Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Happy Tomsmas and God Bless us, Every one. (Video games as Literature)

Hello Internet! How is everyone? Did you have a good week? Myself, I've been radically altering my sleep schedule, so as I type this, I'm completely exhausted! Expect errors, nonsense and mayhem, My three favorite things! It's a pity though, because this week I get to cover a great topic. Two of my favorite things in one post! Did Christmas come early? I think it did. Today is Tomsmas! Happy Tomsmas! The day when Tom gets to talk about his favorite things!

Source: Charles Schultz
Quick! Make a Peanuts special about it! It's not official until I have a Charlie Brown Tomsmas.
Huh. That's two holidays I've invented in as many weeks. One more and I have to apply for a permit, I think.

I'm going to jump right into this week's tipic topoc tupac DAMNIT HERE'S THE POST.

Video Games as Literature
(Crazy, I know)

So I'm going to start off this post assuming that most of you were not or are not literature majors. The more clever ones out there might have discerned that I am a literature major, based on the fact that I just qualified that last sentence through use of multiple tenses. Also that my first post ever on this blog was about narrative theory, but you know, whatever. But it's true! I study literature! And one day, when I am gainfully employed, it will ideally be a literature-centric job, like literature professor or...professor of literature. 

Professors of literature make about twice as much as literature professors.

And I do love being a literature major. I've always kind of hated math, much of the sciences never truly appealed to me beyond "Oh, that's pretty cool," and honestly, I lack anything sort of resembling the willpower it would take to learn something like a practical skill, but literature, oh man. I have got literature. Literature is one of the few subjects I'm comfortable enough with to truly have fun in. Today I wrote an essay about The Iron Giant. For those of you who haven't quite grasped what I'm trying to get across there, today I got to watch The Iron Giant multiple times so I could write about how much I loved it. THIS IS A THING YOU CAN LEARN HOW TO DO.

I don't just literature all day though, no! Sometimes literature gets very dry and boring and goes on entirely too long about things that really have no bearing at all in the long run (Victor Hugo, I'm looking at you) and sometimes, as a result, I need a break, I need to flip my brain into cruise control, and most importantly, I really, desperately, urgently need to kill something. At the suggestion of my parole officer, I've switched over from kittens to video games, and now I kill people in real life, only not really!

All the fun of violent, rage-induced murder with almost none of the cleanup!

To be nearly serious for a moment, I do love me some video games. All you have to do is real my first post to know that; I gushed about Skyrim's storytelling like I'd written it myself. I've gamed since Donkey Kong Country, and have since stretched my roots much further back than that. I'm not just the kind of guy who likes to play games every now and again for fun, I'm the kind of guy who can give you a fairly good history of the industry from memory, off the cuff. I don't just like games, I don't even just love them. If there was such a thing as a "Video Game Literature" major, I'd be in that program and shooting for nothing less than a doctorate, bare minimum.

So myself being so invested in these two things, it wasn't long before I began to conflate them which, for some reason, seems weird to some people. A lot of you might think of literature in books and think "A book that I probably won't completely understand." Some more of you might look at literature in film and think "A movie made for artsy people that I also probably won't completely understand, if I understand at all." But games don't really seem to have this same parallel. No one really thinks of games as a place where their knowledge and understanding on something as vague or broad as "Life" or "Happiness" can be challenged. Roger Ebert himself went on record by saying "Video games can never be art."

Now, for any other gamers out there who have already heard of Ebert's evaluation of games as art, I'm not going to spend much time on him; more than enough people, who are far more qualified than I, have already done just that and he's already made it quite clear that he's not going to change his mind no matter how many times we send him a link to Braid. And that's fine; that's his opinion. Art and Literature is all about the subjective opinion. So instead of trying to defend games as art or literature, I'm instead going to take a more analytic approach; first I'll talk about the facets that literature in prose and literature in games share, then I'll talk about how they are distinct, the facets of game design that become lent to literature in their own distinct way.

How They Compare

Allow me, for a moment, to transport you back to 9th grade English class; your haircut is stupid, your voice is cracking, you still get embarrassing erections at the most inopportune times, and you're learning the very basic fundamentals of narrative. 

