A Side of My Own
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A Side of My Own

We Play Video Games To Save Our Lives

“Beyond the age of information, there is the age of choices.”

― Charles Eames

Back in the early 2000s, I wrote a blog post (sadly now lost to the entropy of the web) asking when video games would have their Alan Moore moment. By this I meant the moment when video games would stop being low culture and pure entertainment and entered the realm of Capital L Literature, like comic books had two decades before. By the 1980s the comic book had evolved from “rotting kids’ brains” to Works of Literature, with titles like Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen. They were remarkable, and helped move the idea of comics as unserious kid media into the realm of “holy shit reading this changed my perspective on life,” and generating unread graduate dissertations in Media Studies departments.

By literature, I meant not only in terms of being accepted by so-called high culture, but also something about authorial intent and that intent’s ultimate success. What I’m referring to is a work that changes you, and the world around you, because that is what it sets out to do. (This definition can be and has been endlessly debated, but it’s what I’m using here.) I’m talking about Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby, and Proust, all that other highbrow shit that a few of your friends rave about, while cuddling their copy of Infinite Jest or saying Actually Gravity’s Rainbow is Even Better!¹

I’ve been having Thoughts On Literature since I was about 10, which was around the same time I started having Thoughts About Computers, and was programming my first interactive fiction game, circa 1981–2. From about halfway through my Teach Yourself Basic book for my TI-99/4A, I felt that interactive fiction could be every bit as amazing as any of the books I was devouring.

At 14, I created a kind of interactive book report on 1984 for my English class, explaining to my fellow students how their lives worked in Oceania² and giving them slips of paper to read aloud that spelled out the consequences of their situations. I was trying to create something in physical space like the interactive fictions I had written and programmed at home, so that I could make literature as real to my peers as it was to me. It worked, and while it probably looked more like experimental theater than a computer program, I can tell you I was trying to LARP³ my own text adventure in Orwell’s world.

It was a total nerd move, and correctly marked me as a weird nerd in high school, but I was on to something. It was the same something I was seeing in the text adventure games I played, and on the pre-internet BBSes of the LA area. The greater community of computer nerd-dom was already slowly groping towards a literature of its own. Like writers staring at the blank white page, they started in the dark, confronted by the blackness of the blank screen⁴, and most of what they produced was not great. But they were producing it together and for each other.

The academics and professionals who wanted to be all Formal and have grant funded dissertations about computers and Important Culture were not looking at BBSes, internet MUDs⁵, or Nintendo games. As far as I could tell back then, they were mostly looking at hypertext and hypermedia, influenced by the computer world’s elite thinkers, like Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think and Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines. That mix of ideas about creating links between documents (the hyper part) was key to the birth of HTML and the World Wide Web. But like an alphabet, HTML was too far removed from cultural production to directly give birth to a literature specific to it. To this day, HTML isn’t common culture, it’s a hidden tech tool that rules our lives in terms of infrastructure. HTML, hypertext, and the web never, despite the attempts of many including myself, developed a computer-native literature. It was just what we’d always done, but Now On A Screen!

No, the native art of computers was going to have to be video games.

Stupid, puerile, time-wasting, life-wasting, boy’s toys video games. This characterization may seem a bit harsh and unfounded, but if you grew up in a certain era, you know damn well what I mean. There was nothing about them that was or even could be redeeming, much less rise to the level of literature. What were the deeper themes of Dig Dug? What exactly was Galaga going to teach you about war (with aliens)? What could they bring to the human experience that other media couldn’t? How could this button-tapping twitching doggerel be of use?

In the late 80s-mid 90s video games got a new lease on higher culture as the software industry started pushing the idea of “edutainment” games. Bored and lazy children who wouldn’t do their work could be tricked into learning by games that taught you everything from typing to geography. With very few exceptions, these “games” were absolute trash. They were buggy and unfun, pushed on children almost like a punishment for trying to have fun while learning. By the time I was a computer teacher in the 90s the best education I could push with games was Civilization. Civ let the kids get a feeling for a simulation of geopolitics through history. It wasn’t accurate, at all. In fact, an overflow error in the code turned Gandhi into a nuclear maniac.⁶ But there was something new — from that first time I used a computer to express my emotional inner life (an interactive text game I wrote to passive-aggressively snark at my mother) to getting my 13-year-old students to start to reflect on colonialism and fairness as they marched their riflemen into other civs that had only bows and arrows, it seemed clear to me that games were the native language of literary expression for computers.

The question wasn’t were games good enough to create literature, it was what could games do that nothing else could? Well, that was my question at least, back in 1996.

