We asked our respondents about fantasy and SF games.
This is what they said…
I’m a pathetic excuse for a gamer these days. My only steady RPG is a once monthly face to face Pathfinder game, in which I am playing a battle cleric. And after five years of campaign, we’ve reached the point where a battle cleric is a pretty ferociously effective thing to be! It took a lot of chipping away with my mace to get here… but here we are.
I’m trying to set something up with another group, but nobody’s had time to really step up and say, “Okay, dammit, here’s what we’re doing.”
One of the things I like about the fantasy games I’ve been involved in, though, is that I feel as if the roleplaying has evolved along with the genre. We’ve got more complicated moral questions to answer, and a more adult awareness of politics and the impact of personal actions to play out. It’s a refreshing change from the old “Knock down the door, kill the monster, get the treasure” school of role-playing.
I think this more mature awareness of the point of view of marginalized groups reflects in modern fantasy novels that give a subject positions to creatures previously treated as faceless inhuman hordes–orcs, for example, in Mary Gentle’s GRUNTS, and goblins in the work of Jim. C. Hines. There are certainly still books that treat the enemy as a monstrous and incomprehensible other… but they seem a little childish and unexamined these days. I think both games and fantasy novels have matured as literary forms–and that goes for video games, too, which now often present players with complex moral choices and an array of outcomes.
As for my personal experience–well, I’ve certainly tried out elements of worldbuilding in games I have run, and I’ve taken favorite player characters and non-player-characters and reworked them to fit into works of fiction.
It’s safe to say that my writing career would never have happened without Dungeons & Dragons. Forget all the storytelling lessons inherent in getting a small group of strong-willed people wrapped around a plot they’re aggressively trying to break. I’m talking about the personal lessons here.
D&D taught me to imagine myself as someone else: to come up with a model in my mind and to act out what I saw there until it became real. I cannot overstate how instrumental this was in every step of my life. I grew up a scrawny, nerdy kid. Up until my late teenaged years, you would *never* have imagined I could ever be a warrior. I had to *practice* at pretending to be someone I wasn’t, someone it was impossible for me to be. I had to do it day in, and day out. I had to persist in this game of pretend even when the world around me told me it was stupid and childish.
And it wasn’t just a military commission. D&D taught me to imagine myself as something equally impossible: a published writer of fantasy novels. Making it in this business is about as likely as being struck by lightning and attacked by sharks in the same instant. The odds are as long as they come. You have to be able to lie to yourself. You have to be able to visualize the impossible with such fervor that you believe it long enough for it to come true.
D&D created me. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s not hyperbole. It’s the truth.
Every year, I try to do it justice in return. A group of authors, under the leadership of Peter V. Brett, gather at Confusion in Detroit and play a game. It’s always 1st edition, the ruleset that we were raised on, and we try to cleave as close to the original modules as possible (so far we’ve played B2 – Keep on the Borderlands, T1 – Village of Hommlet, Q1 – Queen of the Demon Webpits and B1 – In Search of the Unknown. I’m queuing up S2 – White Plume Mountain for next year). It’s an amazing experience each time. We’ve had titans in the field both playing and DMing for four years now: Pat Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Jim Hines, Saladin Ahmed, Doug Hulick, Diana Rowland, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jay Lake (how we miss him), Wes Chu, Sam Sykes, Howard Tayler, and others. Great storytellers throwing in their lot with the greatest story of my life.
It’s always a panic of preparation, always a blast, and always (for me) a nod in the direction of whatever heaven Gary Gygax now occupies.
It’s my way of saying thanks.
I’m not as active a gamer as I used to be, sadly — I join my avid board gaming friends sometimes, and then it’s usually the mathematician in me who perks up and tries to theorize about winnable strategies. But I really miss the late nights tabletopping with my old D&D group. Roleplay was always remarkably like writing for me, creatively, and I can see why a lot of other SFF authors love it, too. After all, writing a novel is basically creating and then DMing your own whole world, isn’t it?
(I guess the difference is that when writing, you get to control how the d20 lands each time. We writers and our godlike powers!)
In fact, hey — a lot of the same things that keep games dynamic and interesting apply to writing genre fiction. I give you:
Eight Lessons Genre Fiction Can Take from Gaming
8) Every player in the story should act like they have a different mind behind them. And their motivations won’t all align. One thing that’s great about roleplay is that every PC literally has a different brain planning its actions, and each person has their own ideas of where they want their character to go and how they want their character to advance. Sometimes characters come into conflict in the game because of this . . . and that’s a good thing for a dynamic story!
7) NPCs should act like PCs. My first campaign, I stepped in mid-quest and donned the mantle of a previously-NPC dwarf who’d been traveling with the company. The DM had set him up to be a complex and motivated character already, so it worked — it would’ve been much less fun if the dwarf had been a limp veneer of dishwater characterization. Similarly, no one who intersects with the main characters in fiction should be a throwaway — the minor NPC-like bartenders and soldiers should all act as if they have brains behind them, with separate needs and wants provoking their interactions.
6) Commitment and believability get you experience points. My second campaign, I threw myself completely into a character who was nothing like me at all. The DM was so impressed he awarded me a buttload of XP after the first session. Hey, that’s exactly like being utterly committed to characterization in fiction! And that gets you readers, which are like experience points, but better.
5) To switch gears from D&D for a second, let’s talk game theory: there are rational moves in every game. I’m not a hardcore board gamer like some of my friends, but something that’s always fascinating to think about is the math. Every game has what are considered the “rational” moves, the ones that will advance the player toward winning if you look ten, twenty, thirty moves ahead. Plots in books have rational moves, too, as the characters sidestep each other and plan for each others’ plans — and plan for each others’ plans for THEIR plans. If your readers are better at playing the game than your brilliant tactician characters and catch them not making the rational moves, that’s a problem. And the bad reviews pointing it out will make you feel like you lost at Tic-Tac-Toe.
But on the other hand . . .
4) Sometimes people don’t make the rational moves. There’s always that one jerk who thinks they’re funny, who’ll upset the whole game by doing something completely irrational. Maybe they have a crush on one of the other players and want to see them win. Maybe it’s overly important to them to screw over a player who screwed them. Maybe they just like chaos. Whatever the reason, sometimes people have a reason, good or bad, for making a move that’s not the rational one at all . . . and so will characters. You just gotta make us BELIEVE they’d give up all that gold!
