Thursday, September 22, 2022

GameLit: Not Just Written Games


Gamelit / LitRPG is one of the hottest literary genres on the market. It attempts to replicate the gaming experience in written form, taking the tropes of role-playing games and reproducing them on the page. As a reader and a gamer, the genre ought to be in my alley.

And yet... it is the opposite.

I could never quite connect with books in the genre. The only LitRPG novels I could unreservedly recommend are books that depart from the mould. More than just a question of quality, I sense it is a systemic issue within the genre itself. I've been trying to put down in words what exactly I disliked about the genre. Alexander Hellene's post 'De-Gamification' puts into words thoughts that have been swirling in my mind for months.

In brief: games and books are not the same.

People play games to engage the game mechanics. Within the boundaries of the rules, players seek to hone and exercise their skills against the competition. You don't need a plot to play a game. Even in RPGs, the purpose of a plot is primarily to provide justification for the player to go to someplace new and exotic so he can continue engaging with the game mechanics.

People read books to immerse themselves in the story. Characters, plots, settings, worldbuilding, all these take centre stage. The rules of the world aren't nearly as important as the story itself. For example, in the pulp era, magic was presented as a mysterious, unknowable force. There were no rules of magic that could be known or exploited—and that was okay, because the story didn't hinge on them. The purpose of the rules of the story world was to keep the story moving along; it is not the end of itself.

The subpar LitRPG novels I've read elevate the game rules and mechanics over characters, setting and plot. This creates an unholy amalgamation that combines the worse traits of both gaming and novels.

Sure, the genre sells like hotcakes today. You may even be a fan of the genre. Now go read books outside the genre, books published before 1980, or even 1940. Pay close attention to craft, characters, setting, plot, prose. You'll notice that modern writing is enormously dumbed down. The reasons for this are many, but in the field of LitRPG, I think a fundamental reason for this is that many LitRPG authors jump on the LitRPG bandwagon without understanding the fundamental traits of both games and books.

The Theater of the Mind

Games and books engage different senses and provide different experiences. Before you can write a LitRPG, you have to honour this.

Games are visceral. They stimulate the senses of sight and sound directly. This produces a visceral in-your-face experience. The higher-end your gaming platform, the sharper the images and clearer the sound, the more visceral it feels. However, the other three senses cannot be stimulated. Thus you'll see characters talking about how something smells, feels or tastes—because it is the only way to communicate it to the gamer.

Stories occur in the theater of the mind. Through the power of the word, the storyteller guides the audience to imagine the events of the story in their minds. Every inner universe is different, a personalised interpretation of the storyteller's words. This creates an abstract and distant experience. Yet it is also more holistic, as a storyteller can engage all five senses, and has the ability to dive deep into the psyche of important characters.

This leads us to the first key weakness of LitRPG (and most newbie authors): the cinematic writing style. Like a game, a movie, a TV show or a cut scene, this style engages only the senses of sight and sound. This creates an experience that is as limited in sensory experience as games, but more abstract and distant. It cannot compete with a video game in direct stimulation, and it offers nothing else in exchange for this deficiency.

Take full advantage of the written form by engaging all the senses wherever appropriate. This creates a vivid, immersive experience that only books can provide. Dive deeply into the thoughts and emotions of key players. This allows the reader a greater degree of intimacy with the characters than a game can provide. Though you may borrow tropes from games, you must use the strengths of the medium to the fullest.

Gameplay Loop vs Journey-Shelter Pattern

Games are designed around gameplay loops. These are the repetitive actions that form the core gameplay mechanics. In a first person shooter, the gameplay loop is simple: move to arena, find enemy, aim at enemy, shoot at enemy, kill enemy, avoid being killed in turn. In an RPG, the gameplay loop can be more complex: go on a quest, defeat monsters, pick up loot, level up, defeat the boss or otherwise achieve a goal, return to town, prepare for next quest.

In the fantasy genre, a close analog is the journey-shelter pattern. The overall plot has the characters embarking on an adventure in a distant land. In the journey phase, they navigate the wilds, braving dangers and threats. Then they find shelter—an inn, a cave, a town—where they gather themselves and prepare for the next leg of their adventure. This pattern continues until the organic end of the quest.

