RPGamer Feature - Steve Brezenoff Interview

The influence of role-playing games is becoming more apparent outside of the video game and tabletop worlds. Novelizations of popular titles such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect have their audiences, while other series began as books first, like The Witcher Series by Andrzej Sapkowski or Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe. We've touched upon novels that use elements of role-playing to tell a story back when we chatted with Eve Silver at Fan Expo last year. This trend, particularly in young adult fiction, is starting to grow, take shape and rise in popularity.

In a larger feature, I plan to explore how role-playing games can help pen a great novel by focusing on a few works that use these elements to their fullest potential. The novels we will be focusing on are not only great adventures, but those who authored them have a strong understanding of how role-playing works, the social interaction it creates, and the genuine desire to be in a role that isn't necessarily the one we choose for ourselves in real life.

While this feature is still a work in progress, I've decided to give you a taste of what it will be exploring with an interview. Steve Brezenoff, author of the award-winning young adult novel Brooklyn, Burning (September 1, 2011, Carolrhoda Books), has a new forthcoming contemporary novel called Guy in Real Life (May 27, 2014, Balzer + Bray), which explores the roles we play versus the ones we are forced into. The novel also looks at how the protagonists use role-playing games as means to find themselves.

Sam Marchello: Could you give our readers a bit of insight as to who you are and a bit about your gaming history?
Steve Brezenoff: Well, I'm Steve Brezenoff, writer for children and teens. I wrote the Field Trip Mysteries series, and the young adult novels The Absolute Value of -1; Brooklyn, Burning; and coming out in May of this year, Guy in Real Life.

For my gaming history, we have to go back to coin arcades and the Atari 2600. I didn't game much in the early golden days of home PC gaming, though we did have an Apple clone at home in the late 1980s and I liked the mostly text-based adventure games we had back then. After that, with the advent of quality gaming consoles, I pretty much stopped gaming regularly. It was World of Warcraft that brought me back to PC gaming, and since then I've been very into gaming again, playing as many MMOs and fantasy RPGs as I could reasonably afford, time and money-wise.

SM: What is "Guy in Real Life" about? What was the inspiration behind the novel?
SB: Guy in Real Life is about two gaming teens, Lesh and Lana, and the roles they play in and out of their respective games. It's also about how they find each other by accident and how each helps the other see their roles and the roles of those around them for what they really are.

I joined World of Warcraft shortly after launch, and rolled a few toons to get started, trying out different races, starting zones, and classes. I found pretty quickly that my female NE druid got treated very differently by total strangers in-game than did my, for example, orc warrior (A study at the University of Minnesota bears this out. It showed that even when online users are told that another user is of a different gender or age than their avatar, they tend to treat the avatar based on its appearance. For example, if you tell a user an avatar of a young attractive woman is actually being controlled by a man in his 60s, they will still treat that avatar as they would a young attractive woman.) This fascinated me.

At the same time, I much preferred running my female toons. I can't really explain why this is. Part of this was definitely how much the kindness of other players made life in-game so much easier. However, playing the opposite gender also opens up an aspect of role-playing games that simply rolling myself as a toon would never allow.

I never intended to turn this experience into a novel, but my wife thought it was terrific fiction fodder, so I went for it. It took a long time to work how the story would unfold for the teens I created. I first wrote a short synopsis for the story in 2007, and finished the manuscript in 2012.

SM: What were your main goals in crafting "Guy in Real Life"? Why the inclusion of RPGs into the narrative?
SB: Without RPGs, Guy in Real Life could never have happened. You might say I decided to write about (one aspect) of role-playing games before I had any other idea about how the book would unfold, before I even knew who Lesh and Lana were. In fact, in early drafts of the book, Lana was unnamed. She didn't get her own point-of-view until I'd written and trashed tens of thousands of words.

SM: What was the MMO that inspired the game that Lesh plays while he is grounded? Are you an avid RPG/MMO player yourself? Or do you have any history in tabletop games like Svetlana does?
SB: The game was World of Warcraft, of course, but yeah, I've played loads of other MMOs as well, though not to the degree I've played World of Warcraft. The only other MMO I've really played with that level of obsession is Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I consider maybe the best MMO I've ever tried. The graphics and storyline are as good as you'd expect from Bioware (who made my favorite RPG series, Dragon Age — the next title looks absolutely amazing). As for other MMOs, I've downloaded a bunch and rolled a few toons but I've never stuck with them. Even World of Warcraft nowadays isn't much fun anymore. I'll play the next expansion, and then quit again. I haven't played since I leveled a monk during the last expansion (female BE). I loved that expansion for a lot of reasons, but so much has changed since initial release, and so much of what's gone I really, really loved.

