Escape From Reality

Review: Exploring the fantasy worlds of LitRPG

Teenager playing video games at home
Teenager playing video games at home / AP
July 16, 2016

Down in the depths of e-book publishing—the sub-basements, the lower dungeons—a new genre of novel is clawing its way toward birth. Or, at least, a new subgenre of light fiction is drawing itself together in the shadows. LitRPG, this new fiction is called, its stories set inside computerized role-playing games. The result is a little hard to describe. It’s sort of a cross between science fiction and fantasy—with a good dose of layered realities, à la The Matrix, as the characters transition in and out of computer simulations. And as of this summer, Amazon lists well over a thousand of the things, with around 90 percent of them existing only as e-books, and 90 percent of those self-published.

If a single one of the novels is well-written I have yet to find it, as I crashed my way through thirty or so of them in the past few months. Typos, misspellings, malapropisms, jumbled syntax—something about the self-publishing that Amazon facilitates seems to bring out the language-impaired, and I’m willing to believe that not a single litRPG author knows the difference between lay and lie. Or how apostrophes work. Or the conventions of quoted dialogue. Or what italics are for. Or why question marks are needed sometimes. And sometimes not.

But the annoyance fades fairly quickly, once readers lower their expectations and realize that the authors are essentially amateurs. This isn’t a new genre being delivered to us from above by discerning editors. (I’m willing to believe that not a single litRPG author knows what an editor actually is.) This is something akin to fan fiction at an online appreciation site—the kind of site, it’s worth noting, where Fifty Shades of Grey got its start, before becoming the first book of pornography to make the bestseller list. LitRPG is rising up from the bottom, taking shape through the work of amateurish writers who make up with enthusiasm what they lack in grammar. If none of the books are worth reading as books, they are often surprisingly fun as stories, and the emergence of a new subgenre is a pleasure to watch. A delight. A hoot.

Vasily Mahanenko’s three-volume Way of the Shaman is one of the first results that Amazon shows if you search for LitRPG, and it’s not bad. D. Wolfin’s 5-volume End Online is a little hard to read (the author has pretensions of style, which is always a mistake in this kind of thing). D. Rus’s seven-volume Play to Live was fun through the first three books, before it began to try to combine the real world with the in-game computer world and became a xenophobic farrago of Russian nationalism. John Nest’s five-volume Zectas series has its moments, although its text is even more error-ridden than usual for these books. Brent Roth’s The Dragon’s Wrath is cleaner, if a little plodding. G.R. Cooper’s Omegaverse is just dreadful. D.W. Jackson’s Reborn series is worse. E. William Brown’s Daniel Black series is worst of all. Charles Dean’s Bathrobe Knight, however, reads a little better—although it’s overpriced in a world where many of these books are free for readers with Amazon Prime accounts.

Scottie Futch’s Origin ARS, Alex Mulder’s Digital Frontier . . . on and on the list goes, and in truth there’s little difference among these books. They’re genre fiction of a weak order, and none of the authors has moved sufficiently ahead of the pack to deserve being singled out.

Still, taking their work as a whole, you can see the subgenre beginning to find definition. What might be called RPGlit—the inverse of LitRPG—has been around for decades, appearing shortly after the table-top game Dungeons & Dragons was published in the mid-1970s. The Dragonlance series of the 1980s and 1990s, begun by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, is perhaps the most famous example: a collection of novels and short stories (eventually numbering over a hundred volumes) that used a Dungeons & Dragons game scenario as a setting for fantasy tales.

Where RPGlit usually refused to break the frame, keeping the story within the fantasy setting, the more recent books of LitRPG focus instead exactly on the framing device. Set in some near future, where total immersion in a computer-generated experience has become possible, each of these newer books imagines its characters in a MMORPG—a massively multiplayer online role-playing game—while alternating between following the players through their real life and following the players through their in-game adventures. Sometimes the game settings are science-fiction space wars, but for the most part they use Tolkienesque fantasy worlds of elves, dwarves, and trolls.

Often the plot involves the main character getting trapped inside the game, since a convention of the genre is that if someone builds computers powerful enough to maintain a total-immersion experience for millions of people, those computers will quickly generate enough sentience to have agendas of their own. Another convention of the subgenre is that once immersion capsules are created, governments will use them for prisons, sending criminals into fantasy worlds to lower the cost of housing them.

And all through the fantasy adventures, the features of online gaming intrude—so that, in the middle of a sword-fight with an angry mountain elf, the character will be informed that Damage has been taken. Your Hit Points are reduced by 12, calculated as 21 (sword damage + opponent strength) minus 6 (your armor). Total remaining Hit Points: 28 of 40. The players plow though their adventures, all while working to raise the level of their characters and possessions.

More serious writers—by which I guess I mean more professional writers—have played with these themes of shared online gaming. Charles Stross published Halting State in 2007, and 2011 saw both Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and (the most impressive of them) Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. But the professionals can't help forcing the books to cohere as books, setting life inside and outside the game in parallel, while aiming toward some philosophical examination of how to perceive reality and the self. Philip K. Dick was exploring stacked realities back in the 1960s, and the sense of living in a simulation remains a key device for several subgenres of science fiction.

The new amateur practitioners of LitRPG, however, have much lower ambitions. As a result, they’re producing what is sometimes more fun, but always more pure, as a species of light genre fiction. It seems to have begun in Korea with such books as the Legendary Moonlight Sculptor series (translated into English only in the awful but enthusiastic work of fan websites). Many of the current crop of books are translations of novels out of Russia, where LitRPG has found its greatest readership outside the United States.

And why shouldn’t LitRPG achieve some popularity as low-rent genre fiction? Real novels, like real life, have to face up to holding jobs and paying rent. The huge sums that small disappointments and small successes add up to. The loss of soul and the gain of understanding in life as life is actually lived.

LitRPG simplifies all that to a well-defined mechanism of fantasy roles and hit points. You advance by building up your character according to rules that are all written down for everyone to understand. A youthful man—LitRPG heroes are almost always young men—can rise to greatness with a lot of energy and just a little luck granted him by a rogue computer. It’s life as a game, yes—but, more important for the success of the subgenre, it’s life as a winnable game. And who doesn’t want to escape into a story like that, from time to time?

Published under: Book reviews