Gaming Is Storytelling

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Food for thought? (c) tbiley
Food for thought? (c) tbiley/Flickr

I’ve always had a vivid imagination, but this dream unsettled me. It was wild and dark and weird even by my standards. So yes, it began with a dream.

Following a typical nightmare pattern, I was late, desperately trying to reach my destination – a lighthouse – for some urgent reason I couldn’t remember. I’d been driving too fast down a coastal road to get there.

I’d seen the hitchhiker too late. He was dead.

Descriptive, emotive, and conveyed in fully formed sentences, the passage above could easily be an extract from a novel or short story. But it’s not. These words have actually been transcribed from the introduction to a video game. The thriller Alan Wake was proclaimed the best game of 2010 by Time magazine, and it has been nominated for several awards for its engaging story.

People who don’t play video games are often quick to dismiss them as aesthetically inferior to the written word. You don’t have to look very far to find examples. Lucy Kellaway, whose “Game Theory” article in the Financial Times asked, “What happens when someone who had never played video games is chosen as a judge for some gaming awards?” writes:

It is possible I might play them voluntarily one day, but for now there is life to be lived and books to be read and emails to be written, and things to be bid for on eBay.

She’s implicitly assigning value to reading, working, and the acquisition of worthy possessions, while devaluing video games. They are not worth her time.

Then there’s Merryn Glover, for the Guardian, who challenged her sons to “convince her of the merits” of video games in one week:

What am I doing? I already have a list of jobs for this week long enough to paper the stairwell and, frankly, I’m not interested in screen games. If I have free time, I’d far rather read, walk or play music. And I’d rather they did, too.

Whether or not Glover wanted to impress the reader with her list of hobbies, what she’s written here sounds like the kind of thing you’d recite to an interviewer or your grandmother when asked what you do with your free time. But is she right to feel so virtuous?

People seem keen to extol the virtues of reading over game play, even though the former covers all manner of sins. A middle-aged woman on a train reading Fifty Shades of Grey would likely raise fewer eyebrows than one playing on a PlayStation Vita, but why? Why do we encourage our children to “grow up” and reject their dollhouses in favour of teenage romance novels?

There’s an assumption that games just aren’t fulfilling enough for either the intellect or the emotions, that they can’t tell stories in the same way that a book can. Games can never get you right inside a character’s head and bring you to tears.

But that assumption is wrong.

While the passage from Alan Wake might be enough like prose to fool the likes of Kellaway and Glover into thinking that it was taken from a title shortlisted for a prize for fiction, this little trick actually misses the point. Games are not only art insofar as they mimic the written word; in fact, they have many different and exciting ways of telling a story. Journey, for example, contains no words, either written or spoken. But this multiplayer game in which the characters lack voices certainly tells a compelling story, one about loneliness, determination, wonder, companionship, exploration, curiosity, and — that oldest of basic plots — a journey.

Some of the very first electronic games were based on their pen and paper predecessors; these were essentially choose-your-own-adventure books that just happened to be on a screen rather than on paper. When the technology improved, we got cut scenes; games started to look a little more like movies, potentially losing some of what made them games (an argument for another day). Nowadays, experimentation abounds: we have games with multiple endings and ones with a directed tale to spin, ones in which you control a person with a specific backstory and goals, and ones in which your character is completely your own invention. But throughout the evolution of this still-young industry, video games and storytelling have been inexorably linked.

So when, in a recent article for Litro, “War of the Words“, Alan Gillespie wrote that he finds it “strange” that his teenage students are looking to video games for inspiration for their creative writing, I can’t help but feel that his disappointment is misdirected. The fact that a narrative is conveyed through a video game rather than a book does not automatically mean that characters (within that narrative or based upon it) will “display a complete lack of empathy or internal compulsion beyond some befuddled urge to reach the next level”. Video game narratives, even those that do focus on “improbably-acronymed bazookas”, are often full of emotion. When Gears of War 3 came out, for example, several of my friends who played it admitted that a particular moment in the narrative brought them to tears.

Perhaps I have especially sentimental friends. But here’s the crux of the thing: people are different. If Gillespie has students who are only interested in writing stories about war, perhaps that’s because that’s the sort of content they actively seek out. A boy who has an interest in war — potentially because our society dictates that boys have an interest in war — will play games about war, watch films about war, and even if he is banned from those sorts of media, read books about war. But this needn’t be a death sentence for the young person’s creative potential. For one thing, their love for the nitty-gritty details of various weaponry may well just be a passing phase (I used to read encyclopedias). Or maybe one day they’ll have a career as the person whose job it is to write such things in the script of a game (or film, or play).

I’d say, to Gillespie and other teachers of creative writing everywhere, that the passion your students have — and they’ll all have one, whatever it might be — could be their way in. Let them write pages and pages of exhaustive description and improbable dialogue; at least they’re writing. Draw them in through their interests, and maybe you can take it from there.

This works the other way around too. If I wanted to help a teacher of creative writing (for example) to understand the world of video games a little better, I’d start him off with something relevant to his interests (perhaps a visual novel) and progress from there. If you’re a video game nay-sayer, feel free to get in touch. I think I could teach you a thing or two about telling stories.

About Jordan Erica Webber

Jordan is a gamer and freelance writer. She studied Philosophy at the University of Warwick, and has written for magazines including Play and Digital Fix. She runs the website godivagamers.com.

Jordan is a gamer and freelance writer. She studied Philosophy at the University of Warwick, and has written for magazines including Play and Digital Fix. She runs the website godivagamers.com.

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