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!

Journey – PS3

journey Slide

Does Journey fit nicely into the theme of retro games? No.  Probably, years from now when casual gamers have forgotten that any platform ever existed other than the PS5 and the XBox Pi, we can all come back to it and marvel at how an old-school game surprisingly still entertains us, but for the moment, it remains at the forefront of advances in technological, narrative, and musical progress.  Did Anne decide to play through it this morning while I needed something to write about during the time it takes me to finish Shining Force?  Welcome to my blog!  Look forward to a Sega Genesis review within the next week!

While I have more praise for Journey than most games, the initial description of what it is sounds about as appealing as clipping expired coupons from the supermarket to add to your grandma’s “collection.”  Developers and copywriters slap together promotional tidbits like “storytelling without words” or “a cerebral, haunting experience” or other such nonsense. Lead developer, Jenova Chen, claims he wanted to escape the modern idea of video games as being “shoot, kill, win,” so he built Journey around metaphorical themes of life and death.  The main character, a little jawa/bird creature, appears to the player in a desert.  He/she (shklee?) spies a tall mountain in the distance with a glowing pillar of light.  The rest of the game is simply the journey to that mountain.

Ignore that description.  I’ve seen sacks of flour with more pizazz than that.  The game does push envelopes, yes.  It doesn’t keep score, pit you against enemies, punish poor gameplay with “game overs,” but it does retain a lot of the aspects of video games that make it enjoyable to play.  It stresses exploration, with the main character able to find hidden glyphs that increase the length of its scarf, which gives the player the capability to fly short distances depending on that length.  In addition, some stages have monsters that can shorten the scarf; however, since it only cuts it in half, the player can never entirely lose it, and the normal course of the game doesn’t require flight anyway.

Yeah, yeah...everyone uses this image. It's the best from the game, but the rest are worth seeing, too.

Yeah, yeah…everyone uses this image. It’s the best from the game, but the rest are worth seeing, too.

I’ve often ridiculed the concept of high definition, since most people have low-definition eyes.  Yet I have to drop all pretenses for this game; the high definition world it creates adds every detail imaginable to the exploration.  Furthermore, the fully orchestrated score interacts with the player, changing seamlessly to match the emotion of the main character and its actions at any given moment.  Lost for witty comments to make here, I find myself slack-jawed and dumbfounded at the sheer brilliance of the composer (Austin Wintory) and programmers.

All though I will argue the storytelling value of plenty of video games dating back to the SNES-era RPGs, Journey may be the key to introducing the “electronic narrative” into the literary canon.  While the storytelling-without-words aspect takes itself much more seriously than Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the game does it using the full advantage of the technology, something that no movie or book could do; it uses social gaming.  And it uses it well, which surprises me.  The game connects to the internet and matches up two players who happen to be playing through any given point at the same time.

This accomplishes several things worth mentioning.  First, it reduces the urge to look up a walkthrough.  More experienced players–as denoted by the level of design on their cloaks–tend to show less experienced players where to find glyphs, several of which the player can’t actually reach on their own.  Furthermore, players discover in colder levels the value of huddling together for warmth.  All the while, the only “verbal” communication available is a small chiming sound made by the O button.  Without giving away too much, this feature of the game actually expands the story, again making me react with deer-in-the-headlights amazement.

Jackass...leaving me to freeze whie he bangs his head on a fricken wall...jackass

Jackass…leaving me to freeze whie he bangs his head on a fricken wall…jackass

Still, the best feature of the game also doubles as its most frustrating, as you’ll often get paired with players who somehow manage to express their amount of sheer idiocy with only actions and a small chime.  Having gone through the game a few times, I consider myself more of a mentor-player, and on one playthrough I attempted to show a newer player some of the secrets that others had shown me.  At one point, this guy started chiming like crazy, presumably to get my attention, then started walking over and over into a rock wall.  Figuring I should derive some meaning from it, I too walked into the rock wall.  Nothing happened.  I chimed a few times to get his attention, then got frustrated and left him still bashing his head repeatedly on the rocks, and I finished the colder sections of the game on my own.

The game often induces a calm feeling when I play it, but much like family, the stress level and frustration entirely depends on the random people you get stuck with, except you don’t have to worry about awkward Thanksgivings with them. It also affects your actions as a player.  A considerate mentor figure on your first few plays could turn you into a kind, caring, father figure to another newbie down the road, just like encountering morons and jackasses could set you down a bad path where you cooperate with no one, keep all the glyphs to yourself, and end up smoking, getting tattoos, and riding your Harley up and down the mountainside at all hours of the day and night.

I do plan on saying more about Journey (hopefully more entertaining, but good games are actually much harder to write about than bad ones), but as I mentioned before, this could make video games more literary, so I’ve put it on my Intro to Literature syllabus this fall–that’s right, come to the University of Minnesota Duluth and we’ll teach you video games! Until then, the game doesn’t cost much, and you have your choice of downloading it or buying the three-pack with Flower and…uh…that other game.  Although the impact wears off with subsequent playthroughs, Journey should leave the player with an emotionally soothing feeling upon finally reaching the mountain.