Monday, July 16, 2018

What games did the future Russian LitRPG authors play

What games did the future Russian LitRPG authors play?

Actually, LitRPG is a brilliant idea: it’s books striking back at computer games. Don’t forget that games have evolved from books and from the art of storytelling in general, so they’ve always tried to outdo the printed word by telling an exciting story that was also engaging and interactive. And now the tables have turned again. Now it’s books trying to outmatch video games, to the point of imitating system messages and using gamers slang.

The 1970s-early 1980s generations were born and grew up together with the evolution of computer games. Compared to the US, in Russia this process wasn’t as backward as one might think. You could buy pre-PC and pre-Apple computers on one of the many street markets selling radio parts or in the Russian analogs of RadioShack shops. The country abounded with DIY computer whizzes who could resolder hardware or hack software and games for sale and even wrote walkthrough guides. I still have a 7-volume collection of 500 ZX Spectrum games in my archive, courtesy of which I could then tackle more complex structures such as the first Elite which still didn’t have any  textures. Its 3D graphics at the time looked a bit like this:

In those days, a computer game appeared to be nothing short of magic. I mean real magic, not the made-up kind. Despite the primitive graphics, the immersion felt absolute. Emotions went overboard. As with any other entertainment, all these sensations have dulled over time. These days, studios have to work double hard to recreate the same engagement levels - but even then the more discerning players of today are often unhappy with the results.

In the early 1990s, the first game consoles finally replaced the late-1980s Spectrums and Soviet-made BKs. While in the West, Nintendo and Atari were all the rage, Russians had virtually no access to them. Instead, they had to make do with their Taiwanese analog, Dendy: an 8-bit cartridge console which introduced Russian gamers to the classics of the time such as Mario, Battle City, etc.

 About the same time, the first 286 and 386 PCs debuted in Russia. They already came with quite a few games, including Jordan Mechner’s legendary creations such as Prince of Persia. It goes without saying that in Russia it became one of the landmark cultural symbols of the time, to the point where the future founding father of new Russian literature Victor Pelevin used it in one of his finest works, Prince of Central Planning, which can be considered a 1990s prelude to LitRPG. In this novella, Pelevin liberally mixes and matches real life and virtual reality with no assistance from VR capsules or any such equipment, so that the reader isn’t always sure exactly where he is.

The 1990s became the period of the market’s diversification. The 16-bit Sega arrived to replace the 8-bit Dendy, followed by the 32-bit SNES which granted Russian gamers access to the world’s classics of the genre, such as Mortal Kombat, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda, Earthworm Jim and many other immortal creations. About the same time, the best PC games began to arrive, such as  UFO Enemy Unknown, Alone in the Dark and Wolfenstein 3D; and in 1993, John D. Carmack released DooM, the great and terrible. It’s easy to notice that computer makers were the ones who worked hard to embrace new graphic opportunities such as 3D and later the OpenGL technology which finally allowed the blurring of those boring pixels and offered new ways of creating lighting and textures. They also strove for genre variety: even Spectrums now came with the first RPG, strategy and adventure games while the consoles continued to stick to arcade games, platformers and simulators.

Finally, 1996 was marked by the release of the first Diablo from Blizzard: the PC game which was destined to become one of the biggest landmarks of its kind in Russia. Virtually every Russian under 40 years of age has a history of playing it. What’s important for us here is that it’s a classic role-playing game which enabled every player - and not just a small group of consummate geeks - to get access to character stats as well as all sorts of potions and unique weapons, showing them how versatile and engaging virtual reality could be.


In Russia, the Internet had only started taking hold in the late 1990s. In those dial-up days, you had to send a signal over the phone cable in order to go online. For that reason, the first MMORPG hadn’t arrived in Russia until the early 2000s with the arrival of coaxial and twisted pair cables.

That was in fact the moment of the great divide between games and books. From that moment on, computer games weren’t story-focused any longer. Now they were all about interacting with other players, socializing and advancing the game together. This was a perfectly self-sufficient world far removed from its origins. The arrival of LitRPG was only a question of time.

And now I’d like to hand over the microphone to Magic Dome Books authors so they can tell us about their strongest gaming experiences: which games they played in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (if they played them at all) and which have influenced them the most.

Pavel Kornev (An NPC’s Path)

My first gaming experience coincided with the late 1980s. I started playing on an Iskra: a Soviet-made IBM PC/XT compatible computer. As far as I remember, the game I liked the most was Lode Runner as well as its Russian clone Stroitel (Builder).

In the early 1990s, my friend’s parents bought him a ZX Spectrum. Soon he’d amassed about a hundred cartridges containing all sorts of games - but still, our all-time favorite was undoubtedly Rebelstar, a tactical turn-based strategy game. I lost count of the times we’d taken turns to storm and defend the moonbase.

