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Escapist 180 and Game Novels

December 16th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Escapist, Print Screen

This weeks’ Escapist is full of interesting content. The theme is “guilty pleasures” – gaming while drunk, whoring it up in MUDs, Superman 64.

I’m quoted in Andrew Webster’s article about gaming novels, so read it if only to see me pretend to be an expert. Webster spends a lot of time with author Drew Karpyshyn, the author of a lot of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels and the Mass Effect books, which Karpyshyn seems to think are good.

“The reason the Mass Effect novels worked so well was the depth of the universe we created for the games,” he says. “At BioWare, we spent a full year developing the Mass Effect galaxy before we even began work on the story of the game. By laying the groundwork for such a rich, widespread setting, we opened up the possibility to tell all sorts of stories beyond the plot of the game.”

I haven’t read the second ME novel yet, so maybe, now that the groundwork has been laid, Karpyshyn has things under control. The first one was an expository nightmare, explaining why the world ended up the way it did.

Attentive readers will notice that I haven’t spent much of my Print Screen time on game novels. When I started the column, I thought I would do more of them, but there is so little interesting material to work from there. Why would I read a Warcraft or Halo novel when there are so many game themed books out there trying to do more than piggyback on a particular title’s success?

That said, I will probably read the entire Halo series over the holidays so I can write about how it works as a setting.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    Try one of those Warhammer space marine omnibuses and let me know if they’re any good. I don’t mean “good” in a high-tone literary sense either. Or one of those Salvatore books on dark elves or whatever.

    I’ve never bothered with them myself but maybe if you’ve decided to do a quick look-see, maybe you could read a bit so we don’t have to.

  • Thomas

    The Warhammer 40K books are good, if by good you mean pulpy and supermacho. True to the source material, really. Decent beach reads, if you go to very nerdy beaches.

    The Halo books, I thought, were terrible. But I’m not much of an Eric Nyquist fan. Likewise with the first ME book–I agree with you, too much infodump, not enough plot.

    What is interesting to me is the possibility that gaming fiction could start to do what the Star Wars Extended Universe has done–start riffing on the source material in ways that are surprising or even critical. For example, they’re hardly good literature, but the New Jedi Order (and following series books) touched on the flaws in Lucas’s questionable Jedi moral system.

    But as you write, relatively few authors seem to have done this. Why? Tight control by the content owners? Fear of scandal? Catering to an adolescent audience? Who knows?

  • Scott R. Krol

    That said, I will probably read the entire Halo series over the holidays

    But Christmas should be a time of joy and cheer, not one of pain, misery, and extreme masochism.

  • Dave

    If there’s a good way to do it, there’s not a lot wrong with the way the Battletech novels went about it.

    The became symbiotic with the game itself– concepts in the game were explained in the novels which then entered into the game. Ultimately, the full enjoyment of the game required that you were versed in the dynamics of the novels, and vice versa.

    Of course, Battletech (or more specifically, Mechwarrior/Battletch tandem) are a pen-and-paper RPG that depends on the player(s) imagination to develop the game world. Video games don’t need that– even the most “sandbox” of games *gives you* the game world, which make all of the video game novels essentially irrelevant. Not necessarily bad, just not relevant to gameplay.

  • Justin Fletcher

    Different strokes, Thomas, but I thought the Eric Nylund books in the Halo series were quite entertaining. If Bungie’s intent was to keep the Master Chief a faceless cypher so that players could project themselves on to him, then Nylund torpedoed that by giving him a name, two families, and specific relationships to various people. In fact, its Nylund’s expansion of the world around the MC that’s the most interesting, especially in the character of Dr. Catherine Halsey. Having been exposed to his vision of the Halo universe in the novels only magnified my disappointment in the uninspired, nonsensical story in Halo 3.

    Troy, I haven’t read the two most recent non-Nylund Halo book, but you can definitely skip The Flood unless you’re a completist. That’s the book that retells the story of the first game, and it’s pretty charmless. Of course, it’s hard to make a story that the audience already knows interesting again, but William Dietz could have done much better.

  • Thomas

    Goddammit, Justin, I can’t believe I wrote Nyquist instead of Nylund. Still, that’s what the guy gets for writing a book titled “Signal to Noise.” /audio joke

    He’s not a bad writer. I just don’t think he’s very captivating. YMMV.

    Thing is, it’s genre fiction, written about a game that is itself pretty much straight genre fiction. There’s nothing wrong with it. But when you raise the notion of William Dietz writing these things, I guess that’s kind of my problem with it: if I want to read uninspiring hard-ish SF, Dietz and Niven have that pretty much covered.

    Mass Effect has much the same problem, in both its game and paperback fiction. I know they put a lot of time into building out a backstory, but it ends up pretty much being Known Space, which is nowadays about the most generic of SF universes, so I guess I question why they went to all the trouble.

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    I generally have a policy of indifference to computer-game novels, but I enjoyed “Lord of the Clans” by Christie Golden. It filled in an important part of the Warcraft lore that was missing. Also, I play a tauren shaman as my WoW main on an RP server, so it provided a few more details about that aspect of the setting.

    Tie-in novels are a two-edged sword. The story can be interesting, even good, but the desire to follow the story can lead one to endure some less pleasant aspects of the book. I recently tried to reread the Babylon 5 Techno-mage Trilogy. I remember the story beging generally fascinating, but the author’s treatment of the character Fa has me so irritated this time around that I don’t think I will be able to read any more since it put it down halfway through the first book. I can grasp that it is a grim story without a child who only enters the story so something bad can happen to her each time, thank you very much.