This is Part 3 of an ongoing, informal discussion among Entropy editors and writers about video games, writing, art and aesthetics. This is the final part of the conversation…at least for now. Keep it going in the comments, and maybe we’ll do another installment!
Berit Ellingsen: I have played mostly big and commercial games, and even the best ones haven’t really had that innovative or complex narratives compared with the best literature. That’s why I haven’t felt that inspired, writing-wise, by the game narratives, other than as potential for ekphrastic work or loving homage.
However, games are one of the few forms of art and entertainment that demands that the player becomes better at playing the game while she is experiencing the game itself. To facilitate this, gameplay is often the most thought through and innovative part of a game, and I think this is why I like games so much.
An easily grasped, but challenging and innovative, gameplay is for me an art form in itself, because it’s so hard to get it right and so easy to just copy what others have done before. Not to mention melding the gameplay with the narrative so that form, style, and function make up one dynamic and creative whole.
Imagine if books or stories became more and more challenging as you progressed in the story. Some do, but not all, and not with the kind of communication and interplay there is between a game and its player. In large-scale play, with many other players, this almost took on the atmosphere of a performance or a ritual.
What games have taught me writing-wise, though, is the reminder that every reader will experience the characters and setting and atmosphere in an interplay between the text and their own imagination and background. No matter how detailed or insistently I may describe something, the reader will always add or subtract something on her own.
I also love the way landscapes and environments are almost characters or symbols in their own right (tying in with what Byron and Alex have said about games and the experience of landscape and the virtual environment) in some games.
Byron Alexander Campbell: Berit, absolutely agree re: landscape as character. That’s one of the first things I figured out about how good game narratives tick. They don’t have (usually) any internal access to your character, so everything inside is exploded out into the environment in a very Gothic way. Look at Silent Hill 2…there’s a reason that James Sunderland passes through the environments that he does and in the order and manner that he does. Even the enemies, as I think you yourself said in the Villains list, are his inner demons more than anything.
I also think that games invite interpretation, particularly on the level of plot or “What just happened?” more than other media. Or maybe it’s just something that gamers tend to enjoy that goes along with being gamers.
A lot of very popular, mainstream games get away with a huge amount of ambiguity in the narrative, whereas movies like Inception that are a heck of a lot more narratively straightforward than Xenogears get a reputation as being mind-twistingly difficult to understand. A lot of people loved it, but on the whole they seemed to respond in a way that was less willing to take the extra step and start putting the puzzle pieces together on their own. Compare that with video games like the aforementioned Silent Hill 2, or popular indie games like Braid, which is (as the name suggest) one giant knot of implied narrative that the designer claims nobody’s solved yet. Gamers seem to take these things in stride.
It also struck me that Kyle, Eddy and I had a ton of overlap in our top 5-10 movies, and that a lot of those movies from Richard Kelly, David Lunch and Charlie Kaufman could be described as having puzzle-like or game-like narratives. Even though they are linear, I think absorbing these types of films seems to scratch the same itch as playing a video game, which might address the original question in a circumspect way, i.e., even if the writing is objectively weaker, the experience the player/audience gets is on par with or reminiscent of a certain style of experimental narrative.
PS: I think I’m a little bit strange in that I make no personal distinction between art and trashy entertainment. I only care if it’s executed in an interesting way.
Eddy Rathke: That complexity of structure is an interesting idea, and one that I maybe haven’t thought about as influencing me. Most of my novels are multi-narrator novels, which leads to a lot of structural complexity. Ash Cinema and Twilight of the Wolves have three narrators or narrative modes, while Noir: A Love Story has twenty-six narrators, and the novel I most recently completed has twenty-five. I’ve another with thirteen, and I’ve been quietly working on a 101-narrator novel for quite some time.
And I do think of those novels with over three narrators as narrative puzzles, since the entire narrative becomes a point of debate, owing to the way narrators lie and readers perceive them.
I quite like that, and it’s cool to discover an influence you didn’t see. I also think my next novel will gradually become more difficult as you read it, because that has to be the coolest idea for a book I’ve ever heard of.
Though, interestingly, around the time I returned to playing video games is around the same time as I decided to write less stylistically, or at least to make the difficulty of the text something structural rather than grammatical.
I think I like the idea of gameplay being sort of the sentences of video games, because, in a very real sense, that’s how we interact most closely (or at least physically) with the characters and narrative. I often think of takes as being the sentences of filmmaking, so I like this and am going to run with it.
