What is LitRPG?
by Conor Kostick, Commissioning Editor of Level Up Publishing
The Beginnings of LitRPG
During the 1980s, when personal computers became affordable for individuals, the first multi-player online games appeared, such as MUD. If you’re old enough, you might remember the anticipation as the phone line screeched through it’s dial-up handshake. Then the excitement as you entered the dungeon and lines of text appeared on your screen. Then the deflation as some player with a faster connection and more powerful character rushed past (described via all-too-slow to appear lines of text) and looted the treasure before you.
Bring on the 1990s: decent online speeds, lower phone bills and really good games where you could navigate your avatar visually. By the end of the decade, online RPGs (Role-Playing Games) had fully animated 2D graphics and with Ultima Online, released September 1997, came 3D graphics and widespread popularity for MMORPGs (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games).
Now, of course, these games are hugely popular, with millions of players and incredible immersive visuals. And gaming is only going to become a more intense sensual experience as new generations of VR enter the market. But for all the fun and pleasure online games can give, they are flawed by one crucial consideration: the market. It is not in the interest of game companies to create scenarios that can be solved quickly. They don’t want their users to charge through the content and finish with the game. The storylines in MMORPGs tend to be interrupted by massive time sinks, where the players have to grind away for hours to attain the ability to meet the next challenge. And for some players, who aren’t part of large collective organisations of raiders, the quest challenges become impossible barriers to progress.
This is one of the reasons for the emergence of a genre of writing that appeals to gamers. A defining characteristic of LitRPG is that you are reading about a character who is progressing in an online game or game-like world. And in that read, you can experience an RPG in a fashion that actual play thwarts: you can vicariously enjoy levelling up fast and engaging with the best high end encounters that the game has to offer.
From it’s earliest days, the experience of gaming online stimulated writers to think about new plots involving MMORPGs. Early examples of such stories include Tad William's Otherland series (from 1996). There, the characters can enter into full immersion into virtual reality. And in this series, William's takes advantage of the fact that as people can cross into virtual reality they can reinvent themselves to explore the question of identity. One of his central characters appears to be an all powerful game warrior, but the muscular avatar is being played by Orlando Gardiner, a young boy with progeria, whose weak real body has to be sustained with medical care.
My own Epic (2004) is premised on the idea that a fantasy MMORPG has taken over a colony's economy and everyone has to create an avatar and play the game for the sake of their wealth and legal standing.
Meanwhile, in the far east, enthusiasm for these kinds of role-playing games also led to books with plots inspired by the idea of action within the game world being crucial to the real world. In Taiwan, Yu Wo wrote the first of her series of nine 1/2 Prince books in 2004, while in Japan, the first of the very popular Sword Art Online series by Reki Kawahara saw publication in 2009.
These early examples of books with MMORPGs as central to their plots were not yet grouped together as a genre, but that changed in 2013, with the decision by EKSMO, Russia's biggest publishing house, to begin publishing titles in a series they labeled LitRPG. This Russian initiative has defined the genre and explains the origins of the name. In an English-language country the more obvious term would have been RPGLit.
Magic Dome books, the main translators of Russian LitRPG for the English language market have explained the origins of LitRPG as follows:
Three published authors became the founders of the genre in our country. I’m talking about D. Rus, V. Mahanenko and D. Mikhailov. All three originally contributed their series to Russia’s bestselling “LitRPG” project which is published by EKSMO, Russia’s biggest publishing house, since 2013.
The word “LitRPG” as the project’s title was suggested by the project’s producer Alex Bobl in a brainstorming session with V. Mahanenko and EKSMO’s science fiction editor-in-chief Dmitry Malkin. Later, other gifted Russian authors joined the project, such as M. Atamanov, A. Osadchuk and A. Livadny.
Many authors and readers of LitRPG enjoy a focus on the in-game achievements of the characters as well as the way that the characters strategise within the constraints of game rules that have been made explicit to the reader and for them LitRPG has to contain text that tells the reader - as an aside from the narrative voice - the current stats, levels, abilities, etc. of characters. Others have coined the term 'GameLit' to cover books that are light on the game mechanics and character progress.
