As video games increasingly become the most common method of interacting with fantasy, the portals to fantasy worlds have sent heroes into video game worlds. Not just the fantasy worlds of the favorite games, but inside the games themselves, continuing the trapped-in-a-computer-game stories made popular by Jumanji, The Matrix and cyberpunk. While the influence of the Dragon Quest video game series on Japanese fantasy has already blurred the line between game world and fantasy world, a distinct genre of video game isekai portal fantasy has developed.
Unlike more traditional isekai fantasy, the conventions are most often based around those of MMO role-playing games, with the mechanics of the game prominent in the story. These include the player menus always in the character’s vision, talent trees, an ever-improving collection of gear and items, instance dungeons and raids, a strange loathing for player-versus-player combat, and the ever-present threat of permanent death for those trapped inside the game, often against their will by deranged versions of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. Influenced heavily by cyberpunk, these video game fantasies have in turn become an important influence to today’s popular litRPG genre, especially the Russian resurgence of the form.
Strangely enough, video game fantasy portals work in one direction, from the present primary world to the secondary video game fantasy world. Reverse isekai in video game settings are almost non-existent.
Rising of the Shield Hero, by Aneko Yusagi
When Naofumi is suddenly summoned to an alternate world to be one of four legendary heroes, he is handed the Shield, and a country’s hatred as well. Then his companion betrays him, leaving Naofumi penniless and ostracized. To rise to the challenge of defending his new world, Naofumi must pull himself up by his bootstraps–even though only unsavory options remain open to him.
Rising of the Shield Hero has attracted a fair amount of controversy Stateside, from portraying some women as liars and daring to punish them, to sudden delays in translation causing over a year between releases. This continues to the storytelling itself, as some praise the prose of the translation, while others point to the exposition-heavy plots and constant recap chapters as a sign of poor writing. What is clear, however, is that the continued process of adaptation from the original revenge fantasy web novel into various media is polishing the story and the characters while drawing curtains around the more vicious incidents. Naofumi manages the delicate dance between anti-hero and hero with some sympathy, although with complete acknowledgment that many of his actions are motivated by weakness instead of heroism. Starting with a firecracker opening arc, Shield Hero does get bogged down by the same old fault, the reliance on new characters, villains, and lands leading to languid kudzu plots. Like with the Wheel of Time, the first six books are worth the effort, with the remainder depending on your buy-in on the series.
Log Horizon, by Mamare Touno
For twenty years, the MMO Elder Tales has been the most popular and ambitious MMO, eclipsing even World of Warcraft in its player base. As Elder Tales’ twelfth expansion, Homesteading the Noosphere, rolls out, a socially awkward engineering graduate student known as Shiroe finds himself trapped inside the game along with hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. As the trapped players struggle to adapt to the new reality inside Elder Tales, a growing malaise, poor food, and decaying relations with the non-player characters known as The People of the Land cloud the game world. Together with his friends Naotsugu and Akatsuki, Shiroe sets out to rekindle hope and create a place that the gamers can call home.
Time has not dulled my praises for Log Horizon. It is a welcome return to stories featuring young professionals instead of middle school students, strategy over power, and, most importantly, hope–both for the future and the present. Instead of seeking character improvement, Shiroe and his companions grapple with creating and improving the community around them, even if that means exploiting the game to do so. But what sets Log Horizon as a light novel apart from the rest is in the supplemental information included in each volume. Most light novels are content to illustrate a scene every chapter. Log Horizon chose to include character sheets, maps, stories, game guides, and even comics with the novel itself in one of the most art-intensive series currently available. These materials flesh out the Elder Tales game, allowing for a more streamlined story, as much of the background exposition and the rules crunch are reserved for these entertaining vignettes. Most importantly, the art and strategy guide extras reinforce the all-important visual aspect to a game world. Log Horizon has recently returned after a long hiatus, so it will continue to raise the bar on the use of art to supplement story.
My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi
After a blow to the head jogs Katarina Claes’s memories of a past life as a Japanese student, she finds herself face-to-face with a horrible revelation–she is inside her favorite game, a relationship-based choose-your-own-adventure visual novel. But Katarina is not the heroine, but her foil, a conceited bully of a duke’s daughter, destined for death or exile when the true heroine finds happiness. Katarina must draw on her knowledge of the game and its characters to avoid certain doom.
Notable Mentions include: Infinite Dendrogram, by Sakon Kaidou, for exploring an immersive MMO setting without trapped in the game tropes, the .hack (“dot hack”) franchise, which follows players affected as programs within an immersive MMO game slowly develop life and will, and Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, which puts a far darker spin on the trapped-in-a-game trope as the main character is in charge of a kingdom of monsters, villains, and cutthroats.
The elephant in the video game isekai room is Sword Art: Online, by Reki Kawahara, the popularizer of this particular genre. Reactions to Sword Art: Online are divided, many love it while others take issue with the characters, power fantasy, and worldbuilding. However, references to Sword Art: Online in other media and novels, even in English, are multiplying, so it is mentioned for completeness.