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Literary Influence
by Andrew Smith on 10/17/13 08:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Books are great, aren’t they?

I’ve recently finished the quite wonderful The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  It’s a modern fairy tale for the post-Potter generation, about a young orphan growing up and growing into his adult self amongst the vine covered tombstones and dank mausoleums of a small town’s Graveyard, his only family a ghostly one. It made me yearn for parts of my childhood that I had long forgotten, and even parts I’d never experienced.

I’ve since started reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, which is part one of the First Law series. So far it’s been an imaginative and vividly written fantasy romp with a pretty seriously dark sense of humour, a robust attitude towards the modern uses of Anglo-Saxon, and a refreshing disdain for a lot of its characters.

If I’m completely honest, reading certain passages of The Graveyard Book reminded me of LimboSoul Reaver and even a little bit of Ico. Meanwhile, The Blade Itself brings to mind elements of Soul Calibur and The Mark of Kri.

But that’s not what caught my blogging interest - it’s that I can’t remember the last time a game reminded me of a literary work. Perhaps it’s because the written word finds life solely in our imagination, while games (in fact any visual medium) take the ‘lazy’ route of actually visualising things and so the reality of a game, etched in ever-more-realistic photons, can never live up to the realities we conjure when we engage in any good work of fiction.

But I’m inclined to think beyond that, to the fact that games are often inexpert at summoning any kind of memorable atmosphere, let alone building consistent emotional tone and creating any affecting subtext.

Since the dawn of time, man has used storytelling to communicate experience - ostensibly to educate and, as a result, survive. As we have evolved, so have the ways in which we tell these stories, and the reasons we all feel the need to. Every other storytelling medium has - separately and under its own steam - learned from all of those that came before it. Pictures came first, telling story both made up and documentary in nature. Many years after words supplanted those pictures, both song and poem built off of plain prose through rhythm and music - each of them deeply in debt to story, but more efficient than plain words or unaccompanied pictures in communication of emotion. Then moving pictures (at first silent and black and white, then moving beyond that) became the primary method of storytelling, again through more efficient means with sound, colour, picture and motion all becoming more than the sum of their parts. But all of these advances first built upon the old, and then developed a nuanced language of their own through iteration and exploration if their own limitations and peculiarities. 

So videogame are the next step. Adding the undeniably powerful aspect of interaction means we offer a way to experience a story itself rather than simply the telling of it, using all of the strengths of our mediums’ progenitors, and adding our own.

But we’re also developing in a different world - one where information is free, knowledge is cheap, and tools are readily available. We’re more able to realise our dreams than ever before and I believe this has had the (potentially damaging) side effect of making us greedy and impatient. Think about it for a second - we’re able to literally build our dreams and experience those dreams in ways that weren’t possible mere decades ago - the power to not only relive experiences, but experiences we could never have lived before, in ways we never could before. It’s intoxicating!

But we’re a young medium, videogames, and so works like Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero are the exception rather than the rule. I’m of the opinion that more games need to directly reference more classic works (of literary fiction, epic poem, song, portrait, film… and all the others) to learn the language of storytelling before we can move beyond that to the zenith that I know we can achieve.

We are all about experiential storytelling. It’s obvious why we can surpass all other kinds in terms of offering immersion, understanding and the ways we can affect those who play our offerings. I just think that movies, comics and songs were not afraid of mimicking or taking inspiration directly from stories like those told by The Brothers Grimm, or such as Beowulf or The Aeneid, yet strangely we are. We’re painfully aware of reinventing the wheel (mechanically as well as in many other ways) when we should be embracing the opportunity to do so.

I myself have some (very early) plans to create something directly inspired by the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty - and not the Disney version. It’s not chosen at random, and I want to combine it with a deeply personal story. We shall see what happens.

Perhaps we’ll see more of this kind of thing in the future? I know I’d love to see it happen.

(I originally posted this - and so too all of my blogs - on my tumblr a day earlier. You can also follow me on twitter)

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Tom Battey
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I think it says a lot about the kind of people working in the medium right now that videogames seem to reference as far back as the late 80's - and then stop. The majority of the 'literary' influences for modern games - and this goes for indies as well as a big AAA studios - are in fact 90's action movies and retro videogames.

