Dan Birlew

Las Vegas Web Developer, Designer, Programmer, and Author

Storytelling Revived: Ender’s Game

Posted March 15th, 2010 at 12:01am by Dan Birlew in Book Reviews. Comments Off on Storytelling Revived: Ender’s Game

In my many years of writing strategy guides for video games I’ve had the good fortune to meet and chat with many game developers in person. On more than one occasion when the topic turned to science fiction novels, one title came up repeatedly: Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card’s Nebula-award and Hugo-award winning 1985 science fiction novel about a boy conqueror developing his strategic skills in an orbital “Battle School” remains a relevant novel to this date, mainly thanks to the spread of the Internet and technological advancements in video games. Many game creators still consider this story a seminal work of theory in their game designs.

The novel takes place in an unidentified year in the distant future. Previous human colonization attempts stirred the wrath of the Formics, an ant-like alien race referred to by the derogatory name “Buggers.” In retaliation the Formics launched an invasion fleet to overtake Earth. Humankind joined together under a global military triumvirate government led by the Hegemon, the Strategos and the Polemarch. They launched an International Fleet against the Formics that was nearly decimated save for the last-ditch efforts of the brilliant commander Mazer Rackham. Now many decades have passed and Earth’s military is still looking for a solution to win the war against the Formics. They are looking for another brilliant military commander.

Ender grows up in the shadow of the Buggers in Marvel's comic adaptation

The protagonist is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, given the nickname by his older sister Valentine when she could not pronounce his name correctly as a baby. Ender is a “Third,” referring to his being a third-born child whereas the military government only allows most couples to have two kids. Being a “Third” makes him a literal second-class citizen, unavailable for tax credits or deductions and automatically recruit-able by the military. Therefore calling Ender a “Third” is an insult frequently utilized by his older brother Peter, who displays strong sociopath and megalomania tendencies. Peter’s jealousy of Ender seems to stem from his own failure of the International Fleet’s entrance exam at three years of age, whereas the military monitors Ender’s progress for much longer.

The book opens with Ender’s electronic monitor being surgically removed. The process is unbearably painful to Ender and the doctors curse the military for leaving the monitor attached to him for too long. Returning to school, Ender is harassed by a bully named Stilson who notices his monitor is gone. When Stilson attempts to lead a gang against the protagonist, Ender uses psychology to goad Stilson into fighting alone. Ender surprises Stilson with a kick that takes him down, and then continues kicking Stilson to injury while the other boys watch. The move is purely strategic on Ender’s part to ensure that he won’t be bullied anymore. Though the military makes sure Ender never hears of it, Stilson dies afterward from his wounds.

Ender’s family is then notified that he has been selected for Battle School and must leave immediately. He has only a short time to say goodbye to his parents and beloved sister Valentine, who encourages him not to let Battle School make him sadistic like Peter. The idea of becoming like Peter haunts Ender through the rest of the story, and guides several of his decisions.

As Ender boards the shuttle for Battle School he is called out by commander Hyrum Graff as being the most intelligent kid in the launch. This premeditated action on Graff’s part singles out Ender and separates him from the others, making him an instant target of yet more bullies. Though he outsmarts and injuries the main bully during the flight, his torment doesn’t stop there.

At the IF’s orbital Battle School children are divided into “armies” of forty kids who fight each other in a low gravity battle room with light guns and special suits that freeze when hit to simulate fighting in outer space. For his handling of the bullies in his launch group Ender is immediately promoted to Salamander Army. But Salamander’s leader, Spaniard Bonzo Madrid, is not happy to have Ender; he had to give up a veteran platoon leader to make room for a completely inexperienced “launchie.” He punishes Ender by refusing to let him practice with the army and forbidding him to enter the battle room until four minutes have elapsed in a match. Ender is also forbidden to fire his light gun. Due to the way statistics are calculated this causes Ender to rank higher in the standings, making it easier for Bonzo to trade him to another army.

Realizing that Bonzo is sidelining him and worried that he will be “iced” (expelled from Battle School), Ender begins secret training session in the battle room during off-hours and lunchtime. He practices with other launchies from his flight group who have not yet been assigned an army. During these sessions Ender determines great strategies for winning battles in zero gravity, such as using the walls and pastiche “stars” to control speed and facing, assigning a direction (“the enemy’s gate is down”) so that everyone understands their movements within a plan of action, and using his own light gun to freeze his own legs and fly legs-first,  turning them into “shields” to prevent the enemy from freezing other parts of his suit. He disregards the use of formations utilized by other armies.

When Bonzo learns of Ender’s extracurricular practices he orders him to cease. During the next battle, Ender enters the battle late and sticks to the side of the room, pretending to be frozen. When Salamander is about to lose the battle, Ender disobeys orders and fires his light gun, freezing several enemy soldiers and turning an impending loss into a win. But afterward Bonzo slaps Ender in front of the other students for disobeying orders and transfers him to Rat Army. Ender realizes how stupid Bonzo is, since he’ll no longer be able to maintain morale or discipline after punishing a soldier for winning a battle.

In Rat Army, Ender’s new commander “Rose de Nose” attempts to use him as bait so the other soldiers can get into position. But by using his strategy of freezing his own legs and trusting himself legs-first toward the enemy, Ender is able to freeze most of the opposing team before the rest of Rat Army even enters the battle room. In response, Rose gives Ender his own squad to command with no overriding directives, letting Ender come up with his own strategy separate from the rest of Rat Army. Ender’s “rogue squadron” therefore confuses the enemy during every battle, and Rat Army rises in the standings.

