Gaming is a significant narrative medium. It’s not “nearly there” or “potential”, but a fully-realised and progressive form. I have this firm belief that critics who refuse to engage with the narrative aspects of videogames will soon find themselves with serious and crippling gaps in their cultural knowledge: just as those critics in the 90’s who –fingers-in-ears and eyes squeezed shut – stubbornly disregarded comics and American T.V. were, ultimately, left behind, and found themselves adrift, outside the zeitgeist. And not in a good way.
It’s unfortunate that gaming, perhaps more so than any other narrative form in history, is so vehemently and aggressively derided by people with absolutely no knowledge or experience of the medium. Even those early detractors of the novel had at least read a couple of them. I despair when, for example, I play an avant-garde gaming masterpiece like Journey, in which gameplay is stripped to an absolute minimalist quintessence (move from point a to point b) in order that the developers can concentrate on an examination of semiotics, word-less signification and the essence of language, only to read, the following day, about some media commentator, politician or other blowhard with an underserved platform decrying videogames as “juvenile”, “depthless”, “socially damaging” and “non-art”. One only needs to view a single screenshot of Journey, with its un-gendered, visually middle-eastern protagonist and highly stylised art design to realise that, shock horror!, this is a very artistic, critically fertile and challenging artefact. What other mainstream piece of culture would have such success in the West while daring to cast a (potentially) female and (potentially) Muslim character embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage as its central protagonist?
And this is the real significance of gaming as a narrative form. Its progressive, controversial, experimental and theoretical aspects aren’t happening on the sidelines, in the margins or in the obscure, hard-to-reach places of the culture, but in its mainstream. Hollywood is languishing in a quagmire of sequels, remakes, bad adaptations and racist casting (I’m looking at you Star Trek, and you Lone Ranger, and you 47 Ronin). Mainstream literature, meanwhile, still worships at the altar of such dead-in-the-water institutions as the Man Booker Prize, which clings ever more desperately to the Victorian critical flotsam “the superiority of consistency of character and place”, as if modernism never happened. Sure there are valuable, imaginative and important films being made, and sure there are valuable, imaginative and important books being written, but these things are hard to find, ignored by the Big Industry of their mediums, and almost never given the cultural primacy they deserve.
Gaming, by comparison, is in a unique position: its most critically lauded, challenging and creative examples are, simultaneously, its mainstream bestsellers. Perhaps this is because the form has progressed so quickly from a niche, sub-cultural interest to a major part of culture. Who knows? Yeah, the press like to selectively highlight Call of Duty or Gears of War, claim them as representative of the entire medium, and, in what would be considered a gross logical fallacy anywhere else, subsequently decry all of gaming as hyper-violent adolescent wish-fulfilment as a result, but there’s so much more to gaming than CoD, or Battlefield or whatever. Take the original BioShock, for example; a mega-selling masterwork helmed by gaming auteur Ken Levine. The dénouement of BioShock (which I won’t go into – if you’re not familiar with it, look it up) was more than a twist-ending mindfuck, but a critically astute invitation to the player to question such notions as freedom, the will to power, and the player’s own role and moral complicity in the actions which they, by proxy of the character they control, allow to happen. It did all of this while simultaneously challenging the relationship between player and character, and teasing out the contrast inherent in the player’s freedom of action on the one hand, and narrative linearity on the other. BioShock offers the gaming equivalent of reception aesthetics.
Another example: Dead Space, on the face of it a relatively mindless shooter that revealed itself to be an experiment in genre convergence (a haunted house mystery re-fashioned through the lens of modern Space Opera) that made some intriguing leaps forward in how developers handle the paratext of videogames.
So, my obvious and over-laboured and unoriginal point is this: gaming is, most definitely, worthy of rigorous critical attention. And, in light of this, I have started a new blog, tentatively named Gaming in the Red Room. It’s being hosted over on Gamespot (rather than integrate it as a sub-category of this blog, I thought it would be more prudent to take advantage of a blogging space that already has a vested gamer audience), and my general goal (which may or may not be driven into the wilderness and abandoned, depending on how well I can make it work) is to apply narrative and critical theory common in the study of literature, to games and all the stuff that surrounds them.
If you’re at all interested in any of this, here are some links:
My first post, transposing the textual notion of paratext onto gaming:
Something long and rambling about ambiguity and dénouement:
And something more light-hearted about potential source material for videogames:
In the coming days, I’ll be adding a new page to this blog, in which I’ll collate and link to all of my Gaming in the Red Room articles.