I read a lot, watch plenty and game my fair share, and there is one concept that I’ve always found the most fascinating: Dual Worlds. From The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with its Light and Dark Worlds and His Dark Materials with its infinite realities to The Longest Journey’s Arcadia and Stark, I don’t think this concept will ever stop fascinating me. You already saw a variation on the subject with the premises for Crows and the two I published yesterday.
But there is a sub-set of that concept that I admit fascinates sometimes even more, and it’s one I haven’t seen done outside of Japan, where it’s perhaps done to the point of nausea and with some stellar showings, such as Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, Overlord and .Hack.
It is, of course, the “trapped in a game” premise, where characters find themselves transported to their game’s world permanently, with the rules sometimes remaining the same and other times changing completely. As a gamer, I find this idea intriguing and downright scary. If I were to wake up inside the world of Ovewatch, of World of Warcraft, The Legend of Zelda or any other of my beloved games—and aside from the fact I would die almost immediately—would I be happy, accept and live in this new world or would I do everything in my power to return home? And beyond that, how would it work? Would I feel pain, could I use my special abilities as I do now or would I have to relearn it all? What does levelling up feel like?
The closest I’ve ever seen this concept appear in western media is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and while I love that novel, it doesn’t exactly fit the sub-genre because the characters can leave the virtual reality world, they just choose not to for hours if not days at a time.
I wonder why we don’t see these stories more often—or at all—in western storytelling, why Fantasy on this side of the world remains the predictable set of races and magic instead of expanding into these new brave frontiers. Imagine defining an entire game’s worth of lore and ‘mechanics’ for your characters to reference, imagine the changes in that artificial world as it begins to evolve and become real. The people stop being NPCs with predictable lines of dialogue and become real people, with their own ideals and priorities. I find this amazing. True, it’s really challenging, but that’s what makes it so interesting and fun!
Why don’t more authors realise the untapped potential in this genre? Japanese authors know it works and they keep creating more stories with this premise, some of them phenomenal and with completely different approaches. Let’s go over a few of them.
Log Horizon doesn’t bother so much with the trauma of finding yourself in the game permanently and even throws permanent death out of the window and instead focuses on the characters building a society in this new world and figuring out its place among the various kingdoms and dangers.
.Hack was the first one of this genre I ever saw, played and read about, and it’s still one of the best at dealing with the stress and anxiety of staying trapped in a virtual reality world.
Sword Art Online is now world-famous for its characterisation, for how it brings disparate personalities together and even has its main characters find love amidst a truly impossible situation, a game where death is as permanent as in the real world and where it’s perhaps easier to perish. The concept of PVP took a completely new meaning in SAO, with player killers being almost unanimously psychotic.
I want this to change, I want to read, watch and play more stories in this particular genre by non-Japanese authors–though I’ll still read all the wonderful Japanese-written stories I can find, they’re really good! I want to see what we can bring to the table, how we can expand on what’s been done before. And yes, I said ‘we’.
I’m working on a similar premise, but with a few twists, as I don’t wish to simply do another genre story. I won’t tell you the premise as I’ve done these past few days with other settings, characters and worlds, because it’s still not even close to being ready. I’m working on the world, the mechanics, the characters, lore, monsters and even items so that when I’m ready to write the first chapter or that first conceptual short story, I’ll have a universe that is perfectly consistent and which I can build upon as I craft the stories.
What do you think about the “trapped in a game” genre? Do you find it as fascinating as I do and if not, why? Do you know of any western author to write in this genre? I’d love to know about them!