By Steven Petite
Sometimes I feel as if I’m living a lie. At the age of five, I fell in love with video games (blame it on that fictional Italian plumber). My parents didn’t discourage this love, but they did encourage another seemingly more beneficial pastime. Literature. My mother read books to me as a child, and despite my occasional fussiness, reading slowly and steadily became routine, slyly transitioning into a second love. As I progressed through the awkwardness of adolescence, I began to gravitate towards books in a different way. Pages glued within a paperback binding created a sense of wonder that I thought video games weren’t capable of offering due to “limitations,” or better yet, the designed intentions of the entertainment platform.
As I reached early adulthood, books became my main source of escapism. The emphasis on that messy word comes from my belief that it devalues every form of entertainment it touches. To me, books are living breathing extensions of who I am. Stephen King came to me at perhaps too young of an age. I was friends with Holden Caulfield as a teenager. I was at Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties (and yes, I too didn’t attend his funeral). I laughed and cried at the words of David Foster Wallace. I believe George Saunders creates the most incredible worlds in his short stories (he would be one helluva video game scribe). I could write endlessly about the books that have become a part of me, but that’s not what this is all about.
When it really comes down to it, books have always been able to do something that other entertainment media have historically not, mainly because of the freedom that words on a page provides.
Storytelling. Fiction. Particularly novels. All bestow a certain special grasp over the means to tell a story. Limits do not exist. The methodology of imparting brilliant stories is up to the sole discretion of a single mind, and the results are seemingly endless. A novel is like a treasure chest of the innermost secrets of one’s mind, selflessly brought forth to the world on the printed (or digital) page.
I’m still in the early stages of my writing career, and while I confess that my deepest desire is to join the ranks of all of the fiction writers I admire, the most significant strides made in my writing endeavors have been linked to my first love. To concede, my first publications, and still the vast majority of them, have revolved around books. Yet, along the way, my silly little passion of analyzing books and video games, to perhaps insignificant lengths in the eyes of some, has led me on to a point of intersection. When I grapple with that fact, I am faced with answering a question about the two forms of entertainment and enlightenment that have had the most influence on me as a young man.
How does the art of reading fiction translate to the act of playing video games?
If I were to answer this question ten years ago, I would say that the two are not very similar at all. I would conclude that video games are pure entertainment, even time wasters. That books are not only entertainment but insightful and provocative.
I would be lying if I stuck with that sentiment today. Books are the oldest form of modern entertainment. Video games are the newest widespread medium, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to hypothesize a world in which video games are talked about with the same seriousness and intensity as classic works of literature. This is in fact a likely development, and it’s not from video games permeating culture with unprecedented force—at least, not entirely. Popularity, of course, is important for mass coverage and serious consideration for an entertainment form. But there’s more to it.
Modern video games have transformed and evolved into a category that can appropriately be dubbed novelistic. Serious video games are on par with literary fiction. There is something incredibly novel about the way we consume games today. The most poignant games are as powerful and enriching as the most well-thought out, beautiful novels. The two forms are becoming increasingly similar in many respects—most notably, the resonance provided in the moments following completion. The key factor? The complexities of the stories told within today’s games.
For the past few weeks, I have been absorbed by the latest work of brilliance by Jonathan Blow. The Witness, the follow up to Blow’s mesmerizing Braid, was in development for the better part of a decade. Dropping players on a seemingly remote and gorgeous island, players must solve a series of “line” puzzles. The trouble with describing The Witness is that it’s hard to put into words just how poignant it really is. On the surface, it’s nothing more than a plethora of brain teasers with little obvious story. The game succeeds on subtleties. I couldn’t help but relate it to the modern cult classic, House of Leaves. Mark Danielewski’s novel is an intricately crafted, mind-bending spell of words that stays with readers long after the final page. The Witness seeps into membranes in the same effortless manner. Yet, this comparison is abstract, and hard to pinpoint, and many other games in recent memory have aligned with literature in more concrete fashion.
The 2013 mobile game, Device 6, bares similarities to The Witness. In order for Anna to escape from an unknown island, she needs to solve sets of puzzles. Upon release, Device 6 became a widespread hit. It can be credited as one of the titles that solidified mobile gaming as a platform for more than just casual gamers. Also, it revived the text adventure, spinning it on its heels by adding images and sounds to guide players. However, Device 6 unfolds mainly through text, telling a story that features some of the best prose in modern games. By and large, Device 6 is an interactive novel. The chapters pay homage to classic books such as the works by Agatha Christie, Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Jurassic Park, Shutter Island and more. The amount of literary allusions is staggering, well-placed, and interwoven with brilliance throughout the unique narrative. Other games like The Room trilogy, Year Walk, and Three Fourths Home have done similar things, with the last example unfolding as a visual short story.
