With multiverses being all the rage these days (just ask Spider-Man), and virtual reality video games becoming more and more common (hello, PSVR2), it was probably inevitable that someone would combine them into a story in which something goes awry. And that someone is writer Ron Walters. In the following email interview, Walters discusses the story in question: his new sci-fi thriller Deep Dive (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).
To begin, what is Deep Dive about, and when and where does it take place?
The way you know I’m a writer is that I’m terrible at explaining the plots of my own books. So, in keeping with that tradition, here goes: Deep Dive is about a video game developer named Peter Banuk who spends more time trying to save his floundering career and sense of self-worth than he does with his wife and two young daughters. His new project, a VR game called Starflung, will likely be his last if it flops as badly as the last game his studio released, an action RPG called Scorchfell. When Peter goes to test an experimental headset designed by his tech genius business partner and friend, the headset malfunctions, and Peter finds himself trapped in a world almost exactly like his own save for the fact that his daughters no longer exist. The bulk of the book involves Peter’s increasingly desperate attempts to prove that the girls aren’t simply figments of his imagination, even though no one else, including his wife, has any memory of them.
The story takes place in a nameless, modern day city, partly because I think that the anonymity works really well within the context of the plot, and partly because no city screamed out “use me, use me!” when I first started writing the book.
Where did you get the idea for Deep Dive?
I wrote the first draft of Deep Dive in early 2020. At that point, I’d been writing novels for over ten years and had yet to get a book deal, so I was feeling pretty down about my chances of ever getting published. So I did what all good angsty writers do: I wrote a book that acted as both a way to purge my emotions and a big ol’ middle finger to the publishing gods, because I wasn’t about to let those capricious bastards break me. Also, I’d recently gotten back into video games after like a thirty year hiatus and I wanted to write something that involved the gaming world. Since I didn’t want to be too autobiographical I thought, Why not make my main character a game developer struggling with failure? I love games and I’m clearly great at failure. And boom, Deep Dive was born.
I’m guessing that people are going to compare Deep Dive to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, if they haven’t already. How do you think they’re similar, and what do you think makes Deep Dive different?
To be honest, the only real similarity, in my mind at least, is that both books involve VR. I read and enjoyed Ready Player One when it came out, but I never felt inspired to write something in that vein.
But if you had to compare them, I think Deep Dive, for all that it involves VR, is much more grounded, or maybe localized, in terms of the technology in it, whereas Ready Player One is all about a futuristic, all-encompassing metaverse. Sure, the tech in Deep Dive could theoretically lead to the development of a metaverse, but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I wanted to tell a much more personal, intimate story. So while Ready Player One is this grandiose, nostalgic adventure story, Deep Dive is much more focused on the psychological side of things. Fingers crossed that resonates with readers.
So then would you count Ready Player One — or maybe the sequel, Ready Player Two — as an influence on Deep Dive?
I haven’t read Ready Player Two, but in terms of the first book being an influence, sure, but only because all the sci-fi books I read tend to inspire me. Good writing makes me want to up my prose game, and cool ideas make me want to come up with my own cool ideas.
Aside from Ernest Cline and Ready Player One, what other writers and stories had a big influence on Deep Dive?
Hands down, Dark Matter and Recursion by Blake Crouch. They are both masterful examples of contemporary sci-fi thrillers, but Dark Matter especially had a big influence on Deep Dive. The writer part of me totally related to the main character wishing he was more successful, and the dad part of me one hundred percent understood his whole desperate need to reunite with his family.
Honestly, though, it really is hard to nail down other specific influences, because all the books I read, good or bad, influence my writing. Also, I tend to try and avoid reading books in the same genre when I’m actively writing something.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or games that had a big influence on Deep Dive?
The Matrix for sure. I know, shocking, right?
Honestly though, the single biggest influence outside of Dark Matter has to be the video game God Of War, the 2018 one. Not only is it an incredible game to play, and one of the few I’ve actually replayed from start to finish, it also has the most remarkable story about a man coping with the sins of his past while trying to learn how to be a good father. Like I mentioned earlier, I only got back into video games a few years ago, and God Of War was the game that made me sit up and say, I want to do that, but in book form. Obviously the stories are totally dissimilar but I’d like to think they share a narrative parenting bond. And on that note, I need to give a huge shout out to Cory Barlog, the game’s director, who has no idea who I am, but if it weren’t for all the interviews I watched of him talking about the process of making G.O.W. specifically and games in general, I might never have figured out the right way to approach writing Deep Dive.
