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The first week of readings introduced terms and definitions to provide a much needed basis with which to move forward and to help in understanding this new brand of literature.  However, by the end of the semester, it is apparent that what to call (“texts” is limited, “literal art” -work has been suggested) or how to think about these pieces  is still, though not completely up in the air, somewhat of a problem.

Looking back at N. Katherine Hayles “Material Metaphors,” one of the terms she illuminates is “cybertext” (Hayles 27) originally proposed by Espen Aarseth.  The computational aspect of his definition is linked to his concept of “ergodic” texts, or those “literary systems that require ‘nontrivial effort’ to allow the user to traverse them” (28).

The prime example of an ergodic text is a video game.  At first I struggled with these radically different narratives/texts/stories, with “playing” a book, but relating them to video games, or vice versa, has been extremely helpful, at least personally.

Thinking about these new trends in literature as a whole and contemporary practices in video games elucidates further connections.  For example, as literature incorporates not only playable elements like multiple reading paths or complex interfaces, but also sound and motion, video games, which have integrated these elements from the start, are now more and more showcasing better storytelling and scripting.  Some video games, specifically RPGs, have long been examples of world building and deep characters, but now other genres of video games are held up to these standards of storytelling.  Conversely, RPGs, which can maybe understood as the genre of video games most closely related to books or literature, are now featuring more and more elements that make the user engage with them more actively, make the game more “playable.” 

Even aspects not directly tied to the pieces themselves are similar.  The internet allows for self-publication and distribution of these new literal artworks, and more often than not they are provided for free.  With the marriage of video games and the internet, via XBox Live and Playstation’s Playstation Network, numerous independent companies and designers can release their games to a wider audience.  Also, some major companies, such as Valve, release free content and updates to their games. 

Some of these independent and arthouse games take the similarities to literature one step further.  Braid, released in 2008 for XBox Live by Jonathan Blow, has been touted as “revolutionary” and “a masterpiece.”  Hyperbolic claims aside, Braid has been treated like a book in many ways. 

The plot of Braid is basic – the protagonist is trying to save his girl – and the style similar to many other platformers in the vein of ur-game Super Mario Bros.  But this has been a read (and I mean that term on several levels) as both an homage to the long, long tradition of games which more or less utilize this same story(much as books can be summed up into four main conflicts or have been accused of telling the same story as a classic) and gameplay style, but also as a critique of the same tradition and practice.  In fact, the game as a whole has been read as a critique of large, corporate games and their churning out of inferior product in the quest for profit, as well as the stagnant nature of the game design industry and developer’s acceptance of the status quo of video games (this aspect of video games has a connection with another realm of art – cinema – and the rivalry between indie films and summer blockbusters, of corporate Hollywood and passionate arthouse studios) and seeks to deconstruct traditional gameplay concepts in an attempt to make players rethink game design.  Furthermore, Braid has been interpreted as commentary on the atomic bomb and nuclear arms, as well as a postmodern (with its play on time and the nature of the protagonist, the character which the player controls) love story.

For better or for worse, literature is becoming digital, multi-dimensional, and more playable.  And, as a flipside to this, video games are becoming deeper and more well-written, more artistic while still being entertaining.  With this convergence in mind, the future of literature, to me at least, is not so bleak after all.

Zack Manko

Sources:

Hayles, Katherine N.  “Material Metaphors.”  Writing Machines.  MIT Press, 2002.  21-33.

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~ by gottgeist501 on January 27, 2010.

 
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