LitRPG: Where the Fictional Meets MMORPG

Now here’s an odd specialty sub-genre of fiction that I couldn’t have conceived of in my wildest dreams.

I encountered the term while browsing through the Solo Roleplaying reddit – another niche gameplaying style where the goal is to entertain oneself by solo playing a tabletop RPG. Some narrate events to themselves, some simply daydream, others pen down some manner of written record to help their memory along. Often, this may include some game system terms in a sidebar or separate paragraph, to demonstrate where the game mechanics stepped in to take some authorial control and surprise the solo game player. (Without this game emulation, it’s basically just writing a story.)

Someone mentioned that such written records resembled “LitRPG.”

Now that’s a strange term I haven’t heard before. What newfangled creation hath this corner of the young internet wrought?

Google to the rescue.

Wikipedia defines it as:

LitRPG, short for Literary Role Playing Game, is a literary genre combining the conventions of computer RPGs with science-fiction and fantasy novels… The proponents of the term state that in LitRPG, games or game-like challenges form an essential part of the story, and visible RPG statistics (for example strength, intelligence, damage) are a significant part of the reading experience.

Wikipedia on LitRPG

The top search on Google (or at least my version of what Google deems is most relevant for me) is a The Verge article on LitRPG. The article author, Paul Miller, is fairly critical on the literary aspects of the books (ie. extremely lacking) but positive on the primary concept, that of a real person becoming lost in and learning to live in an MMO world, stat blocks and all.

A more positively biased summation of LitRPG comes from the page of (naturally) a LitRPG author.

I’m excited by the potential of LitRPG as a medium for dissecting our fascination with games and virtual worlds. Through our gamer and NPC characters, we can explore the relationships between real lives and virtual lives, and gain a better understanding of our own psychology around the human-technology interface. Why do we want to lose ourselves in digital fantasies? How are we motivated by quests and level-ups? What is it about virtual relationships that are so satisfying (or not)? By trying to answer these and many other questions through LitRPG, we can strive to understand the actions and motivations of the hundreds of millions of people who now call themselves “gamer”.

Edwin McRae, “What is LitRPG”

Some informational dumpster-diving through years-old Reddit threads later, I had a couple examples of what titles were generally considered “LitRPG.” Most looked like self-published work going for bargain bin prices on Amazon.

Being unwilling to pay sight unseen for dubious quality products and mostly just curious as heck, I identified two generally-recognized-as-not-horrible examples that were available for the glorious price of free.

Excellent. Free is good. Enough to figure out if I might like it or not.

The Wandering Inn appears to be a serialized web story in the manner of Worm. The protagonist, Erin Solstice, is a modern human suddenly teleported into a Breath of the Wild-esque fantasy world where a whole bunch of new game-like rules (e.g. sentient monster races, skill leveling) are as universal as breathing.

Faced with barely any relevant survival skills, her best bet is to take refuge in a mysterious inn and wind up in a Recettear-like situation where one becomes a fantasy innkeeper.

AlterWorld: Play to Live. A LitRPG Series (Book 1) by D. Rus. This Russian author is credited with mostly kindling (haha, pun, see what I did there) the budding genre. In this fantasy version of Earth, it has become possible for people to get essentially ‘sucked into’ a fully immersive MMO universe, becoming fully digitized where the physical body can be conveniently discarded with no ill effects to the digital self. This is known as “perma mode” (as opposed to “perma death,” I guess.)

The protagonist, Max, on learning he has a plot-convenient terminal illness hatches his grand plan to purposefully trigger “perma mode” and become Laith, a High Elf Necromancer in the MMO AlterWorld (because you know, opposite Drizzt is a thing and players always gotta buck the racial/class norms). There are some distinct stilted phrases and terminology scattered throughout, presumably due to the author’s Russian background.

The later books apparently get much worse in quality as some distasteful themes make themselves known in the author’s writing, but if one wants to study the genre, it makes sense to at least have a look at the original genre-starter. Free, after all. No plans on paying for more.

Having gotten a couple chapters into both titles, I have to say… I don’t know… The whole thing feels weird. Creepy weird. Yet strangely compelling, in a fanfiction train wreck sort of way.

On one hand, the serialized version of the web stories feels like a harmless fanfiction prose version of various game-inspired webcomics I love to peruse and follow along – things like WTF Comics (a distinctly Everquest flavored adventure campaign that has sadly petered off in the past few years, but the existing content is top notch), LFG Comic (a more half-original, half-WoW flavored take on things), and so on.

Granted, the good web comics become renowned because their -comic- qualities (as in, the art, the layouts, etc.) are quite high quality. It seems fewer of the present LitRPG cohort meet good prose thresholds, which makes their “literary” claim to fame a trifle presumptive, or at least, somewhat preliminary.

Expect fanfiction quality levels of English – some pretty good, others downright awful, the odd typo or grammatical error here and there. Editorial cleanup passes are unlikely.

That said, the authors plainly have some ideas and are keen to convey them, and are more or less understandable, so it is possible to be curious about the fates of these characters and the precarious situations they find themselves in.

What I do find weird is the thematic blend of fantasy and reality.

I’ve always known that I don’t play MMO games like a good many other players do, where they put themselves or an idealized version of themselves into their avatars, which then play the game.

I’ve never purposefully made a character that looked like myself and then put real world “me” into the game. LitRPG, conversely, seems to be full of people who do exactly that. Total immersion to them means throwing themselves bodily into the game world.

