The first video game I ever fell in love with had no graphics whatsoever. It was all text, and text alone: dim green, amber, or white characters on a dark background—that’s all the earliest monitors could handle. It was a game from the mid-eighties, based on the Douglas Adams novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
To play, you’d just type instructions in response to prompts: a terrifically frustrating and tantalizing ordeal.
go east You can’t.
get towel There’s no towel here.
But eventually, in the middle of a fit of weird semantic rage, you’d hit on the right phrase.
turn on the light Bedroom The bedroom is a mess. It is a small bedroom with a faded carpet and old wallpaper. There is a washbasin, a chair with a tatty dressing gown slung over it, and a window with the curtains drawn. Near the exit leading south is a phone.
Your reward: the treasure of glowing new sentences—sometimes even a long scroll of paragraphs—to read.
By such halting, wonderfully infuriating means you advanced through the game—a game full of jokes! Splendidly goofy, yes, but also a game that would cheerfully annihilate you and return you to the starting point with the cruelty of an affectless, chomping, yellow Pac-Man. (There are many browser-based versions of these old games online if you’d like to try.)
As matters progressed through the eighties and early nineties, the pleasures of controlling moving images on a screen, of bewitching sound effects and saturated colors, came to video games, and these were seductive in a new and different way. But, so far as wild graphics and kinetic surprises were concerned, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and even my beloved Crystal Castles (“Get the gems, Bentley Bear!”) really had very little on the powerful thrills of a state-of-the-art pinball machine. I wonder whether even a modern video game has equalled the satisfying visceral chunk of a pinball table delivering a hard-earned (or fortuitous) replay—a sensation that coursed straight through one’s keyed-up paws to light the whole prefrontal cortex with a corresponding bong of pleasure. The delights of video games, from the first, were something altogether more inward, more purely intellectual, than those of pinball, however bellicose and violent the setting. The scale, intricacy, and richness of today’s games would have stunned the table-rattling pinball wizards of yore. And now, modern video games are showing signs of morphing into other, still more subtle and complicated forms; among other things, they’re becoming an increasingly sophisticated vehicle for storytelling.
The narrative pleasures once provided by my first video-game love came to mind some weeks ago, when I happened upon an interview with Tom Bissell and Rob Auten about their experiences writing Gears of War: Judgment, the fourth installment of the massively popular Gears shooter franchise from Epic Games, which comes out today. In this chapter of the saga, a group of comrades-in-arms faces a war-crimes tribunal, and their story is revealed to the player in flashback. The description given by Bissell and Auten of this writing gig, so complexly interwoven with the efforts of designers, actors, and artists, struck me as the possible sign of a simmering new direction not only for video games but for literature. For the first time, it seemed to me like video games might hold possibilities for the telling of stories in a newly sophisticated way. It turns out that the evolution of storytelling in video games is substantially more complicated than I imagined.
Tom Bissell has a history with the Gears franchise. He wrote a 2011 book, “The Art and Design of Gears of War,” that could only be obtained as part of a special release of the game, the Gears of War 3: Epic Edition. I am no big fan of violent shooter games, but was sorely tempted by the excerpt of the book that appeared on Grantland. Here, Bissell expounds on the charm of “conceptual contrast” in Gears.
Gears is a science fiction game that grounds its weapons in the technology of the Vietnam era and draws its architecture from Regency Britain.… Marcus and Dom are huge, ostensibly indestructible giants, and yet the vast majority of the game finds them diving toward cover with Nureyevian grace and cowering behind it like boys playing hide-and-seek. Finally, there is no conceptual contrast more Gearsian than getting blown into bloody pork chops by a Locust fragmentation grenade only to hear, during the failure screen, a lilting, plangent version of the Gears of War theme played on, of all things, a piano. Amazingly, none of these elements ever seems dissonant or self-negating; most barely become the object of conscious notice. This is because much in the world of Gears has an important video game quality that Chris Perna, Epic’s Art Director, described to me in this way: “It just is.” Isness is a large part of what makes Gears of War effective.
The theme of conceptual contrast in Gears is echoed by Bissell’s involvement in the process. He is a well-known writer whose recent essay collection, “Magic Hours,” contains a fine piece on his efforts as an editor at W. W. Norton to republish the Paula Fox novel, “Desperate Characters,” and a corking appreciation of the novelist Jim Harrison. Bissell is equally well known as a gaming aficionado who documented his obsessive attachment to the Grand Theft Auto series in the Guardian in 2010.
