The Novelist as Litmus Test


A game is a product of stunning complexity, not merely in its technological base, but in terms of the game’s objects, in their being and relating to each other, composing a world with a logic all its own.  As thrilling as it can be to watch such a world move, like a massive diorama or ticking clock, that mechanical splendor is often put to little use. It is swallowed up by the game’s miniscule vocabulary, that omnipresent set of one word commands: kill, run, hide, jump. This is why World of Warcraft, consisting in 2009 of some 5 million lines of code, remains by and large a game about death.

Indeed, game after game for the past decade has put us in the shoes of wanton destroyers, forming a heroes’ hall of simpletons backed up by an equally vapid menagerie of sidekicks. Meanwhile, the old mainstays — your city builders, your adventure games — have become more niche than ever. The arrival of the Xbox 360 and the PS3 coincided with the expansion of the videogaming mainstream, but instead of widening, the scope of future products narrowed, and we discovered the future was going to be about guns and violence.

To insist on this picture, however, is to misrepresent much of the work being done by developers large and small. New things have been learned. New types of games are being made, and are finding their audiences. And a new type of discourse is rising around them, one far removed from the language and customs of review websites. But we shouldn’t fall into the error of thinking that it is only the indies — the small, peculiar people — who are advocating for and putting forward these new (or returning) sensibilities. The mainstream, big developer houses have been looking in the same direction. Yes, they are less free to pursue that path, but we shouldn’t be too harsh: they have many compromises to make. Consider that no big-budget game is published that does not involve the exercise of violence. Very well: for a designer, filling the space in and around the violence becomes the real work.. There are always games willing to rise above their vocabulary, and in this environment it is necessary to create a distinction between what they are made of and what they are about.

How do we find that distinction? Not as easily as the Bechdel Test scans for sexism, I’m afraid. Nevertheless, I propose this test: “Is it possible for a novelist to be born in this videogame, and base his work upon it?” The framing is straightforward but the answer is not. Where the Bechdel Test has us scanning for a particular piece of content, here we investigate the possibility of life as a novelist. We can do so from many angles, applying many types of expertise, but whatever view we take a single effort is common to them all: inserting ourselves and our imaginations into worlds as different as BioShock’s Rapture and Pong’s black digi-court.

Why a novelist? Surely an imaginary historian or philosopher could do the same job. True, they are, for this purpose, interchangeable. But I believe that emotional complexity is not only required to create literature, but that literature will spontaneously arise in a society that wonders about itself. Thirdly, because most AAA videogames are or at least tell stories, and more than anything else the novelist is a teller of stories. Fourthly, because a novelist is interested in language, in some perfect form that can perfectly encapsulate his thoughts. He must be able to find that language. Which is to say, an imaginary novelist provides a scrutiny that goes into several directions. A game must be consistent enough to allow for the existence of the novelist, and real enough to give the novelist real material. What do I mean by real? I mean content that stretches beyond the illusory, that is more than a cardboard cutout. Content that when investigated, does not become immediately fake, but engages us further as players. Case in point, a character in Fallout: New Vegas expresses a long held desire to own a dress. If, when a dress is provided, no reaction occurs, we have been dealing with an illusion, a lie. If, on the contrary, the dress is recognized, then we have reached a new depth of interaction — a new depth of real.

It goes without saying that my novelist differs from yours just as what I read differs from what you read. To satisfy the test, we must sift through that intricate field of content that defines a game’s subject, and in doing so we have only our own tools at our disposal.. Each answer, therefore, must be as different to the others as one novelist is to the rest of his peers. This is a personal, totally subjective pursuit. But if that’s true, then what is the utility of a test that yields a different answer every time? The answer is in the method. By entertaining the idea of an imaginary novelist, we force ourselves to construct an ancillary narrative on top of the one already present. That effort builds on the game being played, but depends ultimately on our own capabilities. It tests us as well.

Consider Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. A power fantasy, yes, but is that all it is? The distinction that makes a violent game into more than just cynical entertainment is not always easily found, nor is it always uniformly distributed. It hides in rooms and solitary pictures and the strange vignettes we find when the action has occurred and disappeared, and what is left behind is a space whose purpose has vanished before our very eyes. More than that: we made it vanish, we consumed it in our play. Think of the painstaking craft put into Dishonored, the “curation,” if you will, of props and furniture, of paintings. Think of the silent, hurried lives of its characters, about to be sucked into the vortex of some horrible denouement. A place’s landscape is not only physical, but auditory, emotional, intellectual. We come to live in those landscapes, fulfilling a role consistent with the logic of the place, and because we do not understand the effect that our roleplay has on us, we limit our judgements to such statements as “it’s just a power fantasy,” when the subject is often much more than that. Witnessing a moment in a person’s shrinking life is also a form of play, for we have chosen to be witnesses to something that cannot exist outside our seeing it. That is not nothing, nor did this quantity come about by chance.

