Beyond The Game – Expanding RPG Worlds
November editorial. Wherein we discover... some of us read books.
11.26.10 - 1:20 PM
Have you ever finished an RPG, only to feel like you wanted to hold onto that experience, spend more time in that world, or with those characters?
There's no question that playing an RPG is an escapist experience, one in which we transport ourselves into another place, somewhere more magical, fun, or simply different than our everyday lives. But at the end of the day, the game itself has to end. At some point, you run out of content, flip off your system, and go do something else.
Except, in more and more video games these days, there's a new addition to the experience; figurines, stickers, anime episodes, comic books, desktop themes… even curry packets. The end of the game is not truly the end anymore as the worlds and the characters of many video games – including RPGs – are moving out of your console.
One form of media spin off that seems to be most synchronous to the RPG experience is the branded tie-in novel. You can see them more and more these days – fully crafted novelizations of a game story, or new adventures set in established worlds. For example, popular console RPGs Dragon Age: Origins and Fable have received the written-word treatment recently. And as far as popular MMOs go, there are plenty of World of Warcraft and EverQuest novels to be found in paperback stacks.
Recently, I had the chance to read a novel called RuneScape: The Betrayal At Falador. I jumped at it for a couple of reasons, but the primary one was curiosity. I'm an avid reader of novels in the fantasy genre, but I'd also briefly played RuneScape four or five years ago. Now, if you're not familiar with RuneScape, it is a free-to-play, browser-based MMORPG that is remarkably popular worldwide. The gameplay is fairly addictive, as it is in the best MMOs, but it requires a comparatively low amount of time investment. For someone who's not an MMO-head, this was a very nice fit for me for a month or two, until I got bored and promptly quit and forgot all about it.
To me, the most interesting thing about this novel wasn't that it was a tie-in novel based on an RPG. Heck, as I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of those floating around. The fascinating thing to me was, where games such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect have strong, well-fleshed-out narratives and carefully crafted tone to their worlds (all of which make for compelling fiction in any media), RuneScape doesn't.
As a disclaimer, this really isn't meant to be a dig at RuneScape; just that, as a game, it does not seem to have a strong in-game focus on plot or story. So when I saw that there was a RuneScape novel, my head spun. This seemed to be the exact opposite of the RuneScape game experience: all story, no gameplay. I thought to myself "who was this novel written for?" Was it for RuneScape players, who I assumed had the same indifference for the world of Asgarnia as I did? Was it for fans of fantasy fiction, in the hope that they would pick up a keyboard and try out the game?
What was the purpose of this tie-in?
I gave this a lot of thought. In general, the idea of creating tie-in or branded material alongside a video game makes financial sense. There's a lot of time and money that goes into creating a video game, and why wouldn't a developer want to make as much money as possible off its intellectual property? Branded merchandise is a logical outgrowth of the gaming value proposition.
But doesn't it take an awful lot of time and investment to write a novel as well? In case you weren't aware, November is National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who haven't tried to write a novel (I have, and it's really hard!), it requires its own month because it is crazy difficult and takes a lot of time and commitment. Certainly there is a better return on investment, at least financially, for a company to put out shovelware figurines, decals, or breakfast cereals, rather than to spend the time and resources crafting a piece of fiction.
No, I think the tie-in novel exists because video game RPGs and fantasy/sci-fi novels have a common history, binding the two media together. Going back as far as the 1980's, popular RPG video games took the form of things like the Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box games (think Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds). At the same time, there was a paper mountain of D&D fiction being created. The traditional fantasy or science-fiction settings of games such as Final Fantasy IV, Chrono Trigger, and Shadowrun were eerily similar to the ones found in genre fiction novels found across the world.
At their hearts, RPGs tell a story. There's a great deal of dialogue, there's the occasional wall of expository text, there's reading involved, and you can immerse yourself in the story the same way you can in a novel. Many of the tropes of the fantasy novel show up in RPGs: the swords, the magic, the paths to glory or tragedy. It stands to reason that if you would enjoy one, you may very well enjoy the other.
Does this mean that everyone who makes an RPG should pound out a tie-in novel? Does this mean that every middling fantasy novel should go into development at BioWare?
I doubt it.
An important thing to remember is that in both novels and video games, quality is king. A bad tie-in novel doesn't help the game developer at all. If you've read a few fantasy novels, you've probably read a bad fantasy novel... and that’s an experience most people would like to forget.
While I'm not here to review the novel itself, I will say this: RuneScape: Betrayal at Falador is not a lazily thrown together affair. The author spent a great deal of time and effort crafting this piece of fiction, and it is reflected in the work. This is not a simple vanity production or cash grab; instead, it provides another experience (another kind of experience) to someone who might have been a fan of the game. Or maybe it simply provides a doorway into another adventure for a reader who pulled it off the shelf in a bookstore.
Like it or not, the tie-in novel is a part of the RPG landscape, and I think it should continue to be. It provides a natural synergy for those who crave story and experience. This is one of those instances where, when done with care, both parties benefit a great deal from this transaction. Not only does the publisher benefit from the additional revenue stream, but for the player, the story continues on beyond the game.