I contacted Bissell to ask him what he thought about the potentialities of video games as literature, and began by telling him how much I’d loved the literary quality of the Hitchhiker’s Guide game.
What I felt about Hitchhiker’s Guide was, this is fun in the way that the sense of discovery in reading is fun, except that I am interactively making it happen; I’ve unlocked this revelation. And seeing you talk about this game reminded me of that feeling, something I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
People are doing genuinely cool stuff with games as a storytelling medium right now. There’s this eerily affecting game out from Telltale Games called The Walking Dead—the game version of the TV series. Obviously it’s got zombies, and so it’s both incredibly violent and upsetting, but, unlike most zombie games, you’re not just constantly pulling the trigger. It’s not a shooter. It’s not a shooter. In fact, it’s using the devices of one of the purer, more literary game genres out there: the old-school, point-and-click adventure game. You walk around static environments, looking at stuff, picking stuff up, and talking to people. That’s really what the game is about: talking to people, forming relationships. The relationship between the two main characters (a disgraced black academic and a little girl) is genuinely affecting. I wouldn’t put it on the same level of affecting-ness that you’d find in a really good literary novel, but there are times when it comes tantalizingly close to that. So it’s a writer’s game, in that sense. It’s a game that manages to create high drama out of deciding whether or not to cut a little girl’s hair, believe it or not, because if he keeps her hair long, a zombie will be able to grab it. And you have to have this conversation with her, and sort of allow her to see why she needs to get her hair cut without really telling her why, because you don’t want to alarm her. It must sound like pulpy nonsense described in this way, but the way the game humanizes these people really pays emotional dividends.
More and more, I’m seeing that games are mining good, old-fashioned human anxieties for their drama, and that’s really promising. Games, more and more, are not just about shooting and fighting, and for that reason I’m optimistic and heartened about where the medium is heading, because I think game designers are getting more interested in making games that explore what it means to be alive. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to be doing this, and hope I can keep doing it.
How long will it take before we see a game that has the quality of a literary novel? That pushes the same buttons, as it were.
It depends what you mean by “quality.” There’s never going to be a direct one-to-one ratio here, you know. But there have already been a few games that approach something akin to the “literary,” at least for me. One of the games that I’m really looking forward to—a game that I actually worked on a little bit—is called The Witness, which a game designer named Jonathan Blow is going to release in the fall. Jon is a member of the game world’s genuinely provocative advance guard. I feel no hesitation in calling him a genius. I wrote a little bit for an earlier version of the game, and so have had the privilege to play it quite a bit. I can say it’s really going to be a special, and possibly even groundbreaking, experience. It’s an incredibly personal, strange, and moving work of art. It’s a first-person walker, I would say, in that you have the typical first-person viewpoint but you don’t have any tools or items. You have only your virtual eyes and your non-virtual brain to help you out. All over the island are these amazing interactive puzzles, which start off seeming fairly simple but, by the end, become impressively complicated and elaborate. But they always make sense. Jon’s goal in the game is nonverbal communication. It’s how his puzzles teach you to pay attention to what’s around you without using any words. It’s also kind of about physics, insofar as I can tell! The first time I played it, I looked at Jon and said, “This is the next step.” It might be the game that finally moves people who think games are a waste of time to say, “I get why this medium is important, and why people are so fascinated by the possibilities here.”
Right? And if games become a thing like, “Oh! They tell really good stories in these now!” Oh my god, there will be a total stampede.
Sure, but now that I’ve worked on a few games, I’ve grappled with the degree to which games are not really a writer’s medium. Film’s not really a writer’s medium, either. Good writing certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the thing that saves the day. I’ve been quietly lobbying for games that are smart and intelligent, even if they’re about blowing lots of shit up. At the same time, though, pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything. Games are primarily about a connection between the player, the game world, and the central mechanic of the game. They’re about creating a space for the player to engage with that mechanic and have the world react in a way that feels interesting and absorbing but also creates a sense of agency. So writing, in games, is about creating mood and establishing a basic sense of intent. The player has some vague notion of what the intent of the so-called author is, but the power of authorship is ultimately for the player to seize for him or herself. This goes for any kind of game. I think good game writing is a process of getting out of the player’s way. You give him or her just enough to work with narratively, but ultimately you let the player tell his or her own story.
A kinetic, direct element that you wouldn’t have in a novel.
Yeah, or a film, for that matter.