Here at Level Up we are inclusive. We aim to publish both LitRPG in the classical sense and GameLit that doesn’t have to be heavy on stats, game mechanics and progression. Yes, there should be some, that’s what readers want. But readers also want empathetic characters, stimulating plots and intense drama. Those aspects of LitRPG/GameLit, like with any books, are the most important.
Beyond LitRPG Books – GameLit and More
In fact, one thing that’s for sure about LitRPG is that a work doesn’t have to declare itself as such to fit into the genre. It’s not like science fiction or fantasy – this is a loose collection of ideas more than it is anything else. As such, you’ll see many works that are otherwise classed as fantasy, sci-fi, or even magical realism showing up under the LitRPG banner. It’s even entirely possible to make a LitRPG work without ever intending to do so. If it falls within the confines of the rules above, it’s usually considered by at least a few people to be part of the overall genre.
There are actually plenty of famous works that can at least arguably fall under the banner of LitRPG. Fairly well known is Ready Player One, which absolutely features a character going into a game world and navigating through it via the game’s rules and structures. Ready Player One lacks the RPG game, however, although a great book in other respects it doesn’t quite satisfy the reader who enjoys a lot of RGP game mechanics. If you really want to open up the definition of LitRPG, you can even look at movies like both the original Jumanji and the recent sequel to see how the LitRPG genre can be portrayed on screen.
So, in summary, what is LitRPG? It’s a sub-genre of fiction that features a protagonist from one world being transported in some way to the world of a game, and in the process he or she experiences some kind of progress while realizing that he or she is playing with or against a game system. It’s not something that’s restricted to any one form of media and it’s very rare that a book or movie is only advertised as being LitRPG. It’s a genre that’s growing by leaps and bounds, and one that’s a lot of fun to participate in if you love a good story and especially if you enjoy reading as a character advances in levels, skills, equipment and faction standing.
What is LitRPG?
Novels in which the main character is playing or inside a game and where the reader can see game messages.
What is GameLit?
Novels in which the main character is playing or inside a game, without the reader seeing much or any of the game mechanics.
What does MC stand for?
Main Character. Typically, LitRPG books follow the progress of one person.
What is Cultivation LitRPG?
LitRPG where the main character progresses through spiritual development and the channelling of universal spirit flow, rather than levelling by hitting things.
What is apocalypse LitRPG?
Boom! The world has ended and in the aftermath, the survival of humanity depends on being able to progress in a world that now has RPG-style laws.
What is Harem LitRPG?
For some – usually inexplicable – reason, several women lust after the MC.
What is dungeon core LitRPG?
The dungeon itself is sentient and levels up as it defeats adventurers.
What are the best LitRPG audiobooks?
There’s a good selection here.
What are some good LitRPG recommendations?
This is my choice for the top 10 (ahem, 11) LitRPG books.
Is there LitRPG where crafting is the goal?
Lots of LitRPG books focus on crafting. Here’s a review of a particularly good example.
Is there LitRPG where the goal is to build a city?
Yes, watching a player advance a community from village to superpower is popular too in LitRPG. A recommended read is reviewed here.
What are some good LitRPG Facebook pages?
Level Up Publishing
Like any genre, LitRPG has its great reads but also some fairly weak ones. Perhaps, though, even the least well crafted is worth a read, especially if you've been frustrated by the difficulties of participating in the high-end raiding or need for elite gear in a real MMORPG.
LitRPG books provide the antidote to such frustration, as you can cover the progress of a character in the game with a short read of a few hours. At their best though, they are more than a substitute for gaming, they are a genuine contribution to a new literary form, one that allows the author and the reader to explore new characters and plots together.
When we created Level Up in July 2018, the genre largely existed in the form of eBooks. But we aim to change that. Level Up Publishing has been created to publish LitRPG authors both in eBook and print form. We aim to bring the genre to mainstream bookstores and so introduce LitRPG to a wider reading world than has developed around online sales alone.