What Do Video Games Have To Do With Literature? (Or, vice versa)

The Great Gatsby in NES form* was making its way through the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. Per The Atlantic’s synopsis, players are able to control a Fitzgeraldian Nick Carraway avatar as “as he fights his way through flappers, gangsters and those evil giant eyes by throwing a little squashed shape at them — either his hat or a crushing metaphor for the death of the American dream. But probably his hat.”

And then there’s a Waiting for Godot video game (link courtesy of GalleyCat), in all of its Atari-like form. How is this not cool?

Last year, the Dante’s Inferno video game garnered an abundant amount of press (to show that they weren’t messing around, EA even had a Super Bowl ad spot for their video game epic), with seemingly mixed reviews — could it be entertaining enough for the video gamers and contain any reasonable semblance to The Divine Comedy to satisfy those who care about it? This bit from a New York Times review certainly indicated that the former at least was an open question: “In a survey of 800 people, Mr. Marineau said, 83 percent said they had heard of Dante’s “Inferno,” the first book of his “Divine Comedy,” but fewer than 20 percent could explain its contents.” The idea of a butt-kicking action hero Dante seems pretty novel, but I’ll probably stick with my Oxford World’s Classics edition over the EA one, just the same.

Maybe it’s not everyone’s first (or second or third …) criteria when it comes to video games, but the topic of storytelling within games is an interesting question to me. To that end, here’s a great, surprisingly not-dated 2006 article on narrative and video games that describes the difficulty in comparing video games to other mediums — as we are wont to do with new mediums, because we often make sense of the new in relation to the old (such as video and books) — because there isn’t really a perfect analogy. Video games are sort of a mishmosh, hybrid medium, with some apparent shortcomings when it comes to the story aspects within the industry as a whole, from the producers as well as the consumers end: “Video games, as narratives, are not getting better. Game companies do not seem to believe that telling better stories is in their best interest. They’ve generally relied on the graphics and the bells and whistles to sell games. With a few exceptions, they’ve never tried to sell us on emotion or character. This can be partially blamed on us, the gamers.” Is this still an accurate critique five years later? I wonder. Henry Jenkins from USC weighs in on how literature and video games are in some respects different means to the same end that can “generate aesthetically and socially meaningful experiences which communicate complex ideas in a rich way.” Worth reading if for no other reason than when else will you find “War and Peace” and “video games” in the same sentence?

There’s at least one university course that is exploring the parallels between Virgil’s Aeneid and Halo. On the notion of interactive storytelling, Roger Travis at the University of Connecticut makes a good point: “The popular notion that video games are unique in their interactivity overlooks a tradition well over 2,000 years old.” Travis’ blog, Living Epic, is a pleasing nexus of gaming meets classical studies. Sometimes I love the internet for being able to find things like this.

When browsing through this rather thorough list of literature-related video games (although it uses the term “literature” very, very loosely in many cases), I couldn’t help but notice that Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland** recur with great frequency — which makes some sense; fantasy world exploration and mysteries seem to lend themselves well to video game adaptation. But, I’m sure most of these other games on the list suck. Just saying.

* Here’s a link to the backstory behind the Gatsby “NES” game (“Debunking The Great Gatsby Game Creation Myth”)

** I’m more than a little curious about the new American McGee’s Alice 2. If it’s anywhere near as creepily surreal as the first one, that could make for some good video-gaming time.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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