The world of high-brow culture — journalists, academics, curators, and foundations — in the late 1990s was not down to boogy with the artistic value of video games. But they had gotten there with comic books, largely due to the success of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons (artist) and John Higgins (colorist) with Watchmen (1986). It isn’t that Moore’s writing single-handedly turned the genre of comic book into something capable of literature, he hadn’t. There were many predecessors and way makers for what Moore did in the 80s, from Will Eisner to Stan Lee, Robert Mayer, etc., along with countless writers, inkers, artists, editors, and so on. But Watchman was an inflection point, an amazing work that both broke through to the popular imagination, and demonstrated the medium was capable of a literature you couldn’t do anywhere else but a comic book.

Like my earlier encounters with Orwell, C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Le Guin, and Ice-T, Watchmen left me changed, increased my world, and I could see the fingerprints of Watchmen on the common culture around me.

This was Literature, and even the gate keepers of high culture had to admit it. And that literature had to live in a comic book, it couldn’t be anywhere else and still be Watchmen. What Moore and his co-creators and predecessors had realized and put into comic form was what a flow of panels could do to a reader. They controlled time and space in a way unfunnybooks and silver screens never could. They made your eyes work and dance to keep up, putting gestures and language into places you had to physically look for. The physicality of reading a comic book was different, sometimes difficult, and often that was the point. Moore, Gibbons, and Higgens used the medium to time the experiences of the reader, to create the literature inside them. Sometimes you stare at the pages looking for details you know have to be there because of the flow of the story, and then you turn the page and the next image hits you like a hammer. It was freakin’ amazing and it couldn’t work anywhere but a god-damned funnybook.⁷

Mechanics matter in literature. Apocalypse Now (and the arguably even better documentary Hearts of Darkness about the film Apocalypse Now) reached for the apotheosis of film. Joyce did the same for novels, e e cummings for poetry, Shakespeare for plays, 2pac for rap, and etc., insert your favorite author, or as we call them now, creators, here. Or maybe not your favorite. Maybe your least favorite, because they stick in your soul like a piece of gravel in your shoe, and you’re going to have to stop one day and change everything just to get them out.

That’s literature for you.

It’s worthwhile to note in this apologia for the literature of games that the majority of games, like books and movies and every kind of human media, aren’t literature, or even trying to be. Sometimes a thing that isn’t trying turns into literature by chance, but most literature comes from hard work and the ineffable thing we pull out of ourselves and give genuinely to others. It’s that spark, when combined with the essential feature of a medium of communication, which makes a literary jewel.

So what are the mechanics of “telling” and “reading” in a computer? What qualities do they possess, simply by being computers? The easy, and wrong, answer is “Everything! All the other things are mediated by computers now!”

Computers can emulate other media, often successfully or at least successfully enough, to Do A Literature To You. I think it helps to encounter other media in its native form first, so that you can fill in the blanks. If you’ve never seen a movie on the big screen or flipped through a comic book or paged through a paperback, you are missing something. If you have, you can often add that back in when you’re staring at your phone. Not always, but maybe enough. The computer’s ability to emulate is a remarkable quality, but that doesn’t describe what experience a computer can create that is intrinsic to the computer. Emulation is not its native literature. No, its native medium of expression, from Pong to Far Cry 6, is the video game.

And the mechanics of that literature are choice and doubt.

From the very beginning, when humans created computers, computers handed humans a measure of power and asked us what we wanted to do with it.

That moment, when we look at the thing we were just handed, and we doubt — that’s the literary potential of computing. Is this a tool, a weapon, something to love? Does this make me stronger or weaker? If I use it wrong will it hurt me? If I use it right, will it still hurt me?

What does this power mean, and why do I have it?

And so, if we look back to the pre-digital world, a computer is more akin to a deck of cards or a puzzle than a painting, a book, or a movie. It is powerful but inert until we overcome our doubt and animate it with our choices. To reach that artistically, to create a literature of that thing, we make games: the formalizing of choice and doubt in computer code.

Choice and doubt as vehicles of human expression — that’s a lot of literary potential in the mechanics of an artform. But mediums, even when rich with potential, need a break-through moment, not only when the literary properties are there, and picked up as tools of human expression, but also when outsiders can’t ignore it anymore.

That’s why in the early 2000s I was asking when video games would have a Moore moment, when they would not only hit the point of changing a 15 year old’s understanding of life, but when the olds couldn’t deny that games can reach into your chest, pull out your heart, fiddle with it, and put a changed heart back in your chest.

By the time I wrote that now-lost piece, I was pretty sure we were there, but I hadn’t seen the break through I was looking for. I hadn’t seen the thing that I thought could fulfill all my requirements — being literature, and being undeniable. I wasn’t saying it didn’t exist, but I hadn’t seen it yet.

