Video Games as Literature

At the turn of the century (that is, in 1899 – the LAST century) I think that few people would have guessed that photography would become a significant form of art or that recorded music would mostly displace performance music as the core of the musical arts nor would many believe that future forms of media such as television and cinema would become part of the core literary and dramatic traditions rivaling books and performance theatre for their importance to the collective consciousness of society. Children today can no more survive without being able to reference Star Wars IV: A New Hope, The Sound of Music or Schindler’s List than “1984”, “Watership Down” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Movies and television have entered the literary mainstream and are here to stay.

After a century of passive media and entertainment effecting our views and opinions of what constitutes literature today we are beginning to see the emergence of another literary form – the video game. Unlike books, movies, theatre or television video games are not passive but are active literature – literature in which the reader affects the story whether simply by moving it along or by changing the potential outcome of the story. I am not suggesting that society is ready to accept video games as significant media but this change will come and it will come quickly.

Different genres of video games will, of course, be viewed differently. Adventure and Console-style Role Playing Games already often cross the line from a pure “game” into the solid realm of interactive literature. Storylines have been growing and becoming more and more involved since the late 1970s beginning seriously with text adventure and later with graphical adventure games such as Infocom’s Zork and Sierra’s King’s Quest. Games began to tell stories and included engaging characters and situations. Video games rapidly began to take on the role of fiction with the addition of “reader” interaction. No longer is the reader simply an observer but a participant in the telling of the story.

Adventure games, whether text, graphical or illustrated with games such as Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, clearly lead the way in creating a position of literature within the video game arena while the bulk of video gaming leaned towards the trivial action oriented games popular on consoles such as the Atari 2600 or the Nintendo Entertainment System. Much of this would change, however, with the release of Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the United States) and the launching of the “Console RPG” or “Japanese RPG” genre.

Unlike traditional Role Playing Games, or RPGs, which have translated poorly to the video game format a console RPG is a more linear style of game that is closer to an Adventure game but incorporating some traditional RPG elements. Console RPGs lend themselves very well to deep storytelling and complex character development within the video game framework. Console RPGs may, in fact, surpass earlier Adventure style games in their ability to develop characters and provide deep story telling.

Recently the more traditional RPG genre (that is, non-linear RPG style play rather than linear or near-linear Console RPG style) has begun to benefit from the ever increasing computational powers of the computer or game console as well as the ever expanding budgets of the gaming industry to begin to move into the “video game as literature” category. The principle example of this within the RPG genre at this time would be Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Console RPGs began in earnest in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s began to explore complex stories and persistent worlds that stretched from game to game. Today video games in this genre will often stretch towards and even exceeding one hundred hours of game play providing an opportunity for a depth of story competing with that found in traditional literature while not treating the reader as a passive entity. This complex and deep story telling combined with active reader involvement is giving us today and is promising to provide in the future for a new literary tradition that is dramatically more significant to its readers.

Electronic Gaming Monthly, a major US video game industry publication, said this about Final Fantasy VII – the quintessential highly linear console role playing game – “Square’s game was … the first RPG to surpass, instead of copy, movie like storytelling”, and that, without it, “Aeris wouldn’t have died, and gamers wouldn’t have learned how to cry.” Final Fantasy VII was one of the first Console RPGs released on the Sony Playstation coming out in 1997 and defined the state of the art in video game storytelling during the era. More recently, and also from Square Enix the successor to Squaresoft who made Final Fantasy VII, on the Playstation 2 is Dragon Quest VIII which does a magnificent job of pulling the player into the game world and telling a very traditional fantasy adventure tale while doing so in an entirely new way that makes books seem almost obsolete.

Will video games of the future, perhaps in the next fifteen to twenty years, rival modern fiction literature in its ability to educate, to stir to action, to bring to tears, to move, to motivate, to thrill, to drive? Yes, I believe that it will. And I believe that video games will become an increasingly important part of our collection cultural experience and, as such, will be an important part of educational curriculum just as traditional literature is today. I do not expect and certainly hope that video games will not displace traditional media but see them taking their place within the pantheon of literary forms.

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