The Guide to a Game That Doesn’t Exist: On Plastiboo’s “Vermis”
By Patrick FiorilliOctober 28, 2023
Vermis I: Lost Dungeons and Forbidden Words by Plastiboo
Far more than that, he wants to start playing the game now, in his head. And in an era that predates the internet’s recent deluge of gaming video content in the form of walkthroughs, let’s plays, and livestreams, these 272 pages let him do just that. At this moment, for my friend and me, this strategy guide is a tool, yes, but it is also, perhaps above all else, an enchanting object in its own right. With just this book, one can imagine, can play.
More than 20 years later, at long last, the strategy guide is back. Since last winter, independent Italian comics and games publisher Hollow Press has released to an enthusiastic audience no less than six limited-edition printings of a strategy guide to the dark fantasy role-playing video game Vermis, written and illustrated by pseudonymous artist Plastiboo.
Across pages plastered with all sorts of bogs and bogeymen, lushly illustrated in a gnarly lo-fi style, the book lets readers in on everything they need to know about the game, from the stats and equipment of its playable characters to strategies for defeating its toughest enemies, avoiding its fiendish traps, and finding its secret treasures. Yet this catalog of catacombs has its own devious twist: there is no game called Vermis.
The “Official Guide” to Vermis (which, for simplicity’s sake, let’s call “Vermis”) stands, as of today, by itself. The book is secondary material lacking a primary source. But it’s not simply a proof of concept for a game waiting to be developed. As a strategy guide—precisely insofar as it is a strategy guide—Vermis makes good on the promise that such volumes once made to their readers: that there is a world beyond these pages waiting to be explored.
There is, as ever, an economic context at work here. Although strategy guides may be unfamiliar both to nongamers and to younger gamers alike, their print production was once a pillar of the gaming industry. Game publishers at one time worked closely with guide publishers, the former allowing the latter access to prerelease builds of games so that a guide could sit on the shelf next to a hotly anticipated game on release day, ready for a retailer to recommend their combined purchase. In this way, strategy guides sold hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies, bolstered by the successes of the games they were tied to. The bigger and bolder the game, the bigger and bolder the guide.
In the best of cases, every kind of player was happy. For the casual gamer, guides offered a way to alleviate headaches. Stuck on a puzzle, or sick of losing to the same boss fight over and over? Here’s where you should push the blocks onto the switches to open the gate, and here’s a tip: use fire spells to exploit the boss’s elemental weakness. For superfans, on the other hand, a guide was valuable as a repository of little-known knowledge: detailing the location of every single weapon a player could collect, or containing otherwise uncollected bits and bobs of world-building, character backstories, and artwork.
The internet, not unexpectedly, changed things. Beginning with forums and dedicated sites like GameFAQs, where players could write and upload their own comprehensive strategy guides (often orders of magnitude larger and more detailed than their professional, print-based counterparts), the value proposition of the traditional strategy guide began to falter. Today, the perplexed player simply turns to one of dozens of websites, fan-made or professionally written, dedicated to cataloging a game’s secrets and strategies, each search-engine-optimized for immediate retrieval.
Likewise, the internet’s broader pivot to video means that players can now watch someone do exactly what it is they need to do themselves, either structured as a full-length playthrough or broken up into bite-sized walkthroughs, and likely loaded with algorithmic advertisements in either case. Suffice it to say, a new economy of web-based strategy guides has emerged, tremendously lucrative in their own way: optimized for click-through metrics, fueled by underpaid labor, and, as of the last year or so, increasingly clogged with AI-generated text.
Against this backdrop we find Vermis: a strategy guide for a game that doesn’t actually exist, yet which, for that very reason, finds a formal identity all its own. For readers who recall scanning for cheat codes in the back of gaming magazines while their parent checked out at the grocery store, or who pinned a strategy guide’s world-map poster to their bedroom wall to cross-reference and admire, Plastiboo’s Vermis marks a nostalgic recurrence of the peculiar sense of mystery summoned by a secondary text that attempts to illuminate the totality of its primary source.
Hollow Press describes the guide for Vermis as a “pure act of world-building.” This is true, yet imprecise. What Vermis builds is, to be sure, the world of its ostensible subject, full of evocative, if occasionally clichéd, swamps and swords and skeletons. But Vermis also builds the speculative world of its own existence: a world where this bygone form of secondary literature, the strategy guide, never disappeared, never dissolved into the slush of the content economy, but instead flourished as an aesthetic form unto itself.
