On Games and Literature: Introduction
Mentioning literature and video games in the same breath will often result in puzzled looks. If you’re lucky, there may be some probing questions instead of awkward silence: What do they have to do with each other? Are you comparing Shakespeare to Super Mario?
Text in games is omnipresent, manifesting itself in such opposed corners as text-only adventure games and military shooters with their barked orders. While I don’t think that it would be a waste of time to take a closer look at the role and effect of text either in Zork or Call of Duty, this series will be dedicated to commercial (although mostly niche), graphics-reliant games that employ text in ways that are both pivotal and meaningful to the game as a whole. This may not sound like the sexiest of topics, so it is no surprise that this type of game is not exactly abundant.
Compared to graphics, animations, sound, music and gameplay, text is somewhat of a second-class citizen in the land of games, the odd-man out. Text, it is true, may be indispensable in many games; it features heavily in adventure and role-playing games, and – mostly in the form of spoken dialogue – even in many action oriented, ‘cinematic’ games. It’s immensely helpful to facilitate play through tutorials or by providing context, from giving simple goals to creating complex storylines through dialogue or narration. Still, many games that look, sound and feel amazing disappoint with lacklustre, unoriginal or even plain idiotic writing. Competent, let alone masterful writing is rare.
Promotion is certainly an important reason for this: unlike graphics and sound, good writing isn’t exactly useful for promo material such as trailers. A deeper reason, however, may be the perception that games and writing simply don’t mix. Animation and sound has the enormous advantage of being able to react immediately and dynamically to a player’s input. Whether we consider the rush of a Wolfenstein or the slow intrigues of Crusader Kings II, these games provide a potential infinitude of emergent permutations that rely heavily on a player’s input. Games that emphasise their writing, on the other hand, seem to interrupt this close-knit, fluid interplay of action-reaction.
Unending text boxes with diary entries, exposition or tedious lore are the worst offenders; they often have no real relevance to the game as a whole and bring it to a complete and jarring stand-still. Even I, a game-writing enthusiast, can’t be bothered to wade through pages of irrelevant text that interrupt the game flow, no matter how well-written it may be. After all, apart from extremely few examples, text in games is not emergent but pre-canned, and therefore offers less ‘freedom’, less possibilities of manipulation than more taciturn games.
Are games and literature like oil and water? It’s not just a general reading-aversion or lack of patience in game players that might support this opinion. Many academics, who presumably spend quite a lot of time leafing through obscure articles, would denigrate the importance of text in games. In fact, ludologists often denigrate all of what they’d call ‘representation’, not only text, but also graphics, animation, sound effects… According to (some of) them, they are all subordinate to some degree or other to the game ‘per se’, i.e. its rules and systems, what they often like to call ‘simulation’ (by which they do not mean the genre of simulations, but an underlying property of all games).
This is, to some degree at least, a fancy way of expressing the time-honoured sentiment that gameplay always trumps graphics, story, or presentation in general. To be clear, no academic I have read plainly stated that text doesn’t belong in a game, and some, especially pioneering ludologist Espen Aarseth, have written immensely useful theoretical texts that encompass games and literature at the same time. But since we have already seen that especially graphics offer a more responsive and fluid way of presenting information to the player, it stands to reason that in this line of thought, text should be used as minimally and unobtrusively as possible.
Graphics, animations and sound may be seen as window-dressing as well, but they are absolutely essential or at least helpful window-dressing, since they provide a player with easily perceivable information based on which the next move may be executed.
As I’ve already hinted at, this series is an investigation of text and meaning in video games. Like text, meaning in games is a surprisingly controversial topic among academics. Roughly speaking, there are three positions on the topic:
1) Games are essentially ‘meaningless’ in the sense that their main demand of the player is manipulation (or “interaction”) and not, as in literature or film, interpretation. Games can still incorporate elements that convey meaning, but they are essentially foreign and do not really fall into the domain of game studies. This meaninglessness of games is not seen as a defect, but shows that games are fundamentally different from all other media.
2) Games are inherently meaningful, but unlike film, literature etc. their primary ‘tool’ of conveying meaning is their rules, mechanics and systems (i.e. what academics like to call simulation). Even the most innocuous game expresses ideology or meaning through the ways in which it does or doesn’t function.
3) Games convey meaning in the same ways as other media, namely through representation, which includes words (textual or spoken), pictures and sound.
These are extremely rough summaries of complex ideas, all of which have their advantages and problems. Still, it can be safely assumed that position 1) clashes with both 2) and 3) like a train crash, while 2) and 3) at most seem to bump into each other like amusement park go-karts. To me, the most important question is: do 2) and 3) merely co-exist listlessly, or can they complement each other productively, resulting in ways to convey meaning that are unique to the medium of games?
If they merely co-exist, literary (and other) critics should pack up their toolkit of cultural analysis and shuffle back to their dusty libraries, heads hanging. However, if these very different ways of conveying meaning somehow resonate (at least in some cases), cultural critics should feel free to play in their newly discovered playground.
As you may have guessed, I think that meaning-through-simulation and meaning-through-representation can complement each other. To be sure, this is not a revolutionising statement and most people who occasionally play games would either not really care, or agree with my conclusion with a shrug of their shoulders: “Sure, so what?”
I think this is relevant mostly because investigations into how exactly they resonate and complement each other are very rare; critics, journalists and players mostly take it as self-evident that they do (which is perfectly understandable). When it comes to text in games, it becomes even more relevant, since games that highlight literary qualities are quite rare, and text is frequently seen as an unwanted stow-away on a ship that comfortably sails just fine without it.
This series is therefore dedicated to the most misunderstood and somewhat endangered creature in gaming: the word – and will explore how it enriches the ecosystems of gaming, and how it works together with rules to create unique meanings in individual games.
First up: Planescape: Torment.