Better Than Life, or B.T.L., is a Total Immersion Video Game, or T.I.V., in which the player can live out their fantasies. The artificial reality it creates is supposedly indistinguishable from the real world.
Since the Red Dwarf television series and novels occur in alternate dimensions, there have been two different versions of B.T.L. in the franchise. One is in the second Red Dwarf novel of the same name, in which the T.I.V. is central to the plot. It is also central to the plot of the episode of the same name in Series II of the television series.
Better Than Life is a computer game which allows the user to live out all their fantasies and desires. When in the game, one has the ability to mentally command into existence any object, person or environment (in the realm of the television show).
The problem with the game in the television series, however, is that it also detects subconscious desires: if the user subconsciously hates himself then the game will eventually detect this and subject him to specifically-tailored masochistic tortures.
Total Immersion Video Games - though not specifically Better Than Life - are later encountered in the Series V episode, "Back to Reality" in which a group hallucination makes the Red Dwarf crew believe that the previous four years had been a video game fantasy. "Back to Reality" is often cited as being the best episode of Red Dwarf.
Better Than Life plays an important role in the novels Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life. The novel version of the game has far greater abilities and far greater bugs. Unlike the television series, which is based on the original, nonaddictive version and which is only briefly mentioned in the novel, the novel version causes the user's imagination to develop semi-plausible explanations for certain events. For instance, in early versions of Better Than Life, the user could make a large, expensive car appear out of thin air. In the books, the user's imagination would create a scenario where they won the lottery, or created a successful business, so they could buy the car.
The danger of the game is that once the user starts to play, the game forces them to forget they actually started to play, so they believe that they are still in reality. Their conscious mind only perceives the reality of the game, and all signals from their real body, except for those of extreme pain, are completely ignored.
A person like Cat who has such a huge ego that he truly believes he could get ANYTHING, can get anything, while Rimmer's initial fantasy, while still egocentric, had to create the semi-plausible explanation of him using the crew's initial offers to advertise various products and sell their stories so that he could earn the money to fund research into a 'solidgram' body for himself. However, Rimmer's own self-loathing caused his fantasy life to be destroyed, resulting in the collapse of his business empire and the loss of his body to the extent that he was trapped in a female body and faced being pimped out by violent escaped criminals. Lister on the other hand had a fantasy far more mature and healthy than those of the others, just needing somewhere comfortable to live with somebody he loved who would love him in return.
Unless cared for in the real world, a user (or "Game Head") dies very quickly. While it is certainly possible for friends to forcibly remove the headset that contains the game, this results in instant death from shock. The only way to exit the game is to figure out that you're playing the game, develop the desire to leave it and then command an exit.
The players walk through a transitional corridor between where they started the game from and the game itself, in this case, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat emerge on a beach, where they meet Marilyn Monroe who has an interest in the Cat, Rimmer finds Napoleon Bonaparte and gets his autograph. The guide directs them to a beach, this is where fantasies diverge.
In the novels, the crew entered 'Better Than Life' when all of them were drunk while celebrating the completed repairs to the Nova 5, which possessed an advanced drive that would allow them to return to Earth in a matter of months. After the Cat found a headset in an abandoned quarters belonging to an old rival of Rimmer's, the drunk Lister insisted that he could get the Cat out and entered the game himself, with the equally-intoxicated Rimmer getting Holly to splice him into the game to drag them out. As a result, the three of them experienced the illusion of travelling back to Earth, where the human race still existed, earning a great deal of media attention as they were asked to advertise various products, until they all went their separate ways.
When he finds out he can get to the restaurant "any way he wants", he makes a Harley Davidson Motorcycle appear. He and the Cat give Rimmer "the finger" and drive off. Lister orders a Prawn Cocktail as a starter and a Caviar Vindaloo as the main course (half rice, half chips and more bread and butter to follow). His room has a leopard skin waterbed in the shape of a guitar. As a drink he order Dom Perignon '44 (in a pint mug).
Lister is joined by the Cat on the golf course for a round of golf. They fire off an firework as part of the "banana bomb" cocktail.
Listers fantasy is by far the most believable and mature of the three. Having abandoned the fame and publicity they received after arriving back on Earth, he now lives in the town of Bedford Falls from 'It's a Wonderful Life', where it is perpetually Christmas Eve. He is happily married to Kristine Kochanski- specified as being a direct descendant of the original who nevertheless looks exactly like her- and has two sons (both of who can talk and drive to the store to get diapers on their own at under two years old). He runs a bar in town and is well known and loved in it, and always has the exact amount of change when needed.
Rimmer, despite living his own far more outlandish and spectacular fantasy, feels that Lister's is better after he realizes that they are in a game, because it shows that Lister is more content than he is, that he doesn't need a lot to make him happy. He compares their respective dreams to Lister buying a reliable normal model car just for necessity, while he bought the biggest flashiest and most expensive car money can get to make up for the 'lack of something'. Also despite being the tamest of the three Lister finds his fantasy the hardest to leave.
