Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Like Earth, but Fluffier and Turn-Based


Since December of 2006, the creators of the webcomic Erfworld have been asking the question: what if a guy
who’s a bit of a loser, a definite nerd, and really does nothing with his life except play wargames were suddenly pulled into another world? A world that’s continuously at war, inhabited by all manner of wondrous creatures, and where everything significant happens in turns. In fact, the whole world operates according to a set of rules exactly like you’d find in a turn-based fantasy wargame, where players control their armies, make or break alliances, and execute complex battle strategies to conquer their opponents and win.

I’ve been following this comic for a year or so and have enjoyed it to the point where it’s the only webcomic that I keep open in its own Firefox tab. Sometimes I wish I weren’t so addicted so I could wait a couple of weeks and get larger chunks of storyline to chew on all at once, but I just can’t do it.

Part of what makes the comic interesting is its better-than-usual artwork (for a webcomic, anyway). The other
thing is that it reads like a giant dream-sequence, making you (and the protagonist) wonder whether or not it’s all real. You see, everything in the comic draws its name from real-world terms, jargon, brand names and celebrities. For instance, one of the major armies of the series is the Royal Crown Coalition, which takes its name from RC Cola. Some of the members of the coalition include Unaroyal (like the tires) and Transylvito (a kingdom of vampires with South Jersey-guido names. I haven’t seen a Father Guido Sarducci yet, but I bet he’s in there somewhere). The main character, a guy named Parson, even finds himself commanding the armies that are defending a massive stronghold built around a dormant volcano – precisely the wargame scenario he was playing when he was sucked into Erfworld to find himself among big plush dragons who attack with sticky bubblegum bubbles and an enemy leader who rides a rolled-up flying carpet with a saddle on it. Parson even comments – frequently – during the first book of the series on how some of the terms he learns might be overheard if he were in a hospital Intensive-Care Unit suffering from a stroke or aneurism or somesuch. For example, the kingdom he fights for was previously led by King Saline IV, and a saline-drip I.V. would be a pretty obvious thing to have in a hospital.

Three years into the series, neither we nor the protagonist really know whether this whole thing is real or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s okay to just sit back and watch the antics of King Slately of Jetstone (named for George’s boss in the old kids cartoon The Jetsons) as he frets over the possibility that Prince Sammy of Haggar might betray him. And all of that’s pretty recent. The older stuff is, in many ways, even better. The powerful flying units “gwiffons” look like marshmallow peeps (and even get bitten in half in combat sometimes – almost always with the head bitten off first), and there’s a “Dirtamancer” who magically makes golem armies out of the city’s sewage. And the whole time that Parson’s taking in the nonsensical wonder of his new home, we’re standing there beside him shaking our heads as well.

I admit that I didn’t “get” Erfworld back when it was first introduced. I think I misread the title as “Elfworld,” which didn’t help. And the first few pages, trying to establish the setting and premise, are a bit out there. But I was sent back again later by some web-buddies and saw its brilliance at last. The real-world pop-culture references are nonstop and the plot is remarkably complex. The artist changed between volume 1 and 2, but the artwork is still quite good. Rob Balder, the writer, is really good at weaving mystery through his story as he builds dramatic tension and it pulls you back time and again to see what’s going to happen next. I’m a big fan of Erfworld and recommend it strongly. This link will take you back to the beginning of Book 1. I recommend you don’t dive in when you’ve got anything important to do in the next 6-8 hours.

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