These are guys who grew up watching these films and playing these games, and are now making games based on the films and games they used to love. A problem is the relatively young burn-out age for the industry - a lack of genuinely mature game developers means a lack of genuinely mature videogames.

But things are getting better. The indie scene offers a lot more than retro throwbacks now. Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero are great examples. There's also the thriving Twine scene, where people are drawing much more heavily from literary influences outside of those experienced by what I loath to call 'traditional' game developers.

As a literary man myself, I look forward to the increased importance of literary influence in games - and it will come, as a lower barrier for entry is sure to draw more literary-types to the industry, not to mention artists of all kinds, hopefully giving us a much broader range of games in the future.

TC Weidner
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I look forward to the day when the game industry gets back to writing higher level dialogue. It seems back in the day, when graphics were lacking dialogue obviously was much more important and was much more of a focus. We have seemingly gotten away from that these last few decades. Here's hoping we can once again make dialogue a focus in our games. It brings such immersion and depth into a game when done properly and skillfully.

I mean some of the exchanges in Day of the Tentacle, and the Monkey Island series are classic. I mean in Monkey Island you actually fought via dialogue choices.

Michael Ball
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lmao get rekt, nerd xDDD

#yolo#swag#420 #ThereArePeopleWhoWouldSayThisSeriously #ThisIsHellAndWeCan'tLeave

Kenneth Poirier
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One of the main differences between books and videogames is that books are most often written by a single author, an auteur if you will, while video games are a collaborative effort. This leads to the writers of video games not getting the credit they deserve and, in turn, not being utilized for the asset they are in the industry.

Scott Lavigne
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It's a little unclear based on the language you use, but I'm assuming you mean the author of the plot for "writer". The plot is one component of a game. With interactive media, all of the interactive elements matter at least just as much (UI, sound design, all the different systems that drive the mechanics). It's not fair to downplay these elements or the people who work on them. Writers get exactly as much credit as they deserve. If the only focus is the plot, then the chosen medium shouldn't be "game".

Sjors Jansen
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Hi Andrew,

I sort of wrote about the same subject, but argue in a very different direction.
I thought it would be benificial for readers to have both perspectives available, so I'm linking the articles before they're lost to the abyss of the archives.

Though I'm getting pretty bored looking at interactive movies, like TC Weidner I am very fond of monkey island's insults-trading minigame for instance. So I definitely appreciate story being handled with appropriate grace and respect.
However, I do wonder, turning my post upside down, if a great writer could write a gripping novel about a street fight.
Maybe novels can't do what games can and vice versa.

Roger Tober
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I think intellectual story games died when adventure games died, or nearly died. The majority of gamers turned into narcissistic brats and didn't care about anything but blasting away enemies and coming up with excuses for how this is how games should all be, anything that has a story is linear and linear is bad because I want to move things the way I want, not the author. ME! So here we sit, a bunch of adults playing games for 8 year olds.

Scott Lavigne
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"with excuses for how this is how games should all be"

Seems a bit ironic for you to say.

Thomas Baltzer
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I'm getting fairly tired of these kinds of articles. It gets dragged up all the time, but Elvis Costello's words about dancing and architecture are constantly relevant. Quit judging video games by the standards of other mediums. Don't admire the Guggenheim and wonder why it doesn't remind you of a moving Cirque de Soleil performance. I'm not saying developers shouldn't find inspiration in non-video game works, they should, but this idea that "more games need to directly reference more classic works (of literary fiction, epic poem, song, portrait, film… and all the others) " just seems lazy and meaningless. Games have in fact directly referenced all these things at one time or another, but rarely is the result transcendent, i.e. Dante's Inferno. It's like saying modern pop music doesn't reference Sumerian pottery enough, why would it?

Luke Meeken
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But your argument is a bit like saying that all music should adhere to the formal and cultural constraints of pop music. There's room for opera AND pop - and even room for pop that makes literary references (a possibility your analogy seems to preclude). I don't see this line of criticism as indicating a direction games as a whole must go, so much as identifying a conspicuous absence that may require more attention.

Scott Lavigne
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I don't think his argument is even a little bit like saying that.