The (Video Game) Novel Question

By Alexandra Geraets in Serious Infotainment
Monday, February 13, 2012 at 10:00 am


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Literature and video games are not things that one tends to lump into the same group. There are some hints of classic literature that sneak their way into gaming culture, but, by and large, the printed word does not seem to have much bearing on games. That being said, take a look at your nearest Barnes & Noble, glance around the end of their science fiction section, and I guarantee you will find several books that are original stories based on popular video games. 

Video game novels reach beyond gaming to draw in outsiders who might never pick up a controller. There are good stories based upon existing properties that are simply waiting to be told, and when the right person gets an opportunity to write one of those stories, good things happen. As a video gamer and as a reader, I'm all in favor of video game and book publishers getting together, licensing the right game universe, hiring the best writer for the job, and turning out a good story.

So what do you do when things go wrong in the printed word version of a video game?

 

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By now, you might have heard about a little book called Mass Effect: Deception, and the many, many errors discovered within. These are not proofreading errors, nor are they page numbering or faded print errors; it is a printed book, so there are obviously no clipping errors or things like that. The errors within this novel are linked to the canon lore of the Mass Effect series of video games, and the response from readers, who are also fans of the games, has not been positive.

So why do I bring this to your attention? The reason is that the author of this particular book has written a number of books based upon video games, three of which were responsible for launching me headfirst into the world of science fiction, and, much, much later, into video games.

 

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William C. Dietz is no stranger to the world of video game tie-in novels, and, as a veteran science fiction writer, he is well suited to the task of tackling any novel based upon the Mass Effect universe. The three novels that initially brought Dietz into my sphere of reading were three illustrated volumes based upon the Star Wars: Dark Forces video game. Dietz played in the Star Wars universe and made it his own, adding new villains and stories, and probably helped to pave the way for the popularity of the tie-in novel for the video game circuit.

I haven't read Mass Effect: Deception, and I likely won't, even after it is 'patched'. I did read the first of the novels based upon the series, written by Bioware writer Drew Karpyshyn, and, I admit that I did not think that Mass Effect worked as a novel. I had read Karpyshyn's Star Wars novels, drawn from his experience writing for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I felt that those novels were exceptional additions to the Star Wars universe, but Karpyshyn's writing did not carry into the Mass Effect novels nearly as well.

Perhaps it is because Mass Effect is strictly about one character, Shepard, and that particular character's journey, but, for some reason, I found that I just didn't care about what Karpyshyn wrote about the earlier aspects of the game's story. The story was told in game, so why did I want to read a 300-page book about an event that had been explained to me in about three minutes of game time?

Reading about Captain Anderson's adventure with Saren, and how Saren came to be as he was, was not nearly as interesting in print form as it had been during the course of the first Mass Effect game, when Anderson tells the story. Both men were complex characters in the game, and, for some reason, I felt like that complexity did not carry into the novels. Reading Mass Effect: Revelation answered a few questions about the game universe, but it did not endear me to it in nearly the same way as the games did. Perhaps my experience as a gamer made me read the characters in a different way that I would have were I simply a curious person who discovered the book, but Mass Effect: Revelation did not make a good impression on me as a reader, so I did not read Karpyshyn's other two contributions.

There is something to be said for fleshing out a video game story, for rounding out characters, improving understandings of worlds, universes, cultures, and other elements. As I, and a few of our other writers, have said before, stories in video games are a huge draw for some gamers. As a reader, a good story is an equally important part of a book. Without a strong narrative pull, a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, does not grab a reader. It is the same with gaming, and, as a gamer and a reader, when it comes to tie-in novels, there must be enough familiarity with the game universe on the writer's part to make the experience of the novel better for both writer and reader.

 

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The best examples of video game tie-in novel writing that I have encountered are the novels written by Karen Traviss based upon the Gears of War series. There are four volumes available as of this writing, and Traviss went on to write Gears of War 3. The novels are structured like military science fiction novels, with a strong emphasis on characters, and stories that focus on surviving day to day. They are easily linked to the games through their use of familiar characters, and Traviss does an excellent job of making Delta squad and their allies three-dimensional people, and adds background stories for characters that are either never encountered or only spoken of in hushed whispers in-game. Traviss' stories emphasize the characters and their world, the true horrors of a seemingly never ending war, and the importance of simply surviving.

Like Dietz and Karpyshyn, Traviss has also toyed with the Star Wars universe (are you seeing a pattern here?), writing the Republic Commando series, before terminating her contract for reasons unknown. So what is that makes her Gears of War novels stand alone as good science fiction novels and not just gaming tie-in properties? Why do her stories, like those of Karpyshyn and Dietz, flesh out a familiar universe and somehow end up better than the others?

I wish I had a clear answer for those questions. My initial reaction would be to say that Karen Traviss is a better writer, but I can't say that with honesty, because William C. Dietz has been writing since before I was born, and his books were critical to my entry into Star Wars fandom and beyond. Drew Karpyshyn is a talented writer in his own right, and he worked on Star Wars: The Old Republic, as well as many other Bioware properties. All three of these people are great writers, so why does one stand above the other two?

I wish I knew. All I know is that when I first heard Dietz was involved in a Mass Effect novel, I was excited to read it. Then I read about the results. As it stands, Traviss has a fifth Gears of War novel releasing this spring. I'll be picking it up. I won't, though, be picking up any Mass Effect novels. I have an in-game story to keep me immersed in that universe.

 

Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Al3xandra_G.

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