Have Game Tie-In Novels Gotten Better?

January 25, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot recently. I take my Kindle everywhere — I read during lunch, I read before bed, and thanks to handy mobile apps I’m also reading on-the-go while walking the dog or waiting in line at the grocery store. I even read when I’m playing games at my PC during loading screens. This has led to a flurry of activity on my Goodreads page, so I’ve been talking books with my friends a little more than usual as of late.

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of reading Mass Effect: Revelation, and expressed my thoughts of it in an overall positive review. I was a little surprised at how much I liked it; after all, the book had been on my to-read list for many months and I’d been putting it off in favor of other stuff I wanted to read more. Revelation is a pretty short novel, and I was planning on saving it for when I needed a light and casual read. When it turned out being better than I thought, a discussion with Blue Kae resulted, and we both agreed that for some reason game tie-in novels seem to have gotten a lot better in the last couple of years.

That isn’t to say that I think all video game novels have become literary masterpieces overnight, because certainly things have still been pretty much hit or miss for me. Still, I too get the sense that the bar has been raised. I think part of it has to do with better authors penning these types of novels, but I also wonder if the nature of games coming out nowadays makes a difference. In the last few years, we’ve seen games — single-player and MMOs alike — put a lot more emphasis and importance on lore and storytelling, perhaps making the novels based on them simply that much more interesting and enjoyable to read?

I’ve been pondering this, especially since Revelation is such a good example. Not only are the Mass Effect games powerfully story-driven, in my opinion the awesomeness of their gameplay is only rivaled by the incredible feat of world building the Bioware team has managed to pull off. It probably helped that the author Drew Karpyshyn is the writer for the game too, and a great storyteller (his Star Wars: Darth Bane books can attest to that as well).

Still, even the best writing wouldn’t matter if you can’t make someone care enough to pick up the book. What amazes me is that so many people are drawn to Revelation and the other Mass Effect novels in the first place, and find that they enjoy them…even though Revelation makes no mention of Shepard — the ultimate badass who is THE face of Mass Effect — or even any of his companions from either game. Some games are so immersive now that lorehounds are finding just as much enjoyment out of a prequel or a background story about a secondary character. Revelation, for example, tells the story of Anderson and how he almost became a Spectre. If you ever wondered about that from the first Mass Effect game (I know I did), this book has all the details.

On the whole, I think game tie-in novels are getting better and better, but I still don’t know if I’d approach them the same way I would with other fiction, and admittedly there’s probably always going to be a part of me that will remind myself “I’m reading a book based on a video game.” Despite that, it’s uplifting to see the good reviews some of these novels have gotten, and how more books based on video games seem to be able to stand on their own as general sci-fi or fantasy, that even non-gamers can enjoy.


  1. I think, as with all media tie-ins, novels based on video games will always appeal most to fans of those games, and have limited appeal to non-fans, regardless of their inherent quality. Books in general have a more limited appeal than other forms of entertainment anyway, and genre books even more so.

    That said, I have enjoyed quite a few game-based books, as well as other media tie-ins going back to the first novel I bought for myself, the novelization of the 1982 movie “Annie” (yes, the musical).

    • I agree with you about tie-ins in general, but the Mass Effect books are a slightly different beast. They’re set in the same world and include a few of the supporting characters from the games, but other than that they are independent novels. If bookstores stocked them in the regular sci-fi section under Drew’s name instead of the tie-in section, I think any sci-fi fan who picked on up would enjoy them. I can’t say the same about any TV show tie-in books I’ve read.

      Then again, maybe I’m just too much of a Mass Effect fanboy.

      • I think you’re right, and sometimes it even feels like Drew set it up to be a standalone sci fi book on its own. Not sure if this was published before or after ME1 came out, but this was the first book too, so I can sort of understand why he would include so much “introduction” to the Mass Effect world e.g. technology, species etc. Many tie-ins forego that, with authors approaching the writing with the assumption that the reader is already thoroughly familiar with the game world.

    • I agree, though I have to say even as avid fan, I I’ve been left severely disappointed with game tie-ins in the past. I’ve read some that are so bad that I have to force myself to finish, because I’m a fan. Used to be almost like a chore to read these books if I wanted to know more about the background, but lately I find I’ve been enjoying myself more and more.

  2. I think they are definitely getting better. I did try one WoW book and didn’t care for it at all. I don’t know how big of a judge I am since the only series we’ve (my daughter and I) read were for Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher and certain Star Wars aka The Force Unleashed. I’ve seen lots of other series in the stores like Halo for example but have yet to read them.

    • The Dragon Age books were great (liked the first one more than the second though)! WoW books have been hit or miss for me. I’ve found some of the WoW stories to be pretty bland, but I think that has to do with knowing the gist of the lore already, and so nothing in the novels have generally “surprised” me. The Mass Effect book differed from this in that it took an event that we only knew a little bit about, and told a full story out of it. The writing was great too, which was the second part of the equation. Regardless or whether I like the story, some of the WoW books have been utterly painful to read because of what I felt was bad writing šŸ˜›

  3. I think alot of this too can be pointed at groundbreaking video games, such as final fantasy 7. The role playing games of their haydays set a bar and standard for storytelling within a game that takes you to another place, not unlike your favorite tv show or movie. I think since then the emphasis of games, even the like of Halo and Half Life, on up to action games like Uncharted 2, and God of War have really pushed the envelope in that department.

    It’s just the progression of video game slike Mass effect merging different styles of gaming with rpg elements of choice and consequence on such a high level, that getting insight into these characters and the world you’re interacting with can only be put into words, and that’s where art is so beuatiful and versatile. Of course it still takes a brilliant mind, and storyteller to amke these things happen. But i’d venture to say we live in a magnificent age where people with the minds for these kind of things are flourishing, even in these harsh economic times, that’s what gives me comfort, and as entertainment, it’s doing it’s job. I truly believe developers like Bioware love things kind of stuff as much as we do, so to make something like this is just as cool for them as it is for us to play.

    • You make a good point, I think the emphasis in storytelling and world building in our games have been gradually happening for a while now, but it wasn’t until the last few years that we really saw the efforts come into fruition. You have games today like Mass Effect capable of invoking complicated emotions by making it possible for the player to form relationships and connections to NPCs and the game world through your player character. Natural, I think, for people to hunger for more stories, and fertile ground for imaginations to get creative.

  4. I think you nailed it. Modern games place a lot more emphasis on narrative, which in turn give writers a lot more to work with. A novel based on Pac Man or Mario would be preposterous (though that didn’t stop them from making cartoons out of them as I recall). However something like Halo or Mass Effect practically begs to have the universe expanded. The games themselves hint at so many possibilities that are never explored.

    • It’s true, games are so “big” now, especially in some RPGs in which their creators have actually created whole cultures, religions, languages, etc. etc. etc. It was like that with Dragon Age; I remember being amazed at the rich timeline and all the codices. Too many stories there, I think, for a single game to tell, or even a single medium to handle. Some tales translate better in a novel, for which I am thankful.

  5. […] In any case, I’ve been a fan of not only his writing in games like KOTOR and Mass Effect, but I’ve also come to really enjoy his novels as well. His Darth Bane books rank among some of the better Star Wars books I’ve ever read. And in fact, earlier this year, it was reading Mass Effect: Revelation that made me wonder if there’s hope for the video game tie-in genre yet. […]

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