In Neal Stephenson's wonderful 1996 novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an orphan girl happens across a one-of-a-kind interactive "book," printed on electronic paper, which takes the place of a parent, teaching her how to live her life. I like this as a plot element, but I also like it as a metaphor, because narratives do teach us how to live, and we use them to teach others. How many of you have never said to your kid, "My uncle Al smoked those, and he died of emphysema at the age of 41"?
I was thinking of this the other night when, in an effort to head off some incipient preteen antisocial behavior on the part of our older boy, I opened up his Nintendo DS and fired up Kirby Super Star Ultra, a game involving an adorable puffball who rides on a star and inhales his enemies. I know, I know, sounds like a failed Sid & Marty Krofft show, but give the kid a break, he's 11.
Anyway, I am certainly aware that this is hardly the most sophisticated game out there. But I was amazed at the degree to which the game was swathed in narrative complexity. First-time players are offered the spectacle of a little play (complete with stage and puffball audience) that teaches you the basics of the game, and fills you in on the story. The controls, to a guy weaned on Pac-Man, are dizzyingly complicated; there are tons of possible actions, and the game, while goal-oriented, allows for elaborate exploration of its little world. As narrative, it is easily as absorbing as a novel (though never as satisfying as a good one).
Readers of this blog are probably aware of my preoccupation with non-literary influences, and I admit to being big into videogames in the early 80's, when "shoot the rocks into smaller rocks, then shoot the smaller rocks" was what passed for plot. But games are very, very different now, and I wonder what effects they're having on kids' sense of story--their understanding of life, and its goals and challenges. Some of these effects, doubtless, are bad. But perhaps, much in the same way that malnourished children are more likely to suffer the damaging effects of lead paint, games' ill effects are mostly felt by those whose social and emotional needs are not being met. Perhaps a healthy kid (like mine, I hope) is actually getting something out of the primitive narrative of video games. I think I did, maybe, though it would be hard to make a convincing case for it.
A few years ago, some enterprising geeks started "filming" dramatic short features using characters from first-person shooters as "actors," and overdubbing their own dialogue. The fact that they could do this with some success tells you that games could be a viable format for narrative art. So why not get rid of points, treasures, guns, and enemies, and make literary video games?
Well--for the same reason only a fool would devote his life to literary novels. There isn't much of a market. But it could be that games-as-art is only getting started. Or maybe the moment has passed.