Just after Robin posted this Gamespot link on storytelling and video games, I left for a vacation in Orlando and my parents’ dial-up connection, so I could not contribute a proper reply. Here it is.
My favorite text addressing the place of video games within the spectrum of art/literature is Ernest Adams’ lecture at the 2004 Game Developers Conference, “The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design.”
You have to remember that Adams is talking to computer game developers, not academics, so he’s reductive at best and flat-out wrong at worst. (You may have to struggle to trust anything he says after he begins by boiling the last 200 years of Western philosophy down to English philosophy — logical and deductive — and French philosophy — touchy-feely. Germans, apparently, need not apply. And of course, you forgot Poland.) But once you get over his sketchy broad-brushing of history, he makes some wonderful points.
Adams maps video game storytelling onto the timeline of modern literary storytelling, and essentially decides that we’re just exiting the classical era. This feels spot-on to me. As much as I love Final Fantasy IV, it appeals to me emotionally in the same blunt, soaring, epic way Beowulf does.
Video game storytellers of today, Adams says, are still coming around to the Victorian age:
Computer games are in some respects like Victorian novels: bold, simplistic themes; clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; ending in the triumph of righteousness. Like Victorian novels, many computer games are too long, and require perseverance and dedication to get through. Indeed, at times you must tolerate being sadly bored by the process if you want to make it to the end.
In fact our model is even older even than Victorian novels. Let