Writing, video games and so forth

I don’t often write blog posts because somebody says “Be part of this! Write about this topic!” And yet here we are, because I find a certain topic interesting.

Cathy Day, whom I’ve occasionally mentioned on this blog, wrote the following:

I’ve never played a video game, but I recognize that it’s a narrative experience that lots and lots of people value. No judgement. But in my fiction-writing classes, I often read stories and novels that read as if I’m watching someone else play a video game. There’s plot, action, scene, all great, but virtually no interiority, which for me is *absolutely necessary* in fiction. My students have always used films and TV shows to talk about fiction, but now they also reference video games. “This is like Bioshock,” for example, and I have no idea what that even means. I wonder if other creative writing teachers have noticed this quality in student fiction or these references? I wonder if people who play video games could give me some tips about how to help my students make the transition from gaming to writing narrative.

She wrote it on Facebook, then she posted it on her blog and asked for opinions. I like the question and it’s part of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s a slightly different take, and I’ll start from here: what is up with literature, anyway?

I’ve run into endless discussions concerning whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading the book. Some say it’s less valuable to listen to a book than to read it – because it’s lazier. And then, of course, people often say that books are superior to movies/TV shows, because the latter are less valuable/more commercial/easier to follow. Theater is above TV, but I’m not sure where it is in relation to reading books. Probably a bit lower on the scale of values, unless you’re watching some damned difficult crap. Video games are, of course, at the very bottom of this scale of values, because Pacman can’t compare to Tolstoy, or something like that.

Which is all fascinating and, in my opinion, all wrong. I describe myself as a writer, but what I actually mean by it is that I am a storyteller whose main medium is the written word. But man, I love other mediums, too. I write my own novel and I do my own audio recording of it. If you read it yourself, you get to add intonations and moods yourself. If you listen to it, you get my interpretation of how the story and the characters sound like. You might think this is good, right? I am telling a story, I naturally want to get it across my way, no? No. Sometimes it helps me. At other times, I am very sad that my own voice, no matter how good, will never echo in your mind in the same way as your own soundless inner voice.

The fun part is that no matter how a story gets told, we never get the whole of it. We recreate it from what we have, but in the end we all see our own version of that story. Fans put this in practice: they often write their own crazy stories based on small gestures which are definitely there, but which meant something entirely different to the scriptwriter, director, actors. And that’s perfectly alright and normal and I love it.

So where am I going? Well, to this: there’s no ‘right’ way to tell a story. There is no ‘perfect’ medium. Art is a lie: it makes us think we’re getting the full story, but it’s always giving us more of something, less of something else. There will be things you will wish you had been able to leave out, but must add. A movie will never manage to have an indistinct background as well as a comic series can. It’s easier to hide background details in film than in literature: in literature you need to mention them, but keep the reader’s attention focused on something more exciting. In film, you literally put them in the background.

Here’s what I mean. Look at one of the pages of Exiles, a number of The Sandman, from the volume The Wake:

Look at the subtlety of the black and white, at the elegance of the drawings. The scenery is barren, or maybe it barely exists at all. Different fonts to suggest different types of speech, but they don’t tell you anything about what characters’ voices sound like. I can’t change fonts in a book: it’s too odd, it jumps at you. What you can’t do: add music; describe actual voice pitch; add every gesture. There is a lot of suggestion here – and in other mediums, that suggestion would need to be done in different ways. Literature would use vague words, cinema might use filters and carefully considered sets.

It is unfair to compare a medium with another from a value POV because they all do different things.

But what about video games and fiction writing and what Cathy Day said? I’ve taken you on a ride, but we’re finally arriving at our destination. She mentioned no interiority from the characters. Well…

In video games the main character can be a shell that the player enters (usually first-person games: shooters, Portal, Amnesia). Or s/he can be very clearly defined as a character (Monkey Island’s “Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate!”). In the first case, the player’s psychology substitutes that of the character’s, doesn’t it? There is still psychology going on, but you don’t see it because it’s yours. You put it all in. It’s something you simply can’t do with books, they need psychology.

