Review of “8-Bit Free Will” by John Wiswell

Image by 13smok from Pixabay


The Hollow Knight and HealBlob form a video game duo, one an attacker and the other a healer. Together, they fight players and usually die a quick death before they have a chance to become aware of themselves or each other. The player Trent flips back and forth between the game, IMs with his sort-of-not-really girlfriend Jayla, and music videos.

The Hollow Knight and HealBlob are left alone. They introduce themselves. And jump several levels up after their exchange.

They meet goblins, who want to know how they leveled up. They don’t know.


The format takes a bit of effort. The opening paragraphs describe the transient and redundant nature of the video game antagonists in surreal, poetic language:

They exist, then don’t exist, then exist again. They are monsters where the game’s probability fields call for them, attached to every tile of the dungeon. They are invisible to the player, whether they are there or not, until combat. If they’re lucky, they’ll get the chance to die.

The player always gets to exist, has always existed, and may as well always exist. The Hollow Knight and HealBlob don’t exist again until the player starts struggling with the other enemies. Then the Hollow Knight and HealBlob are re-spawned, to die in battle and smooth out the difficulty curve. They don’t exist long enough to know they’re in love before the player strikes.

While the story is one narrative, that is, the quest of the Hollow Knight and HealBlob, it comes in chunks that appear in turns like the description of a video game and a transcription of a text message exchange. Reading the latter isn’t bad, as one can skim over the repetitive text without losing much time or energy. However, there is no option when listening to the story. You’re going to hear a blow-by-blow description of the fight, the precise number of damage points inflicted, and the healing points offered.

Perhaps to a gamer, this is gripping reading, but to a plebian such as myself, it hits the ear as repetitive and snooze-worthy, as does text messages with the heading and time stamps. To take my bellyaching to the nitpicking stratosphere, “<3” is read as “less than three.”

Setting aside my bitching, this is a moving story, made all more poignant on Thanksgiving during a pandemic. Unfortunately, the telling of it got in the way for me. Reading it added a dimension that the audio did not have. After reading it, I listened to it again—and finished it this time. I’m glad I did.

For those observing the day, I hope you got the chance to be with your families or at least talk to them.

The story can be listened to and/or read here.

Title: “8-Bit Free Will”
Author: John Wiswell
Narrator: Wilson Fowlie
Hosts: Matt Dovey and Wilson Fowlie
Audio Producer: Peter Behravesh
Length: approx. 38 mins
Rated: PG
First published: November 24, 2020, Podcastle #654

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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