Fantasy video game storytelling for the win!

alis3 oldgrp1 nei2

Brandon Sanderson has a new book out. Shadows of Self is the latest in his Mistborn series. I’m a fan of his Stormlight Archive series (though I think its books are too long) and I’m a huge fan of his Reckoners series (which I think is just about perfect), but I haven’t read any Mistborn yet. I will, though!

Sanderson recently posted an article about his long-term strategy for the series and how it differs from other epic fantasy series:

I pitched Mistborn as a series of trilogies, which many of you probably already know. Each series was to cover a different era in the world (Scadrial), and each was to be about different characters—starting with an epic fantasy trilogy, expanding eventually into a space opera science fiction series. The magic would be the common thread here, rather than specific characters. …

There will be some continuing threads. (A few characters from Mistborn will be weaved through the entire thing.) However, to make this all work, I decided I needed to do something daring—I needed to reboot the Mistborn world periodically with new characters and new settings.

Cool, right? But what fascinated me is that some folks consider this storytelling technique one that will hurt sales:

As a warning to writers out there, this is usually considered a publishing faux pas. Readers like continuing characters, and creating breaks as I have done (and will continue to do) often undermines sales. Readers naturally feel a momentum in finishing a series, and if you give them a break point—with everything wrapped up—the push to get out the door and read the next book isn’t there.

Sanderson adds that while initial reviews and sales for the first reboot have been positive, “I know my publisher is very concerned about this strategy.”

This concern struck me as very odd. I didn’t see what was so crazy or ground-breaking about Sanderson’s Mistborn strategy. And that’s not meant to knock Sanderson and say he’s not imaginative!

But then I realized something. I love fantasy books, but novels are not where my personal love of fantasy was born. My love of fantasy was born in video games. And fantasy video games employ Sanderson’s long-term strategy for Mistborn all the time.

Phantasy_Star_boxI adored the original Phantasy Star when I first played it in the summer of 1989. I was elated when I heard there would be a sequel. When I heard it would take place 1000 years after the original, I said, “Huh?” I wanted to see the continuing adventures of Alis Landale and her friends, and since none of them were immortal, I knew Phantasy Star II wouldn’t feature any of them. Maybe this is the publisher fear that Sanderson mentions.

But I still loved Phantasy Star II, and the rest of the games in the series. They didn’t continue the story of Alis Landale, but they continued the story of the Algo star system. The common thread among them was the place, the magic, the items, and the legends. And despite what I initially thought, some of my beloved characters from the original game did continue to return throughout the series.

Sounds pretty similar to what Sanderson is trying to do with Mistborn, doesn’t it?

Other video game series do the same thing. Each new Wild Arms game focuses on a new era in the history of the planet Filgaia, with all new characters. Heck, each new Final Fantasy game doesn’t even take place on the same world, and that series is undoubtedly the most popular video RPG series of them all. I suspect this technique is necessary for video RPGs to facilitate challenging gameplay. I spent a lot of time in Phantasy Star equipping Alis and her friends with the best weapons and raising them to their maximum experience level. It would be wildly inconsistent and feel like a cheat if the sequel had featured the same characters back at Level 1 wielding knives and wearing leather armor.

Sanderson’s publisher has nothing to fear. So long as the name “Brandon Sanderson” remains on the cover and the same top-notch storytelling is found inside, they’re going to sell books. But I’m grateful Sanderson’s post got me in a reflective mood and made me realize what a debt I owe to video RPGs. Many folks may hear “fantasy” and think Middle-Earth or Pern. Nothing wrong with that! As for me, the first place I think of is the Algo star system.

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