This is Part 2 of an ongoing, informal discussion among Entropy editors and writers about video games, writing, art and aesthetics. This part of the conversation migrated from a Facebook thread to a Google Doc, which opened up the conversation to more longform responses.
Byron Alexander Campbell: A question for everybody. It seems that most of us (like Kyle) are interested in games and storytelling, and we’re also writers. At what point did you first make a connection between games and your writing? I.e. was there a moment where you realized “Hey, I want to do something like these games are doing w/ narrative in my own craft”? I know I’ve definitely had that moment, and I also know it wasn’t obvious to me from day one. Wondering if I’m alone here.
This might sound weird, but it took me a looooong time to realize that games and writing could be part of the same process. I didn’t think of games as being written, I guess, in the same sense that I knew film and theater are. When I was a kid, my life goals were to move to Australia and make video games (no connection between the two; Australia just has some really cool wildlife). As I got a little older, I realized I was pretty good at putting words together in ways that made sense and were aesthetically pleasing, so I switched gears to writing, something I could realistically do fairly well at (for a given value of realism). But I never thought, “Hey, I should write for games.” It was just a totally different compartment in my head.
The really weird part is that, when the thought did come to me, my first thought wasn’t to emulate the storytelling of these games; it was the stories themselves.
I was deep into the PS1 Squaresoft RPGs, particularly the Final Fantasies and Chrono Cross. Whenever somebody complained about all the text in these games, which people inevitably do, and said “I’d rather just read a book,” I got to thinking that these games were telling types of stories I just wasn’t getting anywhere else. They were creating worlds that weren’t even remotely similar to what I could find in books. There’s a certain purity to them that really appeals to me: characters are unsubtle, though that doesn’t mean they’re not complex; and the story as a whole is usually more about worldbuilding than inter-character or intra-character conflict. And I loved that they created a series that was tied together by recurring themes and motifs, while the world, characters and gameplay changed completely with each entry.
These were stories where a doll-like mage could agonize over finding out he’s a manufactured weapon animated by imprisoned human souls, or a group of kids from a flying military academy can fight monsters that are spewed forth from the surface of the moon. They had these big ideas that they weren’t afraid to just put out there, like I said, in a really pure way.
It’s true outside of RPGs, too; you don’t see any books, at least not any remotely approaching Metal Gear Solid‘s popularity, with the balls to make a guy named “Revolver Ocelot” a recurring central character. (Though I guess “Humbert Humbert” is no less ridiculous.) So that’s something I tried to emulate long before I thought about incorporating any interactive tricks or techniques into my writing. These stories are always about people in the end, but they approach them through this fantastical, surreal lens that I think is a lot more interesting than New Yorker-style fiction.
Kyle Muntz: That’s actually pretty tough. Aside from enjoying games when I was very young (I mostly stopped ten years ago, though I had amazing experiences with things like Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross and Metal Gear Solid), games really didn’t have anything to do with my writing until I started making one. It was only in 2012 when I started getting into PC RPGs (Planescape: Torment, Mask of The Betrayer, the Witcher series), and afterwards discovering more independent JRPG-type games, that I started feeling–this is what I’m into, and I’d like to try telling this kind of story. I think potentially an RPG is the closest thing to the longform novel; there are certainly more parallels than in film, especially in games where the narrative itself is more text driven.
On the other hand, it’s still very much its own medium, and balancing gameplay expectations with narrative is tough. To go back to Alex’s initial question, I’d argue that games are really very different from film or books, but open up narrative possibilities that aren’t available in either medium. There’s a lot of emphasis recently on choice (which, honestly, isn’t what I’m into), but I think just the experience of playing through a narrative fundamentally transforms it and opens up lots of possibilities. Games give us a unique sense of place, character, and the immediacy of events happening (plus there’s the multimedia element), and though there’s a new set of problems there’s also a new set of strengths.
On the other hand, since it’s what I spent most of my time working on, all of my fiction in 2013 was extremely influenced by working on The Pale City—which, itself, has been heavily influenced by all the games I’ve played over the last year. I never found myself trying to tell the same kind of story, but almost everything I’ve written has borrowed a mood or idea or image from the game. (Including both of my MFA application stories, haha.)
