Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Video Games as Literature

I suspect most of you have encountered a video game in one form or another in your lifetime - whether it be on an Odyssey (remember those?) or on the latest game station, cell phone, or computer. Oh, and they even had them in arcades for a while.

To my chagrin, I must confess that back in the ----'s I authored two video games that were distributed. No, they were not very popular, and I've only encountered a handful of people in my lifetime who'd seen them or played them. I've no idea what happened to the publishers, and because they were quite primitive adventure games, I'll not mention titles. To give you a feel for the period, however, I'll list the platforms: Commodore 64, Apple IIe, IBM XT, Sinclair 2000. Yeah, it was some time ago. :-\

I bring this up because the above is really my only qualification for posting about video games. And as you can see, it isn't much to mention. Yes, I've played a few over the years. I'm always behind on the latest platform, and yes, I still use the word "platform." But what I've noticed with the latest generation of video games is how cinematic they've become. True, they have arcade moments. There's still some jumping and falling and swinging to be done. Still, from my early day, they have come a very long way.

Today camera angels with the ability to change the POV is possible - creating a strong cinematic feel. Original soundtracks, amazing graphics, and tactical responses make present games far more engaging and perhaps give them a medium of their own.

After having watched a friend play a game recently, I was impressed by the storyline. I prowled through a few of the games available, asking about them and trying them out. Each one was novel material (or film as we've seen in the last decade or so). Yes, these games have been translated to books and films for a while, but usually they required a little extra help from authors outside the game industry. This isn't to slight the original game. Repeat play, difficulty/ease, originality, portability, and lifetime are elements that game designers have to deal with. So it isn't easy to sit down and create a seamless, flowing plot for a video game that must challenge and interact with the user.

Nonetheless, they are doing this now. Admittedly, if you lack the skills (such as I do) there is quite a bit of repetition. But, I imagine for those with the talent, many recent games flow like interactive films. What I've noticed is character development (something gold old Mario never had), sub-plots, and twists. Two of the games I'll briefly touch upon are Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Dead Space. One is modern adventure set in remote Pacific Islands (looking for a giant statue in a sunken city - never a good idea), and the other is set in the far future, with a mining ship that has suffered some serious problems.

So what makes these literature? Well, really, I'm asking everyone else that. I'd propose they have characters, plots, and themes. They are acted, accompanied by music. Those reasons seem good enough to get them into the category. And judging from recent surveys and sales data, they are not giving both movie theaters and DVD sales a run for their money. Of course, it goes without saying that they've beaten out the printed word quite some time ago. All of this adds up to commercial as well, proves reception (by an audience).

What I wonder about is how far can video games go? Will they become the new direction of film? I don't mean game-to-film adaptations, but games as film. For instances, the recent Resident Evil game has its own film prequel. The game follows a different path from the filmic versions, as does the CG film: Resident Evil: Degeneration. It also has a whopping 3 disc sound track available.

We already know that video games are a booming industry. And I know that many people in the arts look at them as "pulp" or simply mindless entertainment - things that keep us locked in the house. Okay, for the most part they do. With that said, they do have portable video games now - just like portable books. In short, it seems that we are running out of arguments against video games. Now, I can't resist pointing out that they are simulations and if you've read my blog, you'll know where that can take me. So I won't go there. :) Besides, I have certainly read written works, both historical and modern that were nothing but commercial opportunities - true pulp, and embarrassingly concocted versions of complicated realities.

For me at least, it seems this form of entertainment is becoming a form of literature. Like film, we are watching the industry grow, changes, expand, and mature - in all aspects (technology, audience, story-telling). It's certainly worth keeping a close eye on.


Charles Gramlich said...

That was something I really liked about Super metroid and Doom. I got caught up in the story. I finally had to force myself to stop playing or I'd never have gotten anything else done.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Yes. Dear God, yes.
I played through the original KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC, I got to the climax of the game and applauded. The plot twist was tremendous. Theme? Yes. Character development? Yes.

Games as literature? You betcha, to coin an ex-govenor.

MKeaton said...

I think you've brought up an important point. Very often working with Boys' Literacy programs I run into kids who have no concept of what 'story' is and think that 'well that's book stuff'. Being able to use video games as a point of reference to break through and explain concepts like story, plot, character has been incredibly useful in teaching them. I'd also add: look at how many video games have spun off a book series (yes, even DOOM spawned four books). Too often we confuse the medium with the message. A book is a story on paper but story is a much bigger and grander concept by far.

[Mind you, this is why I'm in favor of putting the cheat codes for a game right in the manual. I'm too old and slow to kill off all the demons of hell with my twitchy fingers but it's just plain wrong to get someone hooked on the plot and then take it back away because they lack button proficiency. I suppose that's a seperate topic--earning the right to hear the end of the story.]


William Jones said...

On a related note, it seems Uncharted: Drake's Fortune has been picked up for a film.

Charles - I've not played a recent vesion of Doom, but I do remember the older version. While I know many people where not interested in the story, I recall that more than the shooting (excluding the BFG which has become a part of our vocabulary).

Stewart - I've not tried the game, but I have heard many people say similar things. It's one I'd like to try (and fail at).

MK - I'm with you. Games are common points of attention that can be utilized for teaching. Although, it does require the teacher to be familiar with the games. Like all things academic, there is often a disconnect between popular culture and education. I do understand the reasoning this is based upon, but it should be a guide, not a rule.

Also, if a game uses more than 3 buttons, two of which much be trigger style, then I'm going to lose. Oh, I was a master of TRON, however. :)

Rick said...

I suspect digital gaming as literature is a phenomena that has already outgrown books and magazines when measured by the level of both sales and involvement. There was a recent comparison of video games as entertainment versus movies on a financial basis, and the numbers lead me to believe that they will surpass the film industry soon enough as well.

Their plot interactivity already leaves books in the dust. With their almost-equal-to-film video impact and the industry's rapidly increasing financial muscle, it's not hard to imagine movies coming off a little anemic by comparison in the not too distant future.

Imagine if Shakespeare had started in the video gaming industry...

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

Bioware's The Old Republic, an mmo based around the time of Knights of the Old Republic, is supposed to incorperate an unprecedated amount of story content and charector development.
If you're a Star Wars fan and haven't wet your pants yet today, look for the game trailer called "Deceived." Deb will thank you for it.