Life’s Lottery by Kim Newman review

Life's Lottery is an adult adventure game book with a difference. Aliya reviews Kim Newman's thought-provoking work...

The first adventure game book I ever read was Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon, and I loved it. It was, perhaps, the perfect introduction to the idea of choosing my own path. Quite simplistic in design, the choices could often be whether to turn left or right within this nightmare dungeon, and the whole idea was that you could survive this adventure if you chose correctly. That’s what you were aiming to do.

There’s no surviving Life’s Lottery because the adventure is life. And life only has one outcome. But what you do before you reach that inevitable outcome is a matter of nature and nurture, of choice and luck. Life’s Lottery is an adventure game book for adults that puts you in the shoes of one Keith Oliver Marion from the moment of his birth in Reading hospital in 1959. There are many paths to choose on the journey of Keith’s life, ranging from becoming either a victim or a perpetrator, winning the lottery or living with nothing, having successful relationships or being drawn to people who will ultimately let you down, or even destroy you.

The thing that really surprised me about Life’s Lottery is that choosing what might seem to be the obvious path to a great life never works out that way. It’s an unfair book. Deathtrap Dungeon had moments when I wanted to moan about the outcome, but no adventure game book has made me so angry, and that anger started building from the very first choice I was asked to make. In the playground, a gang of kids surrounds Keith and asks him if he likes Napoleon Solo or Illya Kuryakin. For me, the answer has to be Illya Kuryakin. I grew up loving that character. But choosing Illya Kuryakin sets you on a path that sees Keith forever labelled as a bit of a victim, and that really bothers me. The most upsetting part is that I can see that maybe it’s true. All the cool kids like Napoleon Solo, right? At least, during childhood at that period of time. Alas, it’s not so much the book that is unfair than life itself.

That’s what Kim Newman really brought home to me as I worked my way through the different options, even bringing myself to choose Napoleon Solo once or twice to see what kind of person Keith became. Life is unfair. We all make choices every day, and there is no way of knowing what’s going to happen. Even the best outcomes in Newman’s book end with ‘And so on.’ Yes, and so on and so on and so on, until the last syllable of recorded time. You won’t be escaping this dungeon.

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The problem perhaps lies with the fact that even the great outcomes don’t seem to be that great when delivered in the second person, quite deadpan style. I made my way through every scenario and was left wanting more with every single one. Was there a true happy ending in the book? Eventually I resorted to reading all the outcomes and only then did I appreciate what a clever piece of work Life’s Lottery is. If you read the book from start to finish an entirely different story is revealed, with a bitter-sweet ending.

So although I found Life’s Lottery to be a mainly unsatisfactory experience, I’m in the strange position of still wanting to recommend it highly. I think that’s because it asks so many questions about the nature of life, and the choices we make. You can play the book through and make the decisions that come naturally to you, as I did at first. Then the opportunity to be a different sort of person presents itself, and that is a thrilling experience. I was most reminded of Luke Rhinehart’s classic 1971 novel The Dice Man; you could choose to roll a dice here instead, and play in an entirely random fashion. Who knows where it will lead poor Keith, who seems capable of just about anything.

The perfect version of this book would, I suppose, share the reader’s circumstances as a starting point precisely – sex, year of birth, parents, and so on. Maybe there’s room here for a digital version that could expand the scope to accommodate different parameters. But, for now, this reissue of the 1999 original makes for both a trip back into the role-playing past, and an examination of how our decisions change us as human beings, and what we’re all really aiming for. Money, power, love, happiness: they are all possibilities, but what we have to do to achieve them is not so easy to find out.

I’ll finish with a word of warning; after I finished Life’s Lottery I wandered into the kitchen and switched on the kettle. Tea or coffee? Hmmm. In my imagination, tea could lead to an abseiling course that ended in tragedy and coffee could end on a yacht off the Seychelles. Reading this book can, it seems, seriously impair your ability to make decisions.

Life’s Lottery is available now.

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4 out of 5