Video games are meant to have wide appeal, whereas no other medium really demands that. Film does, in a sense, but less so than videogames, I think. And video games tend to have way more people working on them at one time, which is also interesting. But because of that need for commerciality, I think they’re perhaps more limited than any other medium, which is why you really only see innovative narrative choices in indie games, though I’d argue Final Fantasy VI and -VII take insane narrative risks, which pay off quite well for fans.
But the grammar of video games is for ease and accessibility, by and large, even when the game’s more experimental or complex. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus aren’t really designed for a broad mainstream audience, as they’re very much art pieces, to return to the original topic, but the gameplay is never difficult enough to keep you from playing. A game fails if the gameplay fails, and even a mediocre game becomes pretty great with the right controls. I mean, fighting games are about as simple as games can get, but the difference between a great and horrible one are astronomical and determined solely by the gameplay.
So I guess what I’m coming to is that my own writing is following the pattern of what I love about games: accessibility married to huge complexity.
Alex Vladi: Oh yes, you are so right with accessibility! This parameter really does qualify the game. Here is perhaps, imho, the difference of a game from more passively intended art forms like paintings, etc.: If a game is accessible, it can be finished =>versus<= if art doesn’t seem to be accessible, it invites to discover its weirdness.
I think the accessibility does allow for a lot of peculiarity, though. Xenogears, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and other such games invite you in, and then you’re surrounded by a very strange world.
Kyle Muntz: I love how expansive and complex these conversations tend to be become. Why did anyone ever write articles some other way? Haha.
Eddy: Hahaha, this conversation’s really long. It could probably be like seven different essays.
Kyle: Now that I think of it, it’s a shame none of us talked much about the burgeoning phenomenon of actual art-games. (Or, more like–I wish I had the background to do it, since I’m almost exclusively focused on RPGs.) I don’t play many, since they’re more a sustained mood/atmosphere/feeling than attempt at structured narrative (which was mostly what our conversation was about), but it’s maybe closer to the original topic and all represents stuff unique to the medium. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery and Journey are probably both good examples, though.
Byron: There’s just so much to talk about, it would need to be an actual hour-long live panel to even begin to cover it all. For instance, there’s the recent trend of minimalist games as well, which trend closer to art games but don’t really fall into either category. The quintessential one is Candy Box, but I’ve recently been into the more serious/artsy A Dark Room.
Berit: Oh no…. I want to like these indie games, but I can’t get over the poor graphics. My eyes expect super duper 1080p near-photorealism with a dash of uncanny valley.
Kyle: That’s interesting. I thought Superbrothers looked really good, but I’m a big fan of hand-drawn art in games (especially when it was all done by one person), and that also ties into sets of expectations people might have on the medium we didn’t touch on in our article, haha. Journey, which Eddy was talking about earlier, is the only “art-game” I’m familiar with that has completely modern graphics. I still haven’t played it (but I should).
Alex V.: I’m following this hand-drawn indie game: Gorogoa. Imagine Codex Seraphinianus brought to life.
Kyle: Well, that looks amazing. Haha.
Byron: I also love the retro pixel look. It speaks more of artistry to me, although that may just be a bias. Like Kyle, I like that I can imagine one person sitting down and creating the pixel art by hand versus a team of people working on a 3d model. I’m increasingly into any kind of animation, and the 2d presentation allows you to stylize it in ways that you couldn’t with 3D models. For instance, I love the heavily stylized animations of Ghost Trick (skip to 1:38 in the trailer).
Kyle: I’m actually a little more comfortable when games are made by smaller numbers of people, because it’s closer to the process of making art as I understand it. Attributing a whole game to a team has always felt a little odd to me, since I like the idea of a particular style showing through and knowing you can attribute that to one or two people working for a year or two to draw; another programming; another writing; etc.
Berit: I can really relate to what you say about a smaller production versus a big blockbuster-type team, and Journey was beautiful and stunning in its graphics. At the same time I enjoyed the extremely detailed and “hyperreal” graphics of for example the Unreal 4 engine tech demo. I do realize games using that engine won’t focus much on the inner life of the characters or the story, but be all about external experience and action. But the idea of graphics with extremely high resolution and detail is just too tempting for me.
Alex V.: I used to test all tech demos I could find, because they were plotless and goalless, but the aesthetic experience was very possible.
END PART 3.
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.