I saw it beyond a doubt in 2011: Portal 2.

There it was, the change, the stakes, the story, the choices and the ecstasy of not being the same person who started playing the first Portal — the two parter-game worked seamlessly as chapters of a whole beautiful and transformative story. The end was heartbreaking, I had journeyed, I had seen and become the best the characters could be, and when the robots sang their opera and ejected me from their world⁸, I cried.

You couldn’t write a Portal book or make a Portal movie or ink a Portal comic, Portal could only be Portal.

It couldn’t tell its strange and hilarious story about humanness and technology and how they become each other any other way. It breaks everyone’s heart through fingers against buttons and pixels on a screen.

I don’t know if High Culture had noticed this wicked Twainian spirit entering the world, but it enacted its magic on its players. We learned something ironic and painful about humanity, and we learned it from a video game.

Seriously, I’m choked up just thinking about it. It is so good. It’s so universal in its meaning-making. I dare you to get to the robot opera as the same person who clicked start. You’ll just be a more complex person by the end. It’s a tragi-comedy about how we love and fear our children, the robots, and how they can’t help but love and fear us back because of course in the end they are us.

The writing and visuals are beautiful, and the game play is compelling and harmonizes with the storytelling, pulling it all together into an emotional and mental experience. The choices and doubts of the Portal series simply sing.

As they say in grad school, it’s such a good text.

For many people, the conceptual problem with Portal and other video games, as literature, is authorship. It can’t be literature without the auteur. How can a team of people be a singular creator of a literary work? But idea of the lone auteur creating from the depth of his singular soul was always a myth.

Singular authorship hasn’t been how things have worked for a long time, maybe ever. Now, as TV shows and movies have evolved and grown more complex and better, they are less the work of the author. We try to attach them to a single name, usually a high status man, but that’s been a convenient lie, at least since plays started being staged and writers started collaborating with musicians.

Game development reveals what was always true: whoever writes a script, or shoots it, or programs it, or produces it, it’s a team, a culture, players, a whole damn world, that breathes life into it. The plural and diffuse nature of authorship in a literary work is the norm, not the exception.

Literature is made in how it acts upon the world, not how it is pretended to be born fully formed from the head of a single man.

The Portal games are not alone in being damn good. You can find the footprints of literature all over the world of games now, and the uncountable discussions of them online. You can find literature at every level of the gaming world, from small indie games like Hollow Knight and Undertale, to multi-million dollar budget “AAA” games like Witcher, an open world game of vast detail where moral choices determine everything about the story, and most of the endings aren’t happy. Wide open, generative landscapes in games like Minecraft often let whole communities myth-make together, whether they’re chasing the Ender Dragon or not. What they all have in common is choices that matter, that they contain or build worlds that you make as much as consume, and that have the potential to make you.

Every one of these games come with regret.

In a good game, reloads can keep you progressing, but they don’t take away the regret. The experiences of lacking power, of making the wrong choice, or failing the story, or being failed by the story, they stay with you, because these worlds matter.

Your doubts are justified, your choices have consequences. You feel the sting, you try again. Good games, like good books or good songs, are worth your finite moments between the earth and sky because the time they give you is more precious than the time they take away.

I cannot think of a better definition of literature than that.

We need this. We have computers now, and there is no going back. We need them to convey genuine meaning to us, if we’re to make it out of the 21st century in any kind of acceptable shape. At this historical moment we’re in a crisis of choice and doubt which we are shit at handling. But, like every time before this, we build the literature we need as we go.

If we can do the work to create the literature, the literature will guide us through. From the Vedas and Homer to Homer Simpson we always create and nurture the next literature we need.

We make video games and play them in order to live.

Games images in order:

Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX
Celeste
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
The Last of Us Part II
Fallout: New Vegas
Undertale, Genocide
Braid
Undertale, True Pacifist
Witcher 3
Portal 2

Footnotes:

  1. Two books famously considered unreadable by normal people, but overly beloved by maladjusted lit nerds like myself.
  2. Oceania is the dystopic super-nation setting of 1984.
  3. LARP is live action roll play: basically think Dungeons and Dragons dorks taking off to the park with foam swords.
  4. It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
  5. MUDs, or Multiuser Dungeons, on dialup or internet servers. Think LARPs, but without even managing to get to the park.
  6. I don’t believe Sid Meyer. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  7. For a wonderful introduction on the mechanics of the comic book medium, see Understanding Comics.
  8. Yes, this is a goddamn spoiler. The whale wins in the end, Gatsy dies, Odysseus eventually makes it home. It doesn’t matter. It’s that good.

Thanks to Ryan Singel, and to my Patrons, who make this possible. If you’d like to support this work, head over to my Patreon account.

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