Alternate Lives: RPG Novels

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Desslock puts on his reading glasses and sinks into his Lazyboy for our monthly Alternate Lives column, letting us in on some impressive game based fiction. This month, Desslock flips through the pages of the newest novels based in the fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher.

In early RPGs, exchanges with NPCs generally consisted of being told where to go to dispatch the evil wizard mastermind. Thataway, Avatar. These days, however, NPCs have become downright loquacious, and you’re just as likely to hear characters spout deep philosophical musings or attempt to seduce you as you are to get quest directions. BioWare’s RPGs, in particular, have effectively evolved into interactive novels that feature some first-rate writing and storytelling.

But I’m still skeptical of the merits of actual books based upon gaming franchises. In fact, resolutely avoiding all books (or movies) based upon gaming franchises is a prudent rule to maintain, since they’re consistently awful. But the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski don’t really fall into that category, since the novels spawned the games. I really loved the first Witcher book, The Last Wish. Geralt is a fantastic protagonist and the book introduces several characters that are important to the game, including the cursed princess Adda, companion bard Dandelion, and the elves Chireadan and Toruviel. Prior knowledge of character history might actually influence your gaming decisions—you’d probably be less inclined to side with Toruviel, for instance, if you knew that she previously tried to bash your head.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Witcher books are hard to recommend unless you can read them in Polish, German, or Russian. The second book hasn’t been translated into English, and though the third book, Blood of Elves, has, it forms part of a larger story that may never be entirely translated.

They are taking the hobbits to Isengard...wait

In anticipation of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I decided to take a chance on the spinoff books written by Greg Keyes. I can happily report that the books don’t read like the schlocky fan-fiction I was dreading, but the writing is not of Sapkowki’s caliber, and the novels only vaguely describe notable events in Tamriel since Oblivion. They also only bridge the first 40 years of post-Oblivion events, while Skyrim is set 200 years after Oblivion. But a lot happened to Tamriel. The Empire collapsed and was partly reestablished by a new family line. Morrowind was devastated by a massive volcanic eruption and then conquered by the Argonians, who established their independence. The Kjajiit of Elsweyr seceded from the Empire, as did the Wood Elves and High Elves, who reestablished the Aldmeri Dominion. The old guild system collapsed, giving rise to cryptic bands like the College of Whispers and The Synod.

The books only teasingly refer to those events, and instead focus on the threat of Umbriel, a self-contained, floating city that feeds off souls and creates an army of undead from its victims. The tone of the books sometimes seems juvenile, and several of the characters are very young and naive, but Keyes also throws in some awkward sex scenes and surprising deaths. Much of the “action” in the books takes place in a kitchen—actually, several kitchens—yet the books manage to overcome that bizarre narrative choice and be reasonably entertaining, particularly when they feature iconic characters from the games, including several Daedric Lords. Alchemy receives considerable focus, which seems appropriate given the emphasis harvesting reagents has in the games, and each of Tamriel’s unique races gets at least a few moments to shine.

If you’re only tempted to read the books to learn what’s happened in Tamriel since Oblivion, they’re not worthwhile, and The Last Wish is better written and less padded if you’re just looking for a fantasy novel. But as someone who loves the lore of Tamriel, and actually reads the books within the games, the novels were a satisfying appetizer before Skyrim.