Me, I play MMO games from a GM’s or author’s perspective. I separate myself, splintering into various shards, containing multitudes. Some have aspects of me, some have aspects of others, blended up into a unique formula which makes them distinct. Each of these shards is a character, with their own personalities and backstory. They need a name.

Once named, they are not me. They are them.

Total immersion to me means that these characters can exist fully in these new worlds and settings as totally lore appropriate beings – there is never the awkward juxtaposition of trying to resolve modern-day issues and sensibilities (a carry over from a player brain that is unable to sever their own personality from their avatar) in a non-modern-day fantasy setting.

LitRPG, to me, seems to be written by a generation of people who have less background in books per se, but whose growing-up experience has been the odd physical and virtual blend of always being on the internet, always having social media around, always playing some form of video game. Little wonder that their real world selves merge with their digital selves, and this craving need to resolve the paradox.

That would be the positive form of LitRPG. A far worse form would be the pretender that has poor grounding in either actual game or this blended dilemma, but tries to throw in made-up game jargon anyway. At which point, I think the problem becomes clear. Any fiction requires a consistent world. If your construct of your fictional world is created poorly, through lack of understanding of game systems, then the inconsistency shines through and grates with every paragraph.

Generally, I lack the confidence that a fanfiction style author has the capacity to formulate a consistent fictional game world for their story. Not only are there authorial responsibilities, they are now taking on game designer responsibilities for the game jargon and skill/systems interaction. That’s a pretty big ask.

A solo RP written report doesn’t have that problem, because the game system & rules come from established texts from other authors.

A Let’s Play of an actual -real- game, whom I heavily enjoy reading the well-written ones, has the same grounding because the game system & rules exist in reality. The authorial responsibility there is then just to write well and be entertaining, and explain the systems text & rules if required.

Reading any LitRPG leaves me feeling that I’m on shaky ground. I’m not sure if the rules are consistent, or if they are going to bend to suit the fiction.

Perhaps my concern is wrong, and there are indeed authors who can handle both at once. Constructing a game world full of solid rules design, as well as plot a story that contains both conflict and compelling characters. But it seems there very well might be some tradeoffs here and there.

In any case, the final oddity is that I guess I find the obsession over game text curious. I tend to skim read over most system messages.

This placing of game text on a hallowed pedestal of a full paragraph is a strange convention of LitRPG. It reminds me of the way 4x strategy gamers scrutinize every last word of a skill, or resource, or building and basically min-max and optimize their way through a game mathematically.

Me, I admit to doing no such thing, unless forced by circumstance to. I’ll just pick stuff that sounds good, stack it all if possible, and read it only if I must. Game text is not meant for word-by-word parsing, if you ask me. It’s like an informational system message. Could be spammed. Picking up the big picture seems sufficient.

Still, LitRPG adds up to being an odd curious genre. I suppose there’s no harm following along further with the free stories, if one has time, if only just to find out what happens next.

5 thoughts on “LitRPG: Where the Fictional Meets MMORPG

  1. Those two extracts are intriguing and very different. I’d read both of those stories, based on what I see there. Like you, I never put myself into the games as an “avatar” of myself. I’m always the director of the movie, not the star. Unlike you, though, I’ve always been fascinated by the stage directions.

    I strongly prefer games that update you in text on every skill-up and status change and I try to have those messages in a window I can see clearly at all times. I hate “floating” numbers and text that appear in the middle of the screen or over the character – I turn all of those off where possible – but I love to see that same information and more in a chat box. EverQuest has a /log command that prints everything from the chat box into a text file and I used to read my logs back offline as though I was reading a story. This is a more sophisticated version of that, it seems.

    When I started reading your piece, though, I was hoping you’d discovered the reverse of this: not a literary form that replicated the experience of playing an MMORPG but an MMORPG that replicated the experience of writing a novel. Something where the actions of your character would generate a prose narrative describing what had taken place. I’d play that. The version you did find, sadly, requires someone to sit down and write it, which, while interesting enough in its own right, I find a lot less exciting as a concept.

    1. Out of curiosity, have you ever given MUDs and MUSHes a shot? They are basically the textual versions of MMORPGs, if a little more prehistoric.

      The more literary version of such a textual game is interactive fiction, but that is more single-player and less D&D centered on the whole.

  2. This all reminds me of “isekai”, the anime trope where people get sucked into their MMO and find themselves subjected to the game world’s rules and skills — .hack was an early example, but Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, Re: Zero among many, many others these days, put the protagonist in the position of having to learn to live as a character in a game world. This came from a tradition of such plots in Japanese light novels. But the first time I’d ever read an “isekai”-like novel was in English, a novel called “Quag Keep” by Andre Norton, where a table of D&D players get sucked into their game world.

  3. I’ve read a few LitRPG series here and there. Some are better than others, obviously. I find myself being more drawn to the ones where it’s actually a person who uses a VR setup and has some “real world” characterization and thus only has the “stat popups” while they’re “in-game” more than the ones where the person is fully transported to the different world or whatever — in those the stats checks that are done periodically just serve to stop the story cold. I can overlook it if the story’s engaging enough, but still…. I’d say an amusing diversion from time to time, but definitely not my preferred genre either.

  4. I do enjoy Sword Art Online. But myself I have never put myself into my characters in games – they are creations based on my tabletop RPG background, each one unique in personaltiy and appearance. It’s an interesting concept this LitRPG, I’d not heard of it. It looks like the script from a Twitch stream where one is watching someone play a MMORPG with their party voice chat feeding in other voice to the stream…

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