litRPG is not Cyberpunk … Here’s why

Recently, I moderated a panel at a local Denver area Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. This panel was all about Cyberpunk and the newly emerging genre called litRPG. In a way, it made sense to pair these two things together; after all, if you pull up the Cyberpunk top 100 board on Amazon, you’ll likely find more than half of the spots filled with litRPG titles. Heck, all three of my litRPG novels (the Viridian Gate Online Archives) held the number one spot in Cyberpunk at one time or another. And again, in some ways, it makes sense to classify litRPG as cyberpunk: many of these stories take place almost exclusively inside of cyber worlds.

So, with that in mind, I prepared to moderate a panel filled entirely with old-school cyberpunk authors. Folks who have been writing since the 70s about cyber worlds, nanotechnology, neuroscience, and transhumanism. Of course, I was the only litRPG author present, and perhaps the only author on the panel to have ever read any litRPG novels—though admittedly, a few of the other presenters had seen shows like Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, and .Hack. Still, I was optimistic heading into the discussion. These were smart people with a lot of experience under their collective belts, and they claimed to know what litRPG was enough to be able to discuss it for an hour.

As we opened the session, however, and dived headfirst into the nitty-gritty details—What’s the same? What’s different? Where’s the overlap?—my hopes faded, guttered, and died. Though the other panelists were amazing and insightful, they fundamentally misunderstood what litRPG was, because they assumed it was just a new manifestation of traditional Cyberpunk with a particular bent toward gaming. By the time the panel concluded, I was convinced that whatever litRPG is—wherever it falls on the genre spectrum—cyberpunk, it is not. Sure, there might be a few parallels and some marginal overlap, but often this overlap is only in the most superficial ways possible

So, what exactly is Cyberpunk?

The term Cyberpunk was first coined back in the mid-1980s and was invented to describe one particular novel, which would shape Cyberpunk as a genre in the same way that the Lord of the Rings has shaped and informed the Fantasy landscape ever since. That novel was William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which won the Philip K. Dick Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award, which is a truly astonishing achievement. In Gibson’s Neuromancer, former hacker Henry Dorsett Case, a “console cowboy,” is hired by a shadowy organization to infiltrate a virtual reality city called the Matrix, and perform a world-shaking hack.

Neuromancer is the definitive example of Cyberpunk, and largely defines what the genre is—and as importantly—what it is not. Though litRPG has been tied to Cyberpunk primarily because of its use of and reliance on cyber-spaces and virtual reality worlds, these aspects are only a tiny part of what defines Cyberpunk. Besides, even though Cyberpunk novels take place inside of virtual worlds, those worlds are hardly ever the types of locations seen in litRPG. Instead, of Star Trek or Lord of the Rings, we find dystopian, multicultural cityscapes, littered with flashy neon lights and questionable morals. The kinds of places where anything can be found and bought—from drugs and sex to info and tech upgrades.

Hmm, a bit like the actual internet, I suppose.

But much more important than the setting (at least according to the Cyberpunk authors I’ve spoken with) are the themes, which are often dark and deeply introspective: Information security. The fluctuating boundaries between reality and illusion. The blurring line between man and machine. Rebelling against governmental and corporate overloads through hacking and subverting the system. That last one is a biggie; in almost every Cyberpunk story, the government has been replaced by big-money corporations, while the “rebels” employ tech against those corporations in ways it was never intended.

For those unfamiliar with Gibson’s Neuromancer, the 1999 film the Matrix is a shining example of Cyberpunk in the present day. There we see a gritty, dark, post-apocalyptic world where man has merged with machine—or rather been enslaved by computer overlords. Though the world is a massive virtual reality platform, there isn’t a game to be played, only a system to be bucked. A corrupt power to be overthrown. Humanity must be liberated while fighting back against the agents of the Matrix in the only way they can: by hacking the system, and slowly tearing the whole thing down from the inside. Bit by bit. Brick by brick. Body by body. This, then, is Cyberpunk.

But what about litRPG?

