My college writing professor used to say that the novel is dead. I didn’t really agree with him then and I don’t know that I agree with him now, but it is true that film and, now, video games, are the preferred media for enjoying long-form fiction.
Video Games As Literature
Film has clearly proved to be a superb medium for telling stories; the jury, however, is still out on video games. Role playing games such as World of Warcraft and Oblivion are the genre most suited to storytelling but I’d like to see a literary genre emerge that allows the player to explore much deeper issues and themes that have thus far escaped the video game industry.
In short, I want to play Hemingway stories.
The Obstacles To Video Games As Literature
A primary obstacle to the development of such a genre is the video game’s absolute need for action. The player has to do something and the action always has to be compelling or entertaining if the video game is to be successful. That’s a big challenge. I think it will become easier as video games get more immersive, as the graphics become more photo realistic and once someone figures out how to apply virtual reality technology to video games.
I love first person shooters but more often than not, the story line, such as it is, is merely a pretense to kill. Halo‘s story was deep and well conceived but it was mere surface science fiction, it did not deal with any social, political, or psychological issues. And it’s story was told entirely through cut scenes.
The Call of Duty franchise’s story succeeds in large part on our understanding of World War II history and, in the case of Call of Duty 4, our understanding of current events.
The best most recent example of storytelling within a first person shooter that I can think of is Bioshock, with its dystopian themes and its remarkable sense of place:
Even so, video games in general and first person shooters in particular have a long way to go before they reach the level of literature. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but a recent visit from a writer friend of mine got me thinking about it again and the result is a brilliant idea for a first person shooter that would allow you to explore any number of literary themes.
My Brilliant Video Game Idea
My working title is The Short, Miserable Lives Of Fran McNeal.
So here’s my idea:
You begin the game being pursued by some shadowy government agency that is out to get you. A long, elaborate adventure ensues during which you need to evade your persecutors while engaging other characters you meet along they way, evaluating their trustworthiness, and obtaining help from them in your efforts to escape.
Eventually, however, you will be cornered and required to kill or be killed. By killing your antagonist, you obtain the ability to become other characters in the game. With that ability you are able to see your character from the perspective of other characters and it begins to dawn on you that your character is a paranoid schizophrenic. With multiple personalities.
A power struggle ensues between your personalities; you get to play as each personality. That power struggle maintains the paranoia of the game and becomes the rationale for the game. The object is to conquer each personality by killing it.
Upon killing that personality, you absorb the characteristics of that personality and therefore obtain or become stronger for the characteristics that were unique to that personality. So, for example, if one of the personalities could speak French, was extremely witty and charming, and was an expert driver, by killing that personality, you would gain those characteristics: You would be able to speak and understand French, your charm would make you more persuasive and give you the ability to make friends with ease, and your driving skills would improve significantly.
The game then would also have a strategic aspect to it. If, for example, you wanted to take down personality X, you may first need to kill personalities Y and Z in order to obtain the skills and/or characteristics you would need to kill X.
Through each personality, you can explore a separate literary theme and the game would conclude in any variety of ways, depending upon which character you ended up becoming.
Now I just need to learn how to write video game scripts!