Crispy Gamer

Print-Screen: Setting the Table


Considering the sales success of David Karpyshyn?s "Mass Effect: Revelation," it?s no surprise that the prequel to the best-selling Xbox 360 game will also have a sequel novel. Helped by heavy promotion on BioWare?s official site, the novel is still in the top 2000 at Amazon -- nine months after it was first published.

Neither Karpyshyn nor BioWare are new to the nexus between books and games. Karpyshyn was a writer on many of BioWare?s RPGs, including Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. He?s also written books derived from the Star Wars license, divorced from his game career. BioWare?s Baldur?s Gate games were turned into three terrible books, two by Philip Athans and the final one ("Throne of Bhaal") by Karpyshyn.

"Mass Effect: Revelation" is a pulp sci-fi novel, so anyone expecting a work of art is in the wrong place. It?s no worse than the worst Star Wars Expanded Universe books and certainly weaker than the best. Set a couple of decades before the game, we get the history of the relationship between Lt. (now Cpt.) Anderson and the Spectre (secret agent) Saren. Just like the game, an Earth Alliance research outpost has been destroyed and Anderson has to solve the mystery.

Unlike many licensed tie-in books, "Revelation" has to set the stage for a new intellectual property and can?t really depend on reader familiarity with the universe. So you will get paragraph after paragraph of galactic history explaining what certain aliens look like or how different species felt about Earth?s expansion or how people on Earth reacted to the discovery of Prothean technology. It?s doubtful that much of this information is really important to understanding the plot, and so much of it is conveyed in descriptive paragraphs that interfere with moving the plot forward.

Of course, if you?ve played Mass Effect, you?re already familiar with this sort of thing. Your hero or heroine -- whom we?ve already been told over and over again is some sort of superstar soldier -- can ask NPCs basic history or geography questions. ?Tell me what you know about Protheans.? ?What is the Citadel?? It would be as if a graduate from West Point walked up to his/her commanding officer and asked ?So what?s this Cold War that you guys keep talking about??

Whereas this is optional dialogue in the game (you don?t need to know any of this stuff to finish the game), you can?t just skip ahead when you are reading a book. Well, you can, but you might miss something. If you want to picture a character in your mind?s eye, it may help to know about the current racial composition of the Earth Alliance and why the blonde Caucasian damsel in distress would be hard to hide.

Not only is it a new IP, "Revelation" is a prequel novel, setting the stage for the game that followed six months later. The Baldur?s Gate books simply repeated the plot that the player had already worked through. Other game books come out once a title has already proven to be a hit. Karpyshyn had to write the novel to set up a game he was also writing, but with no guarantee that anyone would be interested. There were no Jade Empire novels, after all.

Given the low quality of most game novelizations, it should be no surprise that "Mass Effect: Revelation" seems to be a weaker piece of writing than the game is. Where Karpyshyn and BioWare worked hard to make the in-game dialogue sound realistic and the plot ?cinematic,? "Revelation" often resorts to clich? (hero falls for damsel, torture works with Jack Bauer efficiency, ?I lied? followed by an execution, etc.). Even for a pulp novel in a genre full of disposable junk, "Revelation" isn?t something any regular reader would call ?well written? in the way that gamers anoint Mass Effect. But both game and book have the same author using the same material. Why does the former look so captivating where the latter seems so pedestrian?

Part of the distinction is that games, as a visual and interactive medium, can say things beyond the text. A ?well written? game can be one with limited verbiage but clever timing, like Portal, or one with deep conversation trees, like Planescape: Torment, or one with strong between-play cut scenes, like Wing Commander. Good writing in a game is like good writing in a movie; a screenplay is more than words. Plus a game can show you an alien or a starship instantly; most books can?t.

In the book, Karpyshyn often falls into the ?telling, not showing? trap that plagues many novelists. Instead of letting the dialogue or setting inform us on what is motivating characters, he?ll tell us the specifics. For example, the animus against Earth Alliance expansion is explained over and over when well-placed conversation could convey this same impression. Characters are described as killing machines before they take any action at all, making their brutality and effectiveness less interesting when it happens.

"Revelation" succeeds, however, in its main purpose. It introduces a new world to the reader, one that is internally consistent and distinct from other science fiction worlds around it. The game has been compared to "Babylon 5," and there?s something of that in book, as well. The political and personal intrigue feels natural and there is a sense that the universe is alive, full of story potential. With the universe now established, and the game successful enough to earn a sequel, Karpyshyn should be freed from many of the descriptive constraints of new IP.

The sequel novel should be available this summer, well in advance of the next Mass Effect game. Expect commentary in this spot once it hits shelves.

Book and Movie Bits

- The newest Halo novel, "Contact Harvest," is a New York Times best-seller. This shocked NPR?s Chana Jaffe-Walt, who wasn?t sure if gamers read books.

- "Smallville"?s Kristin Kreuk has been cast as the lead in the upcoming "Streetfighter: The Legend of Chun-Li." The Internet is already full of debates about whether she is ?Chinese enough? or ?athletic enough? to pull it off.

- "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale," the latest game-to-movie translation by Uwe Boll, opened to the usual hostile press reaction. Apparently even an A-list leading man can?t save him.