The Art of Machphrasis: Stories Inspired by Video Games

Slaying dragons in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (screenshot by author)

My 2013 short story “The Last of Its Kind” takes place in a Tolkienian fantasy universe, and follows the last magician on a quest to kill Evald, the last dragon. My imagery and descriptions were first penned as my own private writing exercise to describe a popular video game. I wrote:

“The magician’s schools near the mountains have been converted to forts, towering over the snowed city, poised ready to turn against their own people. The children point to me, spot my dirtied cloak and empty eyes; they know I am among the last generation of magicians.”

The game, for the unacquainted, is Skyrim (2011), the fifth major installment of the Elder Scrolls series, an open world role-playing game where players can wander a continent of contesting empires and ancient dragons. The game has sold tens of millions and has garnered multiple awards, forcing critics to reflect on the beauty, artfulness, and emotional capability of video games.

Yet for years I have had to hide the fact that my short story, featured in an anthology focused on black speculative fiction (Mothership: Tales from Afro-Futurism and Beyond) was first based on a video game.

Winterhold in Skyrim (from wikia)

Historically, writers have always had to hide their less-respected influences, whether it’s a secular resource (like nature) during the Christian dominance of Europe, or the inspiration that comes from sex. Right now, in an age where literature has replaced the sacred, to say that one’s main source of inspiration comes from video games has a heretical imprint.

Book reviewers often save their most vicious prose for comparing books to video games. Book critic Maureen Corrigan from National Public Radio lambasted Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea as a literary failure, calling it a “video game of a novel.” When a reader casually claims that a scene in a book is similar to a video game, we writers are taught to cringe, to take it as insult, to insist that no, we are influenced by Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, or Mozart, or even great cinema—anything but a video game.

Running counter to these purist takes on literary art, is the art of ekphrasis: the art of representing something visual (like a painting, sculpture or photograph) using only words. Ekphrasis is a technique most famously used in poetry about works of art, partly to interpret that art, partly to inspire new thoughts that branch off from the artwork.

From wikicommons

In John Keats’ ekphrastic poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats begins by silencing the original artist:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time (lines 1–2).

Keats calls the urn an “unravish’d bride,” one who speaks through the quiet and silent form of beauty rather than words. In ekphrasis, the writer’s task is to put that beauty into words.

Stories inspired from video games can too be a form of ekphrastic art. To use a term akin to Machinima (machine cinema), they are a form of machphrasis: prose inspired by the machinations of video games, their universes, their puzzles, their social and physical systems of logic, their rules and boundaries, and their emotional resonances. Unlike Keats’ poem, the task of machphrasis is not to showcase the beauty of an art object, but to capture the range of unique experiences of gameplay, experiences that broach into news ways of seeing and appreciating the “machinations” of the outside world.

This is the first of a series of blogs exploring the range and potentials of machphrasis. For now, here are five brief examples.

1: Writing around the game

The first form of machphrasis is perhaps the most familiar. These are stories “around the game,” as Kotaku writer Luke Plunkett puts it, stories about “Who you were, where you were, what you were doing and who you were doing it with.” Plunkett asks readers to share experiences about playing games with friends (often while drunk or stoned). These stories focus on co-operative experiences or on playing single-player games as a team (“controller-swapping”). As Plunkett writes about his own experience playing The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker with a group of friends:

Zelda: The Windwaker (Kotaku)
“The three of us just kind of collapsed on the couch and sat unmoving for what felt like an eternity. After a while I looked around and noticed that all three of us had gotten a little misty.”

Writing around the game uncovers the social act of gameplay, whether it is with friends, lovers, or strangers.

2: Speculating on Strangers

Patrick Jagoda’s recent book, Network Aesthetics, devotes an entire chapter to dissecting machphrastic stories about the video game Journey, where players interact with randomized players from around the world, and are only able to communicate in gestures and chirps. Jagoda argues that games like Journey encourage machphrasis by privileging “emergent narratives” that do not merely reflect upon the artwork, but attempt to reflect the emotions the player experienced while playing with someone else.

Journey fan art by Spyders

The writers of the tumblr blog, Journey Stories, describe struggling over the game’s controls, camera movement and glitches, tough these “flaws” also spur the growth of emotional relationships with others. One writer, who plays the game while sick with fever, is abandoned by another player who “made me feel more crap,” and whose desertion made “the pain in my chest worsen.” Later on, the player meets a new friend, and as the player begins to exhaust herself from fever, the fellow player

“came running towards me, repeatedly chirping like he was panicking and so worried asking if I was alright. Looking at my character on the screen, I was in tears. I can’t help but think my character is on the verge of dying. I even thought that maybe I really can’t make it. He kept chirping and chirping at me like he’s telling me not to lose hope, that I could do this, and we can finish this together.”