But just as Ender begins to find success in Rat Army, Graff intervenes again. Rose de Nose is graduated early from Battle School, and rather than give Ender control of Rat Army they assign him to Dragon Army… which doesn’t exist. Ender is forced to recruit an entirely new army from launchies and inexperienced candidates. He continues using off-hours and part of lunch time to train his soldiers in the battle room. He continues teaching soldiers individualized tactics rather than formations. As a result, Dragon Army quickly becomes the best army in Battle School.

Ender is confronted by his protégé, Bean.

That’s when the military commanders who preside over Battle School start cheating. They call Dragon Army to battle at odd hours of the day and night. They schedule battles during lunchtime and class time. They inform Ender of battles only after they have already started, and the enemy is already in the battle room waiting in ambush. Ender becomes angry and sullen.

Bonzo Madrid leads a gang against Ender in the showers.

After defeating Bonzo Madrid’s Salamander Army in a particularly humiliating fashion, Ender refuses to shake hands with Bonzo afterward. This breach in etiquette infuriates Bonzo, who with a gang of other boys corners Ender in the shower. Like Stilson, Ender shames Bonzo into fighting alone. Ender retreats into the showers, appearing cowardly. However he turns on all the showers as he goes, filling the room with steam. He leaves his own skin soapy so that Bonzo cannot grab him. With a surprise attack Ender knocks Bonzo to the floor, hitting his head on the way down. Though Bonzo lies on the floor shivering Ender prevents the other boys from attacking by continuing to pummel Bonzo until other students finally intervene.

Figuring he’s going to be iced, Ender doesn’t care. But while sulking in his room he receives new orders… promoting him ahead of schedule to Command School.

Luckily Graff can see that Ender needs a little break. He flies Ender back to Earth, ironically along with a body bag containing Bonzo Madrid who didn’t survive his injuries in the shower. Ender spends a few months relaxing at Graff’s lake house. At the end of Ender’s vacation,  Graff brings Valentine out for a visit. The move is calculated on Graff’s part to help Ender remember why he is doing what he must.

Arriving at Command School, Ender finds a strange old man in his quarters who attacks him and pins him to the ground. The old man is Mazer Rackham, who has outlived his normal lifespan by traveling deep into space and back at relativistic light speeds (a kind of plausible time-travel). Rackham begins tutoring Ender in the use of a 3D flight simulator that allows him to control units of flying ships. Ender quickly graduates to commanding fleets via headset. He soon realizes that the sub-commanders on his headset are all his best friends and minor rivals from Battle School.

Rackham soon explains his lucky victory over the Formics to Ender; he realized that one ship was acting as a central command ship and destroyed it. Because the Formics operate as a hive-mind taking orders from their queen, they no longer had any battle motivation and died. But Rackham still submits Ender to a grueling schedule of battle simulations, at all hours of the day and night. Exhausted, Ender begins to hope that he will crap out of the program. Therefore during his final exam he takes drastic action; rather than command the fleet as usual he orders the use of a molecular disruption weapon against the planet that the Formics appear to be protecting. The destruction of the planet also destroys their fleet.

Ender believed that this breach of practice would cause his expulsion from Command School. Instead, he finds Graff, Rackham and all the military cheering. Turns out his final exam wasn’t a simulation at all; he was commanding a real fleet against the real enemy, and he just destroyed the Formic’s planet. Though he knows the military pushed him and manipulated him every step of the way to this conclusion, he still shoulders the guilt of genocide. The rest of the book describes in broad strokes how Ender spends the rest of his life dealing with his regret and finding redemption.

The book–despite broad public favor and winning the Nebula and Hugo–divided critics who felt that it condoned adolescent violence and tried to make us fall in love with a young Hitler. Many also criticized the situations and psychology of Ender, claiming “kids just don’t act or talk that way.” But anyone reading this book immediately identifies with Ender and his plight against an unfair system. Obviously these critics didn’t grow up in the American public school system and were never treated unfairly by a teacher. Must be comfy, living in a bubble.

Ender’s Game is a great novel for readers of ages 10 to adult. Seeing how Ender reacts to danger and develops strategies for both simulations and real-life situations is inspirational. Several recurring themes include the manipulative nature of the military, the persistence of mankind’s name-calling and bullying nature especially in regards to the brilliant, and the surprising strength of children despite their underestimation by adults. Ender proves to be one of the strongest and most memorable child protagonists since Huck Finn, and there’s no denying the influence of the novel on the Harry Potter series.

Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game will become a familiar name in the months ahead. Marvel comics has just finished a fantastic and reverent comic adaptation of the novel now available in two hardcover books: Ender’s Game: Battle School and Ender’s Game: Command School. Orson Scott Card also followed up the novel with several sequels and Ender’s Shadow, a parallel novel that retells the story of Ender’s Game from the point of view of secondary character Bean. Card himself recently rewrote a screenplay for a film version set to be produced by Odd Lot Entertainment (source) that is set to start filming.

Regarding video game development, Card is working with Chair Entertainment (Undertow, Shadow Complex) to develop Ender’s Game: Battle Room for all consoles. Chair Entertainment previously licensed the rights for the Empire story line to Card, who published the 2006 novel and helped with the plot development for the video game version. The company claims that Shadow Complex is a tie-in to the second Empire novel, Hidden Empire. So there’s no doubt that you’ll be reading (and playing) more in the fabulous Ender universe in the coming years.

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