I’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.
One sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
observational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book. Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)
Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices. “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
you proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.
There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).
But all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.
When the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.
Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.
Back in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.
RPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used. There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.
And that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):
- A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
- A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.
And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:
“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency. 500 gold.
Item: Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations! You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’ You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”
From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)
This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.
In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be. (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)
What attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s. This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it. Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.
Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.
I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.
My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.
Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.
The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation. For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.
And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.
There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader. Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)
I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm. The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.
If you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.