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April 9, 2005

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Integrated Circuit as Literature

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’s not forget that among the game industry’s most influential authors is J.R.R. Tolkien, and he himself was inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, the Eddas, and the whole body of Nordic and Teutonic myth. Those, too, are our cultural forebears: the great northern European tale of adventure. They are our literary roots. …

The game industry’s fascination with the works of Joseph Campbell, the monomyth, the heroic quest, bears this out. The heroic quest is ideally suited as a narrative structure for a video game. It concentrates on a single person, and his interaction with others; it’s about challenge, and struggle, and overcoming obstacles. But the heroic quest is a very limited form of literature. Campbell’s popularity notwithstanding, it’s hardly the apotheosis of storytelling. It does not admit of books like The Grapes of Wrath, or the works of Dickens.

We can’t do The Grapes of Wrath. We can’t do Dickens. You can make The Lord of the Rings into a video game. Beowulf. Wagner’s Ring cycle. But you can’t make The Grapes of Wrath into a video game—not yet. Not now, anyway.

So far from being post-modernists, Adams says, our game designers aren’t even modernists yet. And he introduces an excellent metaphor to describe how the Victorian age resembles the game industry today — steam:

The Victorian period was a period of scientific and engineering innovation that was unparalleled in human history, and has found a modern reflection since the invention of the integrated circuit. Electrons are the new steam. So it’s no surprise that this period has spawned an entire new branch of science fiction, “steampunk.” The technological advances of those days must have seemed every bit as exciting in their time as ours do today. You can sense that excitement in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which Twain fantasizes about the effect of modern, i.e. steam, technology on medieval society.

We engineers of the Information Age look back on the engineers of the Age of Steam with admiration and approval. Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, is our Isambard Kingdom Brunel. So we have a tremendous energetic enthusiasm for the benefits of electronics that nicely mirrors the Victorian enthusiasm for the benefits of steam. In media theory, this assumption that technology is the answer to all our problems is called technological determinism, and it is so deeply engrained in the culture of game development as to be axiomatic. If you even question it, you’re some kind of a weirdo.

There’s a rumor going around that the Playstation 3 might be 1000 times as fast as the Playstation 2. This is accepted as a good thing without question… but what does it actually imply? Will the computer games be 1000 times as entertaining? Will the quality of the stories be 1000 times as good? Will the artifical characters be 1000 times as smart? I doubt it. …

Let’s suppose for a moment that the Victorians had used steam to create entertainment. The assumption that we make about our hardware is the equivalent of a Victorian saying, “We’re going to be able to make much better entertainment because we have increased the steam pressure. Yes! Our new boiler is 1000 times as strong as the old one, so we can pump steam around 1000 times as fast, and that means that we’ll make better entertainment products.” Ludicrous.

I could just blockquote the whole lecture. What? You mean you haven’t? No! There’s plenty more in Adams’ lecture to be agreed with and argued with — his critique of The Matrix or his ridiculously simplified models of gender behavior, for starters.

What cheers me in the lecture is the thought that we’ve come from the classical era (FFIV) through the Romantic (Resident Evil?) to the Victorian (Metal Gear Solid?) era in under a decade, and hints of modernism and even post-modernism are already beginning to break through. And of course, the history of literature doesn’t map so neatly onto the history of video game storytelling as Adams would have it in his hour-long lecture, but it’s a very useful lens for approaching the medium.

When someone begins to knit together the storytelling techniques pioneered by our various auteurs (I’d add Final Fantasy’s Hironobu Sakaguchi to the list, by the way), I think we’ll be on the road to making a video game that can make you cry. Post on that forthcoming.

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Posted April 9, 2005 at 2:20 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Video Games
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