There is great similarity between the structure of a fantasy novel and the gameplay loop of an RPG. Small wonder that games and fantasy books borrow structures heavily from each other. However, there is one major issue

A game is not a novel.

A modern-day AAA RPG title is a sprawling epic boasting 30, 40, 50 even 100 or more hours of gameplay. Though central quests run through the plotline, the player is usually free to wander off, complete sidequests, hunt for loot, grind levels, farm enemies, or so on. During the main questline, the journey from one major location to another is a quest in itself, with its attendant dangers and story points. An RPG may have a complex and evocative story, but it is primarily a game, and from a design perspective, the purpose of the story is to lead the player to continue to engage in gameplay mechanics at an increasingly higher level of skill and mastery.

Players don't mind, because this is exactly what they want from a game. A story is nice, but the primary reason they play the game is to engage the mechanics. Indeed, early RPGs like Final Fantasy and Ys had barebone plots, but that didn't stop them from becoming legends.

Novels must be tight.

In a game, sidequests allow the player to continue experiencing the gameplay loop while suspending the main plotline. The player feels like he has the power to choose what he wants to do. A book is a guided experience, and the reader's only choice is to read on or put the book down. The reader thus expects the plot to be focused.

The blurb of a book is the promise. If the blurb promises a quest, then the reader expects a quest. If the plot veers off into a direction unrelated tot he quest, the reader is not getting what he paid for. All it does is slow down the story, for no discernable purpose. This is annoying, and will turn off the observant reader.

To prevent this, side stories must be tied to character development and/or the plot. If the side story does not affect the characters or the plot, it should be cut out. It is simply padding, no more.

Gamers complain about padding in games stuffed with content, and that's when they get what they want. Readers will definitely complain even more—especially when they are not getting what they want.

The reader is not paying the writer to read a sea of words; he is paying for the story. A writer must deliver on the story, and that means structuring the plot the way one would structure a novel—not a game with loads of random side quests and unrelated tales.

Stats and Progression

If there is one thing that defines RPGS and LitRPGs, it is this: stats.

The world is governed by stats. A person is strong because he has a high strength stat, a magic-user's wisdom—and thus power—is governed by the numbers in his WIS stat, and so on. As a character levels up, his stats increase, showing progress.

Stats were born out of necessity. Modern-day computer RPGs had evolved from tabletop RPGs. The great grandfather of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, was inspired by tabletop wargames, and took many design cues from them. In a battle between lifeless, stationery figures, or creatures that existed nowhere except in the mind, stats and dice rolls provided a fair yet unpredictable method of resolving combat encounters. As RPGs moved to the screen, stats provided a basis for the software to compute damage and other effects. Stats were a way to simulate combat in games, and to track progress and experience.

Modern-day RPGs take the player through a journey to master the game mechanics. They battle increasingly powerful foes and bosses, scaled to reflect the player's mastery of the mechanics. The final boss demands total mastery of the mechanics. Increased stats and more powerful equipment provide a tangible way of measuring the characters' growth over time, keeping the player invested over dozens or hundreds of hours of gameplay.

A story is not a simulation of combat, and provides no opportunities for the reader to master any mechanics.

LitRPG is a subgrenre of the wider progression fantasy genre. It takes its cues from gaming. Having stats and equipment is a genre trope I can live with. If only so I can flip past the stat screens whenever they show up so I can get on with the rest of the story. With that said, stats should not be a proxy for character development.

At every step of the journey in a video game, the game presents the player with a critical question: is the character powerful enough to defeat the next boss? The resolution to this question lies in the gameplay loops, in the decisions the player makes, in the very act of gaming.

In a novel, there is no gameplay loop. There is no gameplay at all. Instead, there is a plot.

A LitRPG story that adheres strongly to RPG design structure is fundamentally boring. The answer to the question of power is always yes—either presently, or after a period of training and grinding. If the answer is 'no', then it is only 'not now'; if the character never arrives at 'yes', then the story would never end, or end in a dissatisfying way.

In a novel, the game is rigged from the start. There is no game at all. Victory is inevitable at story's end. The only question is how that character gets to the point of having sufficient stats to beat the next challenge, and how he makes use of the system mechanics. A story centered solely on grinding for power becomes severely limited in its breadth and depth, because writer and reader alike already knows how the story will end.