Honorable game mentions also have to go to Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last Of Us for being top tier examples of how novel-worthy narratives can propel a video game from great to instant classic.
And what about your dogs, Minty and Amador? How do you think they influenced Deep Dive? Because your bio says they give you, “judgmental looks…for not walking them more often,” but dogs can also be super judgmental about plot holes and dangling participles.
Well, considering one of my dogs just farted on me — like butt mashed directly against my arm so I smelt it and felt it — I’d say they’re none too pleased about all the time I spent ignoring them while I wrote and revised Deep Dive. I mean, look, two walks a day should be plenty, but these two think that every time I put on my headphones means it’s time for walkies. Basically I’m going to have to put all my author copies on a high shelf so the dogs don’t eat them or, God help me, point out any typos that slipped through.
Now, Deep Dive sounds like it’s a cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
When I think of cyberpunk, I think of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, that ilk of writers who very clearly know the tech they’re writing about inside and out. But while there are elements of cyberpunk in Deep Dive, and techno-thrillers as well, in my mind, it doesn’t really fit in either genre. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I just need to call Deep Dive a sci-fi thriller and leave it at that.
Tech-thriller sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone novels, and sometimes they’re part of a series. What is Deep Dive?
Deep Dive was always intended as a stand-alone novel. That’s not to say I couldn’t come up with another story linked to the same universe, but I very much wanted this book to have a definitive ending. All of my books have been stand-alones. One day I might try my hand at a trilogy.
Earlier I asked if Deep Dive had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn this around, do you think Deep Dive could work as a movie, show, or game?
I 100% think Deep Dive could work as all three. I’m not one of those readers who gets bent out of shape when an adaptation strays from the source material, and in terms of my own writing, I’m all for a filmmaker or game dev taking my book and making it their own.
That said, I think it would probably work best as a movie, since it’s a fairly contained, straightforward story. But I can also see a TV show expanding certain aspects to allow for a more episodic format.
Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, maybe a TV show would work even better. You could really dig into the psychology over the course of, say, an eight- or ten-episode arc.
If someone wanted to adapt Deep Dive into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Peter and the other main characters?
No joke, I am the worst at fan casting my books. I barely know what my own characters look like beyond basic features. So if my book were made into a movie or TV show, I would likely be open to anyone being cast as the characters, because my book was being made into a movie or TV show.
And if someone wanted to turn Deep Dive into a game, what kind of game should it be and who should make it?
If it were made into a game, I think it would need to be along the lines of something like What Remains Of Edith Finch or Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead, something with a more narrative, discovery-based focus.
Although it actually might be cool as a discovery-based board game, too, if that’s even a thing. I don’t play many board games, but my wife is a fanatic about them. I probably should’ve asked her to answer this for me.
Hey, no cheating! Eyes on your own paper, mister!
Anyway…is there anything else you think people curious about Deep Dive should know before deciding to buy it or not?
As much as it’s billed as a sci-fi thriller, the sci-fi elements are pretty light. The true focus is on Peter, the main character, trying to find his missing daughters and learning along the way that the creative success he so desperately wanted might not be the thing he actually needs.
Finally, if someone enjoys Deep Dive, what video game-related sci-fi thriller would you suggest they read next?
Here’s the funny thing about being a writer of books: the more you write them, the less time you have to read them. My wife is like, “I got my 100 books for my yearly Goodreads challenge!” And I’m like, “Um, I’ve read six books this year.” In my defense, some of them have been tomes, like Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth books, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of Joe Abercrombie.
But to answer your actual question, the Otherland series by Tad Williams. It was written in the ’90s, but it’s still one of the most immersive VR sagas I’ve ever read and totally holds up. River Of Gods by Ian McDonald is also stellar, and deals with a lot of near-future issues like artificial intelligences, nanotech, and climate change. And then there’s How To Defeat A Demon King In Ten Easy Steps, a super fun middle grade fantasy, written by a former game dev named Andrew Rowe, that’s set up like a video game in that the main character levels up, builds skills, and fights her way through dungeons just like you would in an RPG.