A New Form of Literature


By Alex Newhouse

For decades, video games served one main purpose. From “Pong” to “Space Invaders” to “Super Mario Bros.”, games were created and shared to entertain. People played to have fun, to escape from the world for a few minutes, to engage with experiences that were competitive, interesting and enjoyable. 

Slowly, however, games changed. More and more started including stories of varying complexity, and certain games began to resemble movies. The emergence of “Metal Gear Solid”, “Fallout” and role-playing games marked this new element of the medium and set the stage for more complex stories to arise in games in the future.

But these were still generally inaccessible. Think of the process it takes children to get from illiteracy to being able to read Joseph Conrad — there is a tremendous value in the end experience, but it takes years of hard work to get to that point. These early games were like that. The mechanics were daunting to learn, and players had to invest hours of playtime in order to reach the most valuable parts of these stories.

Video games today, however, do not require this any longer. The barrier to entry is so low that some of the most incredible games ever made require the player to simply tilt the controller and press a button. At the same time, they often include fully fledged, engaging and complex stories and experiences.

Games can last anywhere from thirty minutes to thirty hours. Dedicated players will often put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into their favorite games. But not all games are built with this sort of lifespan in mind — many made today are small, contained experiences meant to be played in one sitting.

But what is most markedly different about many modern games as opposed to early attempts? They are now a legitimate form of literature. Yes, games can be literature. They explore deep, pertinent themes on a level reached before only by novels. They engage with social issues and require the player to think about the consequences of basic human nature. They present you with situations that are philosophically and morally ambiguous and make you come to your own conclusion about them. Games can now tell stories on the level of most acclaimed novels. “The Last of Us”, released in 2013, featured a story so moving and powerful that it received one of the highest average scores ever given to a game, it was made into a stage production and it is currently being turned into a film. Critics compare it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as it creates a similarly impactful, desolate world and explores the lengths to which humans will go for love.

But games go beyond what we consider to be traditional literature. They do things that are not possible in novels. Whereas novels tell stories to you, games can allow you to make your own story. You can become part of an ever-evolving web of narrative, choosing your own path through a story or even forging the story itself from your gameplay experiences. The “Mass Effect” series gave dozens of choices throughout the games, forcing you to choose the way you spoke to other characters, the people you saved from death and the way you fought your battles. The world would shift as you made these decisions, effectively becoming yours.

A game like “DayZ”, on the other hand, gives you a wide-open sandbox with the tools to create lasting narratives all on your own. There is no written story in this game, just a world and objects throughout it that you can interact with. It’s a survival simulator, and it compels you to find allies and build up your character so it can better survive against zombies and antagonistic players.

Moreover, games are also utilized to create art, something which has given rise to unique and powerful storytelling techniques. Flower, for instance, is simple but profound: in a series of beautiful, breathtaking levels, you control a petal that moves through the air and blooms other flowers. Bloom all the flowers and you bring life back to a dead city. It’s an incredibly simple premise and the controls are basic, but it explores issues of pollution, environmentalism and life and death.

Other games like “Journey”, “Proteus”, the “Swapper” and “Dear Esther” all try to create a rewarding experience with minimalist narrative design but rich and complex environmental storytelling. Games like “Papers”, “Please” and “Gone Home”, on the other hand, take two basic actions — working as a customs agent and walking through a house, respectively — and turn them into social commentary and emotional stories.

Games have never been cheaper or more accessible. “Proteus” and “Dear Esther” cost $15 max and can run on most computers, so there’s no need for expensive hardware. At the same time, they have grown and developed into literature in their own right. The literary and artistic potential for games is immense, and they have greatly diversified from their humble origins. Play a game and check this new literary form for yourself; they have taught me more than I thought possible just ten years ago.

Artwork by WIN HOMER