors both the story and the teller. It is a heartfelt, suprising and beautiful book, and it is highly reccomended.
T. Michael (“Mike”) Martin is a novelist, screenwriter, and YouTuber who holds a B.F.A. in Filmmaking from University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He was inspired to write his debut novel, The End Games (HarperCollins, 2013) by his own younger brother, Patrick, and their shared love of zombie movies. Mike and his wife, Sarah, currently live in West Virginia.