Video Games and Literature

November 6, 2015

In the modern age, literature is ubiquitous. And so are video games. Video games (successful ones, at least), like literature, have narrative. They have conflict, and tension, dialogue and characters. In some modern games, even, there isn’t much difference between the game and a film, besides the fact that you, the player, must make decisions. In recent years, there have been arguments made on the literary merit of film, but the same argument has been made less often, and with less success, for video games. Far too often, video games are dismissed as mindless or a waste of time. There has been a kickback, recently, from the industry, mostly from independent studios whose designers view their work as art and understand the finer details of narrative structure. Below is a (brief) list of video games which act and feel like literature.


Part I: Video Games like Literature

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Astronauts – Take control of paranormal investigator, Paul Prospero, as he travels through Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin, attempting to solve a series of strange deaths in Ethan Carter’s family. Each death is accompanied by a short flash story written by Ethan Carter, which prompts a quick glimpse into the twelve-year-old boy’s life. The developers describe the game as a “narrative experience” and as such, the gameplay is simple: walk or run, crouch, examine items. The enjoyment is in the story, in the discovery. Red Creek Valley is an entirely open world environment (and the visuals here are absolutely stunning, so take your time) and you’re free to explore on your own terms, which makes this game feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” in a way, though every player will reach the same conclusion. You will likely have mixed feelings about this ending, but, like all great literature, you will linger on it for days after. When you do, here is a great blog post by the developers about the ending, and endings in general. Don’t read unless you want the ending spoiled for you!

Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer – The winner of Game Developers Choice Award for Best Narrative in 2015, Kentucky Route Zero is probably unlike any game you’ve played before. Much like the great Dickens novels of the past, this game is being released serially, starting with the first act in January of 2013 and most recently the third act in May of 2014. The game consists of no vocal audio – only text-based dialogue. The player controls a trucker, Conway, as he travels down Route Zero to deliver goods. The focus of the game is on the atmosphere (dark, surreal) and the narrative, which the player has some choice over, choosing Conway’s dialogue and occasionally the dialogue of other characters. Unlike The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, there are no puzzles to solve or challenges to overcome. The developers have cited Gabriel García Márquez and Flannery O’Connor as influential in the shaping of their story. As of August 2015, a release date for Act IV has not yet been announced and is still considered a work-in-progress.

Fragments of Him, SassyBot Studio – Though this game, too, is still a “work-in-progress”, a playable prototype is available. Fragments of Him straddles the border between video game and narrative experience, which can lead to a level of dissatisfaction for the player, in that the player is very much “along for the ride,” more so than games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or Kentucky Route Zero. Players slowly remove pieces of the environment by clicking on them, the story is narrated. The gameplay can feel very linear and repetitive, but the story is simple, heartfelt and honest, which is why it works, in my opinion. Fragments of Him is most enjoyable when standard definitions of video games are placed aside.

Braid, Number None, Inc. – A truly challenging puzzle platformer, Braid has been uniformly praised since its initial release in 2008. While this game is focused more on gameplay than the previous games mentioned here, the narrative does not suffer. Like Kentucky Route Zero, there is no vocal audio; only text advances the story. The gameplay is structured around the idea of, “What if we could reverse time and erase our mistakes?” while the story takes cues from a wide range of literature, from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

Papers, Please, Lucas Pope Papers, Please takes place in the fictional dystopian country of Arstotzka. Players control an immigration officer who must decide who to allow into the country and who to turn away. The game is designed to immerse players in this universe, so that they feel the emotional toll the work can have. Like Braid, more focus is placed here on the gameplay than the others, and unlike them all, there are twenty different endings that can occur due to choices made by the player. Papers, Please was awarded both the 2014 Excellence in Narrative and Excellence in Design at the Independent Games Festival and a public beta from 2013 is available on the developer’s website.

