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Rise of the Arch-Illager

Meet the author behind Minecraft Dungeons’ first novel

Could there possibly be a better combination than books and Minecraft? Peanut butter and jelly? Macaroni and cheese? I certainly can’t think of a better use for ink and paper than to tell stories about amazing Overworld adventures.

And here’s even more proof: we’re about to release a new novel based on Minecraft Dungeons! It’s called Rise of the Arch-Illager, and is an exciting prequel to the game which sets out the early life of the Arch-Illager.

Wait, why would you want to read about that fink? Well, I asked the book's fantastic author, Matt Forbeck, who told me how he’s written a story which makes you care about the bad guy, how he makes hitting stuff exciting, and why it’s a mistake to cackle all the time (which was honestly a bit of a disappointment to me).

Alex: Hey Matt! I promise I’ll ask you about Minecraft in a minute, but first can I just exclaim… You’ve written three novels for – OMG – Halo!

Matt: Yeah! That was a great gig. I actually interviewed with Bungie for a freelance writing position on – I think it was Myth. They showed me a demo of Halo two years before it came out, and I was like, wow! My jaw just dropped.

Alex: I am incredibly jealous. And Halo’s just the start! I can’t actually count how many books you’ve written.

Matt: I’ve lost track. It’s somewhere in the upper 30s for novels and I don’t even know for other books.

Alex: A lot of them are set around games. I guess you quite like them a bit?

Matt: Oh yeah, I’m a gaming fool. I started out as a tabletop game designer, actually. I grew up in southern Wisconsin, where Dungeons & Dragons started way back in the day and after high school I’d drive up and playtest games with a bunch of ex-TSR guys (the publishers of the original D&D!). Then I worked as a tabletop roleplaying game and boardgame designer, and then I transitioned to writing tie-in novels for games like Blood Bowl and Dungeons & Dragons. Games and fiction has always been the crossroads of my interests.

Alex: Did you ever see yourself writing a book set in Minecraft?

Matt: No! One of the things about Minecraft is that it doesn’t really have a story. There are all sorts of things you can do, but it doesn’t have a plot or characters, so Minecraft Dungeons was interesting because hey, we actually have a plot and characters and things happen in a sequence!

Alex: Yeah, Minecraft Dungeons has an actual story for you to play through! But you decided you’d write a prequel to the events that you play.

Matt: There’s a good reason why it’s a prequel. I didn’t want to just tell the story, because as a player you’re telling your own story, and that’s half the fun of playing Minecraft Dungeons. If I tell that story in a novel it becomes the canon version, and nobody wants to be told they’re playing the game wrong. So instead, one of the best things you can do is to give more context to the game you’re going to be playing, right? To give you more reasons to care about what you’re doing. In a prequel I can show who you’re fighting against, why he’s a bad guy, and why the world is as it is; stuff that’s only given a few seconds in a cutscene.

Alex: One of the great things about Minecraft Dungeons is that it’s all action, all the time, and you’ve written some great battle scenes.

Matt: I love writing battles! If I can write a book that’s just one big fight scene I’d be happy. I don’t know why I enjoy it, but I’m fairly good at describing how people punch each other (laughs). Trying to replicate that kind of action on the page is an interesting challenge. If you can push a button and make your character go *thwack-thwack*, that’s much more exciting than me trying to describe it to you. So you don’t say what happened, because *thwack-thwack-thwack* isn’t exciting, you have to give the context to the fight. Why does it matter? What does it mean? Why are the characters worrying about what’s happening? 

Alex: Yeah, Rise of the Arch-Illager is really great at making you care about its characters. Even the Arch-Illager! Was it tricky to make readers feel for the bad guy?

Matt: I came to enjoy Archie a lot as I wrote the book. I feel for this guy! I wouldn’t want to hang out with him, I mean, he’s a terrible person in a lot of ways, but I understand him and see how he got to be that way. I think really well-realised villains are actually some of the most intriguing characters, because it’s easy to say, “Do the right thing, be a hero?” right? But someone trying to be the hero and failing miserably and falling down the darker path, that’s more intriguing. Archie is sympathetic in lots of ways – he gets picked on, other stuff happens to him. 

Alex: He’s sympathetic even right towards the end of the book! He shows that being a leader is hard.

Matt: Exactly, and he doesn’t really want to be one. He’s almost the reluctant hero from the classic hero’s journey, where the hero has the call to action and they initially refuse it, and so on. For Archie it’s the call to villainy and he doesn’t really want to go there.

Alex: It’s interesting, I found myself caring a lot more for the Arch-Illager than I did the proper heroes in the book!

Matt: Yes, and one of them isn’t such a nice guy! It was a little tricky to write the hero characters, because I wanted to make sure you can fill in your own character in your head. Most people want to think of themselves as good people, and they want to play good characters and be a hero. It’s why heroes are so attractive and enticing – we’re exploring and learning how we can be that kind of person. Those are interesting ideas to wrap your head around. So when you play the game, I want you to be able to see yourself in that role, and writing the heroes in the book was an interesting balancing act where I want to show them as shadows and not fill in the details, so for a good chunk of the book I don’t even name them! 

Alex: It works great, because the end of the book leads really neatly into the start of the game. How did you make them join up so smoothly?

Matt: I cheated! I used the trailer for the game! That was the blueprint for the entire novel. I’ve written movie novelisations before, like Rogue One, where someone hands you a movie script and you have to expand on it and give the characters more context and motivations. This was like that, but with a minute and a half of video instead! It sounds challenging, but the trailer gave me a framework to work with, and a lot of the emotional high points. As long as I hit those points I knew where I was going and where I needed to be. Like with Archie’s cackle: I’d heard it in the trailer and I knew how it made me feel, and so writing it into the novel was just about amping it up.

Alex: Archie’s cackle-laugh is such a great moment! You know, I would have been tempted to make him do it all the way through the book.

Matt: One of my editors always told me that writing emotion is like seasoning – you put just enough to give flavour but it’s overwhelming if you put too much in. If you have constant cackling it just robs everything. You have to ease people into it and then shock them with it. You need to land that emotional impact.

Alex: *Notes “cackle less” in big notebook titled Plan to Become a Supervillain.* Thanks so much, Matt!

Rise of the Arch-Illager releases in North America on July 7 and on July 9 in the UK.

Alex Wiltshire
Written By
Alex Wiltshire

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