“Immersion” is the big watchword that game people use all the time. But to me it’s not a matter of being “immersed” so much as it is simply being interested. (A game designer and academic named Richard Lemarchand made this argument beautifully at the G.D.C. [the Game Developers Conference] a couple years ago.) And you can be interested in all sorts of ways. One of the frustrating things for me in the last few weeks has been seeing the “video-game violence” debate. There’s been a dispiriting lack of recognition of the sheer number of games out there that aren’t violent, that are thoughtful.
I’ve been asked a few times to weigh in on the “violent video games” debate, but I hesitate to because I feel like the N.R.A. set a trap by shining a spotlight on video games. Which isn’t to say that I think that games are entirely blameless. Games, generally speaking, are probably way too violent.
As a parent I’ve always thought it’s the unmixed-ness that could become a problem, with any particular toy, medium, or game. I wouldn’t mind a kid in my care experiencing such a thing once, or once in a while, mixed with all the other stuff. O.K., play this game, but also see “The Little Mermaid,” read “The Phantom Tollbooth,” go see “Jules et Jim.”
As long as games are part of a thinking person’s culturally balanced diet, I don’t worry too much.
So back to narrative questions. In novels now, we have partisans of, say, Jonathan Franzen—subscribers to the nineteenth-century idea of fiction; then we have the po-mo, post-Beckett side of it: open-ended stories, experiments of all kinds. Can the technology of games further the project of fiction in some way that we haven’t foreseen, or could it maybe even amplify the nineteenth-century style, or the experimental one? (Like “The Diamond Age”! Are we going to see a game that is “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”? Because sign me up.) What’s going to happen?
I used to think that games were a great storytelling medium, potentially, and that idiot writers were fucking it up. I don’t believe that any more. I now believe that whatever the purpose of this medium is, it’s not quite to tell stories.
What were the first games? Space Invaders, Pac-Man. These were goal-oriented activities that had a vague overlay of story. So now we fast-forward thirty years, and games are primarily story-like experiences organized around the successful achievement of goals. And so the balance has flipped. The storytelling game and the purer, more traditional type of video game are, I think, on a path of divergence right now: whatever is happening in video games is going to split these two kinds of games off from each other, and so storytelling games are, eventually, going to become their own thing.
Increasingly, I think entertainment in general is going to have more interactive element to it. I know that that sounds horrifying, because most entertainment that has tried to incorporate some kind of interactive element has been so miserably terrible. But the generation coming of age right now is taking it for granted that the things they watch and read have some type of input/output aspect to them. How that’s going to manifest itself in a broader cultural sense I don’t know.
Consider the difference between an ordinary movie and, like, “Synecdoche.” It’s almost not the same thing, like James Bond vs. “Synecdoche.” You might watch a Bond film in order to escape your thoughts, and “Synecdoche” in order to enter into them more deeply. Much as I love James Bond, I don’t think of it as literary in any way, but I think of Charlie Kaufman’s work as absolutely literature. What made me so excited about your work was seeing you do this for games.
You might rethink that after playing Gears! Which is a bananas game—in a way I love and respond to, but still bananas. The thing that most excited me about the process of seeing a game through from beginning to end was the magical confluence of a bunch of super-talented, super-dedicated people, from the artists to the programmers to the actors to the concept and environment artists—everyone seeing the same light at the end of the same tunnel and working together to create a world and a vision. For the Gears game, I barely even met most of the people who worked on it, but I’m now intimately familiar with their work, having played the game through so many times.
That was fascinating. My wonderful co-writer, Rob Auten, and I would take these empty-vessel characters—who didn’t have any dialogue assigned to them yet—and run through exceedingly primitive versions of the game world, figuring out, inch by inch, what the “story” was supposed to be about. It was like writing a script after all the sets and costumes had been designed!
It involves so many disciplines, so many different kinds of people and artists. It was invigorating, and fascinating.
When I saw the video of you and Rob, I thought, Is this maybe the next step in fiction, in certain ways? You have all these multiple ways the story can come out; a new thing that could be made really serious, right? Am I making this up?
No, you’re not, though I must say that Gears isn’t quite that kind of a game. There are various kinds of storytelling avenues a game can take. Some have multiple, various paths but wind up at the same destination; some plunge straight ahead in a linear path, so that the story is pretty much the same for every person who plays it; and some are fearsomely, awesomely variable.
Like Skyrim? (Skyrim being a wildly popular “open-world” game, in which the player can wander freely rather than having to stick to a predetermined narrative path.)