I have little to no experience with tabletop gaming. As a kid, I loved reading the D&D Monster Manual and copying the drawings, and my brother and I created maps and player characters, but I never played a single campaign. To write Guy in Real Life, I sat in on a D&D game here in the Twin Cities area, just as an observer.

SM: Many (early) readers have speculated that their may be issues with Lesh's sexuality because he players a female character in a role-playing game. Is this a misconception by readers or is this a topic worth speculating about?
SB: His sexuality I think is pretty clear. He's mad for Svetlana and for his friend Jelly, and not too bashful about describing his lust for the latter in particular. His gender, on the other hand, I can see people wondering about, and speculating about anything is worth doing. If a book raises questions, by all means ponder them.

That said, I'd say his gender is pretty clear too. I don't want to spoil anything for readers by discussing the ending, but as to why he enjoys running the girl character so much, we can let readers decide what they think.

SM: Why the opposite ends of the role-playing spectrum for Svetlana and Lesh? What was your reasoning behind this?
SB: I wish I could remember. I decided in the very first synopsis, ages ago, that the girl who inspired Lesh's obsession would be a tabletop gamer. I guess it sets up a nice contrast to Lesh, as so many things about her do, right down to hair color and manner of dress. I do remember that I made her game master and campaign creator because I very much did NOT want her to be playing a specific role in a campaign party.

SM: Do you think role-playing games have the power to shape narrative in such a way that it gets readers to think about the roles in which they play in real life?
SB: Great ones do, and a lot of that needs to be on the player to be insightful enough to bother looking. It's going to be different for every player and every game, I would think.

SM: So there are four multiple perspectives within this novel. Why the choice of four instead of simply keeping the narrative from Lesh and Svetlana's points of view?
SB: Role-playing games, on the computer or on the table, are often so immersive and richly lived in that to make them such a focus of this book and not let the reader climb right inside the games with Lesh and Lana would have been a huge missed opportunity. It would be like writing a book about auto racing and never letting the reader go for a ride.

At the same time, I know the gaming chapters will turn off a lot of readers who are looking for a more straightforward love story, but I feel those chapters do a great deal, especially in Lesh's case, to highlight certain crucial aspects of who he is and how he's changing as a person.

SM: Why the choice of a young adult contemporary novel instead of a college or post-college novel?
SM: I suppose I write young-adult novels, so I wrote a young-adult novel. That said, I've got a manuscript "in the drawer," as they say, about a college freshwoman who's absolutely mental over World of Warcraft, obsessed beyond all reason, who actually believes herself to be her toon to some degree, even believing she can stealth, for example. I put it aside ages ago because the "New Adult" craze hadn't started yet, and because after a few revisions it wasn't doing what I wanted it to do. I doubt it'll ever see the light of day.

SM: What are some of your favourite role-playing games or even games in general?
SB: Dragon Age, as I said, and obviously World of Warcraft though I don't play it anymore.Star Wars: The Old Republic on my initial playthrough was wonderful. I was surprised to find myself loving the smuggler character best. I thought for sure I'd be a jedi of some kind. I loved Bioshock: Infinite, despite that it's FPS, which I normally detest, and the same goes for Half-Life 2. Super buggy Vampire: The Masquerade was fantastic in spite of all the issues, and I'm hoping the World of Darkness MMO someday is actually released. I'm playing through Skyrim right now, after having given up on it about a year ago. I'm liking it more this time. The Arkham series is one of the most fun gaming experiences of my life. I loved L.A Noire for its story and open world and amazing NPC acting, and because I'm a big fan of film noir and it pays homage to a lot of the classics of the genre. I could go on and on but I will stop now.

SM: Finally, are you a "Guy in Real Life"?
SB: I suppose I am. My "main" in an MMO is almost always a female toon. My Skyrim avatar right now is a female high elf archer. I know a lot of gamers, especially male gamers, find that odd, but I have no interest in creating a copy of myself in game unless I'm playing Sims (And you should see me play Sims. I torture the poor bastard. Make him play piano till he pees himself.) This is role playing, and playing a role that isn't me makes it more compelling, and that means often playing a female avatar.

RPGamer would like to thank Steve Brezenoff for participating in this interview. Guy in Real Life is set to release on May 27, 2014 from Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. Check back with RPGamer at the end of the month when we take a look at Guy in Real Life again, along with other novels featuring elements of role-playing. We wish Steve all the best when his novel release, and you can pre-order Guy in Real Life from your favourite book seller or spread the word via Goodreads.

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