With any new and popular genre like LitRPG, there is always a flood of new books as authors wake up to the trend.

With that surge in new material, comes the suspicion that some authors are jumping on the bandwagon merely to make some money. And with that suspicion, goes the feeling that those authors have not shown consideration to the fans and readers of that genre. This isn't unique to the LitRPG genre. The success of any book seems to spawn a slew of copycat titles, seeking to emulate everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades. But let's not tar everyone with the same brush. Sometimes, writers spring into action because an author or a title seems to speak to them; they love Sir Terry Pratchett's work, they have an idea stored away in a tattered notebook, and they finally get the courage to gave a go at creating their own humorous fantasy books.

My new LitRPG release, Prison Quest, written along with author Saffron Bryant, has had an interesting journey, and a very different one from those cash-in copycats that might be doing the rounds.

Saffron and I became acquainted online when we were among the sci-fi authors who formed The Collective SciFi along with Drew Avera. The aim of the collective was creative collaboration in shared worlds. Interestingly, this type of collaboration is now quite common, so I think we were ahead of our time. We tried to get some projects going, and a jointly written story called The God Machine is still free on all stores – it's easy to find. But as a group, it's fair to say that we never quite hit our stride. We benefited from mutual encouragement and support though, and when we decided to retell folk tales and fairy tales as sci-fi stories, I was inspired to write CHEATC0DE as a radical retelling of The Silver Tinder Box by the Brothers Grim. Instead of magic and a witch, I opted to have Virtual Reality and an evil high-tech genius. The tale was meant to be a short story, but I like to make things complicated, and it grew to novel length with scope for a whole series. The sequel, The Trust, is an even longer book, and in my opinion, it's a better story too.

When I released CHEATC0DE, it was firmly fixed in my mind as a cyberpunk title, and it's worth mentioning that I had not heard of LitRPG. But that gap in my knowledge was about to be addressed. You may have noticed that on Amazon, you can see which books people have also bought, and I began to see more and more of these intriguing LitRPG titles appearing below my book. It seemed that some LitRPG fans had stumbled on my book, and a few people even made reference to LitRPG in reviews. One reviewer said, “This is a fast paced story in a gaming universe. Not totally LitRPG but close enough if you like this style of literature.” Another threw his/her toys out the pram and wrote, “This is NOT LitRPG.” This last comment seemed a strange accusation when you remember that I hadn't encountered LitRPG when I wrote the book.

My curiosity was piqued and I did some looking around for LitRPG titles, but it wasn't something I had time to pursue. My gaming pretty much went out the window when I started writing seriously – when you stare at a screen and thump a keyboard for hours on end for work, you tend to look elsewhere for your entertainment. Plus, I knew that if I delved into the games I loved, I'd just never get any writing done. I was an early adopter when it came to computers and gaming. I couldn't quite afford the Sinclair ZX80, but by the time the ZX81 came along, I'd saved enough from washing dishes and flipping burgers to buy the machine. Hooked up to a cassette player and an old TV, I played whatever games I could, and tried my hand at coding in BASIC. I progressed through all kinds of games, from text-based adventures to platform hoppers.

I progressed through an Atari ST to my first PC, and swapped floppy disks with friends to accumulate as many games as possible. I discovered my fatal weakness for flight sims (so long as I get to shoot things) and anything that called for strategic thinking. Sim City was a big one for me, and Civilization was massive, along with the XCOM turn-based games. Later, I went in for Rome: Total War on my PC, while I enjoyed the stealth of Hidden and Dangerous on my Dreamcast. It took me a while to discover first person games, probably because my earlier machines didn't handle the graphics well enough, but by the time my PC could run games like Max Payne and Half Life 2, I had rigged up a set of surround speakers which made for a great, and sometimes terrifying, atmosphere. So I have a love for games, but while there are many more I could mention, you'll notice I didn't really get into MMOs. My early gaming experiences were before the Internet was a factor, so if you wanted to play with friends, you went round to see them. It was a fun way to play, and we didn't know any different, but looking at the world of modern LitRPG, I felt like there was a world of gaming I'd missed out on. Reluctantly, because I loved the idea of stories set in virtual worlds, I put the idea of a LitRPG book in my mental ‘maybe one day' pile.

Until 2017.

Saffron and I were swapping messages in our Collective SciFi group, when the idea of LitRPG came up. I think Saffron suggested it first, and it turned out that she had the MMO gaming experience that I lacked. And there it was: a perfect combination of interests and experiences. Saffron had an initial concept for the virtual prison, and the idea of a VR world with a post-apocalyptic flavour was instantly appealing. As we started throwing ideas together, it was quickly obvious that we had a story with legs. I'd been used to writing on my own, and it was incredibly refreshing to have someone else to bounce ideas off. The first stages of planning, with a world, characters, a situation, and a sense of narrative drive came together very quickly. We threw ideas into shared google docs, and the experience took me right back to those text-based games. I'd open the doc, eager to see what exciting new ideas had developed since I'd last looked. In a way, writing this book has been a bit like an online game with two players battling through in co-op mode.

At this point, I should mention that Saffron is based in Australia and I'm in the UK, so the time difference is huge. You might think this would've made it impossible to work together, but actually, it's so easy to communicate online that it hasn't been a problem, and it's sometimes useful to know that you probably won't need exclusive use of a file at the same time as your writing partner (on account of them being fast asleep).

Saffron was great at handling all the game structure that underlies the plot of Prison Quest. The levels and skills all had to be there, along with the stats to back them up. This was an education for me, and an aspect of the book that we wanted to get right. I was perhaps more interested in exploring the characters and their motivations. We were both keen to have a female protagonist, and it was very important to me that Cody would stand up for herself. I really can't abide the misogyny that sometimes creeps into popular culture, but equally, I don't like tokenism. Representation is important, but every character had to pull their weight. There are a lot of characters in this book, and since there's a fair bit of action and not too much in the way of navel-gazing, the reader isn't going to get to know every single character in depth, but I feel that you know just enough.  For a plot to grab the reader, it needs a cast of engaging characters, and there are plenty of clues that hint at the hidden depths in the main movers and shakers of Prison Quest. After all, a writer spends hell of a lot of time with their characters in their minds. If I wasn't fired up enough to spend all those hours with Cody, and Taff and the crew, then the time would've dragged and I'd have torn my hair out. But the time flew by, and that's always a good sign.

We wrote this book because we had a passion for the story. Individually, Saffron and I have written quite a few books, and we both write to serve our audiences. We both have great respect for our readers, and we understand that while not everyone will like our work, we must always turn in a pro performance. I'm very proud of Prison Quest. We worked hard, we put the time in, and we created a story we both believe in. I hope you enjoy it too.

Happy reading.

Mikey C

Devon, 28 April, 2018

Prison Quest: A Sci-Fi LitRPG Adventure is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon: Find it here


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