Well, the problem with video games from this point of view is that they don’t teach you how books look like. Which is an odd thing to say, I suppose, but I think it’s the basic problem that Cathy Day encountered: her writers might have stories to tell, but they aren’t familiar with how literature tells stories.

Oh, no. What is there to be done?

Well, the short answer is: read books. Read more books. Look at what it is that books do. Grab books from various different genres, different countries, different times and see what they do and how they do it. What catches your attention? What makes them interesting? What makes you read on? Study books, don’t just read them. If you like a page, figure out why you like it. I am not saying you should do this as a reader. As a reader, you really ought to give in to the story and enjoy it. But as a writer, that’s how you learn how to do things. By studying others.

C. Day is asking about transitioning from one medium to another.

Well, transitioning is a bit like translating. The theory of translation says the following: a translator doesn’t go from language A to language B. Instead, he goes from language A to a certain meaning, which he then moves into language B. In other words, “Mary goes to the market” is English. It is then translated into the idea of Mary going to the market, in present tense, which then needs to be retold in, say, Romanian: “Mary merge la piață.” This can lead to several choices for the translator (Do I call her Mary, because that’s her original name? Or do I call her Maria, so Romanian readers can feel closer to her?).

The same is true for changing mediums, I think: you have the story in medium A, which you then translate to yourself as a complex web of plot, character and details, which you then try to get across in medium B, with medium B’s tools and techniques. But the story is, to my mind, the central thing.

I haven’t played Bioshock, but I’ll talk about Tomb Raider, which is new, shiny and well-known, okay?

Lara Croft struggles there against two types of opponents: ones who catch her and ones who don’t. This division is important because those opponents transmit two different things: the ones who don’t catch her are at a distance. They have guns and other such. They can shoot her and kill her, but you can evade them. They are there to underline her skills with a gun/bow and arrow/weapon of choice. They create a stealthy Lara, who works hard at not being seen, who is a scared woman, but a deadly woman. They make you feel strong.

The enemies who catch her are up close and personal. They grab her. They hold her. You need to hit a sequence of buttons at the right time to escape their grasp and you often can’t. This Lara is more scared than skilled, more desperate and in difficulty than on top of the situation. I did wonder for awhile why the hell I needed to press left and right in quick succession to evade a crazy psycho, but the answer is this: because it’s effing hard for her to escape.

This is how the story works for games: is it difficult for Lara? The player will struggle. Are stealth and skill needed? You get ten opponents and alarms everywhere.

Literature is more subtle. You don’t have to kill ten opponents to prove stealth. One or two are enough. Four are numerous. I will disbelieve you at ten. Explosions don’t affect us much, because it isn’t the idea of an explosion that really makes an impact on us: it’s the sound of it, the light, the way things fly all over and are destroyed. You need to describe that.

Video games are explicit. They need to hit you over the head with a hammer to get a point across. Literature is subtle and relies on small things, on details and observations.

Here’s how it can be done. Lara against opponents who don’t catch her:

My knee scraped against the ground as I fell, but I couldn’t scream. They would hear me, and then they would kill me. I hurt all over, but I needed to find a way out, so I searched for something, anything, a rope, a surface I could climb on, but seconds ticked away and they got closer and closer…

Lara caught:

She felt his hands running across her body as he whispered words in Russian that she couldn’t understand. Lara had no idea whether he meant to kill her or rape her, she wanted to curl up into a ball and cry either way, but that wasn’t an option…

If you want to transition, you need to switch modes of expression. What can literature do that video games can’t do (as easily)? References, thoughts, impressions, feelings, moods. It comes down to learning what your medium can do, what has been done so far and how. Which is why writers need to read books.

(But you can pick up stuff from other mediums as well, of course. And as for video games, I really recommend that people should play some. You might eventually realize that they Aren’t Your Thing, but they are an experience of their own, no? A whole new type of telling stories.)

 

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