He’s a plagiarist because he stole ideas and storylines directly from a popular fantasy series for use in his new RPGMaker game. He’s a fool because he either thought nobody would notice, or that nobody would call him on it.
I want to preface this post by saying that homages, references, and subtle winks are some of my favorite parts of fiction. When an author clearly identifies what influenced him he is at once acknowledging the giant shoulders he’s standing on, and putting a fun little easter egg in his work for his readers to share. We see examples of this in practically every work of modern fiction. You don’t have to spend long exploring The Tommyverse to see just how true that is.
There is a line, though, between a friendly homage and blatant plagiarism. And this fellow Max McGee has crossed it.
For those of you outside the RM community: every RM game contains stolen material. Within the community the use of copyrighted resources (such as sprites, music, or sound effects) is pretty much a given. Drawing pictures and composing music are hard, and people who can do those things well are rare. Plus, that sort of artistry is pretty far removed from the development of RPG mechanics or the crafting of a good narrative, which is what most RPGMakerers are interested in. There is a subtle art to using resources from obscure sources that can’t be immediately identified, but very rarely does anyone actually try to pass off a Crono spritesheet or a Xenogears composition as their own work. When it happens, it’s met with all the scorn and contempt something of that nature deserves.
So when I say “Max McGee’s new RMVX title To Arms! is the most shameless example of plagiarism I have ever seen in the RPGMaker community,” know that I am not referring to his use of music from Final Fantasy Tactics.
Max McGee, formerly known in RM circles as Legion, is a fairly polarizing figure. He believes his authorial vision to be utterly beyond reproach, and this attitude applies both to his writing style and his application of game mechanics. More aptly put, he is very much like me. He and I are alike in that we both felt that our players should approach our games with a very specific mindset, and that any errors or flaws they found were the result of mistakes on their part. We were both very fond of the “you are playing it wrong!” mantra, and if that made you not like our games, well, your loss.
We were so constantly and thoroughly confused as to why our unbelievably brilliant games weren’t more popular than they were.
I like to think I’ve since grown out of that mindset, but Max certainly hasn’t. If you take issue with his game mechanics he will politely and repeatedly inform you of the correct way to play the game. If you take issue with his writing he will drag out his Creative Writing degree as though it were a shield. If you press the issue you’re likely to be debased and insulted.
As a result, many of Max’s works are good games with deep, glaring faults. Again, much like my own.
Since distancing myself from the RM communities I’ve considered Max something of a curiosity. On a bad day I might call him a pretentious hack and have done with it. The RM community is full of pretentiousness and full of hacks… kind of comes with the territory. But Max has something a lot of guys there don’t — genuine talent. The man can tell a story and do it well. Ever since playing Max’s earliest games I’ve felt that if he could just get over himself a little bit he could dramatically improve his output. I would have put him on a short list of people I thought might someday have a real career in game design, once he grew out of his RM phase.
I no longer believe that’s true, now that I’ve caught him plagiarising. Practically everything about Max’s newest game, To Arms! is lifted wholesale from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
First and foremost is the general tone of the work. It’s clear that Martin is one of Max’s biggest influences. He himself admits so in a comment on one of his game pages:
Martin himself was influenced by a boatload of writers (as was Stover); it’s just kind of how this whole creating thing works. I was not as forthcoming about my influences as I was on Wanderer when I noticed that wearing my inspiration on my sleeve kind of increased the “lol ripoff” effect rather than defusing it as I originally intended.
The game does not take place in an alternate Westeros, it in fact takes place in an alternate Bravia (my D&D campaign setting, not that there was any reason you’d know that, which in turn borrows more from Dwarf Fortress than from Martin) but I can see how you would think that. I’ve taken my naming conventions straight from Song of Ice and Fire and I’m aping his writing style a bit but I’m not sure what you mean about “terminology”. Martin talks a lot about the Vanguard and Foot vs. Horse but these are hardly his inventions; they are real components of medieval European military tactics, as are the royal houses, etc. Likewise the low fantasy milieu which To Arms! embraces is not an invention of George R.R. Martin’s.
