Games are not stories. Games can come chock full of story elements like plots, characters, and dialog, but they’re inherently different from stories. In games, the players control everything. In stories, the writer dictates everything that happens.
Games consist of events though – turns, rounds, attacks, defenses, victories, defeats. If you string enough events together you can start to see a pattern form among them. As humans, we recognize patterns, and we build narratives out of them – stories.
Stories help us boil down context to its essential bits. They deliver importance to our actions, both in real life and games. They help us care about what we’re doing and about what’s happening around us. It’s natural that we find stories in our games. Once a game is over, we tell what happened, and we select the most interesting elements to create the most compelling narrative, just as if we were creating a highlights reel of the game.
Some games inherently create more intriguing stories than others. It’s a lot easier to find a narrative hook in Mass Effect, for instance, than in Tetris. The more sophisticated the game’s structure, the clearer the potential for great stories becomes.
Roleplaying games can make for particularly good stories. They already come with most of the elements of great tales: heroes, villains, epic backdrops, explorations and revelations, and much more. That’s all you need, right? Clearly not. If you’ve ever had to listen to a poor storyteller ramble on about his RPG character in excruciating detail, you already know that. Just because someone hands you a truckload of bricks doesn’t mean you can figure out how to construct a wall, much less a castle.
That doesn’t stop people from trying though. Bookstores around the world have shelves dedicated to gaming novels. Comics stores sell licensed comic books. Movie theatres regularly feature films based on games too. Hasbro has even licensed the production of a film based on Battleship, a game that has very few elements around which to structure a story – but that hasn’t stopped Universal from giving it a shot.
A sharp storyteller can find the narrative in a grocery list, and games give up far more than that.
For now, let’s focus on the most common kind of commercial gaming stories: fiction. Game publishers often turn to skilled authors to recast their games – or the worlds in which they’re set – as gripping narratives. They do this in two ways and for two reasons.
In the first case, the author concocts short vignettes to be included in the game. Most of these bits qualify only as scenes rather than tales. They spark the imagination by pointing out possibilities, and they rarely worry about providing a conclusion or resolution. These help establish the game’s tone and atmosphere, and they also serve as examples of how a game can be played.
In the second case, the author delivers a short story or an entire novel or even a series of books, which are published separately from the game. These stories accomplish everything that the vignettes do, plus more. They immerse the reader in the setting, sometimes for more than four hundred pages, and – if done properly – bring you along for a wonderful ride.
Games and novelists have mixed for almost a hundred years. H. G. Wells – author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and several other classic stories – also designed the first published tabletop war game. Little Wars hit shelves in 1913. The rulebook features a blow-by-blow description of a battle from the point of view of General H. G. W. of the Blue Army, the first-ever instance of gaming fiction.
For the first instance of a gaming novel didn’t arrive until 1978, sixty-five years later. The first roleplaying game – Dungeons & Dragons, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and published by TSR – came out in 1974. With the game doing well, Gygax invited famed author Andre Norton to play the game with him in 1976. She used that experience as the basis of her novel Quag Keep, which came out two years later.
Quag Keep wasn’t a licensed book, and it doesn’t mention Dungeons & Dragons explicitly in the text. However, it’s set in the original D&D world of Greyhawk, and an excerpt from it appeared in Dragon #12, which TSR published right before the book debuted.
The first officially licensed gaming novels came out six years later, in 1984. The Dragonlance series began as a trilogy of books meant to supplement and promote the release of the new D&D setting of the same name, created by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Tracy teamed up with Margaret Weis to write Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first in the Chronicles trilogy. The books became bestsellers and spawned dozens of sequels, follow-ons, and spin-offs. Over the past thirty-six years, nearly two hundred Dragonlance novels have been published, and Weis and Hickman have become mainstays of the bestsellers lists.
Many critics hate these books. They lump them all together as derivative crap, and they complain about how they steal shelf space from original works of fiction. To be fair, no gaming fiction has a prayer of winning its author the Nobel Prize for Literature. That fact has more to do with the subject matter than the manner in which it’s dealt though. The literati often look down on genre fiction of any stripe, no matter what its origins might be, and games wear their genres tattooed on their bulging biceps. Mix in the perceived taint of commercialism that comes with books based on licenses, and even regular science-fiction and fantasy fans turn their nose up at gaming novels.
Many more people buy them though.
Today, gaming-related tie-ins occupy large tracts of the science-fiction and fantasy bestsellers lists. They cover not only roleplaying games but tabletop and computer games of all stripes. Two gaming companies – Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast – have their own fiction departments, while many others license out their brands to some of the top publishers in the world. World of Warcraft, Vampire, StarCraft, Gears of War, Halo, Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, Battletech, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and many other games have – or at least had – entire lines devoted to them, not to mention the various series dedicated to several different D&D settings.
Tie-ins have become so pervasive that they have their own section in most bookstores, usually right at the end of the science-fiction and fantasy aisle. There’s even an author’s organization – the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW) – dedicated to the people who work so hard to bring these games to life in their tales.
Lots of people read gaming tie-ins, and a good number of them don’t even bother with the games. The latest batch of Dragonlance novels from Weis and Hickman, for instance, far outsold the most recent round of Dragonlance roleplaying game supplements.
These extra readers – beyond those who play the games – pick up the novels not to explore their favorite games but for ripping good yarns imbued with a particular brand of fun. They don’t care about the games, just the stories that arose from them. They don’t want a chance to play in the sandbox but rather a guided tour brought to them by a polished and professional effort.
In that vein, I’m going to pull back the curtain on this process. The next time around, I’ll talk about how gaming novels make their way to bookshelves, and how this differs from original fiction.
Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. His next novel, Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon, hits shelves this summer. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.