Tl;dr: A trope is meant to serve some particular plot reason. The reason should flow naturally from the story, and tropes used effectively do that. Tropes which are being used to cover up for a deficiency in the story itself are the ones that are glaring.
Now I need to add two pieces to this. The first one is a video essay that looks at genre fatigue. I think it’s partially relevant, at least with DungeonCore and GameLit becoming their own sub genre and super genre respectively.
This is when something becomes so cliche that people look for a response to it, or they’ve seen it all before. We’ll talk about this again when we get to the comparison of tropes to memes.
But a more standard way to look at tropes is the way that Bad Writing Advice does. Bad Writing Advice is a YouTube series where the author gives terrible writing advice, and then gives good, competing writing advice as a side thought. It’s an interesting series. He has one called “The Nature of Cliches”. It’s more about the nature of using tropes in a novel as opposed to cliches. His honest thoughts are when he drops the snarky advice and just gives straight advice.
He and I do not view tropes in the same way. Whenever I evaluate a trope, I look at the reason why the trope was used, what purposes it addresses, and whether or not it was effective at that purpose.
Roughly then, there are two reasons you can employ a trope, because the story requires it or because the author needs it. The more it’s being employed as a means for the author to get the story to a certain point, rather than it being inherent to the story, the more the trope stands out.
For an example, let’s look at one common LitRPG/GameLit Trope:
Trope: Being paid to play video games.
Plot Reason: Most of us aren’t playing video games because we have a job, kids, mortgage payments, car payments, student loan payments, etc. If the game doesn’t take care of that, the protagonist might just step outside of the game and leave. So we need a reason why the protagonist doesn’t just leave the game.
From this, we can see that a trope is basically a well-known answer to a common plot point. It serves the same function as a meme in this regard. A meme is essentially a prepackaged joke for a common scenario while a trope is a prepackaged solution for a common plot point.
Like a meme, it’s the use within the context that matters and as the individual viewer determines when an oversaturated meme can become obnoxious, (think, “I took an arrow to the knee”) so too does the viewer determine when a trope is getting overused. For example, here’s the trope “No cellphone reception” in horror movies.
The plot purpose of this trope is obvious, if there’s a horrible situation, why not call for help when we all have cellphones? Bam, no reception. It’s so overused though that it immediately calls attention to itself. But back to “paid to play a game”, let’s look at the rights and the wrongs of it.
Example 1. Okay, so this is an example of fulfilling the plot reason without using the plot trope. James Hunter, Viridian Online. The World is ending via an impending meteor strike and people have two choices: Either they can hope the military can avert disaster or hope that they can survive the disaster, or they can choose to go permanently digital. The person going full-in will die in real life and if they are not successfully transplanted, they will die in the digital World.
Since the player is dead in the corporeal World, they cannot leave. Domino Finn has a similar motif in Reboot. This is why getting trapped in a virtual World is a popular motif.
It’s the first example because you don’t have to use a trope to fulfill a plot reason, and if you find yourself reaching for a trope, ask what the plot reason is first and then see if you can find a potentially better solution.
Example 2. Michael Scott-Earle, Lion’s Quest. The main player is a professional gamer in a game that requires you have to have physical stats of a professional athlete. As such, people pay to watch him play because it is a sport, and he also earns money from gamer tourists who pay him and his teammates to take them on a run through the game.
Example 3. Travis Bagwell, Awaken Online. The protagonist is the bad guy of the game. Since he’s been designated the bad guy, people are playing to watch what he does or to be the first to take him out. If he leaves, a large part of the game’s appeal goes away and they’ll have to find a new bad guy, which the game’s AI limits.
Example 4. Luke Chmilenko, Ascend Online. The game developers have a new VR setup, which is wildly in demand but has a very limited production rate. The game is a surprise hit, so they do not have as much hardware as they need to fulfill demand. Because of this, people are watching game streams until they can get in on the game.
Luke’s book is a masterclass in using tropes effectively. He knows what the tropes are for, what purpose they serve in the plot, and how to write them into the story so that they serve their purpose.
My top unsuccessful novel that tried this is the Dark Herbalist. The entire reason why the game developers have set up paying people to play the game is nonsensical. He needs a player to be fully immersed in a VR game, but doesn’t have a setup that makes any sense. It’s worth looking at this one in a little more depth, you can get into the full review linked if you want all the ways this could have been handled.
