A few days ago, someone on /r/suggestmeabook posted this thread in which they asked for a book that “has a similar style of a JRPG” and is “an adventure with a group of people that use magic and swords to fight along the way.” This question has come up multiple other times in various forms: 1, 2, 3. I like this question because, of course, it brings together my love of video games and literature, but also because it’s a super interesting question that deserves some exploration. I think it lodged in my brain more than it normally would have because I’m currently about 1/3 through Station Eleven and the Traveling Symphony has some elements of the RPG storyline, although I won’t know just how much until I finish the book.
Let’s ignore what the user said about using magic and swords and just focus on the common elements of RPG, especially JRPG, storylines. I’ll be using Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and the Warcraft universe as my primary examples as those are what I’m most familiar with and the ones I’ve enjoyed the most (thus I would consider them successful stories!):
- The stories often start with a single character, who will be the focus of the bulk of the story, but the rest of the protagonist cast is quickly introduced. Each character has a fairly unique backstory that’s important, although the amount of fleshing out of these background stories doesn’t have to be uniform. The most typical backstories are either that something tragic happened to the character (loss of a loved one as a result of the antagonists is real popular), or that the character has forgotten some important element of their past. Early on, there is usually some element of abrasion between the cast of the protagonist team, but as the storyline progresses they become more and more cohesive, especially when the Something Bad Happens (more later).
- Like the protagonist cast, there are typically multiple antagonists, but one ends up being the Final Boss. The antagonists are introduced early on but undergo some kind of significant change during the storyline. Either the antagonist has a similar character arc to the protagonists, where they become more and more evil/deranged/powerful (Kefka, Arthas), or we find out that the antagonist we have been focusing on is actually a pawn, or less of a threat than whoever turns out to be the Final Boss Antagonist, etc. (Magus vs. Lavos, Shinra vs. Sephiroth/Jenova, Illidan).
Kefka’s first scene versus his last, in Final Fantasy VI.
- Final Boss Antagonists are generally not that nuanced. Giygas (Earthbound) and Kefka are just plain evil. Sephiroth has a more complex evil, but is still willing to do anything to gain the power he seeks, and it’s arguable that he is a secondary antagonist to Jenova, despite being the Final Boss of the game. Warcraft‘s Final Bosses are often corrupted by something, and are sometimes seen as complex characters prior to corruption but not after (Lich King, Kael’Thas fit this bill, we don’t have enough information about pre-corruption Sargeras to know about him. Illidan in post-defeat by Arthas just hasn’t been given any treatment.). Garrosh is one of the few characters who seems somewhat evil prior to corruption, and has one of the more interesting arcs in the universe, probably not uncoincidentally. The seemingly most powerful villains in the Warcraft universe, the Old Gods, are also the least complex. I think there might be something to the fact that a higher percentage of secondary antagonists are humans versus primary antagonists, too.
- Something Bad Happens, usually about halfway through the story. This might be the death of someone important to the protagonist’s side but generally not a playable character (one of the reasons I think Chrono Trigger has been so iconic as an RPG is its treatment of this). It could also be the destruction of a town, or an even bigger destructive event (the cataclysm in FFVI). Sometimes the Something Bad is a betrayal, although betrayals are common in these stories and aren’t usually the main Bad thing.
- Super important and something that doesn’t always happen in literature: There are good guys and there are bad guys, and while who fits on each team might shift, in the end there are a clear-cut set of good guys who triumph over the bad guys.
There’s tons of examples that don’t fit into this framework, but I believe a lot do. People play RPGs for their storytelling and world building and character development, so something about this formula has to work. And yes, there is quite a bit of overlap with Campbell’s archetypes, but the focus is on specific parts of that story progression.
With the basic elements laid out, let’s explore some literary texts that have similar features:
- Moby Dick is the first one that comes to mind. The opening chapters are literally the gathering of a party to set out on an adventure. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the backgrounds of the party, although the main protagonist is less obviously developed compared with the typical RPG main protagonist. The Final Boss is not nuanced. Ahab is arguably a secondary antagonist. Pip’s death could be considered the Something Bad.
- It’s interesting to compare the plot progression of a typical RPG with that of The Lord of the Rings, given the close relationship between the original RPGs (tabletop games) and canonical fantasy works. Tolkein’s treatment of the bad guys is a little different than most RPGs – beyond maybe the ghost army and Saruman we see little nuance of the antagonists. They’re all just evil and led by a single being (there are some independent evils but they’re also just evil with no other motivation). The party-gathering aspect is almost identical to an RPG, both in the trilogy and in The Hobbit. Lots of Something Bads happen.
- Stephen King’s The Stand could definitely fit the bill in pretty much every aspect. We have a Final Boss-esque bad guy who has subordinate bad guys that are more complex than he is. We have a team of good guys who we slowly learn more and more about. The antagonists develop simultaneously. There’s a big bad thing that happens prior to the climax. There’s betrayal.
- Likewise, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere hits all the same notes.
- TC Boyle’s Drop City is the closest thing I can think of that might fit this bill and is considered a recent piece of literary fiction. There’s a cast of protagonist characters who set out on an adventure with a common goal. Somethings Bad happen. There’s two clear-cut antagonists including one who was part of the protagonist team and then betrayed them, although they kind of seem like secondary antagonists to an incorporeal primary antagonist.
It was very difficult for me to come up with modern or realistic examples, and I think part of that is that so few books have embodied antagonists (or even organizational antagonists) post-Modernism. What could this story look like in a semi-realistic setting? Maybe Infinite Jest with everyone working against the American Government? If on a winter’s night a traveler with a bigger protagonist cast? Wild, but about a group of people doing the trail instead of one woman? I don’t know. What do you think?
Here’s the TVTropes article that describes the common elements of what they call the “Eastern RPG.”