Video Game Narratives

Pac Man stock photo from lumix2004 at sxc.hu

We have moved beyond this. Way beyond.

I’ve been a fan of video games since my parents got us an Atari in the 1980’s.  Then we got a Super Nintendo, and my cousin got a Sega Genesis after that.  I’ve played dozens of games on the Wii, and the PS3.  Personally my tastes run toward playing the cute games (like De Blob) or the puzzle games (like Tetris or Legend of Zelda), or god help me a cute puzzle game (like Little Big Planet or Katamari Damacy).  I’ve never personally been a fan of playing the RPGs or the first person shooter games.

But god help me I love watching other people play them.

Our roommates last year had a PS3 and I must have clocked 100 hours watching my husband and my roommates play through the endless variations of Dragon Age: Origins.  I didn’t care that they were replaying it for the sixth time as a different race or a different gender or a different player class.   The story was absolutely fascinating every time, and I lost my mind when I saw these choose-your-own-adventure choices led to deadly and sometimes utterly evil consequences.

So this article about BioWare’s Mass Effect being the most important science fictional universe of our generation just reiterated what I already knew: that video games have some of the most complex and amazing narratives of any form of literature that exists today.

At last year’s TEDxLibrariansTO conference I had the pleasure to hear games researcher Sara Grimes talk about her personal experience with video games, and about how video games function as a new and exciting form of narrative storytelling.  Here’s her presentation.

To me the BioWare games represent a new level of achievement for video games as narrative. The story lines are sprawling and epic in scope, there are thousands of choices, and there are dozens of alternate endings.  There are just so many variables, and so many amazing moments that it was easy for an armchair video game spectator to just sit back with the popcorn and watch the roommates play through the story.  Dragon Age was so inspirational that uber-geek girl Felicia Day made a fan-vid series, Dragon Age: Redemption, and BioWare created some downloadable content with that character.

So, when Kyle Munkittrick says that Mass Effect, another BioWare game series, is the most important science fiction universe today, I completely believe it.  I have personally never seen anyone play Mass Effect, but from the descriptions he gives in his narrative I can totally understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s why I love these games.  The writing is unbelievably good.  They hire some incredible voice actors.  The visuals are absolutely stunning.  It’s as if you’ve been given the keys to an animation studio and a loose script to work with and you just make your own film.  The swordplay and the magic is almost secondary to the narrative stream.  Sure it’s important that you don’t button mash yourself into oblivion, but these games aren’t about how many things you kill or racking up points for the sake of gaining points.  It’s about where you’re going, and how you get there.

Recently one of the BioWare writers was harassed to no end on Reddit because she said that she wants a fast-forward button through combat.  This brought out tons of vitriol and hatred, because for many gamers the combat is the point.  But clearly it’s not the point for everyone.  And thankfully one of the head honchos at BioWare gave a major public statement of support for their writer.  Good for them.  Because honestly, that’s what makes these games special.  The writing is unbelievably good, and it hooks the player as well as everyone else who happens to be in the room into the story line.  If they were to abandon that for disconnected gameplay they would lose the soul of their brand.

Sara Grimes in her wrap up suggests that if Libraries are serious about sharing the body of the world’s great literary works that we should not overlook the fact that video games are just as valid a form of literature as a novel.  I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, I would wager to say that sometimes they’re even better.

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Enhanced eBooks.

In the last day I think I’ve read a solid half dozen articles about the future of enhanced ebook technology, and what this means for publishing. I think there are some good things happening in this multimedia book future, and there are some other details that still need to be worked out if these are not going to be just blips on the radar screen but rather viable new media environments.

While not the first enhanced thing ever, perhaps the one that actually poked at my brain for a minute was the iPad “app” The Final Hours of Portal 2.  I put “app” in quotes because this isn’t really an “application.”  It’s a kickass piece of writing with some videos and gorgeous full screen pics, but it’s not really an application.  It looks like it could have come straight out of the pages of Wired.  Now, I have only had the iPad for about 3 weeks and I haven’t downloaded this yet.  Part of my reluctance has been, well the iPad isn’t mine.  It actually belongs to the Library, so paying for some kind of awesome content and then having to wipe it if I have to transfer to another location or something is not a great prospect. But I have to say that as a fan of Portal this kind of long form article with special features looks kind of nifty.