3) Reality doesn’t always go the way you hope or expect. Sometimes you fail on that 1d20 saving throw six times in a row. Sometimes you win a critical hit when you have no other way out. It keeps the game interesting, adds twists that upend the way everything was trending. Books need this, too — that bit of randomness that comes out of nowhere, but is so, so true to real life. Well, or true to a dice roll, at least.
2) A good DM will make or break a game. A good DM paces well, gives the NPCs distinct and engaging characterizations, and keeps the action exciting. A good DM makes all the players want to keep moving forward, to come back week after week to find out what happens next. Oh, hey — that sounds a lot like an author!
And finally . . .
1) It’s not real. Gaming is only a game. Similarly, no fiction writer should identify so strongly with their work that a bad review sends them into raging and harassment. But on the other hand, “not real” doesn’t make something meaningless. Gaming, fiction — they have magic. They are important. I developed some amazing friendships gaming, and explored pieces of myself and my creativity I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Same with writing. And I’ve had readers tell me my fiction personally touched them in some way . . . because fiction has power. These things do matter.
So let’s go out with our dice and our decks and play some games — I mean, write some books!
I selfishly say that genre fiction learns a lot from games, and vice versa, because that’s my own personal experience. I fell in love with Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo right when I was on the cusp of turning twelve. That game dominated my daily and nightly thoughts, the margins of all my notepaper, even the word problems I wrote for sixth grade math. It was only a few months later when I was introduced to Dragonlance, and from there I discovered the full scope of adult fantasy novels. I knew that’s what I wanted to write when I grew up.
The RPGs I loved back then are still a direct influence on my writing and my life. I have obsessed over the healer archetype ever since I played FFII, and my heroine in The Clockwork Dagger is clear proof of that. I based the book’s entire central religion on the Mana Tree of the game Secret of Mana, which was the first place I learned about world trees. Games ended up as a mythology primer for me. I remember being twelve and thumbing through the Bible during church and being blown away when I realized leviathan and behemoth weren’t just monsters from Final Fantasy II.
My generation is now writing novels and TV show scripts. A lot of them are still playing video games, or raising their kids as players. I’ve had to mostly stop playing because of time constraints, though the one game I did buy recently was the iPad port of Dragon Quest IV, one of my childhood favorites. (I should note, I have one of the largest Dragon Quest slime collections in America.) I’m not really attracted to a lot of the current, flashy games; I’m all about nostalgia and story.
I’m not currently in a steady tabletop roleplaying campaign, but I play lots of different kinds of games all the time. In fact, I’ve spent a large part of my adulthood designing games for a living, some of which won all sorts of awards.
The game of choice around my house at the moment to be Munchkin and its numerous variants. My pal John Kovalic illustrates the game, and he handed my kids a copy of Super Munchkin several years ago and got them hooked. My kids often beg me to run Dungeons & Dragons for them. We’ve played the latest edition at a few different conventions, and they love it.
Right now, though, I’m hard at work on the Shotguns & Sorcery Roleplaying Game, an officially licensed RPG based upon my Shotguns & Sorcery stories. It got well over-funded on Kickstarter, so we’ll wind up playing a lot of that this year, I’m sure.
In the early days of roleplaying games, they reflected what Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had been reading in terms of fantasy fiction. They swiped whole tropes from Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, Moorcock, and Vance. It wasn’t until a decade or two later that you started to see lots of novels affected directly by the games.
These days, game designers actively try to define the tropes of the genre their game is set in and then try to emulate those tropes in the game’s setting and rules. It’s no surprise, then, that the people who play them wind up understanding the underpinnings of the genre pretty damn well. The games give them the tools they need to be able to articulate what’s going on in the stories.
An RPG setting is a lot like a novel in that it requires an expansive and well-built world for the players to adventure in. The only thing it’s really lacking is the kind of main characters—both protagonists and antagonists—a skilled novelist brings brings to the process.
The converse of that is that a good novel requires many of the same worldbuilding skills you find on display with the best RPG settings. Smart writers, though, resist the temptation to show off every last bit of that, though, and only show you the parts that pertain to the story at hand. You don’t need to see the whole iceberg, after all, just the top.
All that said, games and novels are different forms of entertainment with different needs. With a novel, you’re telling your readers a story. With a game, you’re giving the players the tools they need to tell their own story. That story may not be as professional and polished as one you’d find in a novel, but it’s theirs, and that makes a huge difference.
Right now I’m replaying Saints Row IV on the PS3, and Infamous: Second Son and First Light on the PS4. Saints Row started out as something of a spoof on Grand Theft Auto, but this version is very much a science fiction game with the central plot involving an alien conquest of Earth and a Matrix-like environment where the player develops multiple super powers. I love the snarky humor in this game, and, honestly superspeeding around the city never gets old. The Infamous games are all set in an alternate present/near future where a sub-group of humanity called “Conduits” have developed super powers built around an affinity for a substance or concept: electricity, ice, smoke, concrete, neon, video games, paper. I’m also a dedicated fan of a number of fantasy games including Final Fantasy IX, X, XII, and the Uncharted series with their magical tomb-raiding themes.
At their best, I think that video games tell stories every bit as rich as a novel, while bringing the added benefit of putting you inside the story in a way that even the best book can’t touch because on some level it’s you making the protagonist’s decisions and fighting their battles. They also do things with image and environment that is cinematic in a way that a book or story doesn’t reach. They engage senses that simply aren’t involved in the same way with reading a book.
Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that those of us writing in the genre for publication can bring in what I think is the best thing about a good video game, which is the sense of investment the player gets from making character decisions and fighting character battles. In that same vein, some of my favorite games give the opportunity to customize the look of your player. For example, both Saints Row IV and Mass Effect allow you to choose your sex and appearance, allowing the story to be even more about the player as protagonist.
