The story is set in the future, in a city called Undone. This is a bleak place to live, in which extremely potent acid rain falls from the sky and people have to wear hoods to protect their heads and faces from it. The air is polluted and full of chemicals, making it dangerous to go outside. Feral gangs roam the streets and it is common for people to be attacked and killed for their hoods. Food seems to be scarce, and most people have to be content with foul-tasting food substitutes. Life is hard for anyone who is not working for the government or for Crater, the most powerful corporation in the world. The ones who do are offered a more privileged life and some degree of protection from the outside world, but only for so long as they continue to be useful.
Crater is the powerful corporation who created and run the Maze, the virtual reality online game that most of the world’s population is addicted to. Crater’s headquarters are in the city of Undone, in the form of a huge tower that looks out over the city. Its large glass windows are made of chemiglass, a substance that can better withstand the damaging effects of the acid rain. The building contains workshops and creative spaces for the production and maintenance of the game, as well as living quarters for some of the employees. This is where Rick and his father Daed live. Rick has separate living quarters from Daed, and lives in luxury compared to most. He has a bedroom and a living room, a large pool, and even a sauna. Under the glass at the bottom of his pool is an aquarium with a shark in it, which Rick often wonders is real or a computer generated illusion. The climactic ending of the book finally answers this question.
Crater HQ might be luxurious, but it is also a dangerous place to live. The corporation’s aim is to make as much money as it can, and to ensure that no competitor can ever match up to it. This means that the bosses are ruthless and often cruel. They spy on their employees, and think nothing of firing someone over a small issue. They will dismiss or eliminate anyone who is no longer useful. For people who have lived in the tower all their lives, to be suddenly sent out into the city of Undone is basically a death sentence. Crater prove that they have no sympathy for others, and no reverence for human life. Rick realises that during his life in the Crater tower he has simply been living in a gilded cage; it might be more comfortable than the city of Undone, but he is not free. This is why Rick decides he needs to escape.
The Maze is a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), similar to many that are around today such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Eve Online. The difference is that the Maze is a virtual reality game, meaning that players feel as though they are actually physically present in the game world. The aim of the game seems to be to complete quests, fight monsters and avoid traps, gain reputation and loot, and interact with other players. Players can also fight each other if they enable PvP (player versus player). Players can join guilds, which are groups created by like-minded players with similar aims. The game is fun because it is exciting, gives players a sense of achievement, and has a strong social element from interacting with other players.
Many MMOs today are accused of being addictive. This certainly seems to be the case with the Maze. Players spend a lot of time in the virtual world, to the extent that it becomes more real to them than the real world. For Rick, the Maze is his life, and when he leaves it he realises that he does not know quite how to act in the real world. In the dystopian future that this book is set in, it is easy to see how players could become addicted to a game that can take them away from their depressing and difficult lives. Everyone wants to play the game, which is what has made Crater so rich and powerful. However, there is an added incentive to play the game for the unfortunate citizens of Undone. In-game loot such as virtual money, armour and weapons can be sold on the black market for real money, as some players are willing to pay real money to improve their virtual characters. This means that playing the game could have a substantial affect on a person’s life.
The Maze is also a reference to the Labyrinth, a prison created by Daedalus for the Minotaur in Greek myth. Many of the events of the story parallel the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. The Maze could be imagined as a confusing world of connected buildings, rooms and passages. In the centre are the Roots, an area that is much more difficult than the rest of the game, containing harder traps and monsters. If a player completes this area they have finished the game, but it is supposedly designed so that this is almost impossible to achieve. The Roots are not an instance (a separate area unique to each player), but part of the game world. This means that players can interact and fight each other in this area. Rick enters the Roots through the Palace of Knossos, another allusion to Greek mythology as Knossos was the location of the Labyrinth.
- An interview with Bonnie Nardi, a UCI professor who has researched World of Warcraft players in both the USA and China.