A Brief History of Video Games as Literature

Final exam time has crawled up from the depths of the calendar and overtaken all my time with grading, but fortunately it will soon shuffle us off this academic coil and unpause the game works, enabling me to write a little more often, at least for a few weeks. My current projects involve “The Last Story,” a conglomeration of tropes and cliches from your favorite fantasy RPGs, and the entire Super Star Wars trilogy; however, the latter may take some time to get to, as I haven’t quite figured out how I can stretch out multiple identical games into different articles without showing the awe-inspiring, death-defying cut-and-paste skills that Lucas Arts seems to have employed to make the games. Once I figure that out, I may spy some Mega Man articles in my crystal ball.

Yes, I just referred to a 8-bit icon loved and admired by more people than Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Little Debbie combined as formulaic. Before you sharpen your pitchforks and light your torches, please reconsider your reaction to branding something with the term as a negative. This entire semester of molding minds (or, perhaps, minding molds) culminated with an argument that video games count in the literary world, and that the nature of technology even allows us to expand on methods of communicating a story to an audience. As such, we have to understand that different rules apply to different media, and while House, M.D. may not push the limits of philosophy and abstract reasoning, rewriting the plot of Star Wars (which rewrites ancient plots itself) into thatgamecompany’s Journey might actually let you expand your mind without the fear of bad trips, chronic health problems and risk of incarceration.

Point one: for all the intricate stories ancient people weaved, they lacked imagination. Even disregarding all their formulas, if you wanted to hear a story, you needed someone to tell it to you. Interested in the Odyssey or Gilgamesh? Call in a bard to recount the story. Need an emotional catharsis to purge your soul? Go to the theatre and listen to them. Even if you knew how to read and had access to books, you would actually tell the story to yourself–they didn’t invent silent reading until the later Middle Ages. Music helped, but until the Romantic period, they didn’t try to tell stories with music without using them to highlight lyrics.

If you want genius, though, go to youtube and search “Buster Keaton.” This guy can run comedic circles around my best attempts at humor. I recommend “the Boat.” These silent movie stars oozed creativity and innovation. They had to. They couldn’t talk, but they could do things not possible in a theatre or easily described in a book (Seriously. Buster Keaton. The Boat. I’ll wait for you here). When the Jazz Singer learned how to sync up an audio track with the film, they gained a freedom that would have made Sophocles wet his pants.

A romantic comedy about the back-and-forth relationship between two kids from opposite sides of the tracks.

A romantic comedy about the back-and-forth relationship between two kids from opposite sides of the tracks.

Now, video games have existed since the forties, and I can’t honestly make an argument that they all constitute great works of literature, but printed language has non-literary aspects, too; just look at cereal boxes, this guy, the instructions on a tube of Preparation H,  and the Twilight novels. However, some games clearly have storylines, and thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien, that means we can study them as literature. In 1936, Beowulf didn’t get a lot of respect. People used it to study history, the Anglo-Saxon language, or to keep their libraries warm while they pick through the works of Chaucer looking for “ye naughtye drawinges.” Tolkien, however, questioned why no one had yet looked at the poem…as a poem. In spite of its thirty-pages-of-tiny-print length, the argument astounds me with its simplicity. I get a lot of mileage out of this. Study a poem as a poem. Study a novel as a novel. Study a story as a story.

Oh, ye dirty girle! Ye needes a bathe. I bet ye like heated water...Why doth mine parchment feel sticky?

Oh, ye dirty girle! Ye needes a bathe. I bet ye like heated water…Why doth mine parchment feel sticky?

So let’s look at the stories. Early video game stories derived from Dungeons and Dragons, an innovative method of immersive, spontaneous storytelling that promptly put all its focus on bashing, thumping, cutting, and torching monsters (Picture a Fantasy Football league with a plot). All this combat required heavy-duty math skills, but thankfully in the late seventies, computers dropped in price to a nice, affordable $1300 (Equivalent of $4,800 when adjusted for inflation, 2011), so these hulking calculators soon became an excellent platform for D&D style games, with the added bonus of eliminating all that bothersome socializing. Since role-playing didn’t particularly emphasize the story over the combat, neither did the early games. In fact, games such as Rogue (pictured) seemed to emphasize players ability to interpret complex symbols without inducing migraines.

Oh God! It's horrible! We must protest all this graphic violence in video games!

Oh God! It’s horrible! We must protest all this graphic violence in video games!

The early eighties introduced simple premises, basic backgrounds for a story given in the instruction book, but not developed in-game. Certain games used knowledge of pop culture to tell stories subtly; Donkey Kong invoked the details of King Kong, Castlevania reminded players of classic horror movies, and Pitfall took shape from Indiana Jones. Developers soon began to use stories to explain details about the games, such as Link changing from left- to right-handed as they flip the sprites (a memory-saving feature, explained as Link keeping his shield toward Death Mountain out of superstition). They also used simple tricks to make powerful statements, such as Samus taking off her suit at the end of Metroid to shatter the players assumptions about gender roles, and thusly proceed to use their imaginations to de-pixilate her bikini-clad form.

So...I think I just figured out why people love these characters.

So…I think I just figured out why people love these characters.

In-game stories didn’t develop much until the late eighties with Dragon Quest/Warrior and Final Fantasy. Still, developers hadn’t yet realized that programmed computers don’t really appreciate the spontaneity of interactive storytelling the way other people do, so they designed these games in ways that let the players impose themselves onto the protagonist. However, this demanded characters with zero personality (pictured), which they eventually realized made a lousy story.

