Or is it the other way around?
Wonderful piece, Erik! I’ve been interested in the intersection of literature and video games ever since Salman Rushdie wrote “Luka and the Fire of Life” in 2010. That goes the opposite way, incorporating video game elements into the novel. But I’ve never been much of a gamer, so I didn’t know how to think about it--which is why this was so interesting to read!
It's exciting to see a new art form develop and come to maturity. Your points about high art not having to be boring are spot-on; some of the great novels have embraced melodrama, sensational acts of violence, etc. (Dostoevsky's greatest works are, at their heart, crime dramas). I would venture that video games don't have to give up the magic swords and such to be high art, and to acquire the nuances that you describe. Excellent essay, I'm going to share it to my channels. Thanks!
most excellent headline
Great piece, Erik! Have you ever played EarthBound? It’s an old RPG from the SNES era, and is my personal high water mark for storytelling in games. And what makes that even more remarkable is how it achieves this in spite of a very basic story (albeit a very well-when m written one)--the plot’s a fairly standard paint-by-numbers hero’s journey (with all the corresponding character and thematic archetypes that come with it), and although it IS set in the modern world and the protagonists are children, it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel or breaking the RPG mold here.
...Or at least it seems that way on paper.
Where EarthBound excels at is in using the very nature of games as a medium to elicit deep reflection and visceral, raw emotion alike. Even its combat mechanics were built to service and deliver the narrative! It masterfully balances an overall playful tone with unexpectedly serious themes and sequences bursting with deeply affecting pathos, which further combines with a perfect degree of ambiguity to ensure that the experience (and memories) of playing it will vividly stick with you for years (or even decades, in my case) after the end credits roll. It’s the type of art and literature that *changes* people. I truly believe and feel in my vibes that I have a much healthier perspective in existence, I am a better person, and my life is generally better off, all for having played EarthBound.
It’s a simply brilliant and unique storytelling experience that could only have been told through a video game.
And it did this in 1995! Long, LONG before the medium at large realized its potential to provide more “purely” literary experiences. It’s nowhere near as complex as Disco Elysium, but I very much consider it a spiritual predecessor to today’s NGARPGs (besides, simplicity doesn’t have to preclude literature; indeed, elegant simplicity carries its own literary strengths).
If you’ve played it, or you ever get a chance to, I’m really curious to hear your thoughts. It was recently added to Nintendo Switch Online’s SNES library, so it’s much more readily available than it’s been in recent years.
Great stuff Erik!
I featured it here:
Making me wish I had time to play Disco Elysium.. Maybe when the kids are a bit older 🤔
What about Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR II)? It was written by the author of Planescape: Torment. The protagonist is a former military officer whose life was defined by his decision to go to war. The plot includes all the Star Wars bells and whistles (lightsabers, space dogfights, bounty hunters). But the actual plot is about self-knowledge. The protagonist is in effect an amnesiac at the game’s beginning because he doesn’t really know why he made the most important decision of his life.
The genius of the storytelling is that all of the “quests” reveal something about the character’s motivation for that fateful decision. But you the player co-create that motivation! Your dialogue responses and decisions simulate the journey of self-knowledge that the protagonist is undergoing.
For example: Arguably the first “boss fight” of the game is a conversation (!). Just like in Planescape: Torment, KOTOR II features long conversations. In this instance, the protagonist reunites with a figure from his past named Atris. She’s not happy to see him. She’s a complicated character who opposed the war but also regretted not going when her friends went. She pushes the protagonist to confess that he went for self-absorbed and callow reasons, and the player has to respond and explain why he left. Some dialogue options are cartoonish (I went for bloodlust!) but you can also pick some very nuanced and complicated reasons.
Almost nobody appreciates the ambition and sophistication of The Sith Lords because Lucasfilm demanded that Obsidian Entertainment rush it out way before it was due. So the commercial product is missing a lot of material and comes across as a generic hack and slash RPG. But if you understand what KOTOR II really is, I think it provides an important variation on the “amnesiac” ingredient that Erik’s article describes: The person who needs to gain self-knowledge.