What does every story absolutely positively need? What is the one, inescapable feature that any story must have to be considered a story at all? Answer: One of these.

Lots of graphs this week. Weird.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a story arc. In its most basic form, it's divided into five parts, the exposition ("Hey, I'm a protagonist!"), the rising action ("Shit's gonna go down!"), the climax ("Shits going down!"), the falling action ("Shit went down, everything's cool now, though."), and the denouncement or the epilogue ("And they all lived happily ever after. Shit."). Every single story in the history of ever has this in some form. Don't believe me? Go pull a book off your shelf. Go get a DVD out of your collection. Recite from memory your favorite bedtime story. All of these things can be broken down into these five parts. Now, that's not to say that these are the only parts; that graph is a very very basic version of it. Often, you see this graph as being made up of dozens of tiny versions of itself, every scene following that same pattern of establishment, conflict, climax, and resolution. 

Source: Warner Bros.
"Make a 'Graphception' joke, I dare you."

This holds true for any game with a story, as well. Let's look at Mario, for instance. Mario brings the benefit of being a household name, so everyone who isn't into games should be able to follow along here. The exposition for the original Super Mario game can be found in the title screen; a literal "Hey, I'm the protaginist!" The rising action, full of conflict, is in ascending through the various danger-fraught levels to achieve the ultimate goal; saving the princess. This culminates as a climax in the final boss, Bowser, whom you handily defeat which leads to the falling action where the princess expresses her joy at her rescue and presumably lets Mario have all the "Cake" he can "Eat."

 Storytelling did not change just because you're not reading it out of a book or watching people act it out. Not only do games follow the exact same narrative principals as books and film, it uses many of the same devices; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was masterful with foreshadowing, the Oddworld series does some fantastic social commentary, and you could probably write a good sized essay comparing and contrasting The Legend of Zelda to Arthurian legends.

A slightly less tangible facet that games share, and indeed improve on, with traditional literature is the ability to invoke. Any English instructor can enumerate the strong feelings that he or she feels when reading their favorite author, scribe, or poet. Any film critic has a list of moments where a movie simply took their breath away, or caused them to feel something they weren't prepared to feel, and I'll bet any number of you could tell me exactly how you felt when Dumbledore died.

Source: xkcd.com
Oh, yeah. Um...probably should have put this at the beginning of the paragraph.

And, although in a slightly different way, gamers do the same thing. Talk to anyone who's been gaming for at least the last ten years, and they'll start recounting their favorite moments, times when the games they played really startled them, surprised them, or even touched them. If you played Final Fantasy, it was when Aerith died, if you talk to someone who grew up playing Metroid, it was probably that first time they realized that the badass space bounty hunter they'd been playing as for the last two hours was a girl, and if you were a kid who cut their teeth playing Pokémon, it was that moment when you'd returned to Pallet town with your battle-hardened team of elite warriors and put into perspective just how much they'd all grown up. 

How They Contrast

The ways that games and traditional literature go about invoking those emotions is also one of the key differences between them. In a book or film, you follow the life and adventures of one or more characters as they interact with the world around them. This can be engaging and beautiful and terrifying and highly entertaining but by and large, it is a passive activity. You are not taking the ring to Mordor, you're watching/reading Frodo do it, but you feel like you're right there with him because Tolkien/the innumerable people involved in creating the Lord of the Rings films did everything they could to bring you into the world and fill it with characters you loved or loved to hate. 

Which one is Samwise? I leave that up to you.

To an extent, games do this, too. They literally create a slice of a(or in some cases an entire) world for the story to exist in, and they fill it with characters they want you to love or love to hate, but the difference isn't in the world or the characters, but you, the audience. While reading or watching movies is considered fairly passive, playing a game is almost entirely active. You're not watching a character fight through the trials of his life to reach his ultimate goal, You are fighting through his trials, as him (or her). This offers game designers and developers a some unique opportunities. For one, it allows them to characterize the main character as the player sees them. You see this a lot in games with more open narratives, like  Knights of the Old Republic or  The Elder Scrolls series which actually reminds me of another thing that books and movies can't do, or at least not easily; open ended narratives. Stories which are defined and shaped by how the audience wants them to be. Other mediums are generally a linear experience; they've got a definite start, middle, and end and you know basically what's going to happen in what order every time you see or read it. From almost their inception, games trumped this very concept. You could progress with the story, sure, but you could also dick around in the opening area trying to find all the secrets. 

