Having examined the question of what ludo-centric literature and journalism does for video games as an artistic medium, the next logical step is to look into the narratives of, and surrounding, games.
Although recent years have seen a rise in the quality of video game storytelling and thematic complexity, the medium has long been used to reflect on topics relevant to the wider world. As an example, journalist Simon Parkin highlights the 1980 arcade game Missile Command as a Cold War-era “rumination on American fears of Russian nuclear invasion”.
Parkin goes on to say that “pointed political works, however, are relatively novel, and creators are only just beginning to explore the territory. As games move more fully into the role of an artistic medium, I expect that they will begin to better reflect the world back to us, offering space and time in which to consider the issues that they touch upon”.
Indie developers are at the forefront of what might one day be called a revelatory period for video games; the likes of Gone Home; That Dragon, Cancer; and Depression Quest represent the nascence of titles that consciously reference and comment upon political issues and personal struggles. While mainstream AAA developers are yet to adopt similar practises on a wholesale basis, strides are being made.
The Chinese Room’s Dan Pinchbeck points to the representation of women in games as one area where improvements are being made, but adds a caveat in the way that misogyny is tacitly approved by the media:
“On one hand, there’s an increasing number of female avatars and many of those are properly written and more than just an opportunity for breast physics. But then on the other hand, anyone calling out the industry, like Anita Sarkeesian, get[s] bombarded with rape and death threats and reviewers write-off the really ugly misogyny of titles like Grand Theft Auto as a by-product and call it one of the greatest games ever. You can’t have it both ways. It’s a problem or it’s not. And if you decide that it’s OK for games to be a medium that can’t maturely engage with 50% of the world’s population, then you’re going to struggle to argue that it’s a medium that should be taken seriously in terms of being able to handle big ideas and important themes.
“So there’s plenty of games out there that are proving we can do all of this, and not just indies too – look at The Last of Us – but it’s undermined badly by the cheapness of approach happening elsewhere. Things are improving, but it seems to be a painful and slow process.”
Journalist Rich Stanton, meanwhile, refers to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’s “explicit critique of Guantanamo Bay” as “a watershed moment” in the interaction between AAA games and topics relevant to the wider world. He adds that this is only the beginning:
“[T]here’s nothing games can’t address. We need to remember we’re still at the dawn of what, outside of writing, may become the most important creative medium in human history.”
Without making as grandiose a claim as that, writer Daniel McMahon agrees that games are fully capable of “engag[ing] with a whole range of issues. Pure entertainments… still exist of course, and games… have varying degrees of success in answering the questions they pose, just like any other medium. I think the point is that developers are more and more willing to try.”
With Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther under its belt, The Chinese Room is a fine example of a developer that seems to attempt to put story foremost in their creative philosophy. And although Dan Pinchbeck admits that that the team “focuse[s] on story and often… end[s] up stripping back mechanics that have been worked into early builds because they just don’t seem to justify inclusion”, he also states that story, just like gameplay, music, and all the other component pieces that make up games, is a “tool” designed to serve the overall experience.
Daniel McMahon sees things a little differently, calling narrative “simultaneously the most important and least important element of a game”. He explains his comment further, saying:
“When a team is building a game and getting it to work, they understandably don’t want me getting in the way. But once the game is functional, narrative is the simplest and strongest way to unify design, art and gameplay and compel your player through an experience.”
Although story usually gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to discussion of the deeper meaning of video games, it is ultimately through the convergence of the various design elements that developers are able to convey their themes and messages. It is thus the entire experience that commentators reflect on when discussing games, be that in a review, retrospective, or an essay.
When asked how each of these types of writing represents different ways of understanding games, academic Jose Zagal says “they all serve different needs and purposes. If you think of the variety of writing there is about cinema, depending on what you’re looking for you’ll know where to go. Reading a movie review is probably not the best place to learn some new insight about a film I enjoyed. Similarly, if I’m at the theatre and not sure what to watch – a critical analysis won’t do me any good either… Personally, I’ve often found it interesting to read critical analyses of games I’ve already played just to get a sense of what someone else thought about the game and what insights they have. I don’t have to ‘agree’ with them, but realizing that someone else had a different perspective and view on something (‘I hadn’t looked at it THAT way’) can be illuminating”.
As with literature and film, games are open to interpretation, and different people will view their content in different lights. Those various readings will naturally colour the way that games are written about and discussed. This is particularly true in fiction, where intertextuality can be used to evoke certain ideas and moods.
References to other texts abound in literature, though it most commonly comes in the form of films and other novels. Simply because games are not as frequently alluded to as other mediums does not mean they shouldn’t be. As Rich Stanton states, “games are as valid a fictional topic, or non-fictional conceit, as anything else under the sun”. So it is that Alex Garland mentions and provides a brief commentary on Street Fighter II in his debut denovel, The Beach, and the works of Ernest Cline (Ready Player One, Armada) have a concrete basis in video games. Meanwhile, Simon Parkin’s recent book Death by Video Game, alongside much of his other work, deals with “the human stories that spring up within and around video games”. Such stories, he says, “are interesting to people who know a lot about games, but also to people who have no interest in the medium, as they offer a legible view into a world that can often seem arcane and unreachable”.
To a greater or lesser extent, the same conclusion can safely be made about fiction that deals with gaming, and about the narratives of games themselves. Humans are brought up on stories: fairy tales, animal fables, and religious allegories. Most of us read, and watch television and movies. All the while, we absorb stories, consciously or unconsciously picking out their themes and overlaps, and the things that society has to say about the world. Like any other art form, games reflect the places and times in which they are made. They engage with the world, which is why they have been used for purposes outside of entertainment, such as education, military training, and rehabilitation.
It is for this reason also that games deserve to be written about. Whether the naysayers and mainstream press that vilify gaming and gamers on a fairly regular basis care to admit it or not, this hobby is an integral part of the modern world.
As Brendan Keogh states, “games are culture. It’s that simple. Games are culture, films are culture, mobile phones are culture, hoodies are culture, Taylor Swift is culture, Twitter is culture, footpaths are culture. All these things don’t exist ‘in’ culture or society but are its very fabric. To understand contemporary society is to understand games, and vice versa.”
Developers don’t just create entertainments, they create cultural artefacts that anyone can engage with, and are worthy of critical analysis and philosophical discussion. We write about games to realise the potential within them.