When Russell Marsh was in high school he ended up friends with a group of nerds. They wrote a video game as a school project which evolved into Realms of Gold. When they graduated two of those friends started Black Arts Games, however Russell Marsh, who had always had a not very secret ambition to become "cool", abandoned his nerdy friends and hobbies and went to law school. Years later Black Arts has become moderately famous while Russell has dropped out of college and has struggled to find a career or vocation. Now, out of desperation to find some kind of meaning in his life, Russell is going back to his old friends and asking them for a job as a video game designer.
Russell quickly finds a serious bug in the core game engine, and his attempts to track it down involve both a recapitulation of the history of video games from the early 80s to the late 90s (mostly as re-imagined through fictional Black Arts games) and contemplation of the troubled relationships between the original group of friends.
Notable for being quite an accurate depiction of the day to day work done in a typical mid sized game development studio, albeit turned up to 11.
Provides Examples Of:
- Apocalypse How: At least in regards to the world's economy if Black Arts can't figure out a way to patch their engine.
- Ascended Fan Boy: Before he got hired, Matt had played, read, and generally devoured anything directly or indirectly related to Black Arts games. He eventually worked his way through QA and became a member of the production team. He also acts as Black Arts' unofficial lore-keeper. If someone needs to know how many varieties of livestock appeared in Realms of Gold III, they turn to Matt.
- Ascended Glitch: Some of the idiosyncrasies of the WAFFLE engine are definitely this.
- Black Box: WAFFLE is explicitly described as such in the narration, "a black box at the heart of Black Arts." No one really knows how it works except for its now-dead creator.
- Bonus Level: Plays a critical part in the story's climax.
- Cutscene Power to the Max: Also plays a critical part in the climax. The sword-fighting rules make it impossible to defeat a certain opponent... but if you trigger a cutscene, the sword-fighting rules will be pre-empted.
- Dreaming the Truth: A likely explanation for Russell's Helpful Hallucinations: Most of the time it seems Russell fell asleep and forgot about it, since after most of the encounters he mentions waking up. Most of their advice (other than one Info Dump about Lisa) concerns things he's seen before and nearly forgotten, such as Mournblade.
- Dummied Out: Several items from earlier Realms games are still lurking around unintentionally in later ones.
- Fictional Counterpart: Realms of Gold is based on the Roguelike games of the 1980s. While graphically similar, the simulation engine running it was so ahead of its time that it powered games over a decade later.
- Fat and Skinny: Simon and Darren respectively.
- Fun with Acronyms: The WAFFLE engine. Only Simon knew what it stood for, if anything.
- Gaiden Game: There are almost as many spin-offs of the Realms games as there are main entries in the series.
- Helpful Hallucination: Very early on the four main characters from the Black Arts games start appearing to Russell. This seems to be purely a literary technique since there's no sign of drug use, head injury, or (aside from this) any serious psychological issues. They offer encouragement and occasionally advice. May be a case of Imaginary Friend as well. Or see this page's entry for Dreaming the Truth.
- Hacker Cave: The Black Arts office is a very stereotypical game development office, consisting mainly of a single large room, half of which is an unused empty wasteland and the other half of which is filled with computers, video games and various toys. A number of the staff stay there for multiple days in a row, sleeping under their desks and living off of snacks from the break room, especially as it gets later into the development cycle.
- Inspired by...: The relationship between Simon and Darren is very similar to that of John Romero and John Carmack.
- Jerkass: Darren engineered a coup behind the scenes to leave Black Arts and take most of their top development staff with him, essentially stabbing his long-time friend Don in the back. He does help save the day in the end however.
- Legendary in the Sequel: The characters of the first game in the Realms series are known as legends in the later ones.
- Long List: Russell discovers that a good chunk of his duties as a game designer is creating these.
- More specifically, as part of the design process, he has to list every single character, object, weapon, action, etc. in the game world. A (very) partial list: "door, horseshoe, catapult, tiara, bucket, stone - large (4'), stone - medium (s'), stone - small (1'), stone - tiny (1).
- Lord British Postulate: some of the games in the Realms series are based on Ultima, and this trope is brought up.
- Noodle Incident: Multiple examples:
- Simon's death. It is alluded to, but never spelled out by the narrator.
- Also, Russell never explains the circumstances of him leaving law school.
- Simon and Darren's summer camp fight was viewed as this by Russell. However, his friends simply didn't trust him after it became apparent he was somewhat embarrassed to hang out with them and didn't tell him the truth.
- Polygon Ceiling: The shift from 2D games to 3D is proving difficult for Black Arts games, as it did for nearly everyone in the time period of the novel.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Don. He apparently never loses his temper, keeps morale up and steered Black Arts through some tough times. Russell seems to look up to him as an older brother when they are in fact the same age.
- Save Scumming: In universe. The WAFFLE engine was designed to prevent that. In order to make choices more meaningful, you can't load up previous saves in-game. This apparently turned off a lot of would-be consumers of their games. Also becomes an important plot-point as saved games carry on through all the Black Arts games, even ones that are different genres and time periods. This adds tension late in the book when they are trying to squash a bug.
- Second-Person Narration: While the story is told from First-Person Perspective, Russell, the narrator, has a habit of dipping into this when discussing his gaming experiences and describing games in general. In fact, his use of the word "you" could be considered a Title Drop.
- Shout-Out: In-universe, the Mournblade program is a shout out to The Elric Saga.
- The cover art is pretty much a screenshot of a moment in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. However, the Scythian of that game is rendered in pure black and with an @ symbol across the chest - just like the @ that represents the player character in the original Rogue/Nethack'' and the other classic ASCII roguelikes.
- Shown Their Work: Austin Grossman has worked for Looking Glass Studios, as well as Ion Storm and Crystal Dynamics. He knows video game development.
- Story-Breaker Power: Mournblade is an examination of the trope.
- Up to Eleven: The WAFFLE engine. It was originally created by high-schoolers who were trying to program a video game for a school project. Later, teenagers at a computer summer-camp added all sorts of new features. It eventually evolved into something so powerful that nobody at the game studio itself is quite sure how it works after the guy who created it died. Yet, it still powers all of their games.