I don’t know who told me about Vooks.  Probably I heard about it on Gweek when they were talking about the Portal article mentioned above.  After poking around the Vook website I have come to the conclusion that they are fancy coffee table books.  I don’t buy coffee table books.  Personally I think they’re cheap and often useless.  If I’m buying something to read, I actually want to read it.  Not just look at it cause it’s pretty.

Substance is why I’m actually really turned on to TouchPress and their enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land*.  This is a notoriously difficult poem to understand, as its cobbled together from pop culture things from the dawn of the 20th century, ancient Greek and Latin epigrams, context shifts from scene to scene in mind-bending ways. It’s pretty damn cerebral.  Hence why having tons of enhanced notes and about four different performances of the piece from different actors and poets makes this an incredibly enticing concept.  Not to mention that this kind of textual enhancement would be really fantastic in an educational setting.  My only trip up is that it seems kind of cost prohibitive to hire all these people and sell this app for something like $14.00.  I don’t think of Eliot as a loss leader, but hey, whatever works for Touch Press.

In a very similar vein there is Melville House and their hybrid books with Illuminations.  Here they include supplementary information on the art of dueling to an entire series of novellas about duels embedded in the eBook.  The variation here is that even if you purchase the print editions of the books the publisher provide the link to the additional content available via QR code. It would be interesting to know if the additional enhanced content would be available if library’s purchased the text and people download the additional material in excess of the original purchase. Would the publisher balk at that?  Curious to find out.

Then there was this article in The Atlantic about books with soundtracks.  Now, I’ve seen novels that revolve around music in the text.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Love is a Mix Tape are probably the most obvious. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  This is like writing an entire score for a novel.  That, to me, sounds incredibly awesome.  I mean, could you imagine the Star Wars series of novels with a score by John Williams!  I would totally read the hell out of that.  This reminds me of an issue of McSweeney’s that I found once with an entire interplaying soundtrack by They Might Be Giants.  I can’t think of two more worthy mutants blending together in glorious weirdness.  I probably still have it laying around the house somewhere.  I remember how mind warping it was listening to that CD.  Brilliant.  My big concern is not being able to read fast enough for the music to flow at a pace that I actually read at.  I’m kind of a slow reader, moving at the pace of speaking.  It makes me wonder if the music would be too greatly distorted by slow or fast readers.  That seems like a minor concern for something so awesome, but it’s kind of legit.  With a movie there’s a timestamp that the conductor has to follow.  There’s no such thing for a book, but it seems these Booktrack people have somewhat remedied that.

Now all of this sounds incredibly awesome.  But I’ve got a few of questions.

OS Portability

Lack of portability of many of these enhanced products worries me in general.  What if I decide to go with an Android tablet, or invest in the dead WebOS HP TouchPad? I mean, iPads are the leader now, but they got there mostly from primacy of place.  There’s nothing saying that another more fabulous hardware could overtake it.  Will these be able to be ported over easily to another OS, or do you have to keep that iPad laying around for later?

Media Conversion

If we suddenly develop an amazing new audio and video format will this stuff still be readable?  Will we be able to upgrade our fancy hyperbook to new versions?

Library Editions & DLC

I’m always thinking about library editions, and I mentioned one of my main concerns above.  When the book and the downloadable content are separate, how will the publisher negotiate user access to the DLC?  Is it going to be resalable to a second hand market?

Tablet vs. eReader

Given that the majority of these are designed for the iPad, its clear that the publishers are leaning toward a future where tablet reading is the way to go.  But I think eBook reader technology is going to be on an upswing over the next year or so, and we’ll start to see color e-ink readers coming around with video capabilities to rival the iPad. Will these kinds of technologies be able to integrate themselves into these new environments.  I don’t think the eBook reader is dead, not by a longshot.  Some of these companies ought to keep that in mind.

Even with all these questions I think this stuff is pretty damn cool.  I’m going to try and test drive a few of them sometime soon and may report back about them.


* Incidentally I wrote my college entrance essay on Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” He’s been a favorite of mine for a LONG time now. I’m actually incredibly intrigued to look at this app.