Sunday, October 28, 2012

I'm About To Say Something That You Will Probably Hate Me For

Alright. I'm about throw something out there that I know is going to be very controversial. I think books and video games are both great examples of a narrative. Now I know you have your hand poised on the mouse ready to close out my window and never read my blog again, but hear me out.

Last week at the SCBWI Midatlantic Writer's Conference, I had a very interesting conversation with a presenter about writing, picture book apps and video games. We were talking about how a lot of the earlier picture book apps had action sequences or activities that interrupted the story. I.e. Spot is in the middle of a story about going to see his grandparents when, the book asks us to paint Spot's ball. It's a little off topic. (Disclaimer: I don't remember if that was the exact storyline, but it had nothing to do with painting.) Anyways, I asked whether the presenter thought picture book apps would ever come closer to some of the great video games out there that have stunning character development and world building.

I know what you're about to say here. Jess has gone over to the dark side. She's no longer a library champion of books. I'll have you know I've done no such thing. I've still got my light saber stashed in my closet, and it's a healthy green color. I want to be clear that I don't think that video games should replace books, in the same way that I don't think audio books should replace books. I think it's another great way of exploring a story or narrative. Honestly, I'm hoping it's not a "video killed the radio star" type of situation, because I enjoy a mug of tea and a stack of books as much as the next person.

And the violence! Someone would almost be sure to remind me about the violence inherent in video games, its connection to school violence and youth violence in general. My answer would be that those whose perspective on life has become so warped will find some source to blame their actions on. Many books can be as violent as some of the video games I've seen. Anyone read Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins? Great book, interesting thoughts about society and its control over us, very violent book.

And let me be clear that I'm not talking about ALL video games. There are some examples of games (i.e. Madden football,) where there is no storyline and the characters all look the same. (Except for those distinguishing numbers on the back of their jerseys.)

Bioshock, would be an example of a great narrative video game with a gripping plot and interesting characters. It plays with the notion that a group of Scientists in the 1930's fed up with the moral restraints of society on their experimentation, set up an underwater city to pursue Science in its purest form. Not surprisingly, this setup leads to some complication, and the city is cut off from the surface until the main character arrives. The character you play as even has an intense backstory that you don't know the full extent of until the end of the game. And the setting is breathtaking.

Mass Effect would be another example of a game that heralds good storytelling. Some gamers would even argue that Mass Effect sacrifices game play in the sake of story. There are several cut scenes, (scenes in which you don't play but watch the characters interact,) and other scenes that read like a chose your own adventure with multiple choice answers about what you can say or do. So isn't Mass Effect just an example of a story where the reader takes a more active role?

I know there are a lot of people who would argue with me placing video games anywhere near a book. I fully expect my email box to fill up with hate mail later on. But I wonder if our distain of video games isn't about necessarily the violence or digital packaging, but more a railing against the reader taking the reins in the story and doing more of the telling than the writer. Maybe we can take some cues from video game writers and designers, who seem more about having a conversation with readers rather than laying a story out to them. Maybe, rather than condemn video games, we can learn something from them as writers.


  1. I was ready to be all angry, then I read, "I think books and video games are both great examples of a narrative." Fully agree. Today's video games take a team of people to make, and part of that team involves... you guessed it, writers! Bioshock is a stunning example. I'd add Portal and Shadow of the Colossus to the "best written" list.

  2. I agree 100% I play these games with my kids and they are at the forefront of creativity. Hollywood should pay attention. This stuff is fresh!

  3. Danielle, I hear that Bioshock three is coming out soon and it's going to be awesome! So excited for the new artwork. I'll have to check out Shadow of Colossus, I don't think I've seen that one. Husband is playing DISHONORED right now, and I've been pretty impressed by that one.

    So glad to hear you're supporting your kids' game playing habits, Elizabeth! I agree, I think sometimes the narrative is better organized in some video games than in some movies.

    1. Ok this is a year old now but gosh Jess if you ever want to talk with another lit geek about the artistic and narrative potential--and the current merits--of video games, please feel free to hit me up, this is one of my favorite topics. Along with beautifully rendered things like Bioshock and Mass Effect there are some really lovely minimalistic/indie games out there that function almost like poetry. And then there's bizarre jarring art stuff like Ergon/Logos and Evidence of Everything Exploding. Games! =D