Given the “tele-present” nature of video games, writers can only speculate on the other players: their identity, their nation, their language. In ekphrasis, John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” similarly speculates on the identity of the urn’s lovers, who both appear to dance and play music:

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? (lines 7–10)

Machphrasis too is an art that speculates on the hidden stories of anonymous strangers. As the Journey player writes, knowing that they will never encounter their team mate again:

“I know that we can only chirp and I can only assume what you were trying to say but I will always remember that you gave me hope whenever I’m almost in the pit of despair, to remind me that I’m not alone in this battle.”

3: Sad Locations

Machphrasis emerges mostly from players’ experiences with Open World games, games that present a universe to play in, where writers can speculate upon a game’s universe, its lore, and the residual feelings of left behind objects. Developers build open world games keeping “shareable moments” in mind (unique experiences spread on social media). Sometimes this is a .gif of a random explosion or a ragdoll effect, but often these moments come in emotive reactions to the game.

Andrew Bridgman has written brief machphrastic speculations on Skyrim’s “sad locations,” focusing on left-behind corpses and burned out buildings inserted into the universe for players to loot. These objects, which can simply warn the player of danger ahead, are re-interpreted into brief, reflective musings that give the virtual dead their own personalities.

Describing Skyrim’s grim icy north, Bridgman speculates on a pair of corpses, one of whom remains stuck in a bear trap:

“only one was trapped. The other — a friend, a relative, a lover, who knows — knew they would be unable to get their companion to safety, so stayed with them in the freezing cold.”

Machphrastic writings of “sad locations” take sharper notice of the stories that might be contained in left-behind objects. As the scholar D. P. Fowler has observed, ekphrasis brings life to objects by appreciating art that demands to be “integrated with narrative.” Machphrasis, like ekphrasis, can represent “a pause” in a video game, where the game’s own story does not provide enough detail or emotional impact to really explain its gameplay experience, so that “the reader is possessed by a strong need to interpret.”

4: Breaching the Screen

Machphrasis isn’t just a literary summary of a game’s event. It pursues lines of inquiry about how the emotions one feels while playing translate into the physical world, sometimes breaking past the screen and into experiences of personal prejudice and assault. Machphrastic stories de-center the player from the game world, causing players to reflect upon those who have been assigned as their enemies or their friends.

Gita Jackson’s machphrasis of Dragon Age: Inquisition lays bare her hatred for the Elvish nobleman Sola, who will “like” the player in the way a racist might like a person of color for being “one of the good ones,” as Jackson writes:

Gita Jackson of Giant Bomb and Kotaku
“He likes an aspect of you, but he thinks you’re disgusting at the core. Somehow, he tells you, he has gotten over his instinctual response of a deep and pointed loathing when he is around you. That version of Solas still thinks you are worthless — you’re just a little less worthless than your countrymen, and he admires you for that.”

Jackson’s virtual interactions with Solas dredges up the type of white racism she experienced in the suburbs of Connecticut, being “the only non-white family on the street” who was frequently complimented for being an “oreo.” For Jackson, Solas’ racist “compliments” loop back during times of anti-black violence, particularly in police killings of black men. When she saw that “Philando Castille was murdered during a traffic stop,” she recalls her interactions with Solas, who made her feel like “one of the good ones,” despite his repugnance for her entire race.

In the game, Jackson was playing a Qunari, a monster seen by elves as dumb, violent, and impetuous. In real life, as the police officer was never charged for killing an unarmed black man, Jackson could see that the same views of monstrosity had put in place the social machinations leading to the killing.

Jackson’s monstrous Qunari, and the lighter-skinned, head-shaven elf, Solas. (From Giant Bomb)
“It’s so hard to explain how this [game] makes me feel, because it’s so tightly wrapped up into the fabric of my life.” — Gita Jackson

5: Political subtexts

To return to my own short story based on Skyrim: Despite my attempts to see games as art, I still hesitate to admit that this story was inspired by a video game. There is the artistic aspect (that games are not accepted as art), but there is also the political aspect (that the game is not about blackness). When prodded, I simply respond that for me, the game spoke to an aspect of racial domination that I wanted to capture, one that could be made visible through the machphrastic technique. It is a story about a slow death, a death by celebrations of one’s culture, a death with empowerment and dignity, as I write in the story:

“I pass the imperium’s last archway, chewing on clumps of oats and walnuts. With my death, all magicians will finally fade into memories of pleasing songs, ritual dances, and parades, where our descendants will be held up, weak and sputtering, for the crowd’s gaze. The empire had dwindled our numbers, but not by attacking us directly.”

My story, like the game Skyrim, has no secure race, gender, or sexuality. But as with Jackson’s experience of Dragon Age: Inquisition, sometimes the political subtexts in video games can mirror the real world in haunting ways. Machphrasis brings those subtexts to the forefront, and spotlights how they are incorporated into the way we “play” our reality.

Note: Fiction author Kawika Guillermo is the pen name for academic Christopher B Patterson, whose articles focus on video games, race, and literature.