Thursday, May 14, 2009

Liking the Book Better

Tim Martin has argued in "Fiction reaches a new level" that a new game based on Dante's Divine Comedy, Dante's Inferno indicates the potential of videogames for sophisticated cultural storytelling and the possibility that the genre may still produce compelling literary narratives for the canon of the future. Much like the adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story for The Path, EA's new game shows that videogames can do more than adapt just comic books, movies, or television shows.

A vague interest in literary form has hovered for some time at the edges of contemporary gaming. Fans of H P Lovecraft jumped at the appearance a few years ago of a game based on his story The Call of Cthulhu, in which the player guided a detective through a town of boggling fish-men while trying to keep him from going insane. Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, released in 2007, owed considerably more to the Strugatsky brothers’ seminal Roadside Picnic than it did to the Tarkovsky film it was supposedly based on. And Bioshock, an adventure set in a decaying art-deco city beneath the sea, won rapturous praise for its dramatisation of the more sinister aspects of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

But the most challenging questions posed by games strike at the roots of written narrative. Players used to follow a prearranged story, dragged in the wake of plot events triggered by specific actions within the game world, but the new generation of games flirts with a different model. Here, “low-level inputs” – the way the player interacts with non-essential characters, or the cumulative effect that his or her actions have in the world – are far more important. So the writer’s emphasis shifts from mise-en-scene to character interaction; from constructing grand set pieces to fleshing out a malleable and dynamic world.

Our experience of stories is, by and large, a lateral one, in which the writer commands every aspect of the world the reader inhabits as well as the process by which it reveals itself. Fine; it’s worked for centuries. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that gaming – which increasingly promises a narrative space for the player to make his own way, never having the same experience twice – is where at least some of the great writers of tomorrow will make their names. At which point, as with comics, everyone will get a terrible headache over trying to think of a new name for the medium.

As to how to negotiate the differences between literary genres designed for the page and videogame genres designed for computational media, Ian Bogost has taught a course in Videogame Adaptation and Translation.

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