Which is not to say that I want to jump from novel writing to working in games. I love the control I have writing my own novels and stories. The big games are major collaborative projects with many of the same issues and flaws that come from making a large studio movie. For that matter, though the stories in all of these games could easily be rewritten into novel form, I feel that without that personal decision-making element many of them might well fall flat in terms of story, a theory that is reinforced by the comparative weakness of many game novelizations and movies.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some great game tie-in writing, but it’s a different form and often it’s the stories exploring corners that aren’t in the games that make the best books. The biggest problem I think in making the jump that way is that the core strength of being the character and making their decisions and investing time in fighting their battles doesn’t move across forms very well. The other major problem is that game creators can patch weak spots in the story with little bridges of fabulous game play or puzzle solving, and those don’t come across when you move to a novelization.
What I think we on the written fiction side can draw from the better games is new ways to look at pacing and episodic structure, and to remind ourselves that it’s okay to simply have fun in a story. There is an exuberance to many games that I think we sometimes forget about.
Going the other direction, I think that many of the games that fail for me fail on the level of lacking a compelling story. While eye candy and interesting puzzles can keep me entertained for a while, I don’t tend to replay games that don’t also give me a great story with sympathetic characters and great stakes. That’s where Final Fantasy X gets me. The game play has long since been eclipsed by better engines and newer/faster/shinier consoles, but the core story is really powerful and it draws me back again and again in the same way the Amber books do, or Martha Wells’ Element of Fire. I care about the people in that story and I want to go back and spend time with them.
I’m currently playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third in the series, steeped in a fantasy world of elves, dwarves, humans and more. It’s a game that engages with a lot of fantasy tropes in ways that genre aficionados would find familiar, but it can also teach fiction writers a thing or two. One aspect of DA:I that I keep coming back to is the romances: your character can flirt with, woo, and eventually enter a romantic relationship with one of eight other characters. Romances aren’t mandatory, and the non-romantic character relationships are also stellar, adding extra scenes that deepen your understanding of the people in your party and allow you to further develop your own character based on the choices you make. But if you ask anyone why they’re playing the game in the first place, romance will probably be one of the top two reasons.
Romance has been a sticky issue in fantasy novels. When books with romantic relationships were written by a man, historically this led to a lot of damsels in distress, fridging and women as prize/reward for the conquering hero. When written by a woman, the books were more likely to be dismissed as girly, insufficiently serious, or any number of other foolish pejoratives, and may STILL have had the same problematic character depictions. Video games, until recently, shared many of the same issues, and often romance was either entirely ignored or designed to titillate with, well, T&A. It’s not that no one ever did things well, or “right,” but it wasn’t the norm, and it often wasn’t what garnered the most accolades and attention. Now, even the manliest man Myke Cole recently talked about reading romance/erotica (http://swordandlaser.com/home/2015/1/27/sl-podcast-203-myke-coles-secret-unicorn and http://www.tor.com/blogs/2015/01/rocket-talk-episode-41-myke-cole).
Fantasy novels and video games have co-evolved as more women and LGBTQ voices have gained prominence, and games like DA:I reflect those changes. The characters don’t react entirely according to the whims of the player; they’re people with preferences, so while one character is pansexual, another is straight and only goes for elves. While one approves of hard-line dealings with villains, another may favor compassion or political machinations. But the fact that there is even an option to have a romantic relationship, let alone an explicitly queer one, shows how far things have come. It isn’t that men had no interest in these things, but for a long time, the perception that they didn’t was strangely pervasive. And certainly there were few games that catered to women with playable female characters who could get romantic in a satisfying way.
The romances are one facet of the kind of breadth of choice that a game can offer, which books generally can’t because the narrative is singular and explicit. All writers make choices, but novel writers create “canon” events and depictions of characters, while the writers of DA:I give players eight different possible romantic trajectories. Romancing one character over another doesn’t affect the overall arc of the game; if the game is a container, the shape doesn’t change, but the contents do. And because the writers don’t know who the player will choose, each character and story must be fully fleshed out so that they are all equally satisfying in different ways. They also have to make sense in how they progress and evolve, so that it feels natural for the characters to come together–and possibly fall apart, as the story unfolds.
When a genre fiction writer works in a similar fashion, creating a container that can hold different visions and revisions of events, we get fanfic. I used to look down on this kind of play, but I’ve come around to thinking it’s pretty wonderful when a writer can craft a world and characters that inspire readers. People rush to fill the gaps that a novel often naturally leaves behind, or even simply reimagine how things might have happened differently. Not to get too buzz-wordy, but it strengthens reader engagement, creates a kind of buy-in that video games naturally achieve because the player is controlling the main character.
So, what can DA:I teach genre writers? Not to be afraid of romance, for one thing, and not to confine themselves to any particular kind of romance because human experience is so varied, and fantasy lets us push even farther past whatever boundaries exist in real life. But also how to be flexible, to intentionally leave spaces, however small, that readers can fill with their own ideas. There’s a whole crazy world behind that breach, as any DA:I player can tell you, it’s full of dreams and magic. Spoiler alert: it’s also full of spiders.
Just work with me here, all right? I am currently playing the latest installment in a beloved, global, decades’-long franchise that has brought joy to millions, and billions of dollars to its creators. It’s a world of epic battles, long journeys, and new discoveries, and even after all this time, it has new lessons to teach us about the world.
I’m referring, of course, to Pokemon. And interestingly enough, the timing of the latest release offers a perfect opportunity to look not only at how the game relates to genre, but to how modern sensibilities have evolved. The current game, Alpha Ruby/Omega Sapphire, is actually a remake of an earlier installment in the franchise, bringing it into the newest game engine. As with most Pokemon games, you can choose to play as either a male or female trainer, but the adventure is essentially the same either way. You travel through the region, capturing monsters, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and setting them against each other in grand gladiatorial combat. Some bad guys want to use a Legendary Pokemon to mess up the world. You stop them, and in the process, become a Pokemon master.
(The first rule of Pokemon is “don’t go into the tall grass if you’re not prepared to die.” The second rule of Pokemon is “don’t fuck with the Legendary Pokemon.” Both these rules apply to basically any work of genre fiction you’d care to name, from Jurassic Park or Alien to Lord of the Rings.)
