Author Topic: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”  (Read 4999 times)

Offline drusain

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Hello everyone! We’ve all played video games at some point or another obviously, but we may have occasionally found games we’ve felt were really infused with literary elements. These games might have followed a natural story arc, introduced believable characters who had underwent character growth, might have developed symbols in the game that helped to expound upon more of the story than was mentioned in the game, or generally included literary themes that you saw in a video game that you would expect in a novel.

James Paul Gee, a professor who has a focus on using video games to develop literacy in students, posted a recent blog, 10 Truths About Books and What They Have to Do With Video Games. In this blog post, one of his points on what books do that video games do not is that video games are inherently problem solving puzzles while books are more about the content in the pages. Video games do not necessarily need to provide content, but they do require problems for the player to solve. But what about games that break that mold and also provide a story?

Are there video games in which you believe that, while the game has a focus on problem solving, it also has a focus on creating content? These games would have well-developed storylines, well-developed characters, well-defined symbolism, well-defined motifs, or a mixture of the above. Do they exist? Has a video game given you the satisfaction of a full-length story that you’d feel from a novel?

If you do think of any examples, do you think that any of these video games would be appropriate as learning sources for middle school or high school students? Would these students be able to play a video game that you feel would satisfy part of a course requirement in an English literature class based on the literary elements of the game?

This may or may not be a prompt that I wrote with the interest to help write an article for my graduate studies.

I’d appreciate any response you can make!

Brian Zabell
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I write for Andrew Greyson on The Four Winds

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Offline Datadog

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #1 on: April 06, 2012, 03:56:47 PM »
Video games have been effective teaching tools for math, reading, and science since the 80's, but as course material for English literature? That one's tricky. Being able to write a book report on a video game would be an amazing assignment, but there's very few games where the narrative and game-play are knit tightly enough to form effective literary content. Even the most well-known game stories have their share of filler (i.e. "...and after watching the love of his life fall under the villain's blade in one of the most memorable scenes in RPG history, our hero bravely set off to go snowboarding.")

I've thought of a few examples - Grim Fandango, Gabriel Knight, Silent Hill 2, Portal - GamesRadar actually has all of these on their list of best video game stories and more.  But I think those four games provide a lot of themes and subtext to explore. I can easily see my old English teacher asking questions like "Why does Manny tell Salvador 'Love is for the living'? What is Manny really trying to say?" or "What is the symbolism of Pyramid Head? What is his relationship to James?"

The biggest problem with using games in the classroom is simply the homework. Everyone's at different skill levels, so just to experience the narrative requires everyone to be really adept at puzzle-solving or have the right reflexes. It would be a good team activity, but individually for a lot of people, that's like telling someone they have to climb a rope just to pass gym class. Games aren't as user-friendly as we sometimes like to think, and I believe movies and books are still the more ideal teaching tools when it comes to storytelling.

Offline drusain

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2012, 09:30:20 PM »
Thanks for that reply and link. I agree that there really aren't games that have the focus of weaving a narrative and that seems to be based on the fact that video games are problem-solving puzzles first. It's maddening because you think "well it might not make up a large market, but there should be some of those types of games, right?" There are educators who use World of Warcraft to educate people to develop leadership skills, multicultural understandings (seriously), financial understanding, and some other skills, but in an English classroom it wouldn't be very useful. They can be very good for developing a strong vocabulary though. It's a maddening position because video games can have so many scripts and dialogues!

Gabriel Knight is a great example and I discussed it on a blog recently, showing the first three minutes of the game to people (everything up to where you gain control of Gabriel) and I pointed out things that work in the game. The dialogue is great and tells me everything I need to know about Gabriel and Grace before in one short scene. There is also a great good dichotomy between the intro scenes (dark, forboding) that clashes well with your first look in the bookstore. The bookstore is well-lit and the music is fun. The atmosphere is warm and shows that the bookstore is a safe haven. It's a great setup for later on when the bookstore doesn't become quite as safe. That's the sort of choice I would want to see in more games and have students learn from. Unfortunately in the case of Gabriel Knight, the swearing wouldn't be possible for a classroom setting unless it was a college course.

I like your point about "skill level" and raises an interesting fear I hadn't thought about. If students had a walkthrough sitting in front of them to solve the puzzles and just enjoy and study the story, would that cheapen the game's experience? Would players be less interested in the characters and immersion and so the point of using games as a classroom exercise would be ineffective?

Hm.

Brian Zabell
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I write for Andrew Greyson on The Four Winds

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Offline MusicallyInspired

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2012, 07:21:37 AM »
Stanley Parable and Dear Esther. Not much gameplay, but definitely narrative-driven, if that qualifies.

Offline ladidada

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #4 on: April 13, 2012, 12:01:10 AM »
As far as I am concerned, a good story is a good story no matter what medium it is on...rather I read it or watched it or played it as a game.