In a game, players prioritize stat growth. That's how they will overcome the next challenge. In a story, readers prioritize character growth. Characters, not stats, drive the story.

An edgy teen who punches like a wimp is a nuisance. An edgy teen with the power to destroy worlds is a galactic-level threat. Power does not make someone good or evil, useful or useless. It merely brings out what is already in his heart.

The worth of a man isn't measured in stats. Stats only show his power. The question is what he does with that power. A prose story allows the characters and the reader to delve into moral questions, into how power affects people, into deep questions that mechanics-focused games can't. Most RPGs try to simulate this by having player choices—but the impact is usually limited to cutscenes, different abilities. A book has a freeform structure that allows the consequences of decisions to reverberate throughout the story, to touch every character, to leave a mark on everything about the character.

Stats may be the hallmark of a LitRPG. But they are not its foundations. Without the core story elements of character and plot, there is no story worth reading—only a written record of an imaginary game. Why read that when you can play an RPG?

Numbers Overdose

When a character in an RPG receives damage, numbers pop up to reveal the extent of the injury. This trend has carried over to books—revealing a lack of understanding as to why those numbers exist in the first place.

In an RPG, combat is abstract. It has to be calculated and resolved within a system of mechanics. Action points, hit points, magic points, dice rolls, calculations and the like are a means of simulating warfare within a rule-based system while still attempting to capture the drama and the randomness of real world violence.

Numbers are a means of communication. In a TTRPG, the events play out entirely within the imagination. The figurines representing various characters do not move, do not talk, do not bleed. The dungeon master calls out damage points so that the players can track the effectiveness of their current stratagem. The same logic transfers over to CRPGs.

In the early days of video games, such as in the original Final Fantasy, a successful hit is communicated by a sound effect, a flash of light, the character sprite moving slightly, and, more importantly, numbers showing up. The last is the most important. It reveals to the player whether he is using the right commands, the right combination of equipment, the right magic. As technology grew more sophisticated, games were able to introduce more complex animations, such as flinching or dodging. Nonetheless, they were still limited by budgets and technology. In Fallout 2, a punch that inflicts a measly 1 damage induces the same flinch response as a burst of 4.7mm caseless that leaves the character with just 1 HP. You still have to read the text in the window at the lower left corner (and ideally possess the Awareness perk) to figure out the enemy's state. Today's CRPGs have surpassed the technological and budgetary limitations of their forebears. More complex RPGs have animations for different status effects, critical hits, elemental damage, and so on. And yet, each successful hit must still communicate the effects of the damage to the player, so the player can choose what to do next. Either a visible health bar decreases, or numbers pop up.

In a game, displaying damage through numbers is a necessary part of the user interface and user experience. In a book, it becomes boring and repetitive, and slows down the action. Here's an example:

I swung my sword in a powerful double-handed slash.

You have inflicted 13 damage!

Shrieking, the goblin staggered back. I pressed the advantage, delivering a mighty thrust.

You have inflicted 18 damage!

With a shout of triumph, I freed my sword from its body.

Bleeding from its many wounds, the goblin howled and swung its club. I jumped back to avoid it.

You have received 3 damage!

I barely felt the pain. Leaping back in, I slashed once again.

Critical hit! You have inflicted 22 damage!

Contrast that with this:

I swung my sword in a powerful double-handed slash. The blade bit through the goblin's left hand, taking it off in a spray of blood.

Shrieking, the goblin staggered back. I pressed the advantage, delivering a mighty thrust. The point sank deep into its chest, puncturing its lung. With a shout of triumph, I freed my sword from its body.

Bleeding from its many wounds, the goblin howled and swung its club. I jumped back to avoid it.

Not far enough.

The club smacked against my gauntleted fist. My bones rattled, but I barely felt the pain. Leaping back in, I slashed once again.

The monster's head fell from its shoulders.

The former typifies writing from authors who blindly copy over RPG UI. Stating how much damage a blow inflicts simply slows down the action, and—worse yet—does not actually communicate in real terms how much damage the blow actually caused. Is 18 damage a critical hit, or is it merely a scratch? Is the enemy able to continue fighting, or has it been severely wounded? Furthermore, the reader is tempted to skip over repeated stock lines—and thus may miss the part about the main character receiving damage instead of taking it.