Prior to this release, we had X/Y, the first of the “modern” Pokemon games. They allowed for total trainer customization. For the first time, you could pick your character’s skin tone, hair color, and eye color. There were no embarrassing costumes required for female trainers, as in the older games and their “contests.” The dialog was almost universally the same, regardless of your PC’s gender. And it’s amazing what a huge difference that little tweak made to people’s game play experience. Suddenly, the tiny cartoon avatar of your Pokemon journey could look like you. I know at least one person who broke down crying when he saw himself, or at least a cartoon that looked like him, being a part of the Pokemon world.
The remakes? No customization. Some honestly sexist dialog directed at the female player character. Frills and lace in the contest halls. It was a shock to the system when I started–and it’s slowed my Pokemon journey considerably–but it also shows us just how far we’ve come. It was a surprise not to be able to represent myself in my avatar. It was confusing when NPCs treated me differently.
So I hit them with my Tyrantrum, because screw that noise.
Winner of the Australian Shadows Award for best edited publication, Jennifer has edited fourteen anthologies with more on the way. She has most recently edited Chicks Dig Gaming. Author of In a Gilded Light, The Lady of Seeking in the City of Waiting, Industry Talk, and the Karen Wilson Chronicles, she has more than sixty published short stories, and is the Creative Director of Apocalypse Ink Productions. Jennifer also is a freelance author for numerous RPG companies and a winner of both the Origins and the ENnie award.
I’m currently involved in three RPG games: Hunter (twice a month), Pathfinder (weekly), and a new one just starting up, Houses of the Blooded (weekly). Each one is very different from the other. Hunter is an exploration into the supernatural while being completely unprepared. In Pathfinder, we’re following the Rise of the Runelords module with the GM’s added twist he is calling “The Year of Dragons’ Conquest.” It is high adventure. Houses of the Blooded is a very cooperative RPG with the intent of telling personal tragedies.
As for how each game reflects or refracts the SFF genre all depends on how you play the game.
Hunter is a good reflection of the urban fantasy market and the hero’s journey from no knowledge to too much knowledge. The way it differs is the fact that your character is outgunned and over their head. There’s a lot of death in early games whereas in fiction, you tend to stay with your protagonist as they grow.
Pathfinder is a good reflection on the high adventure epic fantasy genre. The world is vast and built up. There are archetypical characters but you can customize them into something more individual without breaking the world. The one drawback I see with it is the inability to tell epic battle scenarios with it. Then again, I don’t play Pathfinder to war game. I play it so my character can beat the bad guy and get the loot.
Houses of the Blooded appears to be a really interesting look at a mixed bag of post apocalyptic, science fiction, and fantasy. There is a half-hidden history. The characters aren’t human. There is magic that could possibly be science. I’m just getting into it so, I’m still learning the world. One of my new favorite things has been to define the world along with the rest of the players.
As for what genre fiction could learn from games and vice versa… the benefits are vast. Both sides can learn about world building. Fiction writers can learn how to make consistent political, magical, and religious systems from games. Games can broaden their horizons in a social construct way from fiction. Both can learn the consequences of not thinking out power creep from each other.
Mostly, I think games learn “what could be” from fiction and fiction learns how to build “what could be” from games. The two are completely compatible with each other.
What Fantasy and SF games are you currently playing or involved in?
With three kids and more than a few other commitments, it’s harder to find time for gaming, but not impossible. I’ve always been drawn to multiplayer online games, especially MMOs – I met my wife playing City of Heroes, and for the ‘long distance’ portion of our relationship, our date nights were often spent fighting orcs in Lord of the Rings Online.
These days, I play Eve Online (focusing on small group PvP in low security space), Lord of the Rings Online (often with my wife), and DC Universe Online (usually with my oldest daughter). Non MMOs that have grabbed me recently include The Last of Us, Don’t Die, and the Dragon Age series. (I haven’t played Inquisition yet – it’s my reward when I wrap up my current book!) Minecraft’s always there when I just want to relax.
I do almost all of my pen-and-paper “Tabletop” rpg gaming via Google Hangouts and Roll20 these days – it’s honestly made these kind of games possible for me at all, right now, since I don’t have to go anywhere or clean up the house after everyone leaves, and I can squeeze in a session after my kids go to bed. I both play and GM; the most recent stuff I’ve played includes Fate, Fate Accelerated, Torchbearer, and The One Ring. I’ve also picked up the three core books for DnD 5th edition in hopes of getting to actually do something with them at some point – there’s a great DnD setting book out now called A Red and Pleasant Land that I’d love to do something with.
How do you think they reflect or refract the genre?
I think they all have their strengths and weaknesses.
Computer Gaming: Lord of the Rings Online is probably the best true-to-Tolkien computer game anyone is ever going to make. (And it’s very pretty.) Eve Online is a singular experience in computer gaming, and does a pretty good job of capturing the cold, harsh, unforgiving nature of space… and other people. DC Universe Online does a very good job with its IP, and the voice acting is top notch – it’s just good four-color fun. I tend to play games like Last of Us and Dragon Age for the stories the game designers are telling – they’re really interactive stories as much as anything else (especially Last of Us, which is brilliant, but pretty much on rails from start to finish, like any book), and these kinds of game/stories are a great deal of fun, though I’d get bored with them if that’s all I played – I like unstructured exploration!
Roleplaying: for me, the games that really get me excited are those that capture or mashup genres well (The Mountain Witch, A Red and Pleasant Land, Atomic Robo), or have mechanics that express parts of the game in ways I like (Fate and the way it handles Aspects and Compels does a lot for the part of my brain that thinks about everything as a story to tell). So much of the tabletop RPG’s ability to reflect a genre depends on the players and how much they buy into the concept – I’m lucky to have found (and continue to find) great players to spend my gaming time with.
What can genre fiction learn from games, and where can games learn from genre fiction?
This is kind of a sideways answer: I think modern publishers and today’s author’s can learn a HUGE amount from studying how independent game designers and publishers are getting their work out to their players/readers in different formats, with low overhead, great final products and polish, and satisfied customers – they are solving or have already solved problems that Big Publishing and self-publishing are still trying to understand, let alone address, and they’re discovering not one, but dozens of viable ways to do it. When I decided to turn my audiobook project into a Kickstarter project, the first person I reached out to for advice was a well-known independent game publisher I’ve known for years; his advice was absolutely invaluable and, I am convinced, helped make the project a success.
