312: Truth in Fiction

Truth in Fiction

Authors of tie-in fiction find a balance between tell new stories while staying true to the videogame worlds fans love.

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Almost all of the tie-in fiction I've ever read was incredibly mediocre from a writing standpoint: everything from the Dragonlance novels, to R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms work, to David Gaider's Dragon Age novels. There may be a fair number of reasons for it (the authors in question were still learning their craft, strict deadlines and the necessity of being involved in multiple projects at once interfered with the process), but I think the main reason may be that a lot of tie-in authors are gamers first and authors second.

Having done both a fair amount of writing and a fair amount of gaming (and quite a lot of writing while/about gaming), I'd have to say that I've become increasingly aware of how a game distorts your ideas about how a narrative should be constructed. You start making really basic rookie errors like placing way too much emphasis on play-by-play instead of conveying multiple levels of characterization, plot, and theme. R.A. Salvatore is so bad about this (in his earlier novels, anyway, I can't say anything about the more recent ones) that I found myself frequently summing up three or more pages of text by saying, mentally: "Drizz't charged in and fought for a bit. He won." Endless descriptions of precisely what dodges and parries a character uses conveys nothing except a lack of editing ability, because it is description without meaning. What does it matter to the reader that your expert swordsman attacked from the left or used a flashing overhead swing? It doesn't even convey basic characterization like "this guy really knows how to fight!" because your reader won't know what was the proper maneuver to use there (and the author probably doesn't know either).

There's also a tendency to write toward set-pieces and mangle the transitions. In games, transitions are usually handled by the player, and very often filled with tons of non-plot-related stuff. If you don't do them properly in a novel, however it can have all kinds of possibly undesirable impact on your story. David Gaider does this a lot in The Stolen Throne. The novel is nominally about a rebellion, but since he completely glosses over 90% of the actual progress of the rebellion in favor of dwelling on the various personal insecurities of the protagonists, he winds up undercutting his own story and rendering the behavior of the protagonists rather inexplicable and melodramatic. Instead of being an important conflict that interacts with the personalities of the protagonists (and antagonists) to bring about certain results, the characters wind up seeming defective or even mentally ill.

JMeganSnow:
Almost all of the tie-in fiction I've ever read was incredibly mediocre from a writing standpoint (...) I think the main reason may be that a lot of tie-in authors are gamers first and authors second.

I feel the same way. In fact, I find it hard to pick up even regular, original novels in fantasy and sci-fi because of how often they are just crap. (Yes, they have a stigma; yes, fantasy and sci-fi can be just as crappy as espionage or romance; the problem with those two genres is that you can often disguise good world-building as good everything, and people will even go along. Hell, people will often point that criticism at grandpa Tolkien. I haven't read his books so I can't say for sure.)

Maybe it's me, honey, maybe I'm a fussy reader, but I've got a good sense of what really works in the written word and what doesn't. If you ask me about The Da Vinci Code, I'll tell you it's a great script. It's got an interesting story but the words are just there to carry it along and hope you provide the visuals yourself - they don't draw attention to themselves. (No one has asked me so far, though.) You can't read Borges and Calvino and Saramago without realizing when someone writes because they love the written word, and they take the written word and make love to it and twist it in wonderful ways so that the story is the text of the story, it isn't the events, it's the way it's written and the way the words are woven and the way the feeling seeps into every letter, and when someone writes because they wanted to make a movie/comic/game/etc but don't know how to do that so they write because it's comparatively easy. No matter how good your story is, if your text is doing nothing but telling it you're doing it poorly.

Pratchett may be no Borges or Calvino or Saramago, but he knows this. He can turn a boring description into one of the most hilarious paragraphs in the book.

The Random One:

Pratchett may be no Borges or Calvino or Saramago, but he knows this. He can turn a boring description into one of the most hilarious paragraphs in the book.

That, and Pratchett describes from *essentials*--he has a real gift for picking out one or two things that convey absolutely everything you need to know and throwing it in there so that it feels completely organic.

Steven Brust is also a good fantasy/sci-fi author with an incredibly well-developed style. And I enjoy Neil Stephenson's style even though his novels tend to meander all over the place just like Victor Hugo. Neil Gaiman also has good style but he writes the same story over and over and over.

You can literally make a drinking game from The Calling (the 2nd Dragon Age novel by David Gaider). Just take a shot every time he uses the phrase "single bead of sweat". You can do the same with R.A. Salvatore's Cadderly series and the phrase "splattered their nose"--I swear *every* character in those novels gets head-butted or elbowed in the nose at *least* once, and he describes it the same way EVERY SINGLE TIME.

JMeganSnow:
Almost all of the tie-in fiction I've ever read was incredibly mediocre from a writing standpoint: everything from the Dragonlance novels, to R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms work, to David Gaider's Dragon Age novels. There may be a fair number of reasons for it (the authors in question were still learning their craft, strict deadlines and the necessity of being involved in multiple projects at once interfered with the process), but I think the main reason may be that a lot of tie-in authors are gamers first and authors second.

I haven't read the Dragon Age novels, but from what I've seen of Dragonlance and R.A. Salvatore's work, I am in absolute agreement with your assessment of their mediocrity. Tie-in fiction, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its creation, carries a negative stigma for good reason - it's telling how uninspired the first few books of the Dragonlance series (all that I bothered reading, and then only cause they were in an omnibus edition and I figured I might as well finish it) felt overall, apart from a few brief moments where it seemed to transcend its roots in AD&D, when Weiss & Hickman's Death Gate Cycle set in their own original IP is brilliant, and remains to date my favorite fantasy series of all time ever since I first encountered it.