Describing the effects of violence on a character provides a faster, fluid, and more intense experience. You can see the blow. You can see what it struck, and what damage it caused. You don't need numbers or stock lines to state how much damage a blow caused: just describe the damage.

When depicting violence in fiction, the creator must communicate damage to the audience, and do so in a thrilling way.

In a game, health bars and damage numbers serve that function. Numbers disappear quickly, or are otherwise placed in an unobtrusive part of the screen, to avoid cluttering the player's view. On a page, every sentence, every word, every number, is permanent. What is a temporary necessity in a game becomes padding in a novel.

Violence in an RPG is, at heart, an abstraction. At its very best, it feels intense, thrilling, but most importantly, fair. It is fair because it is governed by a set of rules. This makes the game fun to play. But this necessarily means that in-game violence, no matter how lush the graphics or fluid the animations, is fundamentally an abstraction.

Books can tell the truth.

Consider a duel between two characters. In a turn-based RPG, each character takes turns to act. In the real world, events happen in real time. Double kills, baring cut scenes or special game mechanics, don't occur in a turn based RPG. In the real world, they were distressingly common. Indeed, one of the fundamental skills of swordsmanship is to avoid double kills through sound defense.

Most action role playing games can attempt to simulate double hits—but it is a departure from reality. For example, suppose you are fighting a huge but slow monster. The monster winds up its arm for a big hit. You move in with a fast stroke, striking its arm.

In the real world, you would take off its arm, winning the encounter. At the very least, you would displace its arm sufficiently that it would have to reset his attack. In the game world, unless you inflict enough damage to stagger the enemy, the monster eats the blow, then pounds your face into the dirt.

By game rules, this is completely fair. The monster has a poise of a certain value. If your attack's break value does not exceed the monster's poise, the monster is not staggered, and so it continues with its attack uninterrupted. The same rules apply to you: if a monster interrupts your attack with an attack of its own, your attack will still continue if it cannot break your poise.

In the real world, this does not necessarily happen.

Watch this video of a sparring match between a kendo and a kenjutsu practitioner.

Notice that whenever the kenjutsu practitioner strikes the kendoka, the kendoka loses his balance or even falls over. Kenjutsu techniques are not meant to cut the enemy, but to cut down the enemy. Strength doesn't matter, only physics and body mechanics. By disrupting the opponent's balance, the enemy will not be able to deliver a fatal afterblow. If a martial art can consistently stagger an opponent, then poise and break become functionally useless.

Likewise, in other martial traditions, practitioners seek to place the enemy at a disadvantage with every technique. Feints, misdirection, sudden turns to move to a flank. Trips, sweeps, joint breaks, tricky blows. The goal is to prevent the opponent from harming you, from even being able to counter what you are able to do to him.

From a gaming perspective, it is unfair if the enemy can do it to you—but a book is not a game. Blindly reproducing game UI and UX elements in a book simply leads to boring, clunky and repetitive prose.

Rules of the Game

Games have rules. These rules define the game mechanics. Players engage the mechanics through the choices they make. Every encounter is uncertain and potentially dangerous, especially in Soulsborne games, requiring them to demonstrate competency with game mechanics. This uncertainty at the granular level covers up the fact that games are limited at the meta level: they are rigidly defined by their rules, limitations of their dev teams, limitations of the medium.

Books have a different set of rules. The heroes have to achieve their goals—especially in a series. This implies that they will probably live long enough to do this. What is left in doubt is what they will do to get there, how they will change and react, the price they have to pay. However, the entire story takes place in the theater of the mind. There are no limitations imposed by stats, budgets for art and animation, technology, etc. This allows for a story that is more organic, freeform and random than a game can.

By honouring the different structures, rules, and properties of different media, a writer can achieve a higher level of craft. A book cannot compete with a game simply by being a lesser shadow of game. It doesn't have to. It can be a book, and in so doing, be what a game cannot be.

Want more writing advice like this? Check out the new and improved version of Pulp on Pulp!

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