Sunday Thoughts: Literature, Meet Game

The question isn’t really whether games can do literature justice, the question is really ought they to try? The recently released Dante’s Inferno drew inspiration from Inferno, the first book of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy.  Inspiration suitably drawn, the writer of the videogame then departs from the source material as much as is required to meet the twin aims of “great game” and “great story”.  But will we ever, really, get both?

The secret to any successful story is not plot or action, it’s character.  Without character plot is rendered meaningless because you won’t care.  And action, whilst possibly exhilarating, is ultimately impotent if the outcome isn’t one you’re fully invested in.  Character is the cornerstone of story, and it’s character where games fail to approach the heights of literature.  This, though, is where the two media differ so much that the question of “story or game?” becomes, perhaps, meaningless itself.

Take Dante’s Inferno; is Dante a strong, compelling character?  Do you care what happens to him?  Or is it that you confuse glorious art design and vicious combat with character and, really, your level of caring goes only as far as whether you’ve got to play that last level again because you died?  It’s ironic that great writing is often infused with a “show don’t tell” approach – that is, describe a scene which imparts something of a person’s character rather than merely listing their personality traits – and yet gaming, which is all about the “show” seems to believe that cut-scenes which tell you of a character are the best device to use.

The soon-to-be released Heavy Rain is a bold attempt to bring a level of storytelling to games that you won’t find outside of the very best literature.  And yet Heavy Rain’s birth and upbringing has seen it struggle with the traditional dynamics of gaming in order to be able to tell the most compelling of stories.  Is it that games aren’t the vehicle for storytelling we’re often told they aspire to be because they can’t be?  Heavy Rain is going to go some way to answering that question.

No doubt there are fine examples of storytelling within videogames, but I’ve yet to meet one that rivals anything in literature.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the oft-quoted best stories in videogames come from games that have a long playing time.  Perhaps all that time, more akin to the time required to read a book, gives the writers the chance to add the depth and subtlety of character that is missing from most gung-ho action epics?  That said, no book has thrilled me so intensely as those hours I spent on Helghan, or that time carving out a career in Elite, or trying to steer England to glory over the super-fast Russians in Kick Off.  Perhaps we should celebrate the differences rather than be despondent when gaming can’t give us something it was never designed for?

So, can games do literature justice?  I believe they can, in their own way.  Dante’s Inferno takes inspiration and uses it to create a beautiful and captivating world in which staggering action and adventure unfolds.  And that is all the game needs to do.  A medium where by its nature the story is partly written during the telling means that the richness of a fixed medium like literature is lost.  But, does it really matter?  When literature gives us a character like Owen Meany from John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany, is it really so terrible that most videogame characters have as much personality as an amoeba in comparison? Not when their gut-wrenching, stomach-churning action makes eight hours seem like five minutes, no.