The premise is that a game company wants people to play non-standard character roles and thus they hire people to try out non-standard character builds in the hopes that it will convince players to try out non-standard characters and classes.
But they only hire something like four people by the end of the first book. Unless they only had four non-standard builds, this is monumentally stupid. The reason why people aren’t using the non-standard builds is because they only allow you to have one character at a time. The solution that is immediately obvious is to allow players who choose a non-standard build the ability to have one other character, if they absolutely are insistent upon forcing people to choose a unique build.
With only four people being successful with non-traditional builds, the developers should be switching these employees into new builds to test as soon as regular players start deciding to convert to non-traditional builds.
What would happen if the game devs used this obvious solution? There would be no book.
Hence, the author needs this to happen, but from the standpoint of the novel itself, it’s entirely ludicrous. There’s other problems as well like, ‘If people only have one build, and they’re paying for the game already, why would having a non-traditional build help the game at all? They wouldn’t generate a dime more in revenue.’
No matter how you look at it, he’s using the trope as a crutch for the story by using a familiar trope to push through a failed context.
As another example, Blaise Corvin does this in Secrets of the Old Ones. Here, the problem is Blaise has two Worlds: A very interesting in-game World and a not very interesting real World.
Thus, he either needs to spend a lot of time making the real-World interesting or he needs to get the player out of the real world. To do this, he invents some contrived reasons why the protagonist gets paid to play the video game, therefore, he won’t spend as much time in the real World.
Here, the literary sin isn’t as bad. If you remove it, then the story doesn’t completely collapse. But he needs this to happen to remedy a structural deficiency in the novel (boring real World) rather than it resulting as a natural consequence of the story.
To use an extended metaphor here, the plot is like driving down the road. You should hopefully be driving somewhere interesting that has lots of great scenery. That’s the author’s job when they create interestings Worlds, entertaining characters, witty dialogue, etc.
A great plot without anything else to support it is going to be dull and a bad plot can work if everything else is good, which is how Jim Butcher wrote the Codex Alera.
When a trope is used correctly, it doesn’t call attention to itself because you never feel the hole in the story that it’s trying to cover up. But when it doesn’t work, it’s like hitting a pothole. Now, you stop looking at the scenery and you just pay attention to the road, making sure there’s no more potholes that are going to come out and ambush you.
That’s when you’re taken out of the novel and it loses the glorious immersive magic. There isn’t anything inherent to tropes that makes it more dangerous than other literary sins, except that genre-savvy readers are generally aware of the tropes and intuitively understand what problem they’re trying to solve. When the trope is being used to cover something else, the readers will feel it.
Dealing with Death
So one of the questions that popped up deals with death. In a game VR setting, if death isn’t permanent, how do you raise the stakes?
First, in several fantasy series, death isn’t very permanent. In The Iron Druid Chronicles, De Morgan dies, but she still appears in cameos. In Harry Dresden, the lead character dies and gets brought back to life. In the Nate Silver series, both the protagonist and his fiancee get killed, but come back.
In a LitRPG game, there’s a few ways of dealing with the problem.
- The Sword Art Online way. Here, if you die in game, you die outside of the game. Although this can come with a price, as they have a very gimmicky 30 second rule where you can come back to life.
- Loss of player character. Harmon Cooper does this in The Last Warrior of Unigaea. Even though the protagonist won’t die, the character they are playing in the game will be gone.
- Loss of stats/experience. This is what Luke C does in Ascend Online. Players lose stats/experience and have a death penalty applied to them for eight hours.
- Loss of time to respawn. Aleron Kong uses this is The Land. Players have to respawn and lose time while awaiting respawn. Travis Bagwell also uses this in Awaken Online.
- Loss of equipment. Any items that are not “soulbound” to the player are available for looting.
Each of these has their ups and downs. Loss of stats and experience is crucial for feeling loss in a game where the protagonist is an underdog and needs every bit of help they can. Losing equipment works best when the protagonist has grown too lax on relying upon a particular item to help them win. Loss of time works when the player is racing against an event of some sort and every second counts.
In short, the plot reason is What are the ramifications for failing? The exact mechanisms are dependent on the story.