Though it’s true that some litRPG novels include similar themes and concepts, I would say it’s certainly not normative of the genre. In many litRPG stories, the overarching themes tend toward epic fantasy and epic space opera where the battle is between good and evil, and the main character often has a skill set, which makes them uniquely suited to stop that evil. Many litRPGs also skew away from the underdog tales found in Cyberpunk and toward wish-fulfillment tropes and overpowered characters. In these types of stories, we find protagonists who are often weak or powerless in real life but become almost god-like upon entering a new, game-like world.

Awaken Online: Catharsis is the perfect example of this wish-fulfillment trope played out.

And even in litRPG books where Cyberpunk themes are present, they often take a backseat to the game building and player mechanics. For example, my series, Viridian Gate Online, checks many of the traditional Cyberpunk benchmarks: It takes place in a virtual reality world. There is the use of advanced nanotechnology. There’s a strong focus on the blurring between reality and fantasy, and what it means to be human. There’s a fundamental imbalance of power—between the haves, and the have-nots—which the main character, Jack, seeks to address. And, to top it off, there are God-like AI’s (artificial intelligence), who must be actively opposed by players.

Even still, the series is not Cyberpunk. Not at its heart.

My books, along with scores of other amazing litRPG novels, focus more on the story than the theme, and the actual development of the game world. The world building in most litRPGs is more closely akin to what you typically find in epic fantasy and epic space opera. And it’s not just the game world, but the mechanics of the gameplay that are supremely important to litRPG readers: they want to see the characters level, grow, acquire new skills, and watch how those choices bear out through the course of the story and series. If those two elements—a game-like world (not just Virtual reality) and tangible character progression—are not met, then a book may be Cyberpunk, but it certainly isn’t litRPG.

So, if litRPG isn’t Cyberpunk, then what in the world is it? Where does it fit? Is it something wholly new?

Although I believe litRPG is unique and interesting with some new features—the emphasis on player mechanics, for example—I don’t think it is new. Rather, I believe that it’s an iteration of a subgenre of traditional fantasy called Crossworlds Fantasy or sometimes Portal Fantasy. A quick word here, some folks differ and say Crossworlds Fantasy and Portal Fantasy aren’t the same thing, and there may be slight variations between the two, but for the sake of this piece, I’m lumping them together.

Now, Crossworld Fantasy stories are almost universally set up in the same way: there’s a regular person, usually from the “real” world, who is miraculously transported to a different world. The way they are transported isn’t always the same—sometimes, they’re summoned as a champion, sometimes they stumble upon a magic portal, sometimes they’re cursed—but the result is always the same. They wind up in a new world where they embark on a quest; typically, the Hero’s Journey story arc follows: There’s a Call to Action (Step One), The Ordeal (Step Two), The Transformation (Part Three), and the Return Home (Step Four).

Perhaps the most well-known example of Crossworld Fantasy is C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which four youngsters—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—enter a wardrobe (portal), only to find themselves in a magical world called Narnia. Narnia is a fantastical land where animals can talk, and humans are virtually non-existent, but it’s also a land plagued by war and a terrible evil: The White Witch. Jadis, the White Witch, usurped the throne of Narnia, subjected all of Narnia’s citizens to her despotic rule, and then cast the land into Endless Winter. Naturally, only our four protagonists have the power to stop her and must embark on a Hero’s Journey to do so.

The setting, journey, and themes found in The Chronicles of Narnia is almost a perfect parallel for what we see in litRPG, though the game mechanics are absent. Though on the surface Cyberpunk might seem like the right fit, I believe litRPG is simply a modernized version of Crossworld Fantasy. Instead of going into a wardrobe and emerging in a strange land, characters head into haptic feedback suits or immersion capsules and find themselves in equally strange and fantastical worlds. True, litRPG is still set apart from other forms of Crossworld Fantasy because of the focus of game building and player mechanics, but it is still the closest fit. So, when people ask you what litRPG is, you can confidently tell them it’s modern day Portal Fantasy.