It’s just a game, man

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People have invented all kinds of names for this mess we’re in: hypertext, interactive fiction, even something called ergodic literature. But there’s one word that doesn’t come up that often is game. This is probably for the same reason people invented the term graphic novel — comic book sounds a little too kidlike and, well, light-hearted. Games imply a certain superficiality… and for good reason. The overall audience for video games has aged a little bit, to the mid-twenties if not early thirties, but the bottom of the demographic is still somewhere around ten years old. Even so, it’s a pretty narrow range. You don’t really think of Dickens as a males 18-24 kind of writer.

But you can’t really deny that video games provide a ton of examples of how interaction can work structurally. When I think about how I want a story to work, it’s games like Silent Hill 2, where what seem like innocuous choices determine how the plot’s resolved, that give me signposts.

(That’s another reason I think there’s a bias against games in serious analysis… you just sound dumb citing something like Metal Gear Solid 3 in what’s supposed to be a serious paper.)

The thing that video games have been consistently terrible at, though, is provoking an emotional response through interaction. Fanboys typically talk about Aeris biting the dust in Final Fantasy VII as a huge emotional moment… but hey, characters have been dying melodramatically since forever! If you compare stuff like that to even an ordinary short story, it comes out looking pretty poor.

One exception I can think of offhand is Ico, which not only managed to move me but also did almost all of its storytelling without language. Which is great… but kind of hard to draw from as a writer. Photopia and Shade would be up there, too, and fortunately they’re both made entirely out of words.

Ironically, I had an aha moment yesterday about how to structure the story I’m working on… but it had nothing to do with video games. Rather it was this Web activity, which was written by an incredibly smart guy I used to work with, that gave me an idea on how to make things work.

The otherworld of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

I originally wrote this post for

The night I unlocked the second city of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I dreamed of being a year younger, going to my sister’s college graduation. But it was in Baltimore City this time, and I wandered onto the streets into an apartment building just because it looked interesting to me.

Inside, there was a man who was a painter, and he had three children to take care of — somehow I knew that none of them were biologically his, though I didn’t know how he had acquired these kids. He was kind of fat in that friendly sort of way, and had a beard, too. He seemed like he had never even thought of being worried about life. His painting was too important. He was teaching his oldest the beginnings of his craft; he gave him a bucket of red paint and let him do what we wanted to his studio walls.

He took me to a room with a mirror and said: “This is what we call the otherworld.” And then the mirror was not a mirror anymore. It was a window.

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