There’s the model for your bildungsroman NGARPG! The problem with centering it around children is that they haven’t done anything, so there’s no great question at the heart of their lives. Kierk before the mind-body problem.
KOTOR II is the closest I’ve ever seen a video game come to establishing a “paradigm” behind the game; a coherent reflection on what each part (plot, dialogue, mechanics) is doing as part of a whole (a prerequisite, I think, for a video game that’s truly a work of art). It takes great strides towards making its mechanics serve the overall point of the game, which is the simulation or “experiential retelling” of a story about seeking self-knowledge.
really enjoyed this piece! i received it from https://thesample.ai/?ref=311c which is a service that sends you samples of newsletters. very insightful, thanks
This is a follow-up query from the gaming virgin who's going to try Disco Elysium. Looked up where to buy it just now, and there's a new version called Disco Elysium, The Final Cut. I'm thinking I should avoid it. Do folks here agree? Here's how it's described: "Two years after its initial release, The Final Cut introduces itself as a free update for existing players, and the first incursion of the game to consoles, specifically PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. It’s essentially the same game, with a smattering of major and minor additions: every character is now fully voiced, there are new quests that expand on the political alignments you can choose for the protagonist, and some welcome quality of life updates like fast travel."
Also, I'm not too proud to admit I do not understand the significance of the Final Cut version being "the first incursion of the game to consoles." OK, consoles are those things like PlayStation, XBox and Nintendo Switch, right? So what do you play the original Disco Elysium on, then, if you want the best quality, most immersive experience? And earlier version of PlayStation, like PlayStation 3? Just a computer?
And while I'm asking very very basic, questions, here's one more: If I wanted to try all the games mentioned in the posts and comments here, is the one console or whatnot that will serve for them all? They are:
What Remains of Edith Finch
Torment: Tides of Numenera
Complete gaming virgin here, unless you count a few days of fascination with Bad Mojo in the 90's. I've been feeling a yearning of late to experiment with becoming a full-on gameslut, but when I asked people for game suggestions I got sent to games where Tarzan-looking guys killed shit, so nope. But I think your post has pushed me thru my last bit of resistance. I have an intuition that Disco Elysium will provide delight, so ordering it and going to look at consoles this weekend.
A+. 1. Proof: After reading, I just put my 1399 cent where your post is, and got me "Disco Ely. final cut" on steam. (there is a sale on till 4.4.22, at least for German users, 14€). Shall come back in a few months to report. Persuasive text, indeed.
2. Opinion: I feel similar - what glued me to Thief (2004) was learning about that wicked world and sharing in Garret's disgust et al. about it. Not the fights. - And the new "Thief" (2014) was too much "action" to like it. A more skilled player may feel different, of course.
3. misc: There was a strange game in the 80ies (C64/Spectrum), that was text only, you being you and trying by free writing to make a shy "AI" trust you. Anyone remembers? - For long there exists a Dan Brown version or "Barbara Cartland version?" of games where you mostly read and are invited to identify with the hero: (Hentai-)"Dating-Simulations". lol. I never played any, of course, no one does. In his comment, Polymorphic Wetware lists all the others. - Fun: most of my life, I was told: do *not* separate "U- und E-Kultur/Literatur" (U for Unterhaltung = entertainment / E for ernsthafte = serious ) . Now you say we should. It is a spectrum all right, I guess. - Ad subtitle: "The other way round": There are many "novels" retelling games. I found a booklet with a short story set in "minecraft". Some of the worse ways to abuse the alphabet.
Great insights. are you a fan of the "walking simulator" genre? aside from RPGs, I think they're the most fertile ground for games as literature. What Remains of Edith Finch is a masterpiece on par with any other "unhappy family" saga for me -- not just because of its story, but also because of the way that the medium rewards curiosity and evokes empathy. If you haven't played it yet, I recommend going in blind; if you've played it, I'd love to hear what you think about it (maybe even in an essay!).
It's interesting that there have been debates about whether video games are art for so long. I suppose that technical limitations have made immersive narrative experiences difficult to create satisfactorily until relatively recently. I wonder if the same thing happened when movies were invented? The first movies were gimmicks, shots of whatever the Lumière brothers bothered to film, and only later was it demonstrated that you could use the technology to tell engaging stories. Were there debates about whether film could be considered art?
