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LitRPG – Defiance of the Fall

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Apologies for the five of you who read this blog on a regular basis ūüôā  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review.  It’s been even longer since I posted a review for a fantasy or sci fi book.  I hope to change that over the next several months as I’m diving deep into the genre again just as the writing bug is beginning to burrow its way into the ol’ grey matter substrate.

The book I’ll review here is Defiance of the Fall by JF Brink.  Before we dive in, I’d like to start with a discussion of the LitRPG genre.  I’ll admit the LitRPG genre fascinates me.  I’ve played my fair share of RPGs and I’ve read loads of fantasy and science fiction.  The appeal is simple.  The story starts with someone in our mundane world who gets swept up into a new world.  This is not so different from other fantasy genres out there.  What is different is that they are almost always presented with some type of gaming interface.  This interface shares the progression of the main character with the reader in a discrete and structured progression.  This progression is often presented in Excel type charts that mimic what you’d find in a video game.  The character goes up levels, gains new skills and tackles harder and harder challenges.

It’s a similar appeal to a Twitch stream.  These are most commonly enjoyed by watching someone else play a video game.  Many from my generation (Gen X) and worse, the Boomers, will never understand this.  They pillory the younger generations for watching Twitch. 

“Wait, you’re watching someone else play a video game?  Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” 

I’ve seen this said, without a whiff of irony, by a dad watching football while sitting on the couch with one hand down his pants.  When I drew the obvious parallels, he said – “Yeah, but these are athletes in their prime playing at the highest level.” 

I then explained the concept of esports and how professional gamers also make millions for playing a game without destroying their bodies and buying into the gladiator culture of the NFL.  He refused to even look it up until there was a twenty dollar bet on the table.  Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made.

The buy in to a LitRPG book is a lot lower than traditional high fantasy.  The minute the interface screen appears in the text – you’re in on the joke.  Sure, the author still needs to do a fair amount of world building but they can employ lots of shortcuts because most of the readers are familiar with RPGs.  The reader can imagine themselves inside the world more easily because they already understand the general framework about how the rules of this world will be revealed.  This often creates an interesting second level of abstraction where the reader can imagine an avatar they’ve created in the past and can then imagine being transported to this new land as that avatar.  It’s a cool new mental architecture the author helps you to build.

I would argue that the shortcuts too easily make the world flat over time.  In the early stages of discovering the rules, like any reader does in a fantasy world, the charts and numbers satisfy that nerd itch that each of us has somewhere deep in our souls.  Over time however, as we are continuously exposed to the innards of the system the author has built, it becomes less interesting.  It starts to feel like reviewing math notes before a final.  All of those little discoveries that were so wonderfully crafted early on start to feel like a computer program rather than the fantastical world you wanted to escape into in the first place.  This may turn all the dials to keep some readers interested but this is where most authors of the genre lose me.  I start feeling like I’m listening to some ex World of Warcraft player tell me about a raid he participated in five years ago.  Sorry, not that interesting dude.  Same thing when an ex jock starts telling me about a football game he participated in twenty years ago when he was in his prime.  It feels a little sad.  Bring me something new and more interesting or you lose me.

Compare that to some of the great works of high fantasy.  They require a lot of buy in early.  I, the reader, understand almost nothing and you’ve tossed a ton of new terms and new environments that I’m struggling to even picture.  Once the author gets me there, they’ve done so through engagement, character development and feeling.  I’m much more willing to follow along as they continue to world build exactly because I don’t know the innards of the system.  It continuously opens the door wider to further exploration where the LitRPG world seems to narrow that aperture as the story progresses. 

There are exceptions.  Some LitRPG authors transcend into higher fantasy or science fiction due to the brilliance of their character development, world building and prose but I didn’t find that to be true with Defiance of the Fall.  It was an enjoyable romp but it didn’t transcend.

It starts off with our main character, Zac, winning a lucky die roll that allows him to survive Earth’s merging with the multiverse.  This lucky die roll and the corresponding luck attribute ends up being his primary advantage in the new Earth.  He finds himself isolated on an island out in the ocean where he has to fight for his survival against an invading tribe of demons.  He progresses through a series of difficult encounters that lead to several boss fights.  Ultimately, he builds some level of peace with the invaders and begins to build his base on the island.  Near the end of the first book he has built an interesting community and is starting to explore outside of it to visit other parts of the war torn and massively changed Earth.

The action scenes are numerous and gratuitous as Zac runs from one conflict to the next.  It feels a little like an 80s action movie with the non-stop violence.  With that said, it is fun to read even if the conclusion of each sequence feels inevitable.  Even as our protagonist is getting abused you don’t really get the sense that he will run into something he can’t defeat.

The character development continues the video game trend.  I felt like I could hit the skip button on each of the character cutscenes and feel like I wasn’t missing that much.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like the author wasted my time and I got almost exactly what I expected from it.

The Land: Founding

Fantasy Book Review

Aleron Kong has pioneered a new genre of fantasy. ¬†This is something called LitRPG. ¬†This was my first foray into the genre and I ¬†didn’t even know it existed until after I finished the book and found a whole host of others writing in the same style.

LitRPG is, what I presume, short for a literature role playing game. ¬†The author takes you into an RPG world of their creation and lets you perch on their shoulder while they ‘play’ this game of literature. ¬†This is a shockingly simple concept and I’m pissed that I didn’t think of it. ¬†It should be boring but it isn’t. ¬†You get sucked in quickly because the rules of the world are familiar to any gamer and therefore inviting. ¬†From the first chapter on, it’s like sitting down to a hot meal of comfort food. ¬†There’s not a whole lot of kale for your brain within these pages, but who cares if it tastes good.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is successful. ¬†I am constantly shocked that my kids spend 20X the time watching other people play video games then they spend watching scripted shows. ¬†There’s a reason that Twitch was sold for roughly $1 billion. ¬†One billion dollars!!! ¬†Watching other people play video games is an absurdly profitable business. ¬†LitRPG is a logical progression that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

The character development is…analytical. ¬†You get to see the literal D&D style character sheet in many different flavors as the character progresses throughout the world. ¬†As far as emotional development goes, it’s almost nonexistent. ¬†I actually just finished the fifth book in the series, so I obviously can’t judge this too harshly, but there is no emotional growth at all in the main character. ¬†He has the emotional intelligence of an unripened kiwi fruit but, for the genre, it works.

Our main character is known by his RPG handle, Richter, after the first couple of chapters. ¬†I’ve forgotten what his real name is at this point and since we never revisit his past, it becomes irrelevant. ¬†This is an area where color could have been added to the character and it feels like a bit of a miss. ¬†Does he miss his mom? ¬†How about friends or family at home? ¬†Unlike Cline’s book, Ready Player One, you are in the game with Richter all the time. ¬†Richter has all the complexity of a frat boy that gets to play with a bunch of medieval toys.

One of the elements that I loved about the book is Richter is not just leveling himself up.  He quickly gains the opportunity to start and level his own town.  So now we are combining the elements of RPG with turned based strategy.  That was always one of my favorite types of games so it resonated with me.  While the character himself is not that complex, the world that Kong builds is rich with detail.  The skill trees presented to Richter are satisfyingly deep as are the complexities of the town.

Knowing that you are in a game the entire time removes a layer of ¬†the suspension of disbelief that I typically look for when I dive into high fantasy. ¬†However, knowing the rules before you jump helps create the world for you as you read through it. ¬†I didn’t want to like these books as skipping the whole world build part almost seems like cheating. ¬†Like I said earlier I’m five books in, so they’re not all bad. ¬†Feel free to add the series to your guilty pleasure list.

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