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The Novelist as Litmus Test


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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.


Andrei Filote

About Andrei Filote

Andrei Filote lives somewhere between the Alps and the sea. He studies foreign languages and writes about games and all things eSports. You can tweet to him @letominor.