In a 2002 New Yorker essay titled “Mr. Difficult,” author Jonathan Franzen of The Corrections fame argued that in the face of increased competition from movies, videogames and (oddly) extreme sports, fiction should mainstream itself. Fictional literature was under siege by figurative barbarians, and by perpetuating literature’s difficult and inaccessible, the literary establishment was alienating potential readers. An intrepid reader might, at the suggestion of the literary establishment, pick up a “lyrical” book, only to trudge through page after page of unnecessary adjectives. For fiction to survive, according to Franzen, it has to cater to readers, the consumers who actually purchase and consume the product.
I’m here as a Visigoth, banging on the gates of a doddering imperial Rome. Videogames have the potential to tell narratives and deliver experiences that fully outstrip those told by film, poetry and, yes, fiction. Yet, in terms of cultural respect, videogames are marginalized. The great film critic Roger Ebert once opined that videogames are not art because they have not produced anything comparable to the works of great artists from other media. Ebert has a vested interest in film’s continued success. Older narrative forms film and fiction possess intrinsic virtues, but, in relation to videogames, a large portion of the cultural and critical respect bestowed upon them amounts to little more than inertia.
The cultural perception gap between fiction and videogames begs the question: What is the fundamental purpose of entertainment? Why are books seen as a positive virtue? Are books read in the same way mothers tell their sons to eat broccoli, or are they read to deliver a story? Is it exercise, or is it fun? Can it be both?
Do you go to the supermarket to talk to the clerk and walk the aisles, or do you go to get food?
Literature is equipment for living. The cultural critic Kenneth Burke wrote those words in his 1974 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form. In a utilitarian sense, the stories we tell each other in books, movies and videogames help shape our consciousnesses in a way a straight recitation of facts cannot. Little Red Riding Hood teaches us to not trust strangers in a way that simply saying “don’t trust strangers” cannot.
Narratives are the key. The format, be it film or books or videogames, acts as a wrapper by which the substance, the story, is delivered. They help shape the story by setting the boundaries of the playing field in which the story plays itself out.
As of today, fiction has more variety than videogames. It’s a matter of simple economics: The high costs of videogame development prevent more niche titles from appearing. On the flip side, anyone can write a book for little or no money. However, in the few areas where videogames and fiction go head-to-head, videogames offer a more compelling, and ultimately, a superior experience.
Science fiction is one such field. For the purpose of argument, let us compare the critically-acclaimed Star Wars videogame, Knights of the Old Republic, to the universally loved Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire.
Reading Heir to the Empire, I usually sit. My eyes are concentrated intently on the text, and my face deadens as I process the strings of text. The descriptions act as cues for imagination. I have a murky image of spaceships with descriptions juxtaposed onto them. At their best, the descriptor adjectives show an aesthetic relationship between two seemingly disparate entities; “The TIE fighters pulled up like an exotic fountain.” I see the inner thoughts of the characters, their musings, their regrets, their joys. I find myself speculating what’s going to happen in the later chapters of the novel.
Playing Knights of the Old Republic, I usually sit. My eyes are concentrated intently on the television screen. My face deadens as the audio-video presentation washes over me. The graphics are beautiful to look at, and I marvel at the technical and artistic proficiency it takes to create a living, breathing Star Wars metropolis. The controller rests in my hand. The fluidity of the controls has a subliminal effect on me. I forget what my hands are doing, and a relationship forms between my eyes and the character on the screen. Soon I’m exploring this new environment for myself. I push a button, and the lightsaber swings. Just like in the movies, it’s a kinetic arc of light. I navigate my way through the city, making mental notes as to what’s where and where I am. As I begin to interact more with the characters on-screen, I find myself wondering about their motivations, if they’re going to betray me or if I can betray them.
The stories in both Heir to the Empire and Knights of the Old Republic are both well-crafted, with clever twists and turns to keep the user on his toes. Yet I find the game more satisfying. Books are limited by what the reader has to draw upon in imagining scenes. Adjectives are subject to diminishing returns. Timothy Zahn, the author of Heir to the Empire, could write 100 adjectives in 100 sentences, and he still wouldn’t be able to describe every last pixel in every last corner of a single moment in Knights of the Old Republic.
The great fallacy in the knee-jerk prestige granted to books is the notion that an imagined story is somehow superior to a realized one. Apply this reasoning to other art forms, and it soon becomes ridiculous. What if, instead of painting the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci had written a description of what the painting might look like? What if Francis Ford Coppola had decided The Godfather was best left as a novel? What if the Beatles, instead of releasing albums, released sheet music? Videogames are an amalgam of painting, sculpture, filmmaking and yes, book writing. Why should they be treated any differently?
If videogames can outshine books in sci-fi storytelling, how might they fare in other fields? Could there ever be a videogame that delivers the same impact as Franzen’s The Corrections? With metaphor substituting for thought, yes, I think so. As technology advances and development tools become more accessible, the technical barriers to transforming visions into videogame will fade away. Perhaps, instead of asking if fiction is too hard, Franzen should be pondering a jump to the new storytelling order: the lowly videogame.
Vincent Kang is a freelance writer for The Escapist.