What if life were a game? Or, rather, what if a game made world-wide impact in real life? That’s part of the conceit behind Alternis, Serial Box’s upcoming series. Alternis is the first LitRPG serial for the online serial fiction platform, and will hit the interwebz on May 15th.
Set in a near-future dystopia that seems to be getting better, Alternis begins when Tandy Kahananui realizes that someone is poaching her data rations, cutting into the time she’s spending developing the MMORPG that she’s been working on for a decade. But it’s not just her data—it’s her whole world that has been stolen.
When Tandy goes into the game to discover why, in the real world, she’s arrested for stealing government secrets. It turns out that the game is being used to broker piece among world nations, and that the AI running it stole Tandy’s world without anyone knowing. Now Tandy has a choice: give up her world, or play for Team USA, using her insider knowledge to improve the team (and nation)’s low standing.
Check out Den of Geek’s exclusive first look at the serial’s gorgeous cover…
So, what is LitRPG? This growing subgenre of SFF involves the intersection between gaming and reality. In Alternis, the majority of the story happens within the game as Tandy and Team USA complete quests to try to gain real-world resources for their country.
“I think LitRPG is a pretty new term for something that’s existed in bits and pieces for a long, long time,” Andrea Phillips, one of the four writers on the creative team of Alternis told Den of Geek. As a lifelong gamer, she mentioned titles like Homestruck, Tron, Ender’s Game, Wreck-It Ralph, Erik Nylund’s Hero of Thera, and Three-Body Problem as titles where “playing a video game serves an integral role in the plot.” Jacqueline Koyanagi added recommendations like the mangas .hack (“dot hack”) and Sword Art Online.
For all of the writers on Alternis, the term LitRPG is as relatively new to them as it is to many SFF readers.
“I didn’t realize that it was a thing,” Maurice Broaddus told Den of Geek. I initially was interested mostly as an excuse to work with Andrea and this team. And then realized—having grown up a gamer of all kinds—oh, this is all the stuff I’m into. I’ve played videogames most of my life…. In fact, I’ve gotten back into role-playing games thanks to this project.”
For E.C. Myers, who recommended Space Demons by Gillian Rubinstein, giving the subgenre a title was a revelation.
“When I recently discovered [LitRPG] has a name and everything, I realized it has always been my thing… something about stories like this has always called out to me,” said Myers. “As a gamer (primarily retro games of the 8-bit variety) and a writer, it’s a perfect blend of two things I’m passionate about.”
The idea of nations using a game to solve problems may seem far flung, although the creative team has pointed to examples like the Olympics, the chess tournaments of the 1970s, and Eurovision as places where symbolic importance about national standing does get handled through forms of, supposed, entertainment.
“Think of the symbolic victories and what they meant to their countries: from Jesse Owens foiling Hitler’s plans for the 1936 Olympics to showcase his regime; to the US’s hockey victory over the USSR in the 1980 Olympics,” wrote Broaddus. “Or how countries will pull their teams from competition in protest over a country’s policies or choices. The model is already somewhat in place.”
Phillips added: “The idea of using a proxy conflict to resolve a dispute and avoid violence has actually been used in history fairly often—coin flips and card games, one-on-one duels or wrestling matches. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a dance-off avert a war, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t try it. The only requirement to avoid violence is that everybody agree that the result will be binding, no matter how it goes.”
In a more practical sense, the technology of a virtual reality game like Alternis could be used in international settings, assuming net neutrality issues could be resolved. Myers suggested…
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t one day have diplomatic meetings in virtual reality, like Second Life or more likely enhanced with headsets or holograms or whatever the next thing is. What better neutral territory to discuss sensitive world matters and negotiate disputes than an online space?”
Tandy’s situation in the story is, in some ways, a unique one, in that none of her peers initially know she’s the designer of the world. She keeps it hidden, in part, because the professional gamer of the bunch (Dante) is initially so critical of the design, and the soldier (Ben) keeps mentioning places where the world doesn’t reflect the rules of reality—why would a castle have so many unprotected windows, for example? Only the team’s diplomat (Etta) keeps her criticisms to herself, but Tandy’s reluctant to let the cat out of the bag.
“The problem Tandy has is one familiar to a lot of creators—people are pointing out flaws in your game that are perceived as flaws because someone isn’t engaging in the work in the spirit it was meant for,” wrote Phillips. “If you’re expecting Hamlet and you get Sesame Street, it doesn’t matter how perfect an episode of Sesame Street it was, the people who wanted Hamlet will think it sucks.”
For Myers, criticism is part of the whole of being a creator.
“I’m always curious about how people will respond to my work when it’s out in the world, and hopeful that they will connect with it,” said Myers. “I can learn just as much from the ‘negative’ comments as from those praising a work, and sometimes more; however, largely negative reactions are such a personal, subjective thing—you can’t hold it against the work, the author, or the reader. There’s no ‘right’ way to read a story, and not every story is for every person.”
“Every creator faces this in some way or another,” Broaddus wrote. “Tandy’s situation is akin to having written under a pen name then being able to eavesdrop on how people really talk about you and your work. Which is exactly what I was trying to avoid!“
Broaddus continued: “I don’t follow review or conversations about my books (or me) whenever possible. Positive or negative, I don’t want those comments rattling around in my head. I’ve always felt bad for Tandy because she’s essentially trapped in a room with her critics and that’s pretty much my definition of hell.”
Koyanagi, too, tries to avoid getting bogged down in critical response. “I always want to level up in my writing,” she wrote, “but I think there’s a judicious way to go about listening to reviews.”
Given the serial’s game-based nature, we at Den of Geek couldn’t resist asking the writing team what games they would want to be fully immersed in.
“Watch Dogs 2,” wrote Broaddus, continuing with the disclaimer: “In no way is this because I was a part of its writing team…”
For Myers, being able to avoid the point-and-click format of exploring and puzzle solving games like Maniac Mansion would improve his experience: “Plus, that’s one game where being a geek—a writer, no less!—is one of the ways to win.”
For Phillips: “There is no question that it would be Dragon Age: Origins, so I could finally be together with Alistair, my pretend video game boyfriend. And it would be pretty great to go around punching a few dragons, too!”
Koyanagi admitted that future game releases might overturn her current favorite, but in the meantime: “Hydaelyn of Final Fantasy XIV. Summoner for life!”
While you’re waiting for Alternis to hit your e-reading device, check out our guide to the best serial fiction on the Internet, and head over to preorder Alternis now. You’re not going to want to miss being in this game.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.