I imagine, for instance, my novelist getting swept up in the flood that ruined much of Dishonored’s city of Dunwall. I see him (and in my mind’s eye, it is a him) stalking the homes of aristocrats who might become his patrons. At home he grumbles about despotism, but in public he is not political. He remembers the graffiti on the derelict buildings, and the public watch bullying a bystander. On some days he looks out of the window and sees idle men on the street. Sometimes they fight until the cops stop the brawl. He washes his hands constantly.

Still, there are a number of caveats. For one, this exercise might seem like a test of world building. You might say, “of course a writer can live and die in Skyrim, look at how many books there are!” The characters in the film Pleasantville also own books, but they are all blank. It would likewise seem pointless to test Assassin Creed 2’s 15th century rendition of Italy, but (as Crysis 2 will show) referencing the real world does not in itself make a game emotional, only the depiction of emotions does that. Even further, what would a novelist do in Super Mario Brothers? The answer to that question might very well be Braid. And again, what possible narrative effort can we pull out of Pacman?

Pacman has no grand narrative, but I wouldn’t say that it is without a story or emotions. Both are very simple, no doubt, but present and vivacious, able to draw us in through the simplicity and directness of the interaction. It is so much like a child – honest, without pretense, and eager to show us what it loves. Don’t assume, however, that its designer, Toru Iwatani, who has by now achieved legendary status, was just as naive. He knew exactly what he was doing when he drew from the world of eating, a vital and (I don’t have to tell you) supremely pleasant activity. Consider the character design. Pacman is the shape of a pizza. His mouth is the missing slice. He roams the map, perhaps in an effort to replace this missing feature, but is hounded by ghosts. And even the ghosts, rather than being some despicable nasties, are likable, so that when Pacman eats a power cookie, turning the tables on them, they become terrified, scampering away in fright. We even feel a little sorry for them, until, that is, the power cookie runs out, and it’s our turn to run away. All this to say that Pacman possesses a certain spirit, an intelligence we might not see if we took it at face value. Does a game not increase in the knowledge of how skillfully it was made? Many things do.

What does this effort accomplish ultimately? Well, something like this:

In [the bedroom] were seven or eight sleeping bags, unrolled, empty, and a lot of rollaway suitcases. Also a pinup of a clothed woman wielding a machine gun. There was something touching about this tableau of sleeping bags, since I knew that the soldiers who had slept there were now dead. If I got down on my stomach, I could crawl right through the sleeping bags, which was an interesting experience—seeing the underside of the texture. I could even crawl through a dead body, and I did once—for everything in a video game is just a contortedly triangulated, infinitely thin quilt of surface. What, I wondered, was in the suitcases?

The writer is Nicholson Baker, who is not imaginary, and the game is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which is not usually held up as a font of touching images. Baker continues:

I began to think a lot about the hardworking set dressers for this game, who cleverly reused the same props in different ways in different countries. What moral were they offering—that people were basically the same everywhere? That most of life was getting up in the morning, putting on your clothes, and eating basmati rice? That war, even for the soldier, was the aberration? Or were they just being thrifty, or playful?

Reading Baker’s foray into our “top of the pops,” something occurs to me: When we talk about games we refer to a set of conventions that we always expect. Score, weapons, props — these are some of the categories we take for granted. When we celebrate some new game, odds are we do it in terms of conventions omitted, commented on, or revolutionized. If left unchanged (or unchallenged) these elements go unnoticed. Baker, however, isn’t a gamer, so he has no conventional bias. Everything is new to him, from the guns to the Basmati, and that newness brings a curiosity long time gamers often lack. And, lest we forget, behind curiosity there is an even more important urge: sincerity. A sincere desire to experience a game is a vital component of our play.

In this sense, the biggest benefit of putting your imaginary novelist to work is finding a new way to think about not only games, but books and movies, and all art. Perhaps the real test is not for the items that come into our crosshairs but for our capacity to understand the work of others. In our case, it’s a way to test our ability to think about games outside everyday terms, using original language, interpreting images, sounds, and ideas in ways that only we could imagine, that we have not borrowed from others.

That also happens to be the cornerstone of critical writing, so what I’m proposing is that we all become slightly more critical in our judgements. Yes, the imaginary novelist is a conceit, a tool, but it is a tool with two unknowns at either end: one is the game, the other is he who plays the game. In the first direction we can reach a deeper understanding of the game itself. In the second, we can divest ourselves of those quick judgements that prevent us from seeing the real thing. Since trying this method, I have discovered something. I believe that every game has some kind of soul, some lesson it can teach about life or art or game making. Sometimes, that soul can even be a mirror for ourselves. This idea tickles me greatly, not the least of which because it makes me consider that far from me judging a game, it is the game giving the world some proof of my character.

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