Gone Home, Fullbright – Gone Home, described by the developers as a “story exploration video game,” is a simple narrative that will stick with you long after you finish. Players become Kaitlin Greenbriar, a twenty-one-year-old Portlander returning home to her family’s mansion after a year abroad in 1995. On a quintessential dark and stormy night, she finds her home empty with a cryptic message on the front door and panicked cries for help on the answering machine. This sets the atmosphere for the entire game – eerie and quiet, save for the occasional boom of thunder. The story here is familiar and yet incredibly compelling. There is an absurd amount of depth and complexity to discover in this house, in this family, and it’s nearly all in the subtext. How much thought you put into the objects you find and read throughout will determine how much you take away from it. And if you don’t believe me, play the game (seriously, you can finish it in an evening  – or in thirty seconds if you’re one of those people who only read the last page of novels) and then read this article about a character you probably only gave secondary thoughts to. Gone Home is a refreshing turn to simplicity in the video game world, anchored by its realism and beautiful character development.

Part II: Video Games Derived from Literature

There is a long tradition of literature being adapted for film. Though not quite as expansive, a similar tradition exists for literature and video games. Though sometimes the story is somewhat sacrificed for the sake of gameplay (is anyone saying the films are always better than the books?) many of these adaptations are rather successful. And what’s most important – they’re fun.

Alice: Madness Returns, Spicy Horse – This 2011 title is a sequel to American McGee’s Alice, released eleven years earlier, which, in turn, is an “unofficial” sequel to Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice novels. If you’ve ever wondered what Wonderland might look like if it were written by the lovechild of Tim Burton and Edgar Allan Poe, play this game. Players control a nineteen-year-old Alice who holds herself responsible for the fire that killed her parents. She has hallucinations of a twisted Wonderland, and it is here that most of the game’s story takes place. Alice: Madness Returns received mostly positive reviews and a sequel is expected sometime in the next year.

Dante’s Inferno, Visceral GamesDante’s Inferno, is based, unsurprisingly, on the first canticle of Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Players control Dante, here a Templar Knight, as he ventures through Hell’s various circles to rescue Beatrice from Lucifer. Gameplay is heavily focused on a button-smash combo system, as Dante wields his scythe and cross to dismember and destroy enemies near and far. Once an enemy is defeated, the player has the choice of either to punish or absolve them. The game was massively successful, selling nearly a half million copies in its first month. Inexplicably, the game is being turned into a movie produced by Warner Bros. Yes, that’s right: there will be a movie based on a video game based on a fourteenth-century epic poem.

Tom Clancy’s, Red Storm, Ubisoft and Others – Tom Clancy, the prolific American novelist famous for his spy novels and Jack Ryan, co-founded video game developer Red Storm Entertainment in 1996. Their first game, Tom Clancy’s Politika was released a year later. Nearly 50 games bearing Clancy’s name have been released thus far, spanning almost all consoles, many receiving critical acclaim. Though the writer has passed, we can all continue to enjoy his legacy, as Tom Clancy’s games continue to be released and show no signs of stopping.

The Witcher series, CD Projekt Red The Witcher series, based on a book series of the same name by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, follows monster hunter Geralt as he travels through a fantasy world using his magic powers to hunt down and kill beasts for hire. The fictional universe that Sapkowski has created extends across short stories and novels, graphic novels, video games, a television series and even a film (although the series and film were panned by critics). Nevertheless, the video game series has been wildly successful. Each of the three games in the series has been critically acclaimed, with many citing its immersive gameplay despite its hack-and-slash style.

Spec Ops: The Line, Yager Development – Much like Apocalypse Now draws inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so does Spec Ops: The Line. The game has been universally praised for its narrative, which won several awards in 2012. The story follows a three-man Delta Force squad through Dubai after a series of catastrophic dust storms. The team is ordered to find survivors of the 33rd Infantry Battalion who were tasked with assisting in the relief efforts and then abandoned by their commander, Konrad (Spec Ops: The Line’s Kurtz). As the squad works their way through Dubai, the game slowly deteriorates to simulate the effects of dehydration and disassociation, ranging from hallucinations to hostile loading screen messages. The story has four separate endings, all predicated on the player’s decision to save Konrad or to kill him. The power of the story, as many critics have noted, is in how it uses the now cliché first-person shooter war setting to critique the entertainment industry’s exploitation of violence and interventionism. Take, for instance, this wonderful Grantland article by Tom Bissell.

by Cole Meyer


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