From screen to page: Authors talk bringing video game novels to life

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Jun 15, 2016, 1:02 PM EDT

Throughout the month of June, Blastr will be celebrating our favorite digital diversions with Video Game Month: a look at some best, worst and wackiest from the world of shooters, space sims, strategy games and more.

With a combination of graphics, gameplay, story, music, and more, a video game can make you feel like you’re truly interacting in another world. What happens, though, when those worlds leap from screens to the pages of a book? Video games, like other forms of media, often inspire a variety of tie-in materials, such as novels. Games of all different types have found themselves translated to the medium by authors tasked with bringing the worlds to life again in a new format. So, how do they do it?

Christie Golden is the author of numerous novels, including video game tie-ins, many of which have been for Blizzard Entertainment. Her first experience working with them on Warcraft: Lord of the Clans went so well that she’s continued to work with them on many more since. When writing books for a specific intellectual property (IP), Golden told Blastr “the IP is the center where things originate” whether it’s her StarCraft or Star Wars novels.

“So, sometimes, they’ll have a really detailed outline, up to 30 pages that they want me to work with. Other times, they’ll take my suggestions,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be fun to do a book about x, y, and z,' and other times it’s kind of in the middle where they have an angle that they’re going at.”


When Golden and Blizzard were working on books leading into a Warcraft expansion, for example, Golden said they would have a type of jam session to hammer out details and talk about what was coming, what they wanted to set up, and what would be interesting. She would then write a detailed outline, get it approved or tweaked, and then write a draft that would go back to be vetted again.

In Golden’s experience, while some might think media tie-in work is easier than writing your own world, that’s not necessarily the case. She knows how difficult creating a world can be, and yet working on an IP means doing all that, and more.

“You have to do all the same things you would do for your own projects,” she said. “You have to make sure the characters are interesting, you have to make sure that things make sense, you have to make sure the pacing and action and the balance description and all of the things you would want to do for your own books, and you have to do all of those things in a world that you didn’t create, that you can’t control, and sometimes you disagree with the creators of the property about what would make sense for a character and of course they win because it’s their character. “

Writing a video game novel can be very challenging, according to Golden. Authors have to capture the characters, spirit, and voice of the game. In her work, Golden makes sure to see as much of the game as she can if possible, to get a feel for it. Different types of games will feel differently, after all. Writing novels for World of Warcraft is not the same as when Golden wrote Fable: Edge of the World, a prequel to the game Fable: The Journey.

Fable is a little bit lighter. Fable has a different approach. Fable has all these wonderful voice actors, which was a delight to try and capture,” Golden said. “To be able to try and capture Stephen Fry’s voice and John Cleese in the same book was pretty awesome.”

To Golden, the average readers hopefully don’t see all of these things going on, but will notice if they’re not there.

“They might not be able to put their finger on it. They’ll just say ‘I don’t like this, this is off somehow,’” she said. “There’s a whole lot of balls you have to keep up in the air but, obviously, the best thing to do is go to the source itself whenever possible and augment that with being a pest to my contacts at the IP for more information.”

While the similarity of working with an IP exists between media tie-ins, according to Golden, gaming novels also have their differences from certain other tie-ins in how they are living environments. World of Warcraft regularly releases expansions and patches and so, as she’s writing a book, the world is changing.

“You’re always aware that things can change and as a tie-in writer as opposed to someone who’s actively involved in the daily creation of the game, you don’t get apprised of all of the changes necessarily so it makes things lively for sure,” she said.

Author S.D. Perry has also worked with different IPs, writing novels for franchises like Aliens and Star Trek. When it comes to video games, she wrote seven novels for Capcom’s survival horror series Resident Evil. She told Blastr in an email interview about the differences she’s experienced working on tie-in novels as well, stating that the differences depend on the format. She said, for a movie, there’s not much room to get creative with the other person’s story as you turn about 120 pages of a movie script into a book of about 300 pages, but “you try to get into the characters’ heads, come up with some backstory, describe the action.”