It’s true that many of the ideas and concepts Martin uses in A Song of Ice and Fire are drawn from historical concepts and the great Well of Fantasy Tropes. Having played through Max’s game, though, I am quite certain that the entirety of his understanding of mideival tactics, royal houses and other such “low fantasy milieu” come directly from Martin’s work, rather than independent research. This is not how “this writing thing” works! Martin was absolutely influenced by a great many writers, but he did not steal storylines from them. And when he crafted his world, he did it in such a way that it absolutely had its own flavor. There are many fantasy settings out there that have their roots from historical records, depicting feudalism and royal politicking and describing military affairs.
To Arms!, sadly, isn’t one of them; its roots are firmly in Ice and Fire specifically. In Max’s world the dead are tended to by holy sisters. The title denoting a knight is “ser”, rather than “sir”. Mercenaries are known as “sellswords”. And so on.
The most blatant example of theft are the character names. There are more characters in To Arms! with names stolen directly from Martin’s books than aren’t, beginning with the protagonist:
Janos isn’t exactly a common name, but neither is it exclusive to Ice and Fire. In the books Janos Slynt was a major enough character that Max could not have used the name without conscious knowledge… but a minor enough character that its use as an homage would have been appropriate. It would have been similar to the Final Fantasy series’s use of the names Biggs and Wedge. However…
…Grenn, Kevan and Gregor all fit the same description as Janos. These are names lifted directly from the book and put into the game. Four instances already, and we’re still in the game’s intro scene.
It should be noted that Gregor is a generic recruit, assigned a name pulled from a random list. Out of the forty-ish names on the random list, twenty-one came directly from Ice and Fire. Not even the spelling had been changed. They are: Chett, Cortnay, Dunsen, Eddard, Harlen, Hobb, Jon, Ygritte, Tysha, Tansy, Shae, Palla, Obella, Nymeria, Margaery, Myrcella, Lyanna, Jayne, Genna, Daena, and Catelyn.
One of the things Martin does quite frequently in his work is to take a somewhat common-sounding name and change the spelling and/or pronunciation slightly. Just enough to make it exotic looking without looking completely made up. The various regions of Martin’s world, and the families and houses therein, each have their own pool of naming conventions which fans of the series can recognize and get a sense for. This is something a lot of fantasy works do; note that Ice and Fire’s made-up names look and feel consistently different than made-up names from Dragonlance, or Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter.
Using these names is neither paying homage to Martin’s work, nor is it the application of any kind of knowledge or imagination. And it doesn’t stop there:
Aemon, Osmund and Tommen are, again, all stolen. As are various objects and game concepts:
Longclaw, of course, is Jon Snow’s blade from Ice and Fire.
“Snarks and grumkins” is used in the Ice and Fire books as we might use the word “bogeyman”. Martin didn’t invent the term grumkin, and Max at least added a letter to it, but I know of no other fantasy world that uses the term outside of Ice and Fire. I’m betting Max doesn’t either.
Again, “milk of the poppy” wasn’t invented by Martin, but his is the only world where it is used in this context; a medicine given to the sick to alleviate pain, and to the well to aid in sleep.
Kryllor, the Burning Lord, is a deity in the world of To Arms!. This may be an original invention of Max’s, or it may be a generic fantasy adaptation… but my money is that it’s just a slight recolor of Ice and Fire‘s R’hllor, Lord of Light and God of Flame and Shadow.
So, yes, Max stole a lot of names from some books he read. That would be enough to comment on, but he’s not done. Right now you can only play the beginning of To Arms!; only Episode One is available. All of these examples come from about one hour of gameplay. There’s not much actual plot to be had in this one episode, but I’m sad to report that, like the endless list of names, what is here was blatantly ripped off.
Janos and his men are sent by their lord to accomplish some errand. On their return…
…they learn that the lord has been killed in a hunting accident. His wife, who bears no love for him, poisoned his wine, you see. The story fed to the smallfolk (itself a term used extensively by Martin, though not coined by him) was that he was gored to death by a wild boar.
In Ice and Fire, this is exactly the scenario between Queen Cersei and King Robert. Cersei does not love her husband, and so arranges for his wine to be strengthened, so he would be killed by a boar while hunting.
This is a major plot element. In To Arms!, like Ice and Fire, this scenario is the lynchpin for the entire plot. It is the genesis of the rest of the story. If either Eddard Stark or Janos Blackthorne had been able to prevent the woman from tampering with the wine before her husband’s hunting trip, the story would have had a much earlier and much happier ending. And what does the wife have to say about the whole thing?
