Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Travis Bagwell is a big fan of the LitRPG genre, and with his own additions to it he sought to put a new and captivating twist on an idea that is slowly losing its luster. In the first volume of the Awaken Online series, titled Catharsis, we are introduced to Jason, a player in an online virtual reality game who seeks to compensate his lack of power, freedom, influence and general importance in the real world. However, this game is quite different from anything that he has ever played before. Slowly but surely, he comes to the realization that instead of being the revered hero, he might very well be the villain of his own story.
Table of contents
Travis Bagwell Takes Us Into Our Tomorrow
The power to influence the world is something virtually every single person on Earth covets, dreaming of the fantasy world where their actions actually have a meaningful impact on everything. For most of us, however, the ability to shape and manipulate the world is extremely limited by our tremendous lack of resources and relative unimportance in the eyes of others.
We simply accept that we cannot control all that much beyond ourselves and choose to go on with our lives while channeling these desires through various means, such as writing stories, making music… essentially, through any creative activity. Video games are an especially interesting medium in that regard as they could potentially allow players an unprecedented control over their environment and the people in it.
This turns them into a means of escape from reality that only becomes increasingly powerful as the technology allows the games to be more immersive… something our protagonist Jason discovers in Travis Bagwell‘s highly-acclaimed Awaken Online: Catharsis.
As the story begins we are introduced to Jason, a man who is basically fed up with his reality, with his inability to influence it to his contentment. There are no real redeeming factors or rays of hope for him to look forward to, and so he seeks a means of escaping his existence, a prayer answered in the form of a new virtual reality game called Awaken Online. It promises players an unprecedented level of fidelity, enough to make them forget the real world ever existed.
Needless to say, Jason quickly decides to give it a shot but finds his expectations heavily subverted as he finds himself without any goals or enemies. Slowly but surely, the realization dawns on him: he is not meant to be the hero, but rather the villain.
A World Fully Realized
Video game novels are understandably a very recent phenomenon, but it’s been gaining in popularity very quickly as a genre thanks to many stellar entries from celebrated authors. The one main problem that plagues many of the more average video game novels is the fact that the authors are simply incapable of building a truly believable gaming world that follows the logic of video games rather than the real world.
In many novels out there it becomes apparent that the author only has the vaguest of familiarities with video games, using archaic beliefs and outdated stereotypes as building blocks. Thankfully, exactly none of those problems are present in this novel. Bagwell is quite obviously well-acquainted with this literary genre as well as the video gaming industry and he succeeds in creating a world that is completely believable with flying colors.
The world is very detailed and realized to the fullest, making us feel like there is history behind every single item and character we encounter, even if it’s never explicitly stated. The rules are laid down in a very clear and concise manner, completely logical and understandable without requiring any additional suspension of disbelief. All in all, the setting was seamlessly crafted, and in turn this set the stage for a powerful plot.
A Multifaceted Story
As far as the plot itself goes, I have to say that it was incredibly interesting to see things from the other side of the hill, to really get a good, book-long look at the face of villainy and what drives it. It’s quite fun to be rooting for the bad guy for a change, especially since it’s taking place in a video game, the one place where being a sinner is perfectly acceptable.
The story that takes place in the virtual world is the real meat of the course, so to speak, presenting lots of engaging characters and thrusting them into glorious battles that keep you sitting on pins and needles. More often than not you will find yourself wondering how the tides of battle will turn and whether or not this will be the one where Jason loses big.
Many conflicts are won by little more than a hair’s breadth, and even as Jason grows in power his battles escalate appropriately. The action is simply terrific with vivid descriptions and will have you flipping one page after the next. The story also bears a great deal of philosophical weight, examining the moral ambiguity that comes with being a bad guy, even if it is in a virtual world.
We explore the way in which Jason’s experiences in the virtual world shape his perception of the real one, how the two worlds interconnect and interact with each other. Jason is an interesting thinker and his deliberations are always a welcome addition to any chapter. While it is true that there is a corny love story in there, it’s certainly not a major plot thread and while it will make you roll your eyes a couple of times, it won’t hinder your enjoyment of Awaken Online: Catharsis.
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The Final Verdict
Travis Bagwell is without a doubt an exceptional writer with a whole world’s worth of talent and potential left to explore. Awaken Online: Catharsis is his first novel and it’s definitely one of the best books you can find in the LitRPG genre. It has everything you could possibly want from a novel in this genre, including diverse and interesting characters, captivating plot threads, a well-realized and believable game world, nail-biting battles, and even some philosophical considerations.
If you are a fan of this epic literary genre or are looking to see just how good it can get, then I absolutely recommend you get your hands on this novel. If it’s any indicator, Travis Bagwell‘s works may very well be considered classics one day.
Travis Bagwell is an American writer and attorney from Austin, Texas who has always been impassioned by the “LitRPG” genre and, after running out of reading materials, decided to add some of his own efforts to the genre.
His first works turned out to be a series, Awaken Online, and both of the novels in it, Catharsis and Precipice, have received a considerable amount of appreciation and paint a good picture of what to expect in the future.