What is it like to read Vermis? The answer depends on how you go about reading this irregular book. To its enthusiast audience, Vermis might at first glance resemble a “sourcebook,” a kind of secondary literature that accompanies tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. Typically, a sourcebook provides a comprehensive overview of a particular setting, which a group of players can then adapt into their own overarching campaign. The popular sourcebook Chicago by Night, for instance, written for the horror-themed game Vampire: The Masquerade, sets up the dens and denizens of a city secretly run by competing cabals of power-hungry bloodsuckers (and vampires).
But whereas a sourcebook tends to employ a bricolage method not dissimilar in layout or aesthetics to Vermis—featuring illustrations, statistics, scraps of dialogue or poetry, and vividly rendered vignettes—the fictional strategy guide in fact comprises a far more linear narrative. While it may not seem like you can read Vermis page by page and cover to cover, the book is at its best when approached that way.
Starting at page one, we encounter a framing device: a lonely corpse gazes into its reflection at the bottom of a well. “Which flesh is your flesh?” asks the book’s narrator. “This decision only has the weight you choose to give it.” A quick procession of 12 weirdos follows, marking what a video game player would instantly recognize as character creation. Here, then, are a few of the options: the Miner Knight (Strength 4, Intelligence 2, Faith 1, Will 3), the Murk Sage (equipped with a talisman that can banish the light of the moon for one night), the Wandering Angel (“on a journey to join their beloved goddess in death, they have to travel all the way to a sacred mountain and then pull the halo placed behind their helmets to decapitate themselves”), and my personal favorite, Rat Man (“Become rat man”).
From there, the basic plot of the book can be summarized quickly, and without giving much away. The devil in Vermis really is in its details. You, the protagonist—referred to always in the second-person manner of old-school Choose Your Own Adventure books—begin a vague quest in the shadow of a slain god’s giant decaying corpse, and the black-metal-album-cover vibes continue from there. You first venture into a graveyard and its catacombs, fighting skeletons and finding treasure. Emerging into the Silver Swamp, you are overcome by supernatural somnolence, able to wake only after defeating a mystical swordsman.
A forest of hole-ridden and whistling flutewood trees hides a cursed cabin feigning shelter and an exhausted knight who beseeches you to complete his quest, for which you must rob the tomb of an ancient goblin princess, defeat its terrible beasts, and best in single combat the princess’s still-standing stalwart, the Goblin Knight. Soon, the sun-eclipsing edifice of the Shade Sanctum, your final trial, looms across a narrow bridge guarded by, yes, another mysterious knight. At last, you descend into the depths of the forgotten labyrinth to meet your shadowy destiny.
If this sounds like the summation of any given work of dark fantasy—video game or otherwise—therein lies the crux of Vermis. A player of countless games just like this, I felt, upon finishing my first read of Vermis, that I had just beaten such a game’s final boss. If you, the reader, are a nongamer, I think this may be about as close as one could come to replicating that feeling without ever touching a controller or, perhaps even better, without having to sit and watch a stranger on the internet feel it for you.
To wit, there is a genuine sense of play that inheres across the pages of this book, the direct result of its estranged relationship to its own plot. Vermis is less a narrative than a narrative of a narrative: a guide to a more complete story that exists nowhere else but in the player/reader’s own head.
To what, then, does the peculiar composition of Vermis compare? In the first place, it’s near impossible to write about Vermis without mentioning Dark Souls. Released by Japanese studio FromSoftware in 2011 as the spiritual successor to the 2009 cult hit Demon’s Souls (thereby initiating what came to be known as the broader Souls series), Dark Souls is a fantasy action-adventure game that championed mystery and obscurantism in an era otherwise defined by an ethos of overly explanatory game design.
The game’s combat is unforgiving, its treasures and pathways well hidden, its narrative obscure, and its characters veiled in dialogue filled with misdirection and riddles. Like that of Vermis, the world of Dark Souls is filled with tenebrous tombs, cackling crones, and portentous proper nouns. Exemplary of the game’s peculiar tone is the first friendly face players meet, the Crestfallen Warrior, who sits dejected by a dwindling bonfire, his dialogue alternating between cryptic hints at players’ next objectives (“There are actually two Bells of Awakening”) and doom-and-gloom reflections on their ultimate futility (“You’d have done better to rot in the Undead Asylum”). Dark Souls was a surprise smash hit.
Yet, while many subsequent video games have hoped to rekindle the magic of Dark Souls, Vermis comes extraordinarily close by tackling the problem from an oblique angle. What better way to instill a sense of mystery in a player’s mind than by making the game itself a mystery?
By the same token, Vermis is able to draw out an atmosphere far more nuanced than pixels and polygons tend to afford. Some of its most effective prose (in contrast to its occasional awkwardness) emerges in this way, as when the muck of the book’s swamp grows “hard to distinguish due to the water being slightly warmer than your body temperature,” or when, “after days wandering around in the unrelenting flutewood melody, the absence of the whistles now creates a heavenly silence.”