Cersei gives this same speec in Ice and Fire. Duke Mandon, like King Robert, is a fat, hedonistic lout who keeps whores and takes his wife by force. So not only is Bethany’s method identical to Cersei’s, but her motive is as well.
Then we have poor Kevan, Bethany’s cousin, who was charged with protecting the duke’s life with his own. Unable to do so, he is now disgraced and utterly consumed with his own lost honor. This is simply the plight of Ice and Fire‘s Jaime Lannister, turned around and transplanted. Jaime killed his king willingly, and for his own reasons, and is thus doomed to forever have “shit for honor”.
Kevan’s character is the most interesting, to me, because as presented in To Arms! I would have instantly recognized his plight parallel to Jaime’s, though not identical. If Kevan had been the only instance of borrowing from Martin, I would have been able to nod and forgive it. To contrast the two characters, though:
- Kevan is Bethany’s cousin; Jaime is Cersei’s twin brother.
- Kevan and Jaime are both in charge of their lord’s personal protection.
- Kevan was not complicit in Mandon’s death; Jaime was not complicit in Robert’s.
- Neither Kevan nor Jaime much cared for their lords, but both disapprove of the method in which they were dispatched.
- Both Kevan and Jaime would have openly opposed their lords, had Bethany/Cersei asked them to.
- The loss of Kevan’s honor is undeserved. Jaime’s was deserved, though he gave it up because the alternative would have been reprehensible.
- Kevan immediately turns against Bethany; Jaime only disavows Cersei after both distance and time separate them.
- The concept of regaining lost honor is central to Jaime’s character, and that seems to be where Kevan is headed as well.
The house Kevan and Bethany belong to, House Morrigen, is the richest house in the land… much like Jaime and Cersei’s House Lannister is in Ice and Fire. This makes them the most powerful house in the land in all but title — which both Bethany and Cersei deal with by killing their husbands and putting their son immediately in the high seat. All we need is evidence that Kevan and Bethany were lovers and we’ll pretty much have the complete package.
Phew, this is a long post. The question now is… why do I care?
The truth is, I thought Max McGee had more artistic integrity than this, and I’m disappointed he doesn’t. I’ve never liked his work, as I’ve never liked Max himself, but I’ve always respected it in the sense that it was very much his work. In the world of video game development you can make up for a lot of even critical design flaws with a few fresh, original ideas. This is why games like Ico, Psychonauts and Little Big Planet are all well thought of despite severe gameplay issues.
Artistic vision is a very powerful thing, as every artist knows. To get a concept in your head, to see it forming, and to want to defend it from all outside forces, even if those forces are pure, is a sensation I’m very familiar with. I’ve read the pages and pages and pages Max has written in defense of To Arms!‘s crippled gameplay. I didn’t agree with him. Hell, I even trolled him a little. But I understood him. I looked at his tirades and I thought, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I was telling people back in 2004 when KC(A) was being poorly received.
KC(A), though, was the culmination of my own original ideas. I drew heavily from many sources, yes. I patterned my writing style after many authors I admired, including George R. R. Martin. There is terminology in KC(A) that I grabbed, unaltered, from D&D books and sci-fi movies. If I’d gotten far enough in it to start introducing knights and paladins, you would have seen me use “ser”. These things stood alongside what I did invent, though. Each was used with its own twist. I stole the term “cipher” directly from Planescape — but KC(A)’s ciphers and Planescape’s ciphers are entirely different.
And that’s what bugs me. I defended my game because I felt like a critique of it was a direct attack on my original ideas and concepts. To Arms! doesn’t have any original ideas or concepts. What, then, is Max defending?
More to the point, though: I know Max McGee has long-term goals of being a for-real game designer someday. A well-made RPGMaker game in your portfolio is a good thing, and I don’t want Max to be able to use To Arms! in that capacity. Absolutely everything in this game is stolen, and I want to make sure a document exists that makes that fact known. That an artist would steal another’s work and try to pass it off as mere “influence” or “homage” is reprehensible to me. I cannot abide it. My big regret here is that I don’t have a solid bead on Max’s real name, or I’d include it here so future potential investors or employers could find it.
My advice for Max: make a public apology for trying to claim the characters and story of To Arms! as original work. Then, rewrite it completely so that the work is original and the homages and references are used appropriately. Own up to your mistake, fix it, and move on.
To everyone else: thank you for reading.