Enter Final Fantasy IV, the first time in video game history (as far as I’ve found) that introduced a protagonist with personality, conflict, development, and actual combat experience. It told an in-game story with plot and themes and all that other stuff we study in English class. Furthermore, it didn’t diminish the players emotional connection to the game at all. I mean…who among you can honestly say you felt nothing when Sephiroth killed Aeris (…spoilers?). The fact that all these gamers, proclaimed by society as de-sensitized, sociopathic potential school shooters training themselves for murder with these electronic killing simulators found the emotion to organize and submit a petition to revive her speaks to a very strong emotional connection to game characters.

But developers haven’t taken the idea of the player-as-character and crammed it all the way down the garbage disposal. Some games retain this attempt in the form of silent protagonists, something that films and novels can’t do at all (except, maybe, in choose-your-own-adventure books. Do they still publish those?). You may have noticed a concerning lack of verbosity in characters like Link, Crono, and Chell. Rather than have character conflict and development drive the story, they let other characters in the game tell the story, while the player’s actions advance game play and trigger certain events. Moral choice systems (when done correctly, like in Fallout) have a huge impact on how minor characters interact with the player, which can alter the tone of the story dramatically, and multiple endings can provide a level of suspense and uncertainty that you can’t get from a story with a single path.

I mean, how could I have known that Silent Hill 2 would interpret me looking for some way to use Angela’s knife as James contemplating suicide?

While I’ll spare most of the details from my lecture, electronic storytelling has revived old uses for an ever-present element: music. Ever wonder why people put so much effort into emoticons? I gather not many people spend their lives on MSN, AIM or ICQ anymore (I’ll bet double that no more than a handful of people even remember ICQ), but if you’ve ever had an argument with someone online, you may notice the wrath escalating disproportionately fast (theory states that if these go on long enough, someone will eventually refer to the other as “like Hitler/the nazis.”) It turns out that tone of voice doesn’t come through the printed word very easily. As a result, music, once just played as undertones to highlight parts of films, now took over as the primary driver of emotion.

Notable figures here include Koichi Sugiyama of the Dragon Quest series and a plucky kid inspired by Sugiyama’s music named Nobuo Uematsu. Uematsu resurrected old operatic ideas like theme and leitmotif, using them much in the way Wagner and other composers did at a time when the audience didn’t so much understand the language used to write the story. His scores for Final Fantasy made him incredibly popular, and by the time the series had risen to fame, musical elements and scenes played important points in the plot (e.g. the Opera House in FFVI or using the Hymn of the Faith to calm Sin in FFX). Japan requires its sixth graders to study the love theme from FFIV as part of their standard music curriculum.

Interestingly enough, music drives the plot and the action of many Legend of Zelda games, which coincidentally have retained silent protagonists well into the era of voice acted games.

Modern games, however, have found ways to take sound and music to an entirely new level. Enter Journey, a game that takes a lot of things to a new level. The game intentionally eliminates all semblance of language (except for the word “hold” on some tutorial screens) in favor of music. Austin Wintory’s score nearly earned an award, but “Grammy Nominee” describes the music about as well as “Nice Guy” describes Jesus of Nazareth. The music flows freely, adapting seamlessly to the location and actions of the player, allowing it to highlight a free-form story as effectively as a movie. A lone cello persists throughout the soundtrack, symbolizing the character, and the rest of the score interacts with it the way the character interacts with the environment.

But hey, music people have always done artsy things like that, right? Well, consider the little chime that sounds every time you press the circle button…yeah, they’ve designed that to always stay in tune with the chord in the soundtrack.

journeyWintory stated in an interview that he wrote the music to reflect Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth theory, which the game’s story also follows. The call, supernatural aid, the mentor…even the death and rebirth (uh…spoilers?) make themselves evident in the game–a remarkable detail considering the vow of silence taken by the developers. But again, this reinforces the idea that we should study games as literature; if they share interpretive elements with epics, myths, Star Wars, and all those other things we respect as art, we should respect game developers–who create as enthusiastically as any other artist–as craftsmen putting together something they find meaningful, in which we may also find meaning.

Journey clearly makes a powerful statement about the nature of life and death, and judging by my final exam question, my students all found interpretations and meanings that even I didn’t notice before.

Yeah, yeah...everyone uses this image. It's the best from the game, but the rest are worth seeing, too. And picture the iconic scene (pictured) of the little Jawa-looking guy skating along the sand with the sunset in the background. The colors shift to a darker tone, and the sand shimmers like water with the mysterious mountain in the background. People all over the internet say they feel something there, and a few have even managed to put it into words. Now try to describe the scene in prose.

The technology gives us the opportunity to feel things in ways we’ve never felt before. It opens up a new venue of expression. It lets us learn on our own that huddling together with the other player keeps you warm in the snow, and we can draw our own conclusions from that free from the directives of language.

A quick google search will show you other people around the world debating the question of whether or not to consider video games art. I find it insulting to even consider the debate. With all the evidence, the previous arguments, the value people already find in it, plus the realization that film, television, comic books, and each individual genre of music all have had their debates, yet we have always eventually accepted them into the canon, the only problem I can think of asks “How can I best fit video games into the classroom?”

Thanks for keeping up with me for an extra-long entry, especially as I dropped off the humor toward the end. Naturally, I realize in the time I took to write this, I could have written entries about two games, so I promise I’ll get back to that soon. In the next few days I’ll tackle Super Star Wars. Until then, thanks for reading!

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