Now that video games have gotten really good in terms of technology (and for better or for worse, now that AI offers new options for interactivity) it seems clear that the likes of Disco Elysium will only become more common.
As an aside, kudos to Alexander Naughton for the art, this might be my favorite one yet.
Interesting article. Two things I'd like to say, though:
1) "The Sopranos" invented nothing. The first show to be 'literary' like that was really Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues" in the early 80's. It was a revolutionary show in many ways that had a huge influence on the medium, to the point that most shows on air today owe something to HSB.
2) Likewise, if you look back at the history of video games, you'll find that many of the earlier 'adventure games' were quite literary. Especially the text-based ones in the very beginning. With the addition of graphics, the literary aspect started to lose focus, though it took some years (look at "Mask of the Sun," for instance, for a graphical adventure game that is quite literary).
All that said, the early 2000's did see a significant shift happen, with more content going back in that direction. It just was more like a "return to form" ;)
While not RPGs, I find the survival simulation game "This War of Mine" to be a biting literary depiction of war. Like Come and See if it was a game. The Stanley Parable also comes to mind as a more literary game.
Thank you, Eric. My level of ignorance is so profound that when you write about playing Disco Elysium "on Xbox (and therefore on a TV)" I'm thinking "oh, an Xbox doesn't include a screen?" So it sounds like an Xbox is just some electronix that you insert the game (in some form) into, plus some controls to use while playing -- then you attach the Xbox to a display. OK, that's enough to go by, I'll go to a store and figure out the rest. My single long-ago gaming experience was brief but actually had a big impact on me: Bad Mojo. If you want to get an idea what that game was like, there are lots of screenshots of it. The player is a cockroach, seeking clues by scurrying through a low-lit scuzzy world of dead rats, greasy stoves, etc absolutely everything maxed out on scuzzy, crapulous, stinky, corrupted & basementy, all in a 1950's kind of way, and that game just ate my head, and that was in an era when I was reading, like, Henry James & Lorna Benjamin! I hadn't the faintest idea of how to play that sort of game -- how you were supposed to be looking for puzzles and clues -- so just wandered the same areas over & over, vaguely thinking something different would happen if I scuttled over the dead rat again, but really not caring that I was not progressing because I was fascinated by the how successfully my sense of self had been grafted onto the roach and my sense of world onto the scuzz.
Anyhow, now sure why but I'm ready for another dip that sort of thing.
I'm surprised you didn't talk about Interactive Fiction (IF) and the best examples of the genre, like '80 Days', the Sorcery! series, and 'Fallen London'. Or their roots in the text-based games of yore, like 'Zork' and Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and all the other paragons of parser games, as well as the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) gamebooks of the 80s and 90s. You could have also talked about IF's somewhat divergent cousin in the Visual Novel, with sterling examples like the Ace Attorney series, 'Katawa Shoujo', and 'Analogue: A Hate Story'. And as others have pointed out, you could also have discussed the Walking Simulator and how it's essentially yet another cousin that married the Audiobook and produced classics like 'The Stanley Parable' and 'Dear Esther'.
Not that this piece is bad, of course. I quite enjoyed it. But I felt it was lacking something, like a deeper dive into why writing alone produces such great works. It would have helped to compare examples in search of some general trend. Example: all the examples I mentioned are the work of indie developers on low budgets. This suggests the cheapness of writing is what makes it great: you can be a lone developer and still be able to write IF games affordably, which allows you to be experimental and daring; edit your work instead of rushing it out the door because you ran out of money; and most importantly, fill your work with a soul and a voice no AAA game studio can ever match.
I would have loved to see more of this kind of analysis, arguing (for example) that the reason IF games alone are so well written (despite every major game released this past decade having a designated story writer) is because they put the writer in charge and mold everything else to fit, unlike other types of games where the writing department tends to be the runt of the litter (see 'The Writer Will Do Something' for example, at https://matthewseiji.itch.io/twwds; try opening it in Firefox). I'd love to see more far-ranging syntheses like this.