Reading Games and Playing Books in the Press
Souvik Monday, April 20, 2009There's been a lot to write about but I have been lazy. Lazy? Well, not really ... besides being busy with millions of emails and job application letters, I have managed to finally conquer the Egyptians, the ever-truculent Scipii and even the indefatigable Britons with my Roman legions (all this in Rome: Total War, of course). Only two cities in Parthia stand against me but it's not too long before my legions will lay siege and conquer. Great as this achievement may be and worthy of being chronicled by none less than Livy the 2nd, it is not why I return to Ludus Ex today. A few days back, the Nottingham Trent University's press office showed interest in my research and asked me if I would agree to a press release. Being busy in my quotidian battles - in the world of applications by day and in fighting the Parthian horse archers by night - I agreed without entirely realising the importance of this. Now I know and I would really like to thank them for their interest.
The Guardian Gamesblog has now written about my research. They have even included a picture of the Inferno videogame and I'm chuffed (I was once unceremoniously ejected for suggesting that Dante's Divina Commedia was very like a videogame). I have always been a serious reader of the Gamesblog - I like its style and range. Many a time, have I wished to respond to Keith Stuart's or Alex Krotoski's posts but have always been too shy. In fact, I even met Keith at GameCity last year in the videogame quiz that he conducted ( a great quiz despite the sad memory of being totally outshone by our betters, despite Andrew and co.'s valiant efforts). Anyway, as I read the GamesBlog today, I'm having a think about Keith's comment in today's posting. The title 'Games As Valuable As Books in Terms of Literary Worth' is a comparison that is not mine - however, the fact that videogames provide a vital and much neglected perspective on our reading experience certainly is. For myself, I'd rather not go into 'value' as literary worth (which would be making a 'grandiose' claim) but rather focus on the importance of deeper readings of videogame narratives. The comment on the Gamesblog goes thus:
Hmm, I think it's rather an analytical leap to compare the provision of multiple story endings with a fully interactive experience. It's also a difficult sell in terms of the quality of video game story telling. The examples he provides are Half-Life 2, Bioshock and Assassin's Creed - all credible narrative experiences sure enough, but will we ever be dissecting a videogame plot, or its underlying meaning, with the same voracity that we approach a novel by Dickens, or George Elliot, or Stephen King?
Will we indeed? The 'analytical leap' is one that has been the bone of contention between ludologists and 'narratologists' (as the ludologists call them - they need not necessarily be clubbed with Gerard Genette etc). Multiplicity, when understood in the framework employed by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, does show significant similarities between literature and videogames. Deleuze points to Kafka's stories form an 'assemblage' --- with themselves as well as with other assemblages and also how they form an assemblage in terms of time and endings. I have earlier commented on the classic example from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the Prince says, 'no no , that is not how it happened at all' thus highlighting the (non)negation of a perfectly legitimate ending. Think of a Dickens novel now (let's not go into more obviously ludic literature such as Cortazar's Hopscotch). Great Expectations originally ended with Pip and Estella not getting married but, on the suggestion of Bulwyer-Lytton, Dickens revised it giving it a happier ending - 'no no, that is not how it happened at all'. As we traverse the plot to unravel 'meaning' in a novel, there is interaction certainly (albeit of a different media-specificity, it needs to be emphasised) and there are many more temporal schemes and endings than are apparent. The videogame narrative points this out even more clearly than earlier media and instead of letting us rest content with quick conclusions like 'this is a story about Pip's love for Estella', it further problematises the very idea of narrative by pointing out the multiplicity in what is apparently single and obvious.
Whether this means that games should be taught for A-levels and GCSE I honestly do not know (would be fun though). What concerns me, however, is the academic negligence of a narrative medium (yes, the ludology-narratology debate is history) that tells us more not only about our reading experience today but also about how we have always been reading. This will change, hopefully. After all, a few years ago many institutions that now specialise in Film Studies would have been sniffy even at the very name. Mind you, even English Literature wasn't a university subject until the twentieth century despite its long and rich history.
Besides the GamesBlog, some other gaming websites have reported on my research. Some of the ones that I picked out are Gamer's Daily News and Gamezine.co.uk. Thanks a lot - it feels good to know that there is a significantly high level of interest in issues related to videogames.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino