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You Cannot Just Decide to Go Home: The Literary Game (A Conversation)

For Video Games Day, the co-founders of the video-game-themed literary journal, Cartridge Lit, hash out how video games relate to literature, what makes a diverse “literary game,” why developers should aim for literary merit, and why gamers should demand it.

JUSTIN LAWRENCE DAUGHERTY: It strikes me—and, we can sort of parse out what the definition of this is later—that if I’m going to name a literary game, a game that, if anything is true of literature is true here, reveals to us something of what it is to live in this reality, I’d have to first say The Last of Us comes to mind right away. What’s a literary game to you?

JOEL HANS: The Last of Us is a fantastic example, but when I think of games with literary merit, I’m still drawn to something like Earthbound, which is a famously bizarre RPG made for the Super Nintendo. What draws me to that game (and what leaves me with such fond memories of it) is the inclusion of gameplay elements—like wild diversions to the main narrative and filled with a kind of self-referential crass humor—that are antithetical to what makes for a “good game” in the minds of the mainstream gaming world (and the media that attempts to follow this world). I think we identify those elements in something like Call of Duty games, which consist of a barely-logical narrative, pretty graphics, and twitchy, immediately gratifying gameplay. These work as a kind of innovation, or a refusal to let the game be simply fun. A way to make the player think, or struggle against his expectations. Your definition of a literary game might be wildly different, but I’m curious if you see any of that at play in a game like The Last of Us.

I think your point about struggling against expectations is essential, in that the literary game requires more, I think, than simple cohabitation within the game, or even abetting the game, so to speak, if we think in terms of the player causing the game to allow itself to be played (Is that too philosophical?). The gamer interacts in the most essential way—he must consider his role in the world of the game and how that immersion affects his ontological view(s). So, playing something like Call of Duty, in any of its iterations, might move us away in terms of that definition, as it requires the gamer either to kill in favor of momentum or... nothing. You cannot just decide to go home. So, that might be a start: the literary game requires something of a complicity in the gamer, a need—and, even, a desire—to work out the problems of existence (Is that too much?) as the game is played. They, then, require something of us, a certain contribution to the game that, while not actually played out in the space of the game (unless you have coding and hacking experience and can actually reshape the game), shapes the experience of it and the world for us. In that sense, The Last of Us may be problematic in that the act of playing is to make it to some point at which the game is over, despite the presence of other “literary” underpinnings. Maybe my jump to include TLoU requires some deeper consideration. What of, say, Final Fantasy VII?

Before jumping in to FFVII, I want to say that TLoU plays with this “You cannot just decide to go home” idea brilliantly when (and I’m trying to phrase this vaguely because of spoiler-y material) the game shifts points of view unexpectedly, forcing the player into a new role, and a new (often horrifying) way of looking at this already-horrifying world. The shift isn’t necessary for telling the story—we could have very easily gotten to the same ending another way—but the fact that the developers deemed it important enough, despite (or perhaps because of) the frustration for the player, imbues it with some literary merit.

FFVII—it’s certainly a touchstone for RPGs, and perhaps one of the best of all time, but I am unconvinced of its “literary-ness” when compared to TLoU or some others. Viewing the world through almost exclusively Cloud’s point of view renders the world flat, if only because Cloud inhabits the assumed modes, in American culture, of being white and straight and male. There’s no attempt to allow gamers to break out of these standard modes, even for gamers who do not fit those molds—a woman gamer has already inhabited dozens of male bodies, so what’s the significance of another? I don’t necessarily mean to bring this into a discussion of identity—but that has to play a role, right? The interaction between who the gamer is, and who the character(s) are that the gamer is occupying. That dissonance can be a major factor in creating literary merit, in my opinion.

I think that last point is absolutely right. Part of the experience of reading a good book is experiencing that dissonant voice—whether that voice is someone like us or is a perspective we have not fully considered. Identity has to be tied up in the experience because the act of playing necessarily involves a question of being, if we are talking the literary game, right? The gamer, in coming into being through the game, has to, at some point, reference her identity both in relation to the game and to the world she inhabits. The dissonance of inhabiting a not-like-me perspective can be—and should be?—enlightening and world-opening. I will say, too, that if we are thinking in terms of that complicity in the game, literariness is also evidenced, hopefully, in an emotional transference to the gamer. The gamer ought to feel something, ought to be brought to some sort of emotional response in relation to the experience, much as reading a great closing line in a short story does something to me, makes me feel as though I’ve somehow changed in the process of taking in a good work of art. And, if part of the experience of the literary game is this questioning of identity, then I think that act necessitates an emotional response.

The emotional response is so important, and that’s another way in which FFVII falters a bit compared to another game in the series: FFVI. In my opinion, that game strikes well at all the elements of literary merit that we’ve been talking about so far: the gamer being complicit, identity, emotional response. In that game, it’s because of a relatively simple gesture, in which no single character is made explicitly prominent or central—there is an argument to be made that Terra is at the center of most of the game’s events, but there are also large portions of the game in which Terra is absent, and we view the world through other lenses: kings, soldiers (both male and female), outsiders, and even non-human animals. It’s a similar gesture as to what I mentioned in TLoU earlier—in shifting, in forcing the gamer to experience that world in more ways than our standard mode of operation, it becomes a world one inhabits, not simply visits.

Maybe now that we have a working definition of the literary game—or at least a few elements we think important—we can shift some into why developers should aim for literary merit, and why gamers should demand it. Why not simply settle for the Call of Duty games? What right does video gaming have to pretend they can stand alongside the literary arts, or the cinema?

That’s a good move. I want to dwell, for just a second, on your point about visiting versus inhabiting in the game. One thing that makes the experience of playing a literary game more real, as you point out, is the experience of being present in the game, of being a part of the narrative. Like you say, FFVII cannot do that for everyone—unless you are straight, white, and male. The world of the game can only be a simulacra insofar as the experience is rendered real for anyone playing the game. Without that connection—without actually feeling something in relation to the game and feeling as though one is a part of the narrative—the simulacra is dismantled, the story too clearly an illusion to be felt.

At that jumping-off point is where I think I can start to answer your question. Surely the experience of feeling a game, of feeling a part of a game, is vibrant and lush and something the game developer wants the gamer to experience. The limited scope of experience—playing most games only through the experience of the white, straight male—cuts the majority of gamers off from the possibility of the game being felt. The more games open up the possibility of immersion for people of diverse voices, the more those games can have something genuine to say about what it means to experience the world as we do (even if you’re just, say, hunting aliens on Mars in the game). And, I’ll say that part of what allows for the demands by gamers of such an experience is that desire for authentic experience that allows the gamer to feel anything. Games now are immersive experiences, and games that don’t allow—or even attempt to bring in—diverse perspectives fail gamers who want to feel represented and heard and recognized.

Right—because games can be immersive in ways that a film, for example, never could, I think there is a particular obligation for developers to do better, and for gamers to demand better. There is no reason a game about hunting aliens on Mars can’t also force players to confront certain elements of their own place in the world, and construct a narrative that is both kind to enjoyable gameplay elements and to our want for emotive content. At the same time, I do oftentimes wonder if I’m asking too much of games, to “have it all”—is there not space in the same world for both mindless first-person shooters (humans or Martians) and games that engage these literary parts of our brains? Every other form of entertainment has found a happy medium. In that way, many games seem particularly progressive, in terms of their attempts to engage a wider audience—a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition includes transgender characters without batting an eye, whereas popular movies keep casting white actors in roles of non-white characters. Samus has been around for decades, quietly kicking ass as a woman without being exploited for her sexuality. Maybe we’re all doing okay?

I think, of course, we both realize that the answer there is that, despite a couple instances, we haven’t really begun to see diversity of voices and experiences in most forms of entertainment. We need more. We just do.

I’ll diverge here. I think part of this discussion has to involve how the literary game plays. We can talk of gameplay—how gameplay can enhance this sort of literary experience. Although, I guess, that answer is maybe already in what we’ve discussed: the gameplay should offer varieties of choice and movement and interpretation so that the game can be felt.

The game I’d like to see: something like a short story collection, something where there is a sandbox-like environment with multiple themed narratives that do not necessarily build into a single narrative, something where the gamer plays through to a number of endings, of meanings, and each story somehow impacts the movement through the subsequent stories. All mini-games (or, almost mini-games) revolve, for instance, around varieties of loss and coping. The player goes through these experiences—loss of a loved one, of the ability to make music, of a worldview—and somehow has to make decisions allowing the characters to heal. Maybe that would be an impossible game to write/create. Maybe not. What game would you write? Is there a way to make a good, literary game out of Dune or Moby Dick?

The short story collection as game is something I’ve been thinking about, too—there’s such potential for video games to develop in form, which I think of as very different from genre. Games like The Walking Dead spinoff are taking on an episodic form (although more for logistics than anything), which is an interesting innovation—why not a Civilization game in the form of a collection of short narratives? Doom in episodic form, where each piece has a different protagonist?

A Moby Dick game would have potential, surely—there’s a long narrative to follow, and a protagonist to become attached to. Today, with all the technology that goes into games, there would be some beautiful oceanscapes for players to look at. Drinking minigames. You can only move onto the next act once you’ve caught some no-name whale via some absurd mechanic where you hit the right sequence of buttons while aiming a harpoon. But I’d be disappointed if the industry got caught up in patching these old stories into our consoles—all game narratives should exist with the awareness that the narrative is immersively played, not simply experienced.

I’d love to see more games that deal wildly in consequence. The fact that games can have multiple endings, and multiple avenues to reach those endings, should be exploited more often. I understand that, technically, this is difficult with the way games are made these days—all the cutting-edge graphics and voice acting—but there are more simplistic tools available. Everyone understands text. Some of my most memorable moments in gaming are those where I pause the game and agonize over a decision for half an hour before reaching again for the start button. It’s something that no other medium can offer. I want games to give me regrets I carry for years.

Right—because how can a game be actually immersive, actually experienced, if the game does not account for consequence and failure and success? A game where there are dungeons and a monster/villain to defeat at the end, but your actions all take you somewhere, and maybe only one set of perfect choices ever gets you to the villain. Everything else, maybe, is just experience.

Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta and is the publisher at Jellyfish Highway Press, with Matthew Fogarty. He founded and manages Sundog Lit, is the fiction editor at New South, and co-pilots Cartridge Lit with Joel Hans. Find him at justindaugherty.com and @jdaugherty1081.

Joel Hans is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Booth, Necessary Fiction, and others. He also helps edit Cartridge Lit, an online literary magazine devoted to literature inspired by video games. He has a website and tweets at @joelhans.

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