The Cat joins Lister on his Harley Davidson (giving Rimmer "the finger") as they drive off to the resturant. He orders "fish" (a small aquarium) and doesn't want them cooked as "he likes his food to move". He uses a fishing rod to catch them. His room has a wardrobe that crosses an international time zone (3pm where the shirts are, 7am for his socks). He manipulates Rimmer's fantasy by making his father say to Rimmer that he is a "total smeghead".
He plays golf with Lister later (involving him throwing his club a distance). He is surprised by Marilyn Monroe in a bed wanting a bit of "o-bee do-be do". Later on, we find out that the Cat is seeing Marilyn Monroe and he has a mermaid girlfriend called Miranda (who is the Dali version of a mermaid, fish on top and woman on the bottom. The normal version is considered "the stupid way round" by the Cat).
The Cat's fantasy is by far the most outlandish of the three. Living in an enormous solid gold castle surrounded by a moat of milk somewhere in Europe, being waited on hand and foot by well incredibly beautiful and scantily clad 'Valkyries'. For fun he dresses for a fox hunt, releases a pack of dogs, then immediately shoots them. When challenged about the ridiculousness of his fantasy, the Cat claims that he never thought his acquisition of these things was strange as he concluded that he deserved it due to him being so good-looking.
When Rimmer's fantasy turns sour so does his milk moat, while his Valkyries rebel against their sexist treatment and he is forced to flee his home.
After being "left in the dust" by Lister and the Cat, he makes a rusting Robin Reliantappear and then a Jaguar E-Type (when he decided to think big). He put on the radio which played military band music and suddenly Yvonne McGruder appeared looking at him in such a way that she wanted to make passionate love to him. With perfection achieved (involving furry dice appearing in the car), they drove off.
Sometime later, Rimmer caught up with the others after making love to McGruder (explaining why it took longer for him to get there, even though he was right behind them). He was then greeted by an officer who addressed him as "Admiral" and give him his salute and an invite from Field Marshal Clifton for port and cigars. He then gains an Admiral's uniform and follows the officer. The officers laugh with Rimmer's poor anecdotes, then his father appears to tell him that he is a "total smeghead" (due to the Cat's interference).
As he was keyed in, he also had a physical presence while in the game.
The game ended due to Rimmer's "diseased brain" corrupting the fantasies of the others with his self hatred. First his fantasy was corrupted when McGruder got pregnant and forced Rimmer to marry her and had seven kids that afternoon, the E-type replaced by a larger and much less reliable car, McGruder expecting more children and a mortgage. The corruption spread to Rimmer's appearance, turning him into a wino, at which point a taxman appeared with a demand for immediate payment and a threat of both legs being broken and his thumbs pulled off. Lister offered to pay, but his money was "fantasised away". Then a tarantula appeared on Rimmer's trouser leg and when he tried to "wish it away", Lister, Rimmer, Holly and the Cat was buried up to their heads with their faces smeared with jam and about to be eaten alive by "killer ants".
The last part was almost identical to reality, except the last letter was to say that Rimmer has passed his exam and is promoted. But the taxman appears out of the wardrobe and proceeds to "collect his payment". The game ends for real.
His ego knowing no bounds, Rimmer used the crew's initial advertising offers to raise money and has become the head of the world's most powerful company, having developed a 'solidgram' body that allows him to physically interact with others. He now lives in a beautiful mansion and hosts regular parties where the most famous people of all time, including God himself, come from far and wide to celebrate the magnificence that is Rimmer. He is married to Juanita Chicata, the most beautiful woman in the world (based on Janine Rimmer, who in reality is the wife of his brother, Frank), and takes delight in trouncing the greatest strategic minds in history (Napoleon, Caesar etc.) at risk after his company developed a time machine that allowed him to bring them into the present (Lister noting that Rimmer's mind had to invent a semi-plausible reason for those people to be there so that he could meet them).
As in the series, Rimmer's neurotic mind won't accept that nice things happen for him, corrupting the fantasy. His fantasy wife is a destructive, scandalous prima donna who sleeps with the servants and cries to her 'husband' that they won't do it anymore in case he finds out, Rimmer having wanted an exciting woman but subconsciously unable to believe that anyone will truly love him. While preparing for his second marriage, his empire crumbles due to a major stock-market crash and he is forced to go on the run in a female body after his original body is repossessed. While trapped in this body, Rimmer realizes that his own approach to women is highly disturbing, with Juanita a representation of his brother's wife, most of the women screaming for his attention when he was famous being women who rejected him when he was growing up, and his second wife being a representation of his mother.