I think gaming can and does learn from genre fiction – most of the time, that is specifically the sort of thing these games are trying to emulate in the first place – but even when they’re emulating consciously, they can help themselves by looking at the basics of story structure when some part of their game isn’t working: are you pushing the characters hard enough? Is the problem clear? Is the goal clear? Do we believe the world we’re in and identify with the characters we’ve been introduced to? That’s core stuff, and as games evolve to become exciting new platforms for hybrid storytelling, those are questions designers have to ask at every turn.
My biggest game involvement is, obviously, Warhammer 40,000, but on the tabletop front I am also running a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and playing (as our Mind Meld host knows)Ashen Stars and Call of Cthulhu. On the shelf and waiting for me to have a bit more time are the likes of Numenera, The Strange, tremulus, 13th Age, D6xD6, Pathfinder and so on. In the digital realm, I’m still adding to my hundred-plus hours in Skyrim. So, I’m either staying out of trouble or getting deeper and deeper into it, depending on your perspective.
I find the intersections between games and other art forms endlessly fascinating, and it seems to me that narrative is the primary nexus, one from which the influences flow in various directions. For example, we can see the impact of film on video games in everything from storylines to cut scenes to digitally simulated lens flare. Just as cinema borrowed a lot from theatre in the early years of its development, so video games are still linked to film as they move, bit by bit, toward the maturation of their own form of narrative, one suited to the unique characteristics of the medium. The narrative forms of tabletop games are different again, and it seems to are more established as their own phenomenon, perhaps due this art form’s longer history and the collaborative/performative elements built in from the start (there is much less place for the single player/reader/viewer equation).
But however distinct the forms, we also see game after game inspired by film and literature, whether those influences be direct adaptation or as part of the cultural collage shaping the original universe of the game. But we are also seeing more and more inspiration flowing the other way. The nut of successfully making direct cinematic adaptations of games has yet to be cracked, and for my money the best video game movie is still David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, but as that film and books such as Ready Player One attest, the other arts can indeed by draw fruitful inspiration from games.
Tie-in fiction, of course, is the other very visible nexus, and there not only do we have yet another intertextual web, formed by the source game and whatever literary or other cultural sources are influencing the writers, but as that fiction has grown in popularity, the direction of the media loop’s flow is not predetermined. (Speaking anecdotally, I played D&D before I read the books, but I read Warhammer 40,000 books before I played the game.)
So the various art forms will continue to develop, mutate and converge, and I know I’ll be riveted by the process, and delighted to be caught up in it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is my jam.
I’ve always loved RPGs, and especially fantasy RPGs. I remember reading my mom’s Basic D&D rulebooks when I was eight, and I’ve since moved on to Fable, Kingdoms of Amalur, Skyrim, anything where you can cast a fireball and swing a sword. But the Dragon Age series holds a special place in my heart because Bioware always packs a heavy emotional payload into their games. You make tough decisions, you build relationships, and in the end it all means something.
We value the very best fiction (in games and elsewhere) for the opportunity to experience a wide range of emotions in a safe space without repercussions. You can have a romantic entanglement without risking your real relationship, you can save the world without the pesky physical danger, you can mourn a bosom companion without attending a funeral. We like to feel things. We like to see what it’s like to be someone else, somewhere else.
Traditionally, in games and in published genre, we’ve stuck to a pretty limited sandbox of emotions and identities to try on for size. Basically we had… the hero’s journey. Thanks a LOT, Joseph Campbell. But increasingly, genre has been telling other stories and representing other peoples beyond the farm boy who is the True King.
Games, though, have a long way to go to catch up. If there’s one thing games can learn from genre right now, it’s providing a breathtaking and vast array of experiences.
Now, games learned how to tell stories from genre first and best. I first found a lot of story worlds and read those books because they were immortalized in an AD&D rulebook: Fritz Leiber’s Chronicles of Lankhmar, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. (Deities and Demigods, holla!)
But games seem stuck in a very old-fashioned idea of what genre is. Sci-fi in games keeps to spaceships-and-blasters, for the most part. So many grizzled space marines you can be! There are exceptions – Portal and Assassin’s Creed spring to mind — but I’d love to see something like Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age as an RPG. How much fun would that be?
Fantasy in games does a little better. I love punching dragons as much as the next girl, but after a while all of those elves-dwarves-humans worlds blur together, where something like Legend of Zelda stands out, or Persona, or Journey. And even so, where are our urban fantasy games?
On the other hand, books should unlearn some of the habits and conventions they’ve picked up from games. And I’m not even talking about books that are someone’s thinly veiled paper RPG campaign. Some elements are necessary in games, but don’t make sense in the context of a book.
Look at magic, for instance. In an RPG, you need rules to impose a consensus reality players can agree upon. That means magic in an RPG is always governed by clear rules regarding what you can do and under what circumstances. It becomes science by another name; but I find myself yearning for more stories where magic is mysterious, ineffable. Entirely unexplained. You can’t do that in a game, but there’s no reason writers need to use the same playbook as game designers.
So, too, systems of class and alignment. Alignment is shorthand for the complex layers of motivation you find in a real person, a method of simplification. Immediately reducing your understanding of a character to “they are chaotic good” reduces the depth you’re going to bring to the table. You’re not asking where that came from, how that person established those beliefs. Meanwhile Tolkien probably inspired the AD&D party where you need a wizard, a warrior, a thief. That makes a balanced mix of skills in a game. Balance in games is important! But in a book, your protagonists could as easily be a farmhand, a harried mother, and a carpenter. They could be a principal, a construction worker, and an underpaid clerk at an electronics store. They could be three unemployed cab drivers.
Again – I love books, and I love games, but they can and should do different things, more things. Games have a lot to learn about where genre’s gone in the last twenty years. The horizon is much further away than it used to be. And genre can be so much more complex, because they don’t need to be described in math and rules. Why are we limiting the scope of our imagination?
