In the world of video games, role playing mechanics and great stories often go hand in hand. When combined well, they've made some of the most memorable games ever created.
This combination has not been limited to the world of video games. It turns out that you get something special when you combine the basic elements of an RPG with a strong narrative focus. There's even a name for this genre - LitRPG.
The definition of LitRPG is still evolving, but most will agree that LitRPG is the umbrella term for media that combines elements of role playing games with a more typical fiction narrative. While genre purists will claim that the field is generally limited to books, one can technically find examples of LitRPG in any non-interactive genre. We’ll be looking at this more closely in the article below.
LitRPG is all about taking the elements you know and love from video games and spinning them into narratives. It's the perfect genre for those who already love games but are looking for a meatier story experience to occupy their time. There are some fantastic examples of LitRPG that are already floating around in the wild. From multi-media franchises to classic books, these works help to give a broader view of a developing genre.
Sword Art Online
If you want a perfect example of LitRPG in the wild, turn towards Sword Art Online. The franchise is immensely popular among fans of Japanese entertainment, with a host of light novels, manga, and anime series all spinning out of the same source material. It's relatively easy to get into even if you don't have a lot of experience with that kind of entertainment, with a plot that's largely based around characters who spend their time - and often risk their lives - inside a massively multiplayer virtual reality game.
It doesn't take much to see how this particular entertainment juggernaut connects to LitRPG. First and foremost, it's literally a story based on playing within a video game. While that's not generally enough to qualify a work as part of LitRPG, it catapults the rest of the way by involving characters who actively know they're in a video game - and treat the world as such. They spend their time doing the same things players do in games, leveling up, gaining new skills, and trying to get through the plot. Sword Art Online has a special place in the creation of LitRPG, arguably lighting the spark that would help to popularize the genre.
If you want to sift through the history of LitRPG, you're going to need to go to Russia. It's arguable that there were plenty of works that should be included in the LitRPG canon that were first published in English, but most of the agreed-upon history of the genre puts the origins in Russia.
Around 2010, The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor was published in Russia. While not part of the LitRPG genre (the name wasn’t around yet), it spawned a fantastic flood of fan fiction that would soon lead to the term LitRPG being coined and used in Russia.
By 2013, three authors began contributing to what was termed the LitRPG project from Russia's biggest publishing house. A slew of other authors have joined the project since that point, helping to give the genre a bit more clout in Russia than it has in most other countries.
While there's a lot of arguing still to be done about the roots of the genre and where it started, Russia is the definitive creator of the term and the first country to really push the genre on its own merits. Russia still has a thriving LitRPG scene, though finding translations of anything but the more popular works can be a tedious task.
English-language LitRPG is a tough topic to discuss, if only because English-language readers don't have the official touchstone of a publisher launching a single project to start the genre. There is arguably a decades-long tradition of LitRPG in the English-speaking world, dating back to movies like Tron and a host of science-fiction novels.
When it comes to the 'official' chronology, though, American LitRPG probably got its start from translations of Russian and Japanese works. From there, though, the genre managed to get moving fairly quickly. The first wave of LitRPG novels came from a small group of writers, though that group has been consistently expanding since the beginning.
There's a huge difference in how English-language authors view LitRPG and how it was conceived in Russia. In the US, it's not a project - it's a genre. The rules are far looser and it's possible to incorporate many more works under the umbrella. In fact, the US-based community seems to spend a great deal of time figuring out exactly what LitRPG means to them, showing a willingness to take the genre in completely new directions when it makes sense.
Jumanji 2017 Movie is LitRPG?
If you want a good look at how the English-speaking world views LitRPG, you can take a look at Jumanji. Yes, there's a good argument that the new Jumanji movie is LitRPG on the big screen - and all you have to do is look at the elements that are important to American authors to understand why.
American authors generally look at LitRPG as having three major elements. The story must take place in a game, must have a protagonist that is aware of the nature of the game as an outsider, and that it shows some kind of game-like progression.
Both Jumanji films manage to hit all three of those notes within their opening half-hour. While the first film has more of a spiritual connection the genre, the new movie seems to be a fully-fledged entry into the canon. It involves a quartet of high school students who get trapped inside a videogame and must accomplish a series of game-influenced tasks to get back home.
If you squint, there's not a big difference between the new Jumanji and a series like Sword Art Online. It's definitely a great example of how the English-speaking community views LitRPG.
Gamification of LitRPG
It shouldn't be terribly surprising that the LitRPG community has managed to turn its own fandom into something of a game. The LitRPG Forum, which houses some of the best discussions of not only LitRPG works but also the philosophies behind the genre, have turned participation in discussions into a game unto itself. Meanwhile, LitRPG Reads offers a place for in-depth content on RPG, books, and more.
Those who participate in the forums and related website receive experience points, virtual gold and items, and level up with time. They're taking place in a virtual RPG of their own, one that prizes participation and communication over twitch speed and memorizing boss patterns. It's an interesting way to build a community and one that's very much in-line with the philosophies of the genre itself.
Embracing gamification helps to show how LitRPG is a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to building a community. It's one of those tools that really helps to bring people together and helps to moderate behavior without having to be draconian. Using these game elements is as much a way to define the LitRPG community as it is a tool to encourage the popularity of the genre.
LitRPG is a growing genre. It may still be growing in terms of popularity, but the sheer number of works that fall under its umbrella means that it can't be ignored. Those who love the feeling of progression they get from role playing games will always find something to love within these works, while those who are looking for strong narratives to accompany their love for games will also find a new way to enjoy literature.
When you bring great narratives and role playing games together, everyone wins.
Are you ready to level up when reading your next novel?