Saturday, September 16, 2017

Are all LitRPG Books Science Fiction?

Explaining LitRPG isn't always an easy task. While you can definitely trot out the usual definitions and hope that those suffice, you'll eventually be pressed to compare it to something else. It's common for new readers to ask if LitRPG is sci-fi, as that genre seems like a good fit for comparison. Unfortunately, there's not an easy way to answer that question.

Strict Interpretations

Figuring out how whether all LitRPG stories should be classified as science fiction starts, as you might expect, by figuring out a few definitions. Rather than engaging in the arguments about how LitRPG is defined, we can simply agree that any LitRPG work has to involve a game world - it's one of the things that really makes the genre stand out, so it's the must-have element when defining the concept.

So, does being inside a game automatically make a story science fiction? If you go with the tradition of sci-fi being defined as literature based on future technological or social developments, there's a strong case to be made for the idea that LitRPG is probably sci-fi by its nature. After all, the idea of going into a game in any way is definitely a scientific development, albeit one that can be accomplished by a number of means.

Many people will point out that LitRPG almost always involves video games, which are by default a science fiction device. While video games are modern, they way games are portrayed in LitRPG definitely lends a itself to a more advanced portrayal. It's fairly safe to assume that LitRPG is a subgenre of science fiction in most cases.


The big roadblock that makes the question hard to answer is that there are some examples of LitRPG that definitely don't work as science fiction at all. If you look back to the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, for example, you'll see something that follows all the LitRPG tropes but has absolutely no science fiction elements. Likewise, you can look at Jumanji as another example of LitRPG that fits more easily into a fantasy or magical-realism sort of setting.

If the game in which the protagonist has his or her adventure isn't a video game, there's a good argument to be made that the story isn't science fiction. So long as the methods and execution rely on something more like magic, you get the same stories that really should be shelved in a totally different section.

Outliers don't necessarily change the nature of the big works in the genre, though. There's plenty of LitRPG that could be considered straight sci-fi, of course - Ready Player One and Sword Art Online don't have much that would exclude them from being typical sci-fi works.

The fantasy-inspired examples make it harder to call LitRPG pure sci-fi. While these stories definitely help to broaden the scope of what can be considered LitRPG, they don't do fans any favors when they're trying to give a simple explanation to new readers.

Combining Genres

Of course, it's pretty tough to pigeon-hole LitRPG by strictly calling it science fiction when there are outliers to consider. Like most types of sci-fi, LitRPG tends to be a little more of a genre mix. For example, it's entirely possible for a character to transported into a game by mystical means, moving LitRPG from a hard sci-fi concept to more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid. At the very least, you're looking at something that's not really hard sci-fi - it's closer to cyberpunk in many cases, which has its own rules and tropes with which an author can play.

The fact that you can add in elements from other genres makes LitRPG a very versatile type of literature. While you'll probably find these books shelved or organized with sci-fi, that doesn't mean the rules are going to be followed particularly strictly by writers. There are plenty of circumstances in which these books are sci-fi by default rather than by inclination, which can further help to blur the genre lines. We talk about this and more over at the LitRPG Forum.

Is LitRPG science fiction? If there's a quick answer here, it has to be 'maybe'. It's certainly true that most of the LitRPG on the market uses many science-fiction tropes and that LitRPG definitely tends to fit into that space, but it doesn't have to do so. Instead of trying make LitRPG fit into another genre, it's perhaps easier to classify LitRPG as its own subgenre - one that can borrow from sci-fi, but does not have to do.