Thursday, December 18, 2008

Are video games anything like novels?

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.


5 Red Pandas said...

Actually, there are more narrative video games, and ones for the DS, in fact. One that I have but haven't played yet is a crime/mystery game. I don't play these games for narrative, but I like that they do have a narrative, but rather for the puzzles within the game.

You might want to read a book called "What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy" by Paul Gee. I read it for my grad class in instructional technology and it actually got me interested in video games of the puzzle/mystery/quest type.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that fiction writers are the artists who respond most antagonistically to interactive narrative, when film is clearly the medium that video games are striving to imitate and, in some ways, usurp the throne of, culturally-predominant-medium-wise. Take games' non-interactive "cut scenes," which tend to be more cinematic than novelistic. This may seem like a no-brainer, but when I say "cinematic" I have in mind tropes, figures of speech, and narrative strategies, not just the fact that the cut scenes are audiovisual (there are, after all, very novelistic films). I haven't played many video games, but none that I can think of are really all that novelistic. Shouldn't fiction writers stick to antagonizing television?

Also, video games probably aren't aesthetic poison, or, to put that another way, the "low-art" video games probably aren't any more aesthetically poisonous than "low-art" novels or "low-art" films. And there ARE "high-art" equivalents, as well as a gradually calcifying video-game canon - though note that "high-art" games are often tonal rather than narrative masterpieces. "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus," for instance, employ skeletal narratives to achieve truly serene and sublime effects, which tonal effects rely heavily on the games' interactivity.

Playing devil's advocate for video games is, of course, the worst waste of time. The cultural, economic, and technical barriers separating JRL from "Shadow of the Colossus" are so great that recommending it can have no practical effect: when there are a dozen books that you feel you need to read, are you going to buy the console and equipment necessary, at ~$400, to play a 20-hour game whose control scheme seems illegible to you? You can take my word for it that there exists a "good" game - a really moving and stylistically confident and accomplished game, with more on its mind than, say, "Halo" - but you'll probably still never even see the thing, much less play it.

Anonymous said...

Rereading your post, JRL, I find that you're less "antagonistic" to VG than my response gave you credit for. For what it's worth, I was reacting mostly to the phrase "primitive narratives" and the suggestion that playing VG is like eating lead. Sorry if my response seemed in any way ramped-up or aggressive.

Anonymous said...

In fact, I'm not even slightly antagonistic to video games. And personally, I don't see much distinction between "low" and "high" art, as I've said about a thousand times since we started this blog. Though there's a lot of truth to what you're saying, I'm just not the guy to be saying it to.

That said, I think that the main thing holding video games back from being a "literary" medium (as, I think, film is as well) is subject matter. Most of the best of them consist of violent or criminal fantasies. (A lot of films are like this as well, and I suppose a few novels, too.) I'm not arguing against their existence, and recognize that these subjects are legitimate ones for artistic expression. But rage and hatred are the basest of emotions, and the easiest to appeal to in players, viewers, and readers. I'd like to see games maintain their level of excitement and sophistication, but branch out into more interesting arenas.

Anonymous said...

And yeah, it's unlikely that I'm going to devote myself to "Shadow of the Colossus" anytime soon. A good book doesn't require an expensive technological infrastructure to enjoy, and I already know how to use it. But maybe I can come over your house and play.

rmellis said...

No, I'm the antagonistic person in the house. Until recently I kept a very tight lid on the kids' "screen time" around here, not because I think video games are bad (I don't) but because they suck away time from things I want the kids to do while they're young: reading, drawing, music, and playing outside. I'm not so interested in the question of whether they're narrative or not -- why should literature and film have a monopoly? -- it's their addictive and time-eating qualities that trouble me.

rmellis said...

Was I rude to say that I don't care about the narrative content of video games? Sorry, man!

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