The time is 1987. The movie is Spaceballs. As Dark Helmet ponders his next move, his lieutenant has a brainwave: "Get me a cassette of Spaceballs the movie." The videotape is produced, and soon Dark Helmet and the lieutenant are peering at a screen on which they can be seen watching themselves. "What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?" Dark Helmet demands. "Now," answers the lieutenant. "You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening now." "What happened to then?" "That's then." "When?" "Just now."
The bit is just as broadly hacky as the rest of Mel Brooks' film; even back then, the idea of characters becoming aware they were in a fictional story was so familiar, it was funny. But that hasn't kept plenty of creators from coming back to the gimmick in the intervening decades. Just in the last year or so we saw the Black Mirror franchise's Bandersnatch treating the concept with isn't-this-creepy solemnity even as Isn't it Romantic deployed it for mainstream laughs.
Mat Groom's comic Self/Made doesn't go the Bandersnatch route, but it's no Isn't It Romantic either (and definitely no Spaceballs). Groom may be overly enamored of a trope he wrongly considers avant-garde, but he plays with his self-aware characters deftly enough to make their situation feel relatively fresh. His story starts when Amala, an armored warrior in a fantasy kingdom, meets up with the inexplicably arrogant Prince Brycemere. Attempting to borrow a dragon from a community of people known as Skrellians, Brycemere ignores Amala's advice to be diplomatic — with the result that they both wind up riddled with arrows. But then, with a stutter of blue-white electricity, the action reverses a few scenes and Amala and Brycemere come to life again. In fact, they're characters in a fantasy-themed video game, the creation of a company called Interstice Experiential. Brycemere is actually a playtester, and Amala is a non-player character, an NPC.
But Amala is no ordinary NPC. She's the creation of a particularly driven game designer, Rebecca, who seeks to imbue AI characters with self-will and even self-awareness. In Amala, Rebecca has finally succeeded. Unfortunately, Rebecca's bottom-line-obsessed colleagues have little appreciation for her lofty goals. She's soon on her way out the door, toting a box of personal effects — and, unbeknownst to them, a hardware module containing Amala's code. Thanks to Rebecca, Amala will find herself on a journey to understand her own nature and the nature of reality itself.
Amala's adventure is unpredictable enough to be consistently entertaining. Even as Groom shepherds her through various well-realized video game scenarios and into a robot body, he resists the idea that she's entered the "real world." As she searches for the truth about what's real and what's not, she's aided by Rafael, a scientist who's been having visions of mysterious codes while tripping on ayahuasca. (Besides triggering hours of vomiting, this trendy drug apparently allows Rafael to discover something called "the escape pattern" — who knew?) Amala is also pursued by some heavies from Interstice Experiential; the company may, just possibly, be connected with a larger conspiracy.
Groom serves up his story's twists and turns, even the more predictable ones, with a light touch. Even as he questions the nature of capital-R Reality, he manages to resist self-important dramatics. As a result, while Amala's story isn't as profound as he might have hoped, it's intricate and unpredictable enough to be consistently engaging. Of course, some part of the credit goes to artists Eduardo Ferigato and Marcelo Costa. Ferigato's designs for the characters and their worlds are vivid and capable. If he's a bit inconsistent — particularly when it comes to drawing Rebecca — his figures generally exude energy and spontaneity. Costa had a delightful job cut out for him (who wouldn't want to color a succession of video game scenarios and drug trips?) and he makes the most of it.
Aided by the artists, Groom sustains a sense of lightheartedness and a lack of pretension that excuse the familiarity of his central concept. Amala may not be the first self-aware character to come along — or the tenth, or the twentieth — but she's a likable addition to this quirky subgenre. Self/Made makes questioning the nature of reality a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.