So what is it about tie-in fiction that stifles the creative output of good authors? If I had to wager a guess I'd suggest the problem stems from trying to echo conventions or elements of the original property to the point where it becomes detrimental, and a question of motivation and "purpose".

Take the Dragonlance series for instance - a large part of the problem with that series can be directly linked to the conventions of the source material getting incorporated directly into the narrative structure of the setting. The rules of D&D, like those of pretty much all roleplaying systems, represent abstractions - wizards can cast x amount of spells of y level per day for game balance purposes more than anything else. We don't question that when it's an element of a game we're sitting down and playing whilst rolling dice and cracking wise, but really, the "you can cast 4 spells today, no more, no less" mechanic is silly - spellcasting wouldn't really work like that in the actual universe we're pretending to be in while we play the game, it just works like that because it's a game.

Except in Dragonlance that's exactly how spellcasting works, and it's every bit as jarring and baffling as it would be if, during the battle for Helm's Deep in the film adaptation of The Two Towers, the participants suddenly started taking turns rolling a d20 to see if they hit each other. There's a reason characters in video games don't generally start openly discussing hit points or which button you need to press to do various in-game actions, and that's because having characters acknowledge game mechanics only calls attention to the fact that you're playing a game, and that spoils immersion.

So when authors faithfully recreates things that we only don't call into question from the original game now because it's a game in their novel(s), it rings distinctly false; some things simply should never survive the translation across mediums unaltered. Nobody in their right mind would sit down to watch your average FPS game and then novelize exactly what it was like to watch somebody playing an FPS game, because that would make for a shitty novel - books aren't FPS games, having your protagonist always wind up by himself due to to contrived circumstances, witness "cutscenes" through glass barriers, receive all his exposition through a headset mic, collect "tri-part keys", and other conventions of FPS games, in a book, is just plain old bloody stupid.

If my complaints above seem a tad... specific, well that's because such a book exists, and it was awful in a way that no tie-in fiction I had ever read before could boast: Fire Warrior is essentially a guide to all the things you should never do as an author of tie-in fiction for a video game, made all the more disappointing because the fellow who penned it is actually a decent author. Everyone looking to get into that field really needs to read that book and take a lesson from it.

Possibly surprising revelation given what I've typed so far: Almost 100% of the fiction I read these days is comprised of tie-in novels, and I'd contend that most of it is either fairly good or even excellent, because what I read is Warhammer 40,000 novels. See, a lot of the problems endemic to tie-in fiction don't really plague the world of 40K novels - authors don't attempt to foolishly replicate the rules of the table-top wargame into their fiction for the same reason that the official background of the setting doesn't, namely because that would be stupid; 40K's overarching "plot" is "it's the future, and there is only war", and the setting is the entire bloody universe - authors have a tremendous amount of leeway to write about whatever they want, to destroy entire star systems, to invent them, you name it.

The 40K novels end up feeling more like the products of a shared universe with common thematic elements and rules that various authors more or less adhere to than it does your typical "tie-in fiction", precisely because in almost all instances the novels themselves don't tie into anything beyond the 40K setting/aesthetic itself; the few novellas and longer works that are direct product tie-ins for corresponding video games or GW products are invariably markedly worse than the "original" books released under the 40K umbrella.

Authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Chris Wraight are producing some truly phenomenal material, can't recommend them highly enough.

Gildan Bladeborn:

Authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Chris Wraight are producing some truly phenomenal material, can't recommend them highly enough.

From reading the article, it sounds a lot like the 40k people bring in established authors, whereas from what I understand Weis/Hickman, Salvatore, and Gaider all wrote gaming tie-ins as their FIRST novel.

JMeganSnow:

Gildan Bladeborn:

Authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Chris Wraight are producing some truly phenomenal material, can't recommend them highly enough.

From reading the article, it sounds a lot like the 40k people bring in established authors, whereas from what I understand Weis/Hickman, Salvatore, and Gaider all wrote gaming tie-ins as their FIRST novel.

They do, though from what I know about the respective backgrounds of the various authors currently writing 40K material most seem to either have a background in game design or were writing books for other franchises before they started writing for The Black Library - I can only think of a couple of authors who were already writing non-tie-in work before they started writing 40K fiction, and honestly I wasn't all that impressed with their efforts. A fair few had never been published prior to their first 40K novel and approached the Black Library because they're massive fans of the setting (among that number is Aaron Dembski-Bowden).

For instance, the fellow the article mentions, Mike Lee, was the principle creator and developer of White Wolf Studio's Demon: The Fallen, and he did a lot of other work in RPG development before becoming a novelist. Also, while he has written both Warhammer Fantasy and 40K material, his 40K stuff consists of a single novel and a few short stories in various anthologies while his Warhammer Fantasy catalog is far more extensive, so I imagine he was probably talking about his experience writing for that setting in the article (far less of an open playground given it all takes place on the same planet that you can't decide to destroy simply to make a point like you could in 40K).

That blond chick is super hot!

Dan Abnett is a writer who has done great work in the Marvel Universe, Warhammer Fantasy, and Warhammer 40,000. His material is definitely worth checking out!

except that Dan Abnett has botched the Lore with in Game Worshops settings so much that it is suprising it was ever published.

 

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