Indeed. The point is that there’s no such thing, really, as “video-game storytelling.” Different kinds of games have different kinds of storytelling methods. Writing Gears has more in common with action-movie screenwriting than writing something like Skyrim does. But what’s interesting about writing a game like Gears is that there’s just so much procedural dialogue you wind up having to write. By that I mean dialogue that’s totally dependent on what the player’s doing: shooting, killing, blowing stuff up, reloading, taking cover, all of that.
What do you have to write for someone when you’re blowing something up?
Gears is very over the top, very cartoonish. It has a sense of humor about itself, so you’re allowed to have a little bit of fun. If, say, you knock an enemy down on the ground and the enemy’s crawling around, you can then go and pick him up and use him as a shield while other people are shooting at you. One of my favorite lines that we wrote for that particularly grim contingency was “Let’s see how popular you are.” Obviously, that stuff’s hugely fun to write. In the end, we wound up writing something like twelve thousand lines of purely procedural dialogue. At a certain point, when you’re trying to think of literally the forty-seventh different way to say, “I’m reloading,” it gets a little mind-numbing. It’s only when you’re actually playing the game, and hearing this stuff, that you see what variety and a sense of humor does to lighten the experience.
When you are writing prose, you’re very carefully withholding and handing out information, revelations, in a way that you feel is going to be entertaining to the reader. A lot of what you’ve just been saying makes me think you’re sensitive to that with respect to writing a game, as well. But these revelations, in a game, might come about in the course of dozens or hundreds of interactions with this text you’ve written. So how much does that come into play when you are structuring the narrative?
This is the really tricky thing with game writing: you have very limited control over the pace of the player’s experience. A movie or a TV show is designed to be finished in one sitting, so the stories structure themselves around the reasonable expectation that the person watching isn’t going to stop in the middle of it. Games tend to be, what? Seven hours, sometimes even thirty-five hours long? That makes the stories much harder to structure because you can’t control the way the player is going to experience them. A lot of game studios rely on three-act structures, rising tension, character arcs—all these engrained Hollywood story ideas that I’m not convinced have a hell of a lot of applicability to games.
Think about this, though: What other kind of other storytelling experiences does what I describe above remind you of? It reminds me, at least, of how we read books. You read for a while, but then your subway stop comes, and you stop. Or you read before you sleep. Or read in the waiting room at the orthopedist’s. There’s a grab-it-while-you-can story imperative with both books and games. Also, both have to be interesting on a moment-to-moment basis. However, game stories, unlike the kinds of stories you find in books, need to be a lot simpler. Video games generally don’t reward narrative complexity, because most of them are about going somewhere and doing something, and then going to another, similar place and doing a similar thing. In that sense, the story is sort of there to make you forget that what you’re doing is actually incredibly repetitive.
So many games give us the opportunity to play from the perspective of “the good guy”: on the one hand the explicitly violent ones might create a lot of moral ambiguity—that we’re entertained by the carnage—but on the other hand most games provide opportunities for players to experience a really Manichean narrative assumption of good vs. evil. Where do you fall on the John Gardner spectrum of morality in storytelling?
Gardner has a quote in “On Becoming A Novelist” that I love, even if I don’t fully agree with it: the purpose of art, he says, is to show people the proper beliefs and impulses. Or something like that. I think I kind of, sort of, still believe that to some degree. You certainly wouldn’t want to write a book extolling the virtues of serial murder, would you, even if it were really well written.
Well, “Lolita” extols something pretty terrible.
I guess I think the highest purpose of fiction is to show that all people are fundamentally worthy of mercy. Carrying that imperative over into a game like Gears is a harder project, to say the least, because it’s a game about pushing forward and shooting as many living things as possible. Now, these living things are these silly monsters that, you know, aren’t “real,” so the moral considerations are slightly different. Walking the line between honoring the fictional reality of what the game’s characters are going through, which is horrifying, but also allowing the gamer to have fun while doing horrifying things—yeah, that was a bit of a tonal challenge, and it took us a while to get it right. Tone is such a massively important part of how the story stuff in games gets processed. It’s important to get it right, or else everything falls apart.
If combat has any positive attributes, it’s that, for a lot of people, it forms the most intense emotional relationships they will ever have with human beings for the rest of their lives. So I think a shooter, which is what Gears is, can awaken some of those borderline—I don’t want to say positive attributes of combat, but it does touch on some of the exhilaration of combat. I’m not the first person to suggest that, within the horror of combat, there is something beautiful and exhilarating. The reason shooters are so popular, I think, is that we all want to touch that fire. We want to put our hands in just far enough to feel the heat without actually burning ourselves. In that sense, I’m not entirely sure how different playing video games is from playing Cops and Robbers.