In the late 1970s, the surging popularity of both J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons fueled an increased appetite in fantasy novels. Publishers scrambled to meet this demand, buying up a number of derivative stories that congealed into Tolkien and D&D pastiche. This increasingly self-referencing sub-genre of fantasy was derided as “extruded fantasy product,” or, more commonly, pink slime. During this time, the tabletop game replaced the magazine as the primary means of experiencing fantasy. Many a fantasy work since can trace its origins to a role-playing campaign that the writer either ran or played in years prior. In the forty years since that fantasy explosion, gamers have shifted from the tabletop to first the console, and then the online video game. This change in the medium of fantasy has brought about a change in the conventions and stories in fantasy, incorporating many of the gaming mechanics into literary adventures. In Japan, this new set of expectations, settings, and tropes can be called Blue Slime fantasy.
The pink vs. blue divide has been used before to indicate the audience of what sex a story is intended for. Here, Blue Slime is intended not just to contrast with the earlier term, but also to pay homage to to the mascot of Dragon Quest, one of the video games that inspires the genre. And slimes are everywhere in the bestiaries of Blue Slime fantasy. What sets Blue Slime fantasy apart from other fantasies is that a Blue Slime fantasy is a video game-inspired story taking place in a pseudo-European setting, centered around a party of heroes taking quests from a guild, using the leveling, health, magic, class, combat, dungeon, and reward mechanics found in games such as Dragon Quest and .hack (pronounced “dot Hack”). While many of these stories, such as Sword Art Online and Overlord, can take place in a virtual game world set in the near future, these tropes have been extended to the non-video game fantasy worlds of the isekai genre, as can be seen in Arifureta, Konosuba, and In Another World with My Smartphone, where adventurers still carry cards displaying their level, class, combat stats, HP, and MP. While some of the adventures have a resemblance to cyberpunk such as Otherland and Snow Crash, the “punk” has been replaced by an often too-self-aware gamer and other more mundane concerns. But whether online, in another world, or in a galaxy far, far away, the video game influence pervades all Blue Slime fantasy.
Less known in the West than Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest is a legendary RPG franchise stretching back over thirty years, filled with recurring elements, including its mascot, the Blue Slime. While each game follows a similar story in that a hero and his party must set out to defeat a powerful evil monster, the first three games are notable for their story of how the descendants of an isekai hero must destroy recurring ancient evils. The third, Dragon Quest III, or Dragon Warrior III in the United States, was quickly adapted into light novels, anime, and manga. This novelization provided an early adaptation of video games, setting standards for how to express a video game world into prose. Fortunately, the second-person choose-your-own-adventure format did not last, as other methods of reader immersion into the video game world gained favor. But many other aspects of Dragon Quest III continue into fiction even today, such as now ubiquitous leveling conventions, HP and MP systems; adventurers’ guilds, non-combat classes such as merchants, monster types including the ever-popular slime, and even party makeup. For instance, Konosuba’s band of idiot adventurers fall into the classic Hero, Soldier, Priest, and Wizard party of Dragon Quest III instead of the iconic Western quartet of Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard.
While the Dragon Quest series provides the mechanics for Blue Slime fantasy, the .hack multimedia franchise provides inspiration for the society. In a story encompassing console games, anime, manga, and novels, .hack explored the game world and real world mysteries of The World, a popular immersive virtual reality MMO game. Somewhere along the way, likely in .hack//Legend of the Twilight, the franchise shifted from transhuman cyberpunk themes to the idea of what living would be like in a video game world. And it is that distortion, life in a video game world, that fills Blue Slime stories. In an attempt to raise the stakes of a game from simple reset and defeat, litRPG fantasies will often use punishing logout penalties and technological traps to force the game out of the online worlds, including permanent death of both the character and the player. This puts emphasis on society and relationships not necessarily found in the guilds and factions of Western MMOs such as World of Warcraft. So the characters build real life structures in the video world, typically in a pseudo-European fantasy setting and form. This also drives an attitude of dread towards player-vs-player combat, with “player-killers” being treated as sadistic madmen and outcasts. The audience for .hack and Blue Slime stories do not encounter the “I’m going to hop on my main and call a few buddies for revenge” attitude towards world PvP common to many MMOs. Finally, The World and its Blue Slime analogues are subject to the whims of god-like outside forces that can shape reality in the game, whether rogue programmers, uplifted AI, or hackers. Isekai versions of Blue Slime fantasy follow the same strictures, keeping the mechanics, the societies, and the interfering gods, but ditch any pretense of a game in their new worlds, providing a seamless transition since there is no functional difference in story between immersive VR and physical travel to a new world.