Alex Kalamaroff: Kyle, your writing about games as their own genre is interesting–the element of choice you mention is one of the things I thought of originally, going back to my own gameplay experience 10 years ago: that in video games, the player of games (unlike the reader of books or watcher of movies) is able to alter the context of the game based on decisions made, so there is more of a relationship between the player and the game when compared to other media. This sense of choice, of the numerous possibilities for the player, seems important because it creates a unique experience. If all of us rented a small theater and watched movies, we’d all be watching the same movie (though perceiving it/interpreting it differently), but when playing games, the game itself is not the same because of choices individual players make. Video games are a responsive art form. (At least the kind I’m thinking of…Kyle mentions video games where choice isn’t really a thing, but I’m not especially familiar with those.)
For me, looking back on why I stopped playing video games, I think I no longer found the experience fruitful. Video games were a fun, social activity (I often played with friends), but they were also quite time-consuming. The games we played were pretty well-known games likes StarCraft, Warcraft, Halo, as well as some RPGs played independently (Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic). To enjoy the video games socially, I had to play enough to be at the same level as my friends, which meant I had to play a lot. And for a while we did play a lot. But, by the time I fully lost interest in video games (or at least in these video games, which made up the totality of my experience), I found playing them to be very boring and repetitious and not cumulative…I guess that’s the word. When I was younger, age 12 or so, I overly enjoyed EverQuest, one of the first big MMORPGs, but eventually I stopped because A.) I became bored, and B.) playing the game didn’t seem to matter. Like I could spend 8 hours to kill one more dragon, to get one more piece of special armor, but big whoop. For me, playing the games that I was, everything eventually felt like a virtual rat race, where I was performing many of the same routines over and over for the most minuscule achievements. I lost a sense of personal investment in the game worlds, a sense I have not been able to have since.
I think, when reading about all your experiences with video games, that I have and had a pretty limited scope on the medium as a whole, which is why I asked the question originally. I don’t follow video game news or know about any current titles (let alone more obscure or indie ones), and I don’t know how to code — a skill that, I think, might significantly alter my appreciation for video games. In the past year, I’ve read a little bit about machinima and incredibly difficult video games (Slate had an article about this recently), and I was impressed by these two things.
Generally speaking, I’m interested, moved, and impressed by any activity (regardless of how silly, subcultural, or obscure) that requires enormous amounts of time, effort, and skill. This is true for things like the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which is about a man who has spent his entire life perfecting sushi–a food that as a life-long vegetarian I’ve never eaten except in its lame, vegetarian forms) or for completing Robot Odyssey or for writing a good novel. All of these activities–perfecting sushi, completing Robot Odyssey, and writing a good novel–apertures of aesthetic experience.
I hope I have not digressed too much and that I still make sense. Because I have a limited video game vocabulary, I am forced somewhat to make reference to other things, sushi and such, and hope I do not stray too far from the thrust of this conversation.
Byron: Definitely appreciate the insights from the other side of the mirror!
Kyle, I think I get what you are saying about The Pale City affecting your other writing. Because they are programs, I think video games do employ their own discourse…in a good game, it is invisible to the player (or not, if that’s the intent), but for the people making the game, you can’t really escape the very logical nest of “if/then” statements that make everything tick. I experienced this when I was trying to get into writing Interactive Fiction using programs like ALAN and Inform 7. It just fundamentally changes the way you think about language and about the aspects of your writing. For example, in IF, and probably in your game as well, it’s object-oriented programming…pretty much the entire story needs to be built out of objects that are defined by their attributes.
This makes material objects the basic unit of narrative, the player’s only means of interacting with the game world. Though there are tricks you can pull to make these “objects” seem intangible, it definitely affects the way that you as a writer see this world and leads to narratives that are closer to what I loved about Final Fantasy games, where concepts like death, fate and the human soul are concrete and tangible. Even characters become automata.
