Video games owe much to speculative fiction literature. Frank Herbert’s Dune series was the setting for the pioneer games of the RTS genre. Where would Dungeons and Dragons be without the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and the subsequent genre of epic fantasy? Cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian variety has been the inspiration for countless settings, monsters and even an entire genre — survival horror.
But often it is lesser-known authors, genre treasures, that have a more drastic impact. If you ask someone in the general reading populace (the sort of airport bookstore dwellers that think Dan Brown’s novels are useful for something more than balancing wobbly tables) who Gene Wolfe is, you will likely get a blank stare. Ask any serious reader of science fiction and fantasy, or more aptly, a writer in the genre, and you will get a very different answer. In the words of Ursula K. Leguin, “Wolfe is our Melville.”
Wolfe is the author of books renowned for being almost inscrutably literary. Wolfe is a man of prose masquerading as a man of ideas, an author’s author that revels in talent and technique, while still producing imminently readable, if not commercial, fiction. His works span all of literary fiction, but he delights in science fantasy, science fiction and even occasional dabbles of historical and heroic fantasy. His plots are always capable of being mercurial about time, and his allegories are delicate and layered. Like C.S. Lewis, strong Catholic/Christian themes permeate his work, but Wolfe uses his religion and politics with far more finesse than Lewis’ crude one-to-one analogies.
In short, Wolfe sounds exactly like the kind of dry, boring author that academics and other writers get moist in the pants for, but the more visceral and earthy video game designers would pass right over.
That, however, is not the case. Tycho’s column mentions that he would, in a fit of pique, like to shove Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus in front of Gabe’s plebeian, untutored mug and say, “eat this, dog.” This is the general preferred method of introducing one to Wolfe, though perhaps The Book of the New Sun is a more accessible introduction.
Proponents of Wolfe, with whom I gather in darker corners of the Internet universe, seemed to a bit taken aback by this. Who was this mere video game blogger and comic artist that dared to brave the labyrinthine corridors of Wolfe’s prose? What fellow traveler lurks with us in the superplatonic realm of nuance and light, where prose is but a mere shadow cast upon the wall of the cave of the written word?
However, other references to Wolfe’s work appear often in video games. In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players are able to obtain the sword Terminus Est, a blade with which Wolfe readers will be immediately familiar.
The game Killzone 2, for instance, features a protagonist with the auspicious nickname of “Sev,” which is similar to the protagonist Severian of The Book of the New Sun. Further complicating this Wolfean homage, Sev’s ship is known as the New Sun (yep) and his principal enemy is a shadowy figure titled the Autarch.
Pen and paper games are also no stranger to Wolfe’s influence. Beyond the standard New Sun campaign setting for the GURPS system (Steve Jackson is some sort of malign wizard, I remain convinced), Dungeons and Dragons contains a “mercurial greatsword,” a weapon that has generated its own share of controversy, while being drawn essentially out of the whole cloth that is Terminus Est.
Does one then need to read Gene Wolfe to appreciate video games? No. But in a world where “reading” could mean nothing more than staring at the hodgepodge collection of words attempting to congeal into prose on the pages of the latest Twilight abomination, gamers wishing to broaden their horizons and understand the genres that thrill them on the screen could do a lot worse than discovering the magic and wonder of Gene Wolfe.