Strangely enough, we moved on to Dendy of all things. Two joysticks and a game of either Tanks or Battletoads and Double Dragon - what more could a group of teenagers wish for? And once we’d laid our hands on a Mortal Kombat cartridge, the sky was the limit. Personally, I’d also like to mention Flying Warriors. Then my parents bought me a Pentium-100 - but unfortunately, they didn’t have enough money to also buy a sound card and a CD-ROM drive so for the first six months or so, I had to keep games on floppy disks and play them without sound. That was when I was introduced to DooM, the great and terrible, and the equally great Warcraft. I bought my first disk in the summer of 1997 which was Diablo. To this very day, it remains one of my favorite games ever. I lost count of the times I completed it over the years, all I can tell you is that was a lot. Recently, I’ve installed a new graphics mod just to refresh the memory. It felt admittedly good.

After that, my friends started gathering at my place. We used to play Worms+. That was an unadulterated slaughter where each of us had their own team so the whole thing was like some sort of championship.

Our next milestone was Baldur's Gate. My char was a hoot! In just a few playthroughs with the help of Books of Strength, Dexterity, etc. I’d turned him into a true killing machine. Recently I tried their Enhanced edition which was also very good.

After Baldur’s Death I hadn’t missed a single D&D-type game, got seriously addicted to Incubation (a turn-based tactics game) and even played it again not so long ago. I upgraded my computer with the sole purpose of playing The Witcher, killed a wealth of time on World of Tanks and... and there were lots of other things. These are only the most memorable moments.

In the late 1980s Russia had indeed been swept by Dendy and other such poor-graphics games. The only one I still remember now is Elite: the predecessor of an entire genre of space games which I used to play for hours at a time. Even though I’d never reached the Elite status, I’d had my fair share of pleasure and emotions.

Later in the 1990s, I became passionate about gaming and never missed a single cult game of the era. Even though I preferred strategy games (whether turn-based or real-time ones; whether single-player or multiplayer), I also liked shooters, RPGs and quest games. The ones that stuck in my memory - those I’d played really a lot - were Civilization, Warlords, Age of Empire, Master of Orion, U.F.O., and Heroes of Might and Magic.

In the course of the 2000s, I settled down, got a family and a stable job and couldn’t spend as much time playing as I used to. I’d only like to mention EVE Online to which I dedicated seven years of my life and still stay in touch with some of my in-game friends.

I saw a computer for the first time in the 1980s. It was enormous - a giant wardrobe with glass doors behind which reels of paper tape were rotating.

When I came back from my army service in the 1990s, I had to survive in the chaos of the post-Soviet-era and had no time for computer games. Only when I’d received my first royalties for my first published book in 1998, I could finally buy my first computer - one of the latest Intel Pentiums.

Its arrival made my life easier in two ways. Not only did I find it a very convenient writing tool, I also discovered a source of completely new experiences: computer games. The first thing I played was a Star Wars simulator - an amazing game I still remember fondly.

In the early 2000s, I was deeply impressed by three games: System Shock 2, Mech Commander and Blade of Darkness, soon succeeded by Homeworld 2.

Those games were bound to leave a mark in my writing. I’d always been drawn to the space exploration theme - and the computer allowed me to completely immerse myself in a different reality. It was incredibly interesting. I’d also like to mention Blade of Darkness which became my first foray into the gloomy world of fantasy, exciting and memorable but incredibly difficult to complete.

Later, computer games began repeating each other, leading me to gradually lose interest in them. I spent most of my time working on new books - and whenever I wanted to take a break, I played Heroes of Might and Magic. The advent of Dark Souls became a real revelation for me. It just happened that I’d started with Part Two, then became borderline addicted to Dark Souls 3 which I still play now. I’ve long completed the story and all the side plots but I still come back to it, mainly for the multiplayer experience. I love watching other players, both in cooperation mode and PvP, which gives me bountiful food for thought. My wife Lana often joins me when we summon each other, then use dried fingers to allow other players’ invasion into our world. Alternatively, we become Blue Sentinels, helping other players out.

For me, computer games have become a portal to all kinds of parallel worlds, bringing a plethora of new experiences which a sci fi reader could have only barely envisioned before the advent of personal computers.

I first encountered a computer at school in 1995. It was an ancient Russian Electronika 8M which required reinstalling the equally ancient Basic OS every time you booted it up. It had no games available so I started writing games myself using Basic. The computer had no save function, so I had to mark the game’s code down in a notebook and enter it again the next time. It took me about six months to develop my first game: a simple and unpresuming text quest all of my own making. I enjoyed playing it and the thing I liked the most was the random death feature: the player could die of a random disease at any moment.