I also wanted to briefly touch on something Berit said in her first response (in Part 1) about the pleasure/reward mechanism and just point out how important that can be, too. We might write it off because we’re talking about art and aesthetics and it’s an aspect of games that is more instinctual, even exploitative, but aside from the fact that you can manipulate the reward mechanism to achieve your artistic goals, as in Waco Resurrection or, for a more mainstream example, the finale of practically any Metal Gear Solid game, it is an essential part of how games as a medium work. Specifically because they do give you that feeling of minor accomplishment or progress (until they don’t, as in Alex K.’s example), video games were really important to me during a period of depression earlier in my life, which is a huge part of the reason I started thinking about them as deeply as I do now. And I do think there’s something to be said for a medium that lets the audience feel as though they’ve achieved something in collaboration with the author instead of observing the author’s achievements from a distance.
Addendum: and working on board games has really forced me to think about succinctness and ways to suggest an idea in the fewest words possible. If you have any narrative text at all, it has to fit on, at most, 1/3 of a playing card (the rest is taken up by stuff important to the mechanics of the game). Sometimes, you only get a title and a game effect. But I still think that they can tell a story if you are open to it. Right now I’m enjoying the challenge of evoking characters and situations completely through their interactions with the game mechanisms.
Alex Vladi: Interestingly, there are (at least) two levels of storytelling in video games. 1) The generic level described by Byron (objects and choices a programmer put into the code of fictional reality, providing the (limited) freedom of choice for player). And 2) the perceived level of game playing by the user, who puts together his own story from choices he makes in the process of the game’s reception. These two storytelling levels seem to be similar to usual text writing: the author provides text, the reader reads his own text. But the differences are more subtle. If the text writer uses linearity in conventional text, the programmer has to avoid linearity, even in a linear-plot game, otherwise consumption of this product could fail. So here we have some similarities of game programmers with avant-garde writers, whose texts often aren’t linear. Dadaists often used to break with typographic conventions, so the reader of their texts had to find his own way through their text (like in i-poems by Schwitters).
And it’s just my personal feeling, but the player goes another storytelling way compared to the author. If the game has pretty linear plot, like Remember Me, the player, who is perceiving the game more as IF, tries to find ways out of linearity. And another way, an RPG like Daggerfall, with all its endless possibilities, provokes the player to build his own linear story.
Eddy Rathke: All right, going to try to respond to a lot here, which will probably make it sort of huge.
Games influencing writing–definitely. Not in a sentence-by-sentence way, or anything like that, but games, like books and movies, deeply influenced my imagination and what I thought worlds could be. I still think of FFVII, -VIII, and -IX pretty often, and there’s an idea from Legend of Dragoon that’s pretty deep inside me, and then there’s the insane complexity of Xenogears, which influenced me a great deal. I was actually playing Xenogears at the same time as I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, and I feel that’s pretty appropriate. Too, like many of you, I quit playing video games about a decade ago, back in my middle teenage years, and it’s only recently that I’ve come back to them, and I’ve come back to them sparingly.
Part of why I quit playing video games was the factor of time. I didn’t have time to devote to everything I was interested in, and so I’d mostly turn to reading or drawing (because back then I still hoped I would be good at drawing), drinking, writing bad poetry, and generally making bad decisions and causing mayhem wherever I went. Also, I was never interested in multiplayer games past N64. Everything was going online, and I don’t really care for shooting games. If it’s a multiplayer game, I want it to be fighting or racing, and probably I only want to see Nintendo characters there because nothing’s quite as solid as Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. And so I continued to play those when opportunity arose, but I had no interest in Halo or Call of Duty or almost all sport games. Along with that, those style of games (shooters and sports) became so complex and specific that I couldn’t really play them anymore if I tried to be even close to competitive. Because fans of games like Madden were also people who cared deeply about the NFL, they had implicit knowledge of the game, teams, plays, and players that was completely lost on me. Same with online shooters, where people worked in squads and so on. And then, during this time, I just didn’t see many RPGs of interest.
Skyrim’s the first game I really came back to play, and while I put over 100 hours into it, I don’t think it’s a good structure of gameplay. There’s too much to do, too much openness, and too much choice. The game began to feel like a chore, and while the rewards were satisfying in their own right, it was missing the story that I really love in games. And then when I beat the main storyline, I was so completely underwhelmed that I’ve never gone to play even another minute more.
