What if a great book had resulted as an adaptation of a video game?
I wanted to spend some time revisiting the mainstream accord that Roger Zelazny in particular brought to gaming. As a gonzo journalist of our esteemed past-time he did much to illustrate to the common person how much our entertainments and mere games in fact delve deep into the human condition; all the while combining and remixing and transcending art and literature. I particularly wanted to spend some time again dwelling on the works that most caught the imaginations of game players and non-gamers alike, his large series popularly referred to as the Amber chronicles.
Regardless of your stance on the Amber role-playing meta-guild and its mischief across the spaces of several game worlds, with the tacit approval of the world designer we refer to only as Oberon-- Regardless of what you think of the griefer meta-guild Chaos and it's politics-- Regardless of where you were in any of the many chronicled battles or meetings or political events-- I think we can all agree that Zelazny's prose elevates such discussions to the stage of true literature. Many of us may still debate such things as we are wont to do, but all of us proudly flaunt whatever involvement we may have played; we all eke what little fame, celebrity, or renown that we can from the shadow of the popularity Zelazny's writing has acclaimed.
Certainly Zelazny had tremendous luck to be as involved as he was in this long saga, now so indelibly etched into the hearts of us gamers. I know that I certainly wish I had been lucky enough to know Oberon at that apex of his career. How can anyone not envy the cross-server super-user powers Oberon gave to his so-called "sons and daughters"? That they would band together to "abuse" their powers, and don't get me started on that particular debate, is just about inescapable. That they would have the foresight and skill to do so with the role-playing spirit and panache that they had is beyond surprising. (I certainly believe that Oberon played a deeper role in that than he ever gave himself credit for.) That we would have anywhere near as wonderful a bard to recount the tales of the guild nearly as they happened is extraordinary.
I know that many gamers still hold against Zelazny that he wrote things from solely his perspective in the events, and particularly because he often simplified events and motivations from the "real" events that so many of us participated in... and yet, I think more often than not his works enriched our discourse across the entire spectrum. Zelazny's research into the literary references of the various worlds and player handles alone enlightened us to some of the hidden richness of a few of our fondest playgrounds. I don't think many of today's debates on the subject would have survived without some of Zelazny's memorable passages to anchor them. Just imagine if all we had were oral histories and slowly bit-rotting chat logs to save our history of such grand events...
I hate to end on that sour note, but I also can't forget the great shutdown of Oberon's world servers. I know many of us wish that we could return to the worlds we still debate over, as much or more than Zelazny's non-gamer fans are left wondering where the story might have gone given the chance for a more natural conclusion. If we are to best honor Zelazny's legacy to gaming we should endeavour to continue trying to preserve gaming's own legacy in forms that will bring new gamers into the fold nearly as well as Zelazny himself did.
Roger Zelazny contributed to video games, both directly and indirectly, in many ways throughout his career and I hope that he might appreciate the alternate history that I painted above, should there be some alternate universe where he might read it. I've long asserted that some of the most interesting storytelling that can come from games is in the social and political cross-play. Given the right sandbox(es) I think that great stories can arise purely out of the players. Given the right players I think great literature can result that will stand the tests of time and span the boundaries between gaming and the mainstream...
Amber was the obvious choice to compare to these assertions of mine. The Amber chronicles are as much about political machinations as they are about large wars between too-powerful groups. The Amber chronicles also span the boundary between fantasy and science fiction; technology takes a larger and larger role throughout the series and the entire series seems to rely upon or play with the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The Amber chronicles also span the boundary between "genre fiction" and "mainstream literature". The books forthrightly acknowledge many of there references to earlier literature. I think Roger Zelazny's books certainly stand the test of being both great literature and great science fiction/fantasy.
Perhaps the biggest influence on my choice, however, are from what I recall of some of the Amber-influenced MUSHes and MUCKs. I remember chancing upon a somewhat detailed report of one MU*'s attempt to role-play past the ending of the series and come up with something compelling for a real conclusion through individual players playing a panoply of relatives and covers of the characters in the book. I read this page many years ago and remember being inspired by the passion all of these people put into their creations and remixes and recreations. I have a suspicion that the particular page has probably fallen to the bit-rot that certainly has eaten whatever bookmarks I might have had to it, and I'm hesitant to go searching for such a page and ruin whatever illusions I might have.
I've wondered before what things might be like if some of those multi-user endeavours had preceded the book, and maybe my take on it above might proffer some interesting thoughts on the subject. I feel somewhat guilty of "phoning it in" for this round table, considering that with the vast richness of literature at my disposal I returned to a topic close at hand. Perhaps why I put as much work into my alternate history text above as I did.
My original challenge to myself was to try imagining a game that might precede Zelazny's The Dream Master. I think I'm going to leave that subject there for the moment and maybe return to why that book is both particularly well suited to the topic and particularly challenging... The alternate history above could nearly use contemporary technologies to the novels and be compelling. (I believe that at least one of the Amber MU*s predates several of the books in the series and I'm curious if Telarium's Nine Princes of Amber is worth seeking a copy of.) The Dream Master just about mandates technologies that don't exist. Feel free to discuss The Dream Master in the comments below if you have read it, however, and are more interested in discussing it than the better known Amber works...
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