Source: Nintendo
Look, all of these faries aren't going to capture and enslave themselves, is all I'm saying.

The Legend of Zelda was one of the first games to truly experiment with this; you're dumped in a valley of sorts with little explanation, you have three exits and a cave and while there was certainly a story to be had, complete with arc, it was up to the player to decide how they approached that.

But even in games that don't ostensibly offer choice, there's still a sense of investiture which clever designers can easily manipulate. Let me call back to the previously mentioned Prince of Persia. The opening level of this game offers a surprisingly well-hidden tutorial in the form of the titular Prince leading an invasion of a city that was just kinda in his way. Now, this being a tutorial level, you go over all the basic mechanics of the game; combat, puzzles, most of the rudimentary traps and obstacles, and at the end, you get the dagger of time; a badass knife that lets you rewind time itself. Now, you worked for this dagger. If this was your first time playing the game, you probably worked especially hard for it. You're proud of your accomplishments and the new relativity-spiting armament you acquired as a byproduct. You're much less proud when your new dagger turns out to be a key element in turning your father, and nearly everyone inside the castle to horrific sand monsters.

Source: Ubisoft
Walk if off, Dad. No one ever died from a little turning-into-a-horrific-sand-monster-ism. 

Do you see what they did there? The designers built up your pride, your hubris, to match the Prince's own. They made you feel powerful because you conquered that entire tutorial level by yourself, and you did it with style. Then, when your head was inflated to the proper size, they pulled the rug out from under the Prince and, now by approximation, from under you and, finally, made you responsible for unleashing the sands of time and subsequently for bottling them back up.

And this bit of design magic doesn't simply stand by itself; it's coupled with foreshadowing in the vizier's treachery and Farrah's companionship, it complements the initial characterization of the Prince as a pompous jerk, but they design the experience in such a way that you can more closely relate to that pompous jerk, so that you can grow out of it with him, too. This is literature 2.0; all the old tools and tricks of prose and film, with it's own set of parameters to alter and shape your experience in the story.

Now to close, I will add a disclaimer; games, as a literary medium, still have a long way to go. It is not Chaucer, it is not Poe, it is not Tarantino, and while the quality of narrative in games has taken a massive upshot in the last five to ten years alone, it still has a lot of growing to do before we start seeing gaming classics in libraries. We suffer today from allowing the frat boy culture to be largely representative of gamers contemporarily and we still suffer from the spectre of the basement dweller of yesteryear, but by and large, games are well on their way to getting there. We have the tools, we have the knowhow, and we even have the beginnings of true classics. All we need now is time and developers who are willing to carefully and lovingly craft amazing games to sink our classy, educated teeth into.

Pictured: Educated Tooth

Whew! This was a long one and admittedly, less a haha funny one and more a "Oh, hmm, interesting" one. As long as this is, though, I really only briefly touched on what I thought were some of the major points; I could probably write an very small book on all the implications that interactive mediums could have on literature and examples of such. If you feel like you really learned something today or feel like you know someone who could benefit from reading something like this, by all means, share it with your friends. For those of you who found this post a bit too wordy, you'll be glad to know that I'll be writing a bonus post to be released this Saturday! Yay! For those of you who want to hear more about this subject, might I direct you towards Extra Creditz, a weekly question and answer series about game design, including intelligent narrative implications of interactive medium and Egoraptor's Sequelitis, which does a fantastic reconstruction of some classic games and their sequels, though I am compelled to warn you about language. Not that you care about fucking language. 

And now I leave you with a love song constructed of nothing but Pokémon puns. Thank you, Goodnight.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in 9th grade I didn’t have a voice that cracked or embarrassing erections…Just so you know. :-D As for Dumbledore dying…I do love that there are awesome stories in video games. That’s always my favorite part of them. Has anyone ever written stories/books about a certain game? I mean I know they made a Prince of Persia movie, but that can’t be the only one…Ps. I would love to be a professor of yours and read your awesome papers. I bet they love your range.