Turns out I had it wrong.
I used to think of the authors who wrote tie-in fiction as toiling over hot keyboards, struggling to incorporate into their stories a pointed shopping list of details, characters, and plot points mandated by game developers and publishers. I imagined them writing a path through barbed brush while suited executives in the shade on a nearby hill shook their heads and yelled out orders like, “Write another action sequence!” or “Make the dragon bigger!” The truth is, at least among the writers I spoke with via email, much more civilized.
Tie-in fiction is the name for that subtype of fiction that comes branded with familiar logos – Halo, Gears of War, Star Wars, Warhammer 40,000 – and thus promotes, supports, or explores settings that originated in other media. Sometimes tie-ins are novelizations of other stories, like films; more often they are original stories set in the familiar world of a beloved game, film, or TV series.
Some tie-in fiction is considered canonical – officially a part of the game world’s lore and history – while other tie-in stories are categorized as what-if side adventures. The novels of the Halo universe are official canon. The Star Wars universe is famously overseen by canon experts.
“A tie-in writer’s first obligation,” author Mike Lee explained to me, “is to present a story that explicitly evokes the game he or she is writing about. In the case of my Warhammer Fantasy novels, that meant epic field battles, often seen from the perspective of the generals who were leading the armies on the field. I worked very hard to bring that game experience to life, adding color and detail to the experiences that every player enjoys.”
To learn more about the art behind gaming tie-in fiction, I wrote to a handful of actual practitioners:
Matt Forbeck has written a dozen gaming tie-in novels for games like Dungeons & Dragons and Blood Bowl as well as the first Guild Wars novel, Ghosts of Ascalon, with Jeff Grubb.
Tessa Kum’s first game-related work was The Mona Lisa, a novella she co-wrote with acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer for the Halo: Evolutions anthology. It has been recorded as an audio book and adapted into a motion comic.
Tobias Buckell, in addition to writing numerous novels set in worlds of his own design, composed the Halo bestseller, The Cole Protocol, and the story Dirt for the Halo: Evolutions anthology.
Mike Lee is a prolific expert on the game worlds of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, having written ten novels set in those universes. He’s also an experienced game writer.
Each of these writers had proven themselves with other work before they landed deals for their first tie-in tales. One thing they all had in common was the pitch process: each author was invited to submit stories they wanted to tell about the game world they were to adapt. For example, Tor, the publisher of Halo: Evolutions, didn’t prescribe the stories to be told, Kum explains, “So we went all out with the pitches. There were some great ideas left untold. The complete draft of the story was sent from Tor to the crew at 343 Industries to vet, and there were a few items that we had to alter so as to keep in line with what they had planned for the future of the franchise, but for the most part we were working with full autonomy.”
Buckell had a similar experience with the Halo universe. “As far as freedom to tell the story, I had a great deal of it and the working relationship was great. But we did spend a lot of time hammering down details to make sure they were right. And I never had a problem with that. Unlike when I write my own books, this isn’t just a place I’m making up on the fly, it’s an entire universe created by a massive team of people who’d been working on it for years. It was only logical that we all spent a lot of time making sure the book fit in the greater universe of all things Halo!”
Different publishers and developers work in different ways. “The approvals process for a tie-in novel can vary a lot,” Forbeck explains. “I typically work closely with the developers to make sure I get everything right the first time. Massive rewrites are a pain for everyone and a huge waste of time.” That doesn’t mean the writer is necessarily constrained by mandates. As Forbeck explained, “My editors often give me a great deal of leeway over what I write. I regularly deviate from approved outlines, but I do that only when I’m confident that the new ideas I’ve come up with in the course of writing the book are better than the ones I had when I was planning the book. In every case, my editors have backed me up on that.”
“The approval process for writing Warhammer novels is an extensive one,” reports Lee, “especially if you’re asked to write about a specific event in the setting’s background. Each book requires a comprehensive chapter outline that covers all of the characters and major events in the story, which is sent to my editor and to [Games Workshop]’s game developers to review. The developers review the outline for any problems, and then send them back to me for revision. Work on the novel cannot begin until everyone signs off on the outline.”
“That said,” Lee continues, “so long as I work within the bounds of the game’s [intellectual property], I’m given complete latitude in telling the story itself.”
Writing for an established game world isn’t as simple as pitching any awesome idea and hoping it works, though. As Forbeck puts it, “I’d rather be true to the vision in the game than try to impose my own on it.” That doesn’t mean he avoids giving his own take on the game. “I put as much of myself into the stories as I can. But I always remember that people have put down their money to read a story set in the world of their favorite game, and I aim to give it to them.”
Capturing the flavor of the game is as important as respecting the strengths and limits of the story’s medium. “I think that a novel is a novel and a game is a game. They strike me as different art forms, and attempting to imitate each other is a way to lose yourself. It’s better to let each art form play to its strengths,” Buckell writes. “The brand of the game is in some ways a promise to them that they will get more of that same experience. When I wrote The Cole Protocol, I wanted to make sure that we had some impressive fire fights, action, and some larger-than-life set pieces where the action takes place. In my case I chose an asteroid system that has been connected together to form a megastructure, as megastructures are a big part of the fun of Halo. But likewise, in a novel you get more time to explore people’s motivations and flesh out the world more fully, so I set out to shine a light into some corners of the universe that I, as a fan, wanted to know more about!”
When Kum came aboard the Halo: Evolutions project, the Halo universe had already expanded well beyond the realms of the games, with multiple novels, comics, and an animated anthology in existence. “That said, the games are the core of that universe and the introduction for most fans out there. With that in mind, I wanted to capture one of the defining moments in the series and recreate that moment in prose form. For me,” Kum writes, “that moment in Halo: Combat Evolved when the game suddenly jumped genres, going from a pretty awesome sci-fi first-person shooter to ‘survival horror holy smokes, Batman‘… well, if I say that left a scar, I don’t think I’d be the only one.
“Celebrating that ‘oh shit’ moment and the following panic and mayhem, that’s what I wanted to pull off with [The Mona Lisa],” Kum reveals. The story, which is about marines in space battling the infectious Flood, features loads of action and an alien warrior armed with a salvaged cricket bat, “There are stories that cannot be related via gameplay – at least, not first-person shooter gameplay – but this isn’t one of them.”
“Of course,” Lee says, “one battle after another doesn’t make an interesting or compelling story. As a storyteller, you are also obligated to bring your setting and characters to life. Every novel I’ve written has attempted to expand parts of the Warhammer settings in ways that the games cannot. My experience as an RPG designer has been a huge asset in that regard, helping me breathe life into the culture, language, politics and religion of my characters.”
I assumed that writing novels set in beloved game worlds would change the way a writer plays games – maybe make fun feel like work. “It hasn’t really,” Buckell writes.
Forbeck agrees: “I’ve always been fascinated by how stories and games work together, so writing novels based on games hasn’t changed how I look at the games involved.”
Kum felt likewise about her experience with Halo. “Except,” she writes, “I really want to see a cricket bat in there somewhere.”
“I can’t say that writing for a particular game world has changed the way I play or view the game itself,” Lee shared. “If I were to write a character or a story that had a direct impact or a connection with the game itself, then I think it would change my perspective on the game, but as a rule most games and game-related fiction are two [linked] but separate entities.”
Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and game designer that’s not afraid to look foolish now if it makes him smarter later. He’s the co-founder of Gameplaywright Press and a writer for numerous paper and video games.