What Makes a Great Video Game Novel?

The past three years have been a literary renaissance for me after I discovered a new subgenre creeping into my local Barnes & Noble: Videogame novels.

The concept itself isn’t novel: take a popular media franchise and hire a writer to churn out novelizations, prequels, sequels, or side-stories in the franchise’s universe. The major precedent I’d cite is Star Wars. Some may describe it as licensed fan fiction, but the extended Star Wars universe wouldn’t exist without the dozens, maybe hundreds, of authors who have created it with Lucas Film’s support.

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_bookslook at this list. It’s massive.

So, in the fall of 2011 I discovered Bioshock: Rapture in the Sci-Fi section. For reference, I’d only played the first Bioshock at this point. Rapture claimed to be a prequel to the series, going from the conception of Rapture in 1945 up to the beginning of the first game (1957). Its author is John Shirley, whom Wikipedia assures me is a long-time, “prolific” writer that has won awards for Horror stories. (i.e. the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association)


I took a chance and bought it, only to marvel, eyes blown wide, at the sheer masterpiece I’d stumbled on. Bioshock: Rapture is by no means a literary classic, but it possesses every trait needed to succeed as a videogame novel. Character development, complete compliance with canon, magnificence in prose, strong plot, and a compelling spiral into anarchy all make it not just a good Bioshock book, but a good book, period.

That same year, I similarly stumbled upon Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe. Unlike Bioshock, the creators of Ico, a 2002 PlayStation 2 cult classic, never planned to have a licensed book. Miyabe, a popular writer in Japan, actually approached the developer for permission. Released in 2004 (but only translated into English in 2011), Castle in the Mist is amazing. Miyabe’s specialties lie in crime thrillers, mystery, and fantasy, and the three blend together seamlessly. The puzzles in Ico and the castle’s layout were changed in the book, but the explanations make more sense and are easily visualized as a result. Because of Ico, I’ve turned into a huge fan of Miyabe’s work.

Yet books like Bioshock: Rapture and Ico: Castle in the Mist are the exception, not the rule. By and large, the videogame novel subgenre is trash – as entertaining as a Twilight knock-off. Sturgeon’s Law – “ninety percent of everything is crap” – is not a sufficient explanation for why these books – many of them based on at least semi-cohesive storylines – are disappointments.

So, let’s make a list of things done right and things to avoid in videogame novels.

Pick a Game with a Strong Story

Both Bioshock and Ico are recognized as having strong storylines. In the former, the combination of audio diaries and visual imagery in-game complements a strong plot. The world of rapture has numerous figures that guide Jack Ryan (in the first game) and Delta (in the second), and the way they play off each other gives a strong sense of narrative. Rapture has a history, and the protagonist typically just settles scores for whoever is on the radio.

I can’t speak for Ico, since I never played the game itself. But the central goal of keeping Yorda safe while escaping the castle resonates in the novel. Ico is a page-turner in the way its mysteries become increasingly important and complex. Information is doled out generously, yet the truly important details are revealed carefully and given context. I’m almost afraid to play the real game; I fear that the game’s plot will fail to match the novel’s brilliance.

Hold Combat and Gameplay at Bay

Video games are an amazing medium because its interactivity gives a unique experience. But books are not games, and cannot convey the same experience. An author shouldn’t try to do so. Both Bioshock and Ico focus on character development, character interaction, and the game’s environment. The last third of Bioshock: Rapture are plot twists and character-defining moments as people are forced to confront a city and a life that are both going to hell. The novel focuses on the city and how different people (Ryan, Lamb, McDonagh, Fontaine, etc.) influence it.

There isn’t much combat. Yes, McDonagh and others encounter splicers and the plasmids are important, but books are not games. The best-written novel can’t compare to the experience of gameplay because books don’t have gameplay. There are no visuals, buttons to press, or audio. There are only words and the sensations that they evoke. Combat cannot be presented in the same way as games and hope to have an emotional impact.

Ico struck the perfect tone in regards to combat. The fighting scenes featured emotions, strategic planning, and internal thoughts. When monsters threatened to kill Yorda, Ico gets a sudden mental image of the game-over screen. The monsters, veiled beings of smoke and darkness, have dialogue and plead with Ico to give in. They come across as almost human, and the combat is more a duel of wills than a hack-and-slash.

Choose an Experienced, Competent Author

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t being followed. Video games have a brand, and it’s the responsibility of developers and publishers to protect that brand.

Look at the Gears of War novels. The author, Karen Traviss, has 35 novels on Amazon.com published in less than a decade. She wrote her own original series, starting with The City of Pearl in 2004, but most of her work is licensed novels on Star Wars, Gears of War, and Halo. She has little to no literary recognition. In sum, she’s a new author who’s too prolific to spend time making any single novel good and isn’t a particularly skilled writer.

Add in the fact that Gears of War has an atrociously weak storyline, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Authors can also be mismatched for the game they’re writing about. John Shirley, the author of Bioshock: Rapture, also wrote books for the Borderlands franchise. Shirley is acclaimed for his horror writing. Borderlands is not a horror game. It’s a mediocre shooter whose three claims to fame are its developer, it’s cartoony art style, and it’s four-person co-operative gameplay a la Left for Dead. Moreover, the story in Borderlands was never a selling point. Predictably, it isn’t a good book.

By contrast, Miyabe is a master in mystery, fantasy, and crime thrillers. Ico is a veritable gordian knot of mystery, its setting is fantastical, its mythology and its characters give off a supernatural feel, and the gradual uncovering of backstory is akin to identifying the culprit in one of her crime novels. She focused on her strengths and produced a masterpiece.

Know Your Audience

Again, this is an obvious one. Typically, videogame novels seem to be directed at males ranging from teenagers to 35-year-olds. One exception is Epic Mickey, a junior novel (for ages 8 and up) that is a novelization of the titular game. For a children’s book, it’s nice.  Yet the reader’s knowledge is equally important. Sometimes, I’m not sure who the Assassin’s Creed novels are directed to – a neophyte to the games? Someone in the midst of playing? A fanatic?

I’m in the midst of reading Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I figure that since I’m never going to play the game, but I want to know the plot, I should read it. Assassin’s Creed has always tried to have a cohesive story, but it gets lost in the bad Italian accents and the slew of forgettable assassination targets. Perhaps a novel will do it justice. Whenever I finish it (time unknown, since I go back to school soon), I’ll write a review. And then we’ll know more explicitly what not to do in a videogame novel.


2 responses to “What Makes a Great Video Game Novel?

  1. Pingback: Video Game Novel Review: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood | Mental Gaming·

  2. Pingback: Videogame Novel Review: Bioshock Rapture | Mental Gaming·

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