5 Next-Level GameLit Style Novels

By: Sam Fletcher, April 3rd, 2024 5:04 pm.

Immersive storytelling is so often essential now for a successful video game. But it’s not just about world-building; it’s also about the premise behind it. What does the experience have to say? That’s where ‘Gaming Literature’ comes in, using gaming’s conventions to provide a unique insight.

A relatively new genre, GameLit does it exactly what it says on the cartridge, setting its action within the gaming world. Then we have multiple subgenres with complete worlds to explore (complete with collectibles), such as RPG, Dungeon, FPS, and Strategy.

Although there’s contention over what exactly defines GameLit and LitRPG novels, the focus here is on how gaming has influenced literature and vice versa.

So, just who are some of the key players?

WarcrossMarie Lu (2017)

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Let’s play with Marie Lu’s bestselling Young Adult dystopian science-fiction novel first. Despite being in a rather crowded genre, Lu’s real-life experience sets her work apart here. Having worked at Disney Interactive, she clearly understands the world.

Wearing Neuro Link glasses, young bounty hunter Emika Chen tracks illegal gamblers in the virtual world of Warcross. An international mega-sport sensation, the game features a high-stakes tournament in Tokyo. After some hacking gone awry, Emika is recruited by the game’s creator to investigate its security from the inside.

From there on out, her screen completely flips, plunging her into an epic conspiracy.

So far, so digital thriller. What makes this book stand out though, is not just its world-building, but also its characterizations. The descriptions are rich, and it’s easy to see that Lu has a clear vision. And it goes down in just a few sittings, making it perfect for newcomers.

An easy-to-follow tutorial stage for the genre (and for gaming in general if you’re a complete noob).

Otherland: City of Golden ShadowTad Williams (1996)

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The early days of the internet promised so much: vast MMOs akin to ‘Total Recall,’ where you couldn’t trust reality, getting lost in the Matrix, unable to tell the ones from the zeroes. Instead here you are reading this, and I’m sorry. Truly I am.

Wait, maybe this is the simulation now? And, if so, could they please cheer it up a bit?

Here in Williams’s world, WWI infantryman Paul Jonas slips through reality’s cracks—one minute in the trenches of the Western Front, now battling Martians, with fleeting memory between each jump. Meanwhile in reality, a futuristic South Africa dominated by VR, teacher Renie Sulaweyo investigates how children are ensnared by ‘the net,’ unable to break free. And all clues lead to a mysterious golden city: Otherland.

A blend of science-fiction and fantasy, this complex narrative unfolds across four books in the Otherland series. Plans for its MMO fell through, but a TV adaptation is planned. The book shines by balancing grand ideas with intricate world-building, ensuring the vast scope never overshadows its reality-questioning narrative.

For a genre that asks you lose yourself in someone else’s imagination, this ranks highly.

Ready Player OneErnest Cline (2011)

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Personally, I have reservations about simply listing references. Honestly, name-checking a masterpiece like ‘Heathers’ means diving a little deeper than just quotes. But, setting aside arguments of shallowness, I enjoyed it regardless. Cline’s ‘consumer nostalgia’ has gotten flack in recent years, yet this brand of geek culture was always inevitable—he was just one of the first.

And the film’s solid popcorn entertainment (despite doing Iron Giant dirty).

In it Wade Watts navigates between his bleak 2044 reality, living in trailer stacks (trailers stacked up like Jenga), and escaping into OASIS—a virtual gaming utopia. And its creator has left an Easter egg treasure hunt for players to discover, with the winner receiving the keys to the kingdom. Now Wade must compete against an evil corporation to keep it free.

It’s fun for what it is, and yes, spotting the references. Some good, some not so good (since when were the Star Wars prequels the ‘holy trinity’?). Bringing GameLit to the mainstream, it had an impact for sure. It also paved the way for combining IPs and Space Jam 2, so make of that what you will.

And there’s the sequel. You know, if you feel you really needed it.

Escapist DreamLouis Bulaong (2020)

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Then there’s Bulaong’s underrated modern classic that takes all those pop-culture references and builds something meaningful. With a clear point-of-view, it discusses gaming culture, satirizing the industry while paying homage to it. Featuring real characters beneath the quotes, it actually speaks to why we love the things we do.

Yes, it takes GameLit to the next level.

Moving on from pithy book-cover tags, the story centers on Charlie, a teen geek, and Jim, an experienced programmer. In the VR world of Escapist Dream, nerds, geeks, and otakus live out their favorite fandoms. However, when Jim, in the middle of bug-fixing, crosses paths with Charlie, their utopia teeters on the brink of madness.

Together, they must save their world.

Yet the book is so much more, not just playing to the tropes, but also saying something through them. The story has genuine passion behind, showing why it is that people want to escape into these worlds. Filled with psychological depth, its characters, far from simply being cardboard cutouts, offer actual personality.

It really demonstrates the genre’s true potential.

Snow CrashNeal Stephenson (1992)

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Okay, okay, this skirts the edge of GameLit, with gaming playing a part in it. But it paved the way for so much of our digital space today (not least, Silicon Valley deciding its dystopian nightmares are good actually), so I had to include it.

Besides, it’s a classic that’s shaped modern gaming discourse.

Here we meet hacker Hiro and skateboarding Kourier (…courier) Y.T., joining forces to gather intel for the CIC, future America’s top intelligence agency. Entering the Metaverse (yes, that’s where Zuckerberg nabbed it from, except here avatars actually have legs), they encounter ‘Snow Crash.’ A digital virus disguised as a datafile, Snow Crash then sends them down a rabbit hole, embroiling them in a conspiracy involving the Mafia and ancient texts.

Doing justice to a story once planned as a sprawling ‘90s computerized graphic novel isn’t easy.

Ambitious to say the least, its digital world is fully realized, introducing much of the lingo our tech overlords use today. Packed with humor, it’s significantly shaped our view of the web. Seriously, if gaming development managers are citing it as an inspiration, then its impact is undeniable. Virtual worlds and MMOs wouldn’t be what they are today without Stephenson mapping the way.

But one question remains: where does it lead us?

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