I have always believed that there are subcategories of gamers. All of these subcategories add to your nerd-cred in different ways. For example, I fall in the competitive Pokémon card player/Dreamcast aficionado/video game book reader category. But I only talk about one of these things in polite company.
Video game books are an essential part of my gaming experience. I pay serious attention to stories in games, and right after I finish a game head straight to the internet to fill in anything I may have missed. I peruse game wikis, forums, and even (when I’m desperate) the occasional fan fiction. So when companies release books that promise an authorized, deeper look into the games I love, I get as giddy as a schoolgirl. So what video game books have us excited right now? Keep reading and find out.
Take BioShock as an example. After beating the game for the first time and taking a brief visit to its Wikipedia page, I found out it drew many examples from Ayn Rand’s epic, Atlas Shrugged. In a matter of weeks, I had read the entire collected works of Ayn Rand (groan all you like, you hippies) and ventured back down to the deeps to beat the game again; this time collecting every audio diary, visiting every room, doing absolutely everything I could to learn more about Rapture. I wanted more; but there wasn’t any, until BioShock 2, which I devoured in two days while snowed in in DC during the Snowpocalypse.
To be clear, I enjoyed both of these games enormously, but as gameplay goes they aren’t even in my top ten. Why I love them is solely because of the sordid history of Rapture. It’s dark, technologically brilliant, and surprisingly hard to explain. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard BioShock: Rapture was on its way. Like everything in the video game industry these days, the book was delayed. From a supposed November 2009 release, it was pushed to March 2011, and then eventually to a promised July 19 release date.
Penned by science fiction author John Shirley, BioShock: Rapture details the early history of Rapture as told from the eyes of its chief engineer; Bill McDonagh. You may remember McDonagh from the first BioShock as one of the individuals speared on a pillar outside of Andrew Ryan’s office. Ken Levine has stated that McDonagh acted in a way as Ryan’s conscience and that his death represented a serious shift in Ryan’s personality. So we can expect a fantastic and fresh look at our favorite underwater world.
And that’s what video game novels excel at. Notice I haven’t once called them “novelizations;” this is deliberate. A story is only truly interesting if we haven’t heard it before. Avatar’s story wasn’t anything to write home about because it was just a live-action version of FernGully. Two of the most prominent video game book series, Halo and Gears of War, do an excellent job of offering new perspectives and context into the video games they represent. Each book from both of these series follows a similar format. They tell two stories; one in the past and one in the present, often with sweeping parallels. For example, Gears of War: Anvil Gate tells of how a siege during the Pendulum Wars is overcome, and how this strategy may be used against the Locust Horde.
This style of storytelling is far superior to simply telling the story of the game, repeating the same dialogue and retelling the same battles you’ve already experienced. Instead, we learn why those battles happened, why the characters are the way they are. One of the coolest things I ever found out from a video game book is that Sergeant Johnson’s nervous system is so scrambled from attempts to make him a SPARTAN that he is immune to a Flood infection. Now when I play Halo with friends I nudge them and nod at Johnson; “y’know why he’s such a badass?”
Often, video games with incredible stories lack books that would no doubt delve further into characters and their history. One fine example is Uncharted. At the end of the first game, when the sarcophagus is opened and the plague is released, everything that happened previously in the game makes sense in an instant. And in that same instant I needed to know more about the history of that island. I needed to know about the Spaniards and Nazis on the island. I needed to know where the disease came from in the first place. I needed to know who the Indian in the sarcophagus was. Was he a king, a priest, a peasant? Unfortunately none of these questions were answered.
It was the ultimate tease. Finding out so much about Uncharted and then being told no more. And the second game was no help. Eventually a book was announced, but my dreams were shattered when it was confirmed that the book would not have anything to do with any of the games; instead existing as a standalone story featuring Nathan Drake. The worst part about me not getting what I want is that an Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune book would practically write itself. The author could jump between the Indians initially discovering the disease, battling it and isolating it; the Spaniards finding the island; the Nazis finding the island; and Drake’s adventure during the first game. Every time I replay that game I can’t help but shake my head and mutter “damn shame” over and over.
Now, as a literature junkie, I know full well that video game books aren’t good books. They are excellent stories only to those interested in the nerdiest of topics, but they aren’t good literature. That’s what makes them all so much better. Think about it. Does every Star Wars book explain what a lightsaber is or does it just assume the reader knows what it is? The same goes for many of the weapons and terms used in video game books. They’re guilty pleasures that I don’t feel one ounce of guilt reading.
Narratives about video games are not only important; they are quickly becoming a necessity in the video game world. In a day and age in which developers have novel-sized stories bouncing around in their heads, books play a significant role in communicating those stories to obsessed players. I can’t express my joy enough. I’m sick of reading BioShock fan fiction. It’s starting to get … weird.
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.