Then there’s The Beginner’s Guide and The Stanley Parable – one, about creating a game and the other, a game about games. Both defy conventional wisdom of the way video games operate, and both provide unique and guided stories with the main focus of telling a story with a lasting impression.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about narrative in games without mentioning Telltale, the studio that lives and breathes on episodic narratives. Usually released in five parts, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales From the Borderlands are just a few of the offerings from the enigmatic studio. As a lover of books, I can’t help but see the narratives as throwbacks to the way novels used to be published. Stephen King’s The Green Mile was originally published as a six-part serial. Well before that, Charles Dickens published all of his classic works as a serial in London newspapers. Today, that concept in book publishing has virtually disappeared, save for a few anomalies. Game publishers have brought it back, led by Telltale, but also seen in the controversial concept of downloadable content (more on that later). Square Enix and Dontdod Entertainment borrowed Telltale’s scheme with the five part series released in waves last year, Life is Strange. Like Telltale’s games, the story is told in chapters. None of these games features frequent player interaction. In fact, most of the experience is conversations and moving images. Scenes that cannot quite be described as resembling a film or television show since the pacing is more in line with that of a novel. With an emphasis on character development, this recent genre of games has created a more engaging emotional depth and style of play than the industry has seen before.
And then there are major console releases innovating on the art of narrative. In the most traditional sense, the ones that involve player choice and little gameplay besides occasional quicktime events and directional movements are still a rare occurrence in mainstay physical releases. Last year saw Until Dawn and before that, there was Beyond Two Souls and Heavy Rain. The trio of Sony-published games encapsulates a genre that is growing from niche to normalcy. Like Telltale’s games, these take gamers on a slow moving journey with the pacing of a novel.
Sure, with the proliferation of games in mainstream society, studios are bound to make the occasional gem that appeals to a bookish audience. That’s all well and good, but what about the games that everyone plays? The blockbuster, AAA titles that swallow up a large chunk of the industry revenue each year.
What if I were to tell you that one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed games in recent years mirrors the story arc of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?
The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s haunting post-apocalyptic narrative about love, loss, and survival contains all of the same themes and similar pacing to Cormac McCarthy’s dazzling novel, The Road. Slow moving, increasingly desolate, and heart wrenching, The Last of Us takes a novel approach to storytelling. As an avid McCarthy reader, Naughty Dog’s magnum opus is the closest thing to a new McCarthy novel since his last fictional offering.
Perhaps the greatest storytelling feat in gaming comes from the creative mind of Ken Levine. Levine gave the world Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Both are classifiable first person shooters, and while the combat is fast paced and features many of the staples of the genre, the real draw to Levine’s contributions is the story. Each contain multiple O. Henry moments, and upon reflection, we realize that the story was crafted with meticulous detail, making the twists and turns at the end undeniably earned. Bearing much resemblance to the Objectivism theories of writer Ayn Rand, the Bioshock series is a philosophical journey that rivals in importance with modern literary masterpieces. Bioshock is a byproduct of Atlas Shrugged and its weight is as estimable as the 1,000-plus page doorstopper from which it borrows.
The aforementioned examples are merely a truncated display of the evolution of storytelling in games. The list could continue. Novel aspects and the modes in which literature tells stories have permeated into a large percentage of games, too many to detail in this essay.
The biggest takeaway for myself as I live in a hybrid world of reading novels and playing games is that the impactfullness of these two types of art is reaching the same level. There is a lot of talk about modern society and how little we read books, but the majority of Americans are playing games in some shape or form. Whether they realize it or not, the games they are enjoying are providing similar experiences to novels. For those who do not read novels, I would say that the games that they are enjoying are good bridges to the other medium. And for literary types that still believe that games are frivolous and meant for irresponsible youth, I beg you to dip your hand into the world of gaming, for you might be surprised at the serious and highly literary games that are available today.
As more and more people continue to embrace gaming as an important art form, the similarities between novels and video games will continue to grow. Games have become thoughtful experiments of narratives in the same way that novels have gone through different stages. From modernism and realist to postmodernism and contemporary fiction, the composition and consumption of novels is fluid. Why can’t the same be said about video games?
My love for serious literature will never fade, and it is without hesitation that I state that serious video games have entered into the mainstream. My hope is that creators and consumers will continue to lay the foundation for a culture bridge between the two so that readers can explore the world of gaming and find something similar in many ways, and different in other respects, and vice-versa.
Sometime in the not so distant future, video games will be as tersely debated in academia’s scholarly papers as literature itself. Literary writers will be influenced by games, and game developers will be influenced by novels. But the intersection of novels and games is here, and I’m completely okay with that.
–Steven Petite is an essayist and fiction writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He is currently studying for his Masters degree in literature somewhere in the fecund bayous of Louisiana.