There is much about my life that could be considered “geeky.” I write about videogames and comic books professionally, my office is littered with a motley assortment of action figures and my idea of a good Friday night often involves a few dungeons and even more dragons. But in spite of all of this, there is only one aspect of my media consumption that embarrasses me: I read books based on videogames.
It all started with my love of Star Wars. As a child of the 1980s, I was raised on the original trilogy. Luke was my savior, and Jedi was my religion. The Force-filled universe captivated my young mind, creating an insatiable hunger for anything involving a lightsaber. And this hunger only grew with time. Of course it started with the movies, but before long, I discovered the Star Wars Expanded Universe. These novels opened my mind to a whole new world, filled with new planets, races and characters that the films never even mentioned. Sure, they weren’t what most would call “good” literature, but they were jam packed with action and helped flesh out the mythology I loved.
Being a gamer, my Star Wars consumption soon branched out into games as well. Unfortunately, while one can still enjoy a bad book, the same can’t necessarily be said for a videogame. For the most part, licensed Star Wars games had little to offer me, the rabid Jedi fanboy, aside from a few interesting connections with the films. Even these were hard to find, as the games tended towards the “awful” side of the gameplay spectrum – that is, until BioWare came along. Unexpectedly and brilliantly, the Edmonton-based developer created a whole new universe within George Lucas’ well established mythology: Knights of the Old Republic.
Without the pressure of having to write a story based on the movies, BioWare was able to create something both unique and familiar. A big part of this was the work of lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, who crafted a story set thousands of years before the events of Luke, Han and Chewbacca. This new saga depicted a time when the Sith were just a plentiful as the Jedi, and introduced a number of new characters that would shape the universe to come. Eventually the process came full circle after Karpyshyn wrote a novel set during the same time period. This book, which takes place prior to the events of Knights of the Old Republic, expanded upon the mysterious character of Darth Bane. However, despite the success that KOTOR saw across both mediums, Karpyshyn isn’t convinced that games make the best book material.
“Honestly, I think many games wouldn’t make compelling novels,” Karpyshyn says. According to him, there are many aspects inherent to games – most notably their interactive nature – that make it difficult to translate them to other, more linear forms of storytelling. Yet that didn’t stop him from writing books based on the PC and Xbox 360 RPG Mass Effect, also developed by BioWare. For Karpyshyn, that game was a special circumstance. “The reason the Mass Effect novels worked so well was the depth of the universe we created for the games,” he says. “At BioWare, we spent a full year developing the Mass Effect galaxy before we even began work on the story of the game. By laying the groundwork for such a rich, widespread setting, we opened up the possibility to tell all sorts of stories beyond the plot of the game.”
Much like Star Wars, the Mass Effect mythology encompassed a vast array of alien species, planets and technologies, punctuated by dozens of interesting characters and events. Creating a universe like this clearly lends itself well to different types of storytelling, literature included. There were many characters and events the game only touched on briefly that beg for further exploration. However, as Karpyshyn explains, most games don’t feature that kind of fully fleshed-out game world, making the transition difficult. Instead, many authors are forced to slavishly follow the events of a particular game, often with unsatisfactory results.
If a successful author of game-based novels feels that way, it’s no wonder that the sub-genre has trouble garnering much respect, and why I order them online, eliminating any embarrassing book store encounters. Even among the gaming community, these books often elicit a negative reaction. “Game-based novels are difficult. If you stick too close to the original material, it’s tedious,” Jonathan Gronli, the resident game novel reviewer at GamerTell, told me. “If you have it too different, you risk losing the feel of the game.”
In addition to this, another damaging aspect of game novels tends to be the actual quality of writing. It seems that even those gamers who do read these books do so only because they are so heavily invested in the fictional universe created by the games, rather than an appreciation for well crafted fiction. “Game novels are a curiosity more than anything else,” freelance game journalist Troy Goodfellow explained. “The Baldur’s Gate novels, for example, are epically laughable. None approach literature, and I can think of few that I would recommend to somebody who wasn’t already deeply invested in the game.”
Interestingly, the third installment of those “laughable” books was the second novel Karpyshyn ever wrote. However, as he explains on his site, “the problem with the whole Baldur’s Gate trilogy was that the novels were based directly on the story of the BioWare computer games.” It also didn’t help that the first two books were written by a different author. But this hits on a key point: Game novels that are successful and connect with fans in a meaningful manner tend to be based in the same universe as their source material, but cover different narrative territory.
“The most successful game novels don’t simply retell the story of the game itself; they explore the setting, universe and characters in greater depth, giving readers an experience they won’t find in the game,” Karpyshyn says. “If you haven’t played the game, you should still be able to enjoy the novel as a piece of fiction. Similarly, if you have played the game, the novel should offer something fresh and new. And the only way to accomplish this is to do the groundwork: You need to create a deep, compelling universe that can support stories beyond the one told in the game.”
It seems that fans agree. Both of Drew’s Star Wars novels, which are heavily linked to the Knights of the Old Republic games, have been New York Times bestsellers, while the prequel novel Mass Effect: Revelation helped fans of the game learn more about the characters and universe. In fact, the book has also spawned a sequel, Mass Effect: Ascension, which takes place after the game, providing even more backstory. These books are going a long way to changing the negative perception that game-based novels have, though there is still a long way to go.
“Let’s be brutally honest – videogames can easily sell in the millions of copies, whereas books make the bestseller lists if they crack 100,000,” Karpyshyn tells me. “For good or ill, there seems to be far more gamers out there than readers. Of course, I’m doing my best to change that, and I like to think more than a few non-readers have picked up my Mass Effect novels and been drawn into the much larger world of sci-fi and fantasy literature.”
As the quality of videogame narrative continues to rise, it seems likely that we will see more and more of these types of books. Even a game like Halo, which isn’t necessarily known for its compelling plot, has seen the release of six different novels, each of which is considered an official part of the Halo canon. In fact, the fifth book in the series, Halo: Contact Harvest, was a New York Times bestseller in its first week of release. And while great sales don’t always mean great quality, they do mean that there is an audience for this kind of literature – albeit one that is slightly embarrassed by what’s on their bookshelves.
Andrew Webster is a staff writer for the Opposable Thumbs journal of Ars Technica and a freelancer for a few other places. He keeps his two-dozen-strong collection of Star Wars novels in chronological order.