For me, if a game lacks story, it doesn’t interest me. I was talking to Kyle the other day about puzzle games and how I find them enjoyable, but there’s never a need to play them more than an hour or two. The puzzles just go on in complexity. And while RPGs are full of puzzles, they’re focused on narrative. Puzzle games are just puzzles that become more and more difficult as you progress.
But, yeah, so RPGs have always been the only games I’ve ever been interested in, and they’ve influenced the way I think about story and character in big ways. But what’s interesting about games that no other medium has, at least with RPGs, is the fact that you’re spending tens of hours with your character. The average JRPG has 40+ hours of gameplay, which is a long time to spend with anyone. Even very long books don’t demand that much of your time or attention, which I guess is another reason why I kept reading books instead of playing games. And I talked about Ocarina of Time in the Best Villains post, but I played that game over and over. It’s not an RPG in the traditional sense, but it’s narratively driven while focusing on fun open gameplay over rules and turns. Because of that time, and because of that story, I grew very close to that iteration of Link and it became very easy for me to connect with the character.
The same is true of all long RPGs. I played Final Fantasy X for 70 hours, and while I really disliked many of the characters in that game, I felt that I knew them all very well. Same with most other Final Fantasy games I played. You come to know these people, and typically in a very intimate way, owing to the operatic nature of the medium.
That’s the important part of the interactive quality of narratively focused games. Even though Skyrim lacks story, I became my avatar. You can’t spend 100 hours with someone, especially someone whose brain you propel, and not feel something for that little body on the screen. And I think that’s why the rewards, simple as they are, keep you playing, and why you’re willing to dump hours into gameplay that is essentially performing chores (same with grinding in older RPGs).
But I think I’ve cycled away from what I meant to talk about. Anyrate, games influenced me the way many things from way back then continue to influence me.
But because RPGs tend to be so archetypal, they fall more into the mode of fairytales and legends, which is appropriate, and so the Final Fantasy and other RPG canons feed into my writing the way the Greek and Egyptian and Norse and Japanese pantheon continue to influence my writing. I simply love myths and I love mythic writing, and I think that’s what all my writing is still geared towards. Even Twilight of the Wolves, which is very character driven, takes place in a world where myth and legend are everyday parts of life, much in the way that many RPGs do.
Kyle: What Eddy said^^^^
One last thing I’d add is just that when you come across a game with genuinely exceptional writing and characters (for me that I would be the PC RPGs I mentioned, or indie games like The Way) it’s really an experience unique to the medium in the best way. There’s an overwhelming amount of bad game narratives out there–and the good ones vary depending on who you are–but I think they contribute something unique and interesting to storytelling in general. (I’m not a fan of open-world RPGS because I think they emphasize freedom and choice to the point nothing matters anymore, though I do enjoy non-linear but still structured games like The Witcher or Mass Effect.) I love the idea of games being like myths, since I think we’re probably the first generation to feel that way and it seems like an important change.
END PART 2.
Alex Vladi aka Merzmensch is blogger, writer, filmmaker, transmedial storyteller, writing in his 19 blogs in German, Russian, English, and Japanese about avant-garde, viral marketing, dadaism, alternate realities, curiosities, art and everything else. His texts and experimental writings can be found in LIES/ISLE, Di Mezzo Il Mare, Very Bad Poetry, and also periodically in German online portals “Frankfurter Gemeine Zeitung,” CULTurMAG and Austrian avant-garde magazine “Perspektive.”
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Birkensnake, and other places. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in 2012. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the British Science Fiction Award.
Byron Alexander Campbell is an aspiring human living in Southern California. He is interested in games, story, and the surprising ways they intersect.
edward j rathke wrote Ash Cinema [KUBOA, 2012], Twilight of the Wolves[Perfect Edge Books, 2014], and Noir: A Love Story [Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014]. He edits at The Lit Pub and Monkeybicycle.
Kyle Muntz is the author of three novels and two forthcoming novellas:Green Lights (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and The Crippled Giant (Mixer Publishing). Recently, he’s also the writer and designer of The Pale City, an independently produced role playing game for PC.