Games & Literature

There’s a good article by Thomas McMullan at Eurogamer about “where literature and gaming collide” that’s worth a read if you like books, video games or both. It reminds me a little of the time Roger Ebert said that videos games can never be art, though McMullan doesn’t make any comparably drastic claims. His argument is that although games default to uninspired genre writing (scifi and fantasy) there’s a growing number of games that look to literary fiction for inspiration and, indeed, execution.

However, these games face a problem. Literary fiction is about humans, and games struggle with emulating human emotion and human interaction. Scifi and fantasy are about those things too, but they’re also about technology, wars, robots, dragons and spectacle: things that games do better. Literary fiction, more so than genre writing, also tends to be about authorial control of form. Words matter, punctuation matters. We’re less forgiving with literary fiction than genre fiction when it comes to style because in literary fiction sometimes style is all there is. Stiff writing about orcs or intergalactic civilizations can still be interesting; stiff writing about Frank and Marge struggling to keep their marriage together gets boring quickly.

As some of the article’s comments point out, reading is also a passive activity whereas gaming is active. Mashing the two together creates a grey zone, such as one derisively called a walking simulator, in which the player has control over a character’s movements but little else. Because the more control the game developer retains (+1 literature), the less the player can have (-1 gaming), and not all control is made equal—or meaningful. Does the act of pressing your WASD keys to move a character until she trips a scripted event qualify as gaming? If not, is it literature? Will the term “interactive fiction” make a comeback?

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