When I got into university around 2000, I started playing computer games for real. I ate, drank and slept Age of Empires. Starting 2002, I got hooked on FIFA Manager which I played for five more years. Finally, already in 2010 I discovered the One Game: World of Warcraft. I’ve been with it for over eight years now and have no intention of stopping. I’ve tried other games but I’ve always come back to WoW. No other game does it for me.

Alexey Osadchuk (Mirror World)

My very first game console was the proverbial Dendy. I bought it in 1993 with the earnings from my very first summer job which was the reason I’d taken it in the first place. I spent many a sleepless night playing Tank, Ninja Gaiden 3, Duck Tales 2, Contra, etc. etc.

By the mid-2000s, I was totally into strategy games such as Warcraft 3,  Stronghold. Crusader and Age of Empires and remain their faithful fan until this day.

Andrew Novak (AlterGame)

In those days, my family didn’t have a computer. We just couldn’t afford such luxuries. All we had was a large programmable calculator which I then used to write my very own game Land a Rocket on the Moon. Naturally, it didn’t have any graphics, only the shimmering green vectors showing the rocket’s path and the Moon’s surface.

But that wasn’t the most important game of my teenage years. I may not have had a computer but I had a girlfriend whose father was just as strict as he was rich. They did have a computer. I usually came to see her during daytime when her parents weren’t at home, and played the only game installed on that computer: helping a funny little guy in a turban escape monsters and making him leap over traps in the flat gray little world of Oriental palaces. A truly ancient game that has since become a classic: Prince of Persia, of course.

I would play for about an hour or an hour and a half after which we would naturally progress to the actual goal of my visit. It was ages ago; I haven’t seen my ex-girlfriend for years. Apparently, she got married (to someone else), had children (not with me) and is now living somewhere in Israel or maybe the US, I can’t even remember. Only since then, the innocent Prince of Persia game still holds distinctly sexual connotations in my memory.

Dan Sugralinov (Level Up + 1)

I still remember my high school days - or nights, rather - when some of my classmates had the house all to themselves and invited everyone over for a geek night. Don’t get me wrong: we didn’t party till we dropped. There were no strippers involved. We didn't even hold Star Wars marathons.  We just played. Normally, we used a Sega Mega Drive or a Super Nintendo. Later, one of us got a Panasonic 3DO. This was followed by an era of online computer battles. That was way before PlayStation and Xbox took over the market and became our children’s gadgets.

So, what was I about? No, this post isn’t about the evolution of game consoles. At the time, we loved nothing more than walking through a game together. Forget cheat codes: everything was honest and correct. It was actually more fun that way. But seeing as only two of us - or often just one even - could participate at any given time, all the others had to watch and relate.

Naturally, we took turns playing. If one of us got stuck or a certain boss proved too much for them, they surrendered the gamepad to the next one. That didn’t change the idea of it: one of us playing, the others watching.

There were two guys who never played. They didn’t have the need to: just following other people’s progress was enough for them.  Imagine watching mighty Donkey Kong controlled by whoever happened to lay his hands on the gamepad - barging through the jungle in order to retrieve the stolen bananas! Hey guys, who’s pushing Diddy Kong’s buttons?

We built bases in Dune II: Battle for Arrakis. We jumped at the slightest noise while controlling Jill Valentine. We laughed at Earthworm Jim’s jokes. Later, when computers had replaced consoles, we explored the post-nuclear world of Fallout in search of the Water Chip. We cleansed Tristram Dungeon in Diablo and raced around the world of Full Throttle.

Naturally, we played against each other too. We’d rip our enemies apart in all of the first three parts of Mortal Kombat (which were admittedly the best); we’d compete in Rock n' Roll Racing and strive for victory in both Warcraft II and Age of Empires. Still, my warmest memories belong to those days when we walked through games together, usually only stopping when the game was over.

These days, my seven- and thirteen-year-old sons love watching others play. They can’t conceal their excitement as they follow someone streaming their game on Twitch or click through YouTube for more Let’s Players’ videos. I understand them very well. Not everyone wants to play the lead part. Sometimes you don’t mind just watching other people’s adventures.

Or reading about them, as the case may be with LitRPG.

And you know what? I think that’s exactly why we love this genre. Because when your twelve-year-old gamepad-brandishing buddy finally smokes that goddamn boss, your joy might be even greater than his. And that’s exactly what I feel when I read a LitRPG book.

Wait a sec, what’s that loot?

OMG, it’s a legendary!

Dear Readers,

We’d really appreciate it if you left your own stories in the comments. We don’t know that much about a gamer’s life in ‘80s or ‘90s America, UK, Germany, France, Australia, Canada and other countries. Even though the games may have been the same, it’s the details that make all the difference: how did you play them? Who with? Which games proved to be more memorable than others? We look forward to your stories. Let’s get to know each other better!

Written by Simon Vale
Translated by Irene and Neil P. Woodhead

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