I spent many, many hours in my teens playing Dungeons & Dragons. This was back in the era when D&D was blamed for teen suicides, violence, and pretty much every other ill that could befall an adolescent. A lot of parents, swayed by bug-eyed preachers, claimed the game was satanic and sternly forbade their kids from playing. But D&D had thoroughly captured my imagination, and I’m pretty stubborn, so I ended up gaming with college students instead of kids my own age. And they introduced me to other games: The Morrow Project, Gamma World, MechWarrior, and Robotech. I sacrificed many a weekend to jewel-toned dice and smudged character sheets.
I quit playing when I started college myself and found that I just didn’t have time to do everything I wanted to do. And sadly, time has remained a distressingly finite resource in my life. I only started regularly gaming again fairly recently.
I still don’t have time for long campaigns that demand regular gaming sessions, so most RPGs (like Pathfinder, which I quite enjoy) have been difficult to schedule. And as much as I adore video games, I know my own addictive personality well enough to stay far away from World of Warcraft and EVE online.
But I’ve come to really enjoy board games that you can finish in a few hours or less. We’re in the middle of a boardgame renaissance right now. If you equate board games with Sorry! and Monopoly and other games you probably got tired of in your teens, know that there are some amazing board and card games out there right now. Love Lovecraft? Try Eldritch Horror. Enjoy science fiction? Give Galaxy Trucker a try. And if you’re pining for an old-school D&D experience but you’ve got kids and only have an hour? Try Castle Panic.
That short list I just put forth tells you that some of the best games are highly influenced by genre fiction, even if it comes through intermediary forms like movies. The reason I was attracted to RPGs in the first place was because I loved fantasy fiction and wanted to play in those worlds. I’ve seem most every aspect of genre fiction reflected and refracted in games, from adventure to mystery to strategy … it’s all there.
What can genre fiction writers learn from games? Games are, first and foremost, fun. If you’re not having fun playing a game, something is desperately wrong.
Games are probably not the best place to learn about narrative or dialog. World-building? Sure; you can find good and bad examples in games, although you’ll have to go deeper in fiction. Confict? Absolutely … and especially if you’re watching the other players deal with a rules dispute!
But the thing games do best is show you how to keep people engaged. How to keep them motivated. How to pique their interest, reward them, and keep them coming back for more.
I didn’t quite get into games in the PONG era, but soon after with the ATARI and all the games involved with it. Pac-Man with its sound effects that always sounded like rubber bands plucking, Combat with optional tweaks like ricochet missiles and stealth mode, and Pitfall, which I don’t remember ever having, but wanting badly.
Back then, good art was nigh-impossible, and no one cared about plot, and characters were little more than avatars (no matter what 1980s Saturday morning cartoons tried to make us believe about Pac-Man.) The designers’ goals were gameplay and engineering with a thin fun face overlaying it to make it a game.
From then to now we’ve had many stories with the complexity of story ranging from “dude dropped into hell with a gun” to “Mario rescues Peach…. again.” We’ve experienced good storytelling since then, but I have to admit it wasn’t until Bioware gave us Dragon Age that I cared about the characters AND the game. I’m talking really cared about what happens to a character, worrying about how they’re going to get out of various trials, and wondering if I made the wrong decision. I mean, I cared about my character in World of Warcraft, but that’s because if she died I would lose hours of gameplay and some really cool loot. But with Dragon Age Origins, II, and now Inquisition (aside- why can’t people find consistency with naming things? I am also looking at Nintendo and Microsoft hardware naming choices) I find I care about these characters, their plots.
I’ve romanced many of the people in Dragon Age Origins. In II, I played through to romance a character on the “friendship” path, and then again on the “rivalry” path (where you piss them off but they still respect you so the relationship is full of annoyance and fire and passion.) I’ve changed races and restarted games once I realized that I couldn’t romance a character because of a race or gender choice.
It’s not merely a romance preference, but how all of this affects how you feel about the game at large – will you care more about The Iron Bull’s personal quest if you’re in a relationship with him? I’ve read about people heartbroken that their intended romantic target turned out to be gay, or a traitor, or sacrificed themselves unexpectedly. But even beyond the romance, the conversations can make you care a lot for the characters, as Varric the dwarven rogue (and, in DA:I, pulp writer!) is not romancable but is a fan favorite character for his easygoing charm.
The games get an M rating because your romances can lead naturally into sex. And while tastefully done, it’s still sex, and there is some nudity. My last character had a casual, post-sex conversation in bed with her lover, and she was topless. I’ve only played as a woman so I don’t know how much skin the guys show, but I have seen a screen shot with one of the male romanceable characters showing full… what’s the opposite of full frontal? Full backal? Full rear? Whatever, you see his butt.
I can’t mention Bioware without their unapologetic mocking of the straight dude fanboys who do NOT like it when male characters hit on them, cause that’s SO unrealistic in a game with dragons. Also gross. And then they threaten that no straight dude will buy Bioware games until they take the gross gayness out. But Bioware just collected a GLBT award for their treatment of queer characters. DA:I has two homosexual characters, two (three? I can’t remember about Blackwell) bisexual, and one trans male (not playable, but he’s one of the people you can have the most conversations with, and his brief plotline is NOT a transitioning story.) And I’m fairly sure the game’s sales are doing just fine.
People argue a lot about games succeeding or failing as stories, but I have to say that Bioware games are the most immersive storytelling I have ever experienced. The story changes every time I play, depending on what I say, do, or even what race or gender I play. I care on a different level than I do about any other medium because I am invested in the story, and my choices can affect how my in-game friends or lovers live. Games are not better than any other medium, but they’re different, like a steak is different from a rack of lamb.
In short, I’m on my second full play-through of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I am playing a female elf rogue (pew pew! Arrows! Pew!) and romancing Solas. Anyone who has played the game through once will know why I am romancing him, but no spoilers for the rest of you. On first play-through, I romanced The Iron Bull, and witnessed possibly the most healthy conversation about safe words ever written. I’m still waiting on Bioware to make Varric get over his old love and fall for one of the Dragon Age protagonists (namely me.) I’m considering another play through as a guy so I can romance some of the ladies and Dorian. I can honestly say I completely get my money’s worth with Dragon Age; hundreds of hours of play for sixty bucks is pretty dang good.
My recent gaming has been on the PlayStation. Video games usually have a story and writers, so they’re not that different from genre fiction in that regard.