Also present in the episodic nature of Blue Slime fantasy is the narrative structure of kishotenketsu, an exploration of consequence rather than conflict. Originally developed in Chinese four-line poetry, the kishotenketsu form was adopted by narrative story and even formal academic essay. For those familiar with Japanese visual culture, the 4-koma, or four panel comic strip, represents the most familiar application of kishotenketsu structure to Western eyes. Whether argument or gag strip, the story is divided up into four parts:
The introduction: The characters, setting, and situation are introduced.
The development: Themes and events in the introduction are built upon and developed in more depth.
The twist/complication: An unexpected event illuminates everything that happened before in a new light.
The conclusion: Not only does this wrap up the dilemma of the story, it explores the consequences of the twist.
This allows a story to be told without the overt conflicts inherent to Western structures, most of which originate in Classical Greek theater. This doesn’t mean that the story does not have conflict. Just watch one of Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob film to see conflict in kishotenketsu. But the conflict is not built into the structure of the story like in Western works. Instead, it becomes part of the milieu for episodic adventures. And just as a three-act writer will string together multiple try-fail cycles in a story, many light novels and Chinese films stack multiple kishotenketsu cycles together into one story. Sometimes, in inexperienced hands, this leads to wild shifts in tone and a fascination with new developments as the lack of conflict as an engine of plot leaves the story to the winds of the moment. Also, in Brian Niemeier’s recent exploration of the form, he points out that “You can see how cultural differences between East and West come through in each culture’s preferred storytelling methods. Kishōtenketsu emphasizes developing a cast of characters over focusing on an individual protagonist. The Eastern approach is also more concerned with reconciling the story’s events to the status quo ante.” This emphasis on ensemble and status quo lends itself to romantic tension, or much more likely in Blue Slime fantasy, the hijinks of a harem of female orbiters floating around an indecisive male lead.
So why spend so much time on what at first glance appears to be solely a Japanese genre? Not only are translations of light novels hitting American shelves in droves, thanks to Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and other publishers, these light novels are selling, including Blue Slime, battle academies, and science fiction high schools. Many light novels remain in the top 1% of Amazon sales years after their initial publication in English. And thanks to the recurring cycle of adaptations taking light novels to manga and anime and games, Blue Slime fantasies have a multimedia reach greater than most American science fiction and fantasy novels, and, in manga form, are quickly supplanting comics. Not only does the growing audience inherent to these light novels matter, but the influence in fantasy can be felt in other genres as well. The rise of the litRPG over the past few years has been fueled by writers emulating Sword Art Online and other episodic .hack style light novels, creating Sanderson-style hard magic systems using a palette of RPG mechanics spanning traditional tabletop, Blue Slime RPG, and Western video games such as Skyrim. And despite cyberpunk and the transhumanism stories filling American science fiction, these writers chose the familiar fantasies of gaming instead. Isekai is returning as well, following the otherworldly patterns of Gate, Outbreak Company, and other Japanese cross-dimensional tales instead of such classics as A Princess of Mars; The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and Nine Princes in Amber. And the less said about the harem and reverse-harem fad flooding science fiction and fantasy, the better. But despite the broad sweep of Blue Slime, it is not replacing familiar genres of English-language fantasy, but cross-pollinating with them, bringing a healthy shot of adventure that is often sorely needed in American science fiction and fantasy.
And, most importantly, a wider audience.