“With a TV show, you and/or your editor come up with premises using the shared universe for characters and story ideas, and you get more creative leeway to try different things,” Perry said. “With [Resident Evil], I wrote down every major event that happened in the game, divided them into 300, and tried to touch on each one in order while keeping an eye on the page count and developing character. I’m sure every writer has their own process.” 

Perry received the job of writing the books when her father, author Steve Perry, was contacted about them but was too busy. Knowing his daughter was a fan of the game, he gave editor Marco Palmieri her name. By that time, she’d collaborated with her father on tie-ins and adaptations, and written some of her own.

“I was about mid-way through the mansion in the first game when the offer came; Marco said there was a second game due to come out, and asked if I would do novelizations of the first and second game, plus two original books,” Perry said. “I actually made it through the first game on my own, and then played it a lot to learn the details, making notes, finally using a VCR to record my playing so I could forward to the parts I was working on.”

She played all the games multiple times and used a game guide to get through the other games. Perry described her process as just playing the games and writing down what she saw. How she wrote her original stories based in the universe, though, was different from her novelizations following a particular game's story.

“With the game novelizations, I pretty much had a firm outline for events; what happened in the game went on the page. For the originals, I came up with my own plots, and was told to make them like the games, using a minor character or two,” she said. “I took the game elements — evil corporation/bad guy, a dangerous environment, a special tactics team in over their heads, and zombies — and just tried to write a story that seemed like it belonged in the [Resident Evil] universe.”

When working on the books, she said she wasn’t given a heads up about what might happen in future games so readers will find discrepancies in the series.

“I would make up where the characters went and what they were doing, and a new game would come out that would totally contradict what I’d written,” Perry said. “The games were canon, though, so I’d try to put a line or two in to explain why things had changed. Sometimes it was impossible. Without any interaction with Capcom, there was no way to keep things consistent.”

Inconsistencies are not uncommon when it comes to video game novels. When information in the novel Halo: The Fall of the Reach contradicted the game Halo: Reach, the game’s developer Bungie told MTV News the games are canon “and anything outside of the games is supplementary” meaning game events “supersede anything else.” Whether inconsistencies occur because authors don’t have all the information or they occur for other reasons, they don’t go unnoticed by the passionate fans of the games and are often discussed on various forums online.

Even with the potential for inconsistencies, though, the fact that video game novels can cover a variety of angles related to a game make them a fascinating area to explore. Tie-ins can go in quite unique directions. Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company for example is tied to the action shooter game Star Wars: Battlefront, but the game, itself, does not follow a specific storyline. The task of writing a novel related to the game was given to writer Alexander Freed, who had experience writing in mediums like video games and comic books. While this would be his first novel, he was no stranger to the Star Wars universe, having worked on Star Wars: The Old Republic as well as on Star Wars comics and short fiction. Freed told Blastr that he was given information about the game and then asked what would be appropriate for a book.


“The narrative was pretty much in my hands, which was delightful. They gave me a pretty free hand and said, ‘well, come up with a cast and a scenario that you think makes sense and captures the same sort of spirit the game is trying to capture,’ and I pitched some stuff to them and they said, generally yes, generally yes, and this bit doesn’t work so much for reasons x, y, and z, but yeah, move forward with this,” he said.

Freed looked at internal documentation, concept art, and examined previous games to get a sense of the game and the series’ spirit, as well as what fans expect from the brand. According to Freed, it was a lot about the aesthetics, so, since they knew the game would take players to certain planets, for example, they brought them into the book.

“It’s not necessarily going to be the specific multiplayer battle that takes place on this planet, but we’re going to put a battle on the planet. [Also] the notion that this was not a squad based game. This was a mass combat game with large teams of players on both sides, so we wanted massive ground battles. We didn’t want a Delta Force feel for the storyline,” he said. “Similarly, you could play either Republic or Imperial characters in the game, so we wanted to make sure that both sides of that conflict were portrayed in the novel, so there was a lot of looking at those game elements both in terms of concrete and in terms of the themes and trying to find a way that that could translate into the vastly different medium with some very different intentions.”