Strong on story was The Swapper, where you have to explore an abandoned space station. The puzzles are solved by creating clones and swapping your soul between them (using the swapper device). This isn’t just a game mechanic, as the implications of this are explored in the story. What is the swapper actually doing and can souls really be transferred? There aren’t any firm answers, and the game offers alternate endings. This is something that’s much harder to do in a book, as outside of the old Choose Your Own Adventures, the reader tends to be an observer rather than a participant.
The interactive experience can also be used to blend different forms of content. Never Alone is a platform game based on Iñupiaq stories. Playing the game unlocks short documentary videos, and the player can go back and forth between gameplay and videos anytime they want. Books have more options for that kind of blending with ebooks, but it’s not something I’ve seen many authors tackle.
Where games can fall down is when they try to rely on flashy visuals to gloss over a weak story. A classic case of that was inFAMOUS: First Light. I loved the main character with her neon light powers, but I wish she’d had a better story.
Overall, the themes in games are the ones in fiction. They present those themes in different ways (such as interaction versus observation), but genre fiction and games don’t exist in isolation from each other. It’s less about learning from each other, and more about changing together.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I am a Skyrim fanatic, and I’ve often talked about the value of playing video games for writers when it comes to internalizing the feel of and constraints of a particular setting. I’m an advocate of playing Skyrim without using Fast Travel and without allowing yourself to back up to your last save to undo a bad decision or an unfortunate circumstance. In these days of plains, trains, and automobiles, we forget just how hard it used to be to travel from one place to another, or how dangerous leaving the protection of city walls could be. By way of example, I remember dying five times in a row because I stubbornly refused to go around a mountain range and kept trying to ride my horse over the top. Finally, I gave up and rode around the mountain, which took me somewhere entirely different from where I was trying to be, and resulted in an encounter my friend who Fast Travels has never seen. I think that playing the way I play has definitely influenced my craft in the way I approach narrative and structure, as well as helping me internalize the feel and tone of quasi-medieval settings.
I’m also a big proponent of pen and paper role playing games as a way to stimulate and encourage creativity. I’ve long been fascinated by the number of fantasy authors who game, and who draw inspiration from their gaming. I’m an old school gamer who played a lot when I was young—1st edition Dungeons & Dragons, Top Secret, Call of Cthulhu and Star Frontiers were personal favorites. Recently, I’ve been looking at RPGs as a way to encourage my children to play something more collaborative, imaginative, and less passive than video games (though we love those too!). This coming weekend, I’m going to start my son and wife on an RPG using the Fate Accelerated rules from Evil Hat (www.evilhat.com)—we’re volunteers in their Young Centurions play test. Earlier this week, it was great to see Evil Hat make a “Diversity Pledge”, which certainly seems like a movement in genre fiction that is filtering into gaming. Paizo too recently introduced the first transgendered iconic character into their Pathfinder setting (http://paizo.com/paizo/blog/v5748dyo5lgcn). And what I’ve read of the tie-in fiction they publish in their Pathfinder Tales line really is top notch! But really the back and forth between games and fiction is already so entrenched that it’s hard to talk about what the two media could learn from each other—they’ve already learned it and are simply two parts of one larger SFF community. One has only to look at the enormous list of notable authors attending this year’s GenCon Writing Symposium (http://genconwriters.com) to see that a large subsection of the adult speculative fiction community are active participants in the RPG community as well and vice-versa.
As to how games influence my own fiction, Frostborn is the first book in the Thrones & Bones series, which takes its title from a board game of the same name. Not only does the board game factor into the plot of the story, but the rules for Thrones & Bones appear in the appendices of the book. Fans around the country have been making their own (http://www.louanders.com/thrones-and-bones-sets.html) Thrones & Bones sets and sending me pictures. The sequel, Nightborn, coming in July, will feature another board game, as will the third volume in the series. Meanwhile, I give out trading cards featuring character artwork from the book when I do school and library visits, and am working on a game using these cards. I’ve also developed an RPG, which we play tested at GenCon 2013. That is being retooled now, but there should be significant progress on both it and the card game later this year.
Ultimately, I don’t think that today’s genre fans segregate their entertainment as perhaps we did when I was younger. It’s all good, it’s all fun, and it’s all part of a love of the fantastic and a desire to experience adventure in strange, new and exciting worlds.
It’s more than a decade since I first played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and became an unashamed Bioware fangirl. I remember picking up the slipcase for the first time, and my eyes being drawn towards the Jedi wielding a yellow double-bladed lightsaber. Sure, I love Princess Leia, but I wanted to see a woman running around with one of those cool laser space swords. Bioware went one better and not only let me play a female Jedi, but also hang out with other female Jedi as I saved the galaxy.
There’s plenty that keeps me coming back to Bioware – the epic plots, the imaginative detail and depth of the worlds, getting crowned queen – but what got me hooked was that I never looked around, disappointed, thinking “well, yeah, this is great, I suppose, but where are all the women?”
Petty annoyances still happen (while playing a Sith Lord in my current game of choice – The Old Republic MMORPG – an NPC questioned whether it was suitable for women to be in the frontlines of a war; sure, he got force-choked for his trouble, but it was a grating moment I could’ve done without) and there’s still not equal representation numbers-wise, but since Bioware don’t want to alienate the large portion of their audience who want to play a female player character, there’s a general presumption of gender equality, and, as a consequence, female characters end up everywhere.
It would be awesome if that was the starting point of more fantasy books (and, to be fair, more games too). Sure, you might find out that the story you want to tell has a sexist society, but why startfrom that presumption? Why assume your story requires a sexist foundation to be told? It only makes it that much more likely I’ll be throwing your book across the room in annoyance, and sometimes those books are on my iPad. Those things don’t react well to sudden impacts against solid walls.
Looking at things the other way round, I’d love it if games could feel more comfortable with length.
A low word count isn’t usually held as a black mark against a piece of writing. A novel can be padded, or a short story can feel rushed, but length in and of itself isn’t considered a virtue or vice. Novels, novelettes, flash fiction: each form is afforded a degree of respect, and acknowledged to have its own particular advantages in presenting a story.
