I think one of my favourite plots of speculative fiction (falling primarily under the Science Fiction portion of Spec Fic. but which can veer easily into Fantasy and Horror depending on the video game one gets stuck in!). It’s almost a classic plot now, where the protagonist somehow gets trapped in a video game world of some sort and must play through the game… or die!
As someone who has always played games, whether it be involved tabletop games, huge RPGs and also some MMOs, perhaps it’s simply that this plot taps into one of my passions. This plot set up is just brimming with potential for authors, so many epic plots and thematic explorations can be had – not only that, but being sucked into a game bypasses some of that awkward world building/ explaining. It allows the characters to be as clueless or knowledgeable about the world as you want.
If I recall correctly the first “trapped in a game” book that I read was one called The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenburg wherein a group of people playing Dungeons and Dragons were transported by their Dungeon Master into the actual game. Besides the fun that was had at being transformed into a dwarf or being changed from an 18 year old kid into a bearded Gandalf figure, these people had to learn and cope quickly as they completed a quest in order to and gain a wish and be returned home. In this story some of the players had played before and some were completely new to the game, there were also some very dire consequences to being stuck inside the game world. The book explored what it would really be like to have to fight for survival in a ruthless world – and once you do have to fight for survival and take on that heroic role… would you give it up?
The “trapped in a video game” setting can be used for straight-up adventure or horror but it can also bring to life an exploration of the human psyche or be a thought experiment for the construction of a society as a whole. I think one of the explorations that I enjoy in these kinds of stories is the wonderful way that human nature can be explored in terms of reality and virtual reality. Are you still human if you are virtual? What about NPCs? Robots? What happens when you die in the game? What happens when you complete the game and have to go back to reality?
I just love it!
Tron is a classic science fiction tale about a guy who gets stuck in a game and must defeat it in order to survive. There isn’t a whole lot else going on, really he is pushed to his heroic limits, his life is changed forever and he emerges from the game victorious and ready for life. Tron is the grounding for many of the stuck in a game stories that followed it. There are some really fun series that tackle the more humorous side of being transported into video games, from girls being transformed into males with beards to the video game world not actually being anything like the video game you play – such as Witch and Wombat and Vivian Van Velde’s Rasmussem Corporation aimed at teens. Van Velde’s three book series do not follow a linear line but instead are three separate tales of people being stuck in Rasmussem games – they are light in many ways, but can also be quite dark and topical. Great teen reads. I would say the same for Cushman’s Witch and Wombat another of those books that I stumbled upon as a kid and read. It is hilarious and very similar to Diana Wynne-Jones’ Fantasyland series, it really messes with Fantasy clichés all while our main characters follow a grumpy witch and her wombat through the world to, hopefully, safety.
Tad Williams’ series is rarely light hearted, though he has a wonderful way of creating depth in his characters. This is incredibly involved but absolutely fascinating series. A quest for eternal life, disappearances from around the world are linked to jacking in, a game that gives you the capability of creating your own virtual world… but then traps you there leads our protagonists on a voyage into the unknown and down the river of blue fire… this series is just awesome and, though it is quite long, I recommend it for fans of the genre and fans of epic adventures.
There are yet more!
Animé and Manga have also called upon this plotline. There are more than I have pictured here but these are the two I most enjoyed. Sword Art Online is really a love story that develops over a long period of time. An online game, on it’s opening day, traps thousands of new players inside of it – they must defeat all 100 levels. If they die in the game then they also die in real life. Subsequently the 1400 people stuck in the game settle in for the long haul. They are stuck in SAO for over two years before the game is defeated by our hero… I think what I truly enjoyed, because the characters who were charming, was the society that formed inside the game. People really had to live inside the game for two years and the styles of gameplay were explored in interesting ways – the PC killers, the skill buffers, the equipment chasers etc… Those that fight in leagues on the front lines clearing through the game, the large cities with characters who have specialized in certain skills (fishing, blacksmithing, cooking etc…). Fascinating and fun. .Hack is a little more on the fun side and not. I think it is an interesting mix of Tad Williams series, in it’s grave consequences kind of way, but it is often quite light hearted and fun. Also, the protagonists aren’t necessarily stuck in the game… but it is a truly enjoyable read.
Oh, there are so many more! What are you favourites? Do you like this plot? I can see how some might find it a cheap trick for writers, but I would argue that it’s up to the writer to still create the world and focus on a kind of interrogation of humanity in some way.