Perhaps most essential to the book’s tone, however, are its countless grime-soaked turns of phrase. “The mines hide secrets that should remain unknown to mankind for good,” reads one info box. Another: “It is known that every spark of non-human life has grown from one of Murgo’s severed limbs, he is the father of everything that is green.” From definitions of “The Good” (“A light cannot fade by darkness, it will shine even in the darkest corners of the world”) to “The Evil” (“Darkness is eternal, infinite, unrelenting. No one can escape it, we are born in light and rot in the dark”). At any length greater than what is already contained in Vermis, the tone might turn overwrought. As it stands, wrought as it were in ichor-soaked iron, it suits the project like fist in gauntlet.
Had artist and author Plastiboo rendered it in a less interesting form—say, as a simple art book or even as an experimental role-playing supplement—Vermis might still remain a schlocky curio for a Dark Souls enthusiast or even a certain kind of heavy metal fan. Its dark fantasy dot-matrix aesthetic might even appeal to the indie comics heads or the zinesters. To its great credit, however, Vermis stands apart from both its independent peers and from its big-name video game inspirations.
As a strategy guide to a fictional video game, Plastiboo’s work in Vermis finds its closest analogues not among the coffee table art books lining the Games shelves of big-box bookstores but among experimental fiction, especially of that rare form which presents itself as secondary literature to nonexistent priors: catalogs and critiques of fictional literatures, of which the best known are perhaps Stanisław Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971) and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996).
In Lem’s work, the author uses the format of the book review to reflect on (and parody) the prevailing trends of literary and science fiction of the day: the nouveau roman, Oulipian combinatorics, even a novel that contains its own secondary exegesis. The book’s opening is a middling review of itself, wherein the author quotes liberally from a theoretical introduction by “S. Lem” not actually present in the volume. Whereas Lem’s fictional reviewer takes issue with the apparent insincerity behind the vacuousness of the project, in actuality A Perfect Vacuum levels a compelling critique of criticism and its dogged desire to categorize and sort by type. It helps, of course, that none of the books Lem imagines sound like they would be any good to read—a quality shared by Vermis, whose realization in video game form might very well come across as overly derivative.
As for Bolaño’s novel, it takes the form of a collection of short, encyclopedian biographies of fictional far-right writers from North and South America, each maladaptive or misanthropic in their own manner. While Bolaño takes extreme care to situate his creations within plausible environs—where they might prattle with politicians, feud with literati, or die in trenches drawn from the real world—there remains for the reader a perverse delight in knowing that, had they really existed, few if any of these characters would have attained such notoriety as to have earned even a biographical sketch such as those rendered here. Yet Nazi Literature in the Americas is a double-edged delight, not just because it dramatizes the startling affinity between literary fraternization and reactionary politics, but also because it speaks to the mercilessness by which history attends to its literature and those who create it. For his part, Bolaño rarely denies even his most despicable deviants a certain humanity.
For both Bolaño and Lem, the presumptive secondariness of the work manifests as the primary interest of the author. To imagine these fictive works, in their silliness or their vanity or their genuine merit, becomes far more exciting through the narrative device of their already having an existence of their own. In its own way—and, admittedly, to decidedly different ends—Vermis succeeds in pulling the same trick for video games, through the lost art of their strategy guides.
The argument has been made, most comprehensively by critic and theorist Cameron Kunzelman, that video games are a speculative enterprise from the jump: not only are they particularly suited to representing speculative settings (whether science fiction or fantasy), but also active in their very mechanics is the speculative operation of “what if?” What if I press this button? What if I go over here? What if the world were this way, instead of that?
Vermis is a speculative work of an altogether different order, positing not just a speculative video game (which might be accomplished simply through a book of concept art) but a speculative world in which exists such a fantastical apparatus as the richly rendered strategy guide readers hold in their hands.
Imagine, Vermis seems to say, if we had all along given the humble strategy guide its due, both as an aesthetic project and as an object of labor—if the relationship between guide and game were recognized as something more fundamental than their synergy as consumer products. Imagine, unbeholden to release windows and authored as expressive enterprises by writers earning what they actually deserve, the strategy guide as cultural history, as criticism, as literature!
Unremarked though it may be for the sake of its more immediately impressive visual styling and thematic hooks, it is perhaps this formal intervention that makes Vermis such a compelling art object and such a fascinating waypoint for game-related experiments to come. And indeed, for the sake of this radical experimentation, Vermis finally asks, who cares if the game is real or not?
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