In games, more is presumed to be better, which tends to make the game worse. In the old days, for me, this meant figuring out improbable solutions to badly designed point and click adventure game puzzles. These days it means grinding a character, killing the same kind of enemies over and over again, in order to gain enough levels to move on to the next part of the story. Games that are beautiful and complete and satisfying, but take only an hour? Forget it. But what sort of fascinating new games could be developed and enjoyed if gaming created its own categories where gameplay time was a description, not a boast?
I’m incredibly busy at the moment with postgraduate work so I’m a fan of portable, low-commitment games. Combine that with my years-long love of Nintendo and you have the Nintendo 3DS, which is my current console of choice. My current most-played game is Super Smash Brothers 4: perfectly designed for short bursts of gameplay in which I can main a space fox and kill everything in sight. Flawless. I also played a lot of Pokemon X and Alpha Sapphire last year. When I can be bothered to connect my Wii to my monitor: Mario Kart, Rock Band and the occasional Legend of Zelda game.
I’m a very casual gamer, obviously, and the games I enjoy are very different to the fiction I read, write and edit. I marvel, from time to time, that I’ll delightedly play a Legend of Zelda game — despite its hackneyed ‘lone hero saves the world from the Big Bad’ plot and the terrible gender and race issues — but such a standard variety of secondary world fantasy has never interested me as a reader. It makes good gameplay! Rhythm games or go-kart racing are further yet from fiction. To me, there’s always been this big difference between the genre media I consume: not only in the narrative (or “narrative”) holding it all together but the kinetic factor.
But the two different bits of games and fiction that I enjoy are just that: two different bits. The similarities between the two media are numerous, as far as I can see. Games can be a great mount for narratives, including those that don’t get told as widely as others. I’ve heard good things about Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a side-scrolling game about a girl and an arctic fox seeking the source of a never-ending wind: it combines fun gameplay with Iñupiat culture. It sounds great. (It has a fox character! I’m sold. I like side-scrollers, too.) Developers like Christine Love are creating queer-centric visual novels and games. As with fiction, there’s a great deal out there — and plenty of ways to create your own work, from twine games to flash games — but getting bigger releases is a tougher prospect. Still, if Hatoful Boyfriend gets a PS4 port…
The gaming and fiction communities have their similarities, too. Appalling treatment of people who speak out against sexism, racism, homophobia and other problems of that scope, for instance!
What can games teach fiction? That dating pigeons is fun. What can fiction teach games? Footnotes. (I’m sure it’s been done.) Really, the more variety in the media you consume, the more variety in what you create. I don’t know that I would ever write the fiction equivalent of a black-and-white rhythm game final boss after a typical RPG, but that’s a bit beside the point.
In our house, weekends are for gaming. On Saturday afternoon, we role-play: Call of Cthulhu right now, although it was Pathfinder for about a year. After dinner, we bring out the boardgames—lately, it’s been Race for the Galaxy, Ticket to Ride (with the Alvin & Dexter expansion, of course), 51st State, or if the gaming stars are really aligned, Arkham Horror. After Sunday brunch, my husband and daughter play Minecraft on the Playstation while I cheer along (hey, we only have two controllers right now), and before dinner, my husband and I usually manage to squeeze in a couple hands of cribbage (on our new zombie-themed cribbage board) or a quick two-player game of Dracula. On a typical weekend, we play three to six board games, a few hours of pen-and-paper RPGs, and spend a ridiculous amount of time in front of the Playstation.
And when Monday hits, I get in front of the computer and write gaming tie-in fiction.
That’s not all I write and writing tie-in isn’t the only way that I’m active in the SF/F community, but it’s fair to say that gaming makes up the bulk of my career and is the lynchpin of my social life. Games are exciting and fun and I love them.
Before I was ever a gamer, I was a reader and a writer. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror have always been the genres that have called to me, and even when I play games, I reach for SF/F/H titles. I like adventure. I like fast pacing. I like exploring new worlds and dare-to-be-great situations, and those are all dominant traits of genre books and games.
What I really like are plots that dovetail neatly with character development, with settings that expand and play with the larger themes and symbols of the work. Yes, I believe great games, like great fiction (of all shapes and genres) become great by building characters with dimension, exploring rich themes, and making the best possible use of their materials to demonstrate the creators’ skill and create an immersive experience. A board game becomes immersive when the game pieces and the game play are so enjoyable that you forget you’re handling paper money or wooden characters, and you become entirely focused on the goal of the game. A video game becomes immersive when you no longer recognize that you’re pushing a joystick or some buttons, and you find yourself lost in a world of pixels. A book becomes immersive when you stop seeing the chapter breaks and only want to know what happens next.
Games have an advantage over fiction: what happens next seems to happen to you and not just your character. You are the player. You win. You lose. You own the gaming experience. That most games have a focus that results in winning and losing makes the player more personally invested in the experience, whether you’re talking about board games or video games.
But what games have often failed to do is explore character. Because the goal is to make the user very invested in the experience, there is often a reticence to create characters that stand on their own, that are unique and defined. Game characters are often cardboard outlines with plenty of room for us to insert ourselves. Unique qualities are often scrubbed off. And because of this, human relations are harder to explore in the gaming situation. When people say books are deep and games are not, they are often thinking about this problem.
I believe games and fiction are constantly informing each other and changing each other. Would there be a Skyrim or a World of Warcraft without The Lord of the Rings? Almost certainly not. Would there be so many books about zombie apocalypses if there weren’t so many amazing video games about zombies? I doubt it, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the Resident Evil franchise. After mopping up Umbrella Corp’s evil mistakes, I always find myself hungry for another world with the same great flavor. I want to open up a book and find myself ready to save the world.
Maybe that’s why, to me, fiction seems to have more in common with games than with movies. In the book World War Z, there were dozens of point of view characters, none them much like me. I’m not a Russian soldier. I’m not a blind Japanese gardener. I’m not a tough American pilot. But while I was reading that book, I felt like I was every one of those people, just like I feel when rolling the dice for my character in Call of Cthulhu or when I’m helping Leon Kennedy find his way out of a sewage tunnel. In the film adaptation World War Z, Brad Pitt saves the world. Not me. Brad Pitt.
I’d rather roll dice and do something than just sit and wait for Brad Pitt to save me.