I agree that most video games though, by their nature, aren't narrative-driven when made but visually.

Books are narrative-driven works of art where as most screenplays (for a movie or say a video game) are more visual-driven works of art. When you write a screenplay, you're pretty much only writing dialogue, everything else you write (i.e. descriptions) must be something a camera can capture or something we can see in a game essentially.

So take for instance,

A book might write,

"She winks at him and his body instantaneously shrills with thrilling, eager desires. It had been so long since passion filled his body, that the butterflies flapping around his stomach were fighting off dust and cobwebs from their ancient rest."

How do you filmed that? Put that in a video game? How do you put onto your screen a metaphor?

A movie/game might write it as,

"She winks at him and a nervousness overcomes him: he flusters red, stumbles back, his adam apple bobs, his hands grow sweaty."
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Offline Fierce Deity

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #5 on: April 14, 2012, 04:26:51 AM »
Stanley Parable and Dear Esther. Not much gameplay, but definitely narrative-driven, if that qualifies.

I have to second Stanley Parable. That was very narrative-driven, in every sense of the word. I still need to play Dear Esther. I haven't played it yet, but I hear good things.
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Offline darthkiwi

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Re: Are there video games that you would classify as “literary?”
« Reply #6 on: April 14, 2012, 08:19:24 AM »
Drusain: your analysis of GK seems really astute and would function very effectively as both a critical analysis of the game and an example to be emulated or dissected for future game designers. One thing that strikes me, though, is that you stopped your analysis *at the point that the player gains control of Gabe* - that is, the point at which "Gabriel Knight" stops being a movie and starts being a game.

Now, I'm not trying to undermine you or show you up or anything. And I can't say for certain why your analysis stopped there: it might just be that you found the intro really intriguing, and so decided to focus on that rather than later gameplay. But I do think it's interesting that as soon as Gabriel and the player become one (or at least become sort of fused together), things get a lot more complicated. This seems to me to be at the heart of discussions of video games as art or culture or, to be frank, anything more than toys. We have examples of artistic works that we consider "artistic", but they're all linear and don't involve the audience as much as videogames do. We have examples of interactive activities - games like chess, or tag, or cowboys and indians - but these are not seen as "artistic" in the way that, say, the works of Tenessee Williams are. We feel that we should be able to mould the two together but we don't really know how, because there's no roadmap.

But as to your opening question - I think Gabriel Knight 2 could be an even more fruitful source of study than GK1, simply because it takes a lot of apparently dissimilar things and shows how they're similar. It takes Wagner's operas in particular and Germanic culture in general, Nietzschean ideas of the Will to Power, the tradition of noblemen hunting, fear of uncontrollable desires and uncontrollable animals, the torment of the unconscious with regard to Ludwig II, perhaps more generally the act of keeping something secret and of things being hidden and dangerous - and it wraps them all up in the Werewolf myth. To me, that seems to be an act of storytelling as subtle as the complex of symbols and metaphors in most literary works.

What bothers me about using GK2, though, is that there's a lot of stuff in there that doesn't really fit into such an artistic vision. Gabe solving a puzzle by recording the head warden's voice on his tape machine and then manipulating it to make the zoo guard let Gabe into the animal pen seems, to me, like a regular puzzle, albeit an ingenious one. I suppose it might tell us that Gabe is ingenious, but it's probably more likely to make the *player* feel ingenious, so that effect is sort of dulled. And perhaps you could detect a thematic point about warden himself - the zoo warden is a member of a hunting club but also head of a zoo, which is an interesting juxtaposition - but to develop that into an argument that by stealing his voice and manipulating it on tape you're using technology against a beast or something... well, that just seems a bit forced to me. Sometimes a puzzle is just a puzzle. My problem is, given that videogames have so much stuff which is filler or challenge or exists to slow us down and engage us on a ludic level, how does all this stuff relate to the artistic integrity of the whole? I'd say it probably doesn't, or at least doesn't *that much*. Everything the player experiences within the game is, by definition, part of the game experience, but there's so much that can seem dissonant.

Also, if you simply want to point English students towards things that will map onto the English course a little better, you could try text adventures. Granted, many of these are punishing puzzle-fests with little resemblance to novels or drama, even though they're written in text form. But I've heard that some older games, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, are literary enough that they're considered masterpieces. In my own opinion, the commercial death of text adventures has only improved the creativity with which they are written: the annaul text adventure competition frequently yields wonderful results. Two of my favourite text games are The Baron and Fate, both by Victor Gijsbers. I think both of these - especially the Baron - are literary enough to be considered artistic. What's interesting about the Baron, though, is that you can't fail. There are no puzzles, only decisions. Without the threat of failure, the player is free to explore the game and take more expressive decisions which would normally be considered foolish.
« Last Edit: April 14, 2012, 08:29:00 AM by darthkiwi »
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