For those who have played the game, Freed said he sees the novel as a companion piece. Since the game is so different in its lack of a narrative, he sees this as a chance for those who like what’s in the game to see a story about it.

“It’s not going to be a story that can replicate the sort of visceral experience of combat that the game provides, and it doesn’t try to, because it’s never going to be able to,” he said. “The game is a game and it does what a game does very well, so, instead, the book is about, ‘Alright well, that’s the game. That’s the experience. What would it be like to tell a story within this world? What would it be like to get deep inside the minds of these characters?’ And by doing that, hopefully it enriches, in turn the game experience. It is an additional layer of depth to that and hopefully to some of the Star Wars films, in general.”

Quantum Break: Zero State by Cam Rodgers is another example of an intriguing way to approach a gaming novel. The game Quantum Break, which Rodgers worked on, already had an interesting live-action series tie-in and, when speaking with creative director Sam Lake, Rodgers said they decided a novel seemed like another natural angle. The game, which deals with time travel, provided an interesting way to approach the tie-in.

“It seemed like a rich vein to tap would be to set the novel in a timeline that’s similar to, but different from, the timeline in the game, so familiar yet different, and in doing so explore action, consequences, themes, conflicts that we couldn’t get to in the game,” he said. “We got to include some stuff that we would have loved to have put in the storyline but for practical reasons there was just no space.”


Rodgers sees the game’s strengths in its interactivity and immediate and cinematic nature, while the novel’s benefits are in taking more time to get into the details “of what makes these characters tick, what they think, [and] what they feel.” He wants readers to feel for the characters in it as they enjoy the action and other elements in the novel.

“I would like them to feel sympathy for the villain. I would like them to be angry at the hero, at times. At the end of the day, I would like them to really feel for these three friends who went through hell and were torn apart and maybe feel a kind of emotional upsurge for the way the story plays out and the way their futures might go,” he said. “I want them to walk away feeling like these characters are friends. I want them to walk away having felt something powerful. I don’t even especially care what it is, I just want them to walk away having felt something.”

All of these different ways to approach a gaming novel are what makes the area quite exciting. Some tie-in books may be a let down based on readers’ expectations, but others will help them connect to a game differently or at the very least give readers a new enjoyable experience. For Perry’s Resident Evil books, she said she just “wanted to be entertaining and try for the feel of the games.”

“I know a lot of people really liked the books, and that there are fans of the games who didn’t like them, because they weren't canon,” she said. “I don’t know if what I did enhanced the gaming experience at all, but if I gave someone a fun read with characters they liked, I’m good.”

Golden is continuing to write video game tie-ins and, for the first time, she'll have a piece released in the Halo universe in the anthology book Fractures: Extraordinary Tales from the Halo Canon set for release this fall. She even recently had the chance to explore the world of game tie-ins in another direction, from game to movie to book, with her prequel to the Warcraft film, Durotan, and the movie’s novelization. To Golden, when it comes to video game tie-ins, she thinks if she’s done her job well, it gets the reader “fired up” about sitting down to play the game again as they remember how much they enjoy playing.

“[They get] something different from what they get every day sitting down and playing, but it rekindles that affection, that love for the world and especially in a full length novel you have a chance to really get into a character’s mind and flesh things out or bits of history,” she said. “One of the things that I think is great about the impact on the player is I know the game so that when I say something like ‘meeting occurred near a tree that had been struck by lightning on the Barrens,’ people who play will go ‘I know that tree! I know exactly where that is.’ That kind of deepens the connection and hopefully there’s a nice flow back and forth from game to book or short story back to the game because the book is to augment the gaming experience.”

For those who enjoy exploring their game worlds in a different medium, they don't have to worry about such tie-ins ending any time soon. As long as there are video games, there will surely be novels created for them. Authors will continue to find themselves faced with the challenges that come with writing them and gamers will have more opportunities to return to their beloved gaming worlds in new ways.