On Videogame Criticism

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From: Tom Bissell

To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

First, I will say in my defense that I do not assume and have never assumed that all academics who study games are the same. And I will try not to use our conversation again as an occasion to publicly lick a small wound. I should probably confess that, reading your response, I realize I may have projected onto you (the generic, academic You) a lot of the anxiety I feel as a fiction writer. I am someone who spends a lot of time trying to create literature. And six times out of ten, when I meet someone who teaches literature at a university level, I feel real sorrow that we have almost nothing to say to each other about literature; the parallax doesn’t align because the difference in perspective is just too severe. I have artist friends—painters, filmmakers—who say the same thing about their experience with academics involved in their mediums. This is to discount the legions of practicing artists who are also academics, yes, but, as I said, it happens often enough to suggest that it’s not merely a canard. So that part of my earlier letter is colored by another realm of personal frustration that has nothing to do with games.

Now, as to games qua games. Yes, when I said “serious writing about games” I meant “serious writing about video games.” Here we are probably at a real impasse. Not that I don’t respect your interpretation of video games falling squarely into the wider tradition of games, because obviously they do. But that is, to me, one of the aspects of games I’m least interested in. Not because it’s not objectively interesting but rather it’s not what appeals to me about games and not what captures my interest.

I do feel that video games are different from analog games—at least for me they are. For one thing, my experiences playing, say, Risk or Axis and Allies do not flicker in my consciousness long after the pieces are back in the box. It’s the intellectual and emotional potency of the video game experience that most separates them from my experiences playing analog games. The moment I most love in playing a video game is the moment in which I don’t feel bound their many rules and proscriptions, where I feel the illusion of having escaped the game in some strange way, the same way I forget that I’m looking a words composed in some eighteenth-century font when I’m reading a novel. Video games are, for me, qualitatively but not quantitatively games, the same way, I guess, that fiction is qualitatively but not quantitatively language.

Let’s get to the interesting part, and maybe the terrifying part, because to be perfectly honest I have no idea what tradition my writing about video games falls into. One of the reasons I started writing about games was that I wasn’t finding the kind of stuff I wanted to read. My models in writing about games are, for the most part, not writers who write about games at all; in fact, they’re the same models I have for everything else that I write. (In my more megamaniacal moments, I confess to aspiring to be the James Wood or Randall Jarrell of video games—and before you say anything, yeah, I know: good luck.) I admit to liking the Kieron Gillen idea of video game writing as a kind of travel writing5, but I also see the dangers and limitations of that approach. For one thing, I’ve become way, way too interested in how video game experiences are designed to regard the Travel Writing Model as any kind of answer. I do, however, like to write about how games cross over into affecting, enriching, or profoundly messing with one’s life outside of game-playing. I guess I’d hold up my Grand Theft Auto essay6 as an example of me doing that as best as I can.

As for how game narratives differ from the kinds of narratives we’ve become accustomed to, well, a recent game-writing gig required me to investigate how open-world games go about arranging and designing a quest structure. I needed to learn how to create a somewhat sequential but mostly open narrative able to accommodate a large number of micro- and macro player decisions. There’s not really a queststructure.com you can go to, and most game companies protect their narrative material pretty fiercely, so in the end I wound up downloading a bunch of gamer-created PDFs that mapped out the mission structure of GTA IV, RDR, and Oblivion, after which I studied them for a few days. I had a bunch of questions. How many story missions can you have running at the same time? (The answer seems to be three.) How long can you can abandon one thread before coming back to it with a mission unlock later in the game? How do you, as the author figure, deal with the player-determined termination of certain narrative threads? How do you create a narrative space that is thematically coherent, interestingly varied, consistently surprising, but also open-feeling?

As a fiction writer used to, I guess, analog literary experiences, the experience of working some of this stuff out revitalized my faith in what makes video games—at least, those that attempt to tell stories—so interesting and exciting. And nothing about it seemed to me ludological at all. It seemed, and seems, like an entirely new way for the storyteller to think about storytelling. Now that I’m writing this out it doesn’t seem so profound, but within the experience itself, it was hair-raising.

I’ve gone on too long. So I’ll ask you a question: Does video game storytelling interest you at all? If so, how?

Yrs,

TCB

5Kieron Gillen, “The New Games Journalism

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