Video games are a young media, establishing a foothold in early 1970s and really taking off in the the 1980s. Video games were initially focused on games proper or as I like to say the play of measurement but evolved to include puzzles, sport, toys, and sign-play.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I see video games as being the digital child of play and play is fundamental to humans and other species. I am not embarrassed to love video games. Yet there are quite a few enthusiasts and creators are so desperate for legitimacy they need to equate video games with art or as I will discuss in the post, with literature.
We see some of these suppositions below:
Some are desperate for video games to possess the same qualities of literature as defined by Rick Gekoski:
“Nevertheless, what you find in the greatest works of literature often involves some or all of the following: the high quality of the language, complexity of theme and detail, universality, depth and quality of feeling, memorableness, rereadability … When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.”
This appears to stem from a metaphysical conviction that stories are the basis of everything:
The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. – Muriel_Rukeyser
Ian Bogost responds to these positions that they have the wrong intention by asking that video games tell better stories so they become more meaningful. I agree with the above that a video game can tell a story but telling a well-written story does not mean video games suddenly becomes meaningful. In the same way that video games don’t have to be art to be meaningful, video games don’t need to be literature to be meaningful.
There are many involved in video games who want to capture greater meaning in their profession or leisure by cribbing from other medias. Some developers strive to make video games more like movies by making visual aesthetics more cinematic. Some critics strive to make video games into literature by emphasizing stories with greater depth, while others desperately want video games to be classified as art.
In the Adventure and Interactive Fiction genres we see the closest mimicry of literature, where we find plots, settings, characters, and narrative devices to try and convey a meaningful story. Instead of chapters and scene-changes found in literature, a developer will delay the story-reveal through puzzles and narrative riddles.
Video games were founded around needing an obstacle to be overcome, which is part of why they are so popular and distinct from other medias. I would propose that in the 1980s-90s we saw the popularity of literature-mimicking genres of Adventure and Interactive Fiction because they contained puzzle play. These two genres then fell off as they were replaced by a new genre of video game that provided the puzzle play that was being sought. Interaction Fiction died out by the 1980s and the Adventure genre saw a decline in the 2000s at the time we saw a rise of the casual games portals which allowed people to play what they really wanted.
Player needs were being better met by the new Casual Games genre which provided an abundance of Match-3 and other puzzle mechanics. Why would a player go for an Adventure game for a story when they can simply pickup a book and read it? Alternatively, why would a player engage with an Adventure game for its puzzles when there were pure puzzle games available on the Internet?
Some are sad that Adventure and Interactive Fiction have fallen off but I’m not surprised. Casual Games (a poor title since some of those games are very intense and require high hand-eye coordination) meet a primal need that has been with us for a very long time. Puzzles, maze, and riddle play predates the creation of video games by thousands of years and are an essential component of human mystery and culture. Humans may love to tell and hear stories but they also love to create and solve puzzles.
As early as 2300 BC we see labyrinth drawings being popular around the world, particularly in Ancient Greece and Egypt. Not only where these labyrinths there to engage the solving mind, but also held religious and spiritual significance to ancient cultures. One of the most famous labyrinths was the ancient Cretan Labyrinth, supposedly built by King Minos of Greece for his mythic Minotaur. The labyrinth did actually exist, but the tale of the Minotaur is just a popular legend. Puzzles have been with us for thousands of years, predating the earliest literature (the first labyrinths dates around 2300 BC while the Epic of Gilgamesh dates around 2150 BC).
Puzzles, mazes, and riddles are just as fundamental to human beings as is story and along with games and sports represent a Primal Story of our species. A story which tells us how to stay alive, succeed, and solve challenges and is the core of video games. Staying alive, accumulating resources, and taking life is why most games are fundamentally about power. The most popular video game genres (Action, Strategy, Sports) are not able to lend themselves to a deeper narrative experience because action and strategy games dominate the player’s attention with staying alive and accumulating resources. Humanity’s base primal needs are reflected in our play with puzzles, games, and sport. Yes, these Primal Stories are more base, less sophisticated, and tend to focus on killing but critics who dismiss these expressions are guilty of elitism.
The sophisticates and critics forget what it takes to survive and succeed. They forget the steps needed to implement basic survival because they have grown insulated from it. They no longer recognize the required actions to hunt, seek shelter, or organize for self-protection. Such actions require instructions, and these instructions eventually become the rules that are the basis of Primal Stories.
What makes video games absolutely distinct from all of the other imagination media is that its EI (Engagement Instructions) can be unique depending on the game. While there are EI conventions for 3D games, arcade games, real-time strategy games, there are just as many different EIs depending on the platform, developer, and genre. In contrast, the EI of a movie, book, performance, painting have been virtually unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years. When was the last time a painting, book, or movie came with instructions?
Video games have different EIs and different goals so they need instructions to help the player along. Engagement Instructions are a fundamental part of the Primal Story as demonstrated by the examples below:
Atari’s Pong (1972) did not have a narrative but required instructions being the first ever Arcade Pong game. This lack of narrative did not affect its popularity and we continue to this day to see action/twitch/sports games with the absence of narratives. These remain meaningful experiences.
Namco’s Pac-man (1980) had instructions and a fun/superficial narrative with character design such ghosts having different in-game personalities. The lack of a deep narrative story did not detract from emotions like tension, amusement. elation, or disappointment.
id’s Doom (1993) in many ways paved the way for the ‘modern’ video game. Providing an elaborate setting and cut-throat thrills and challenges despite a simple set of instructions and pulpy narrative. The immersive first person perspective Doom provided allowed for story reveals that eventually inspired contemplative walking simulators.
These three video games represent the Primal Story, the tension of survival. It is fundamental to most video games and reflect the struggle of human life.
I want to sign off this post by reminding you that video games are much broader than the Primal Story that dominates it. Greater narrative storytelling is available when the video game allows time for it. ‘Walking simulators’ grant periods of contemplation and opportunities to fill in the blanks because the player is restricted to ‘thin play’ of minimal challenge so that the contemplative and empathetic experience is not interrupted. When you are busy doing things in a game, puzzle, or sport you don’t have time to be empathetic or contemplative.
This becomes a reflection of real-life. Just like how modern society allows us freedom to engage in literature as we are freed from the chores of building shelter, growing food, and protection, our privilege to play video games means we have time to expand perspectives through walking simulators and Interactive Fiction. A privilege that is built on primal needs being met. Thus I deplore the arrogance we see in some art and literature societies that dismisses the existence of the Primal Story.
Video games can provide both base and meaningful stories, ranging from a simple arcade game to an emotionally complex walking simulator. All should be celebrated in its diversity. After all, video games are a virtual playground and all playgrounds not only provide a place to play but contain within them a sacred function that is to be cherished.
I think a good way to conceive of sacred space is as a playground. If what you’re doing seems like play, you are in it.
~ Joseph Campbell