Playing the Book, Reading the Game

As video games increasingly adopt the language and pacing of literature—intricate plots, morally ambiguous characters, endlessly expansive worlds—what effect are they in turn having on books?

September 24, 2015

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House...

Screenshot from Kentucky Route Zero.

There was a time when incorporating the logic and perspectives of video games into another medium was little more than a narrative curiosity. That time was the mid-1980s, a period that brought us works such as The Last Starfighter, the sort of film in which proficiency with these newfangled amusements was a sign that one might be ready for full-on action-hero status—that one’s ability to save the universe in a video game meant that one could also save the universe in real life. Three decades later, not only has the novelty worn off, but that earlier era has begun to seem more like the beginning of an ongoing cultural moment than a mildly embarrassing moment in cynical cross-platform marketing history. Video game aesthetics and logic suffused Bryan Lee O’Malley’s mid-to-late-2000s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, as well as Edgar Wright’s 2010 film adaptation. Ernest Cline has worked references to both specific video games and to the styles in which they’re played in his novels Ready Player One and Armada, the latter of which folds in earlier works about video games into a narrative that blended paranoid conspiracy theories with a plot that both critiqued and embraced science fiction tropes of the past few decades. (There’s also Pixels, which wasn’t exactly a universally beloved film, but that seems to be due more to flawed execution than an inherently problematic concept.)

Even beyond their influence on greater culture, though, today, video games like the Fallout and Mass Effect series can approach true blockbuster status, both in budgetary terms and audience size. But after over thirty years in the collective consciousness, it’s worth looking at how video games have served as a deeper literary influence above and beyond material for plots and settings.11For purposes of this piece, I’ll leave alone novels set in the universes of specific video games–the Halo, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age series all come to mind.

The influence of literature on certain games—intricate pacing, well-developed and morally ambiguous characters—is clear. BioWare’s Dragon Age games owe something of a debt to the novels of authors such as George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who blend familiar settings with scenarios where no “right” decision exists, and realpolitik is critically important. More recently, the developers of the game Kentucky Route Zero openly referenced their debt to magic realist fiction when introducing their game. Playing the game, this aesthetic clicks neatly: there’s a decidedly lived-in feeling to the narrative, but there are also ghostly bluegrass musicians, giant birds, and mysterious roads that evade discovery—close in tone to the short fiction of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, almost.

While rarely at the center of the action, games have become increasingly common as background elements in fiction. One of the threads that ran throughout Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City was an online role-playing game on which several of the book’s characters became fixated. (More specifically, an MMORPG: a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.) Throughout the novel, the sense of virtual worlds and virtual objects becomes itself omnipresent. There are some hints that the novel’s universe is itself a kind of simulation; that it’s set in a stylized, surreal version of Manhattan only accentuates that sense of disorientation.

Internalizing the relatively open nature of modern gameplay into fiction, however, isn’t easy. Though there might be moral quandaries in Dragon Age: Origins that evoke morally grey fictional situations, novels don’t allow you the same freedom of exploration. But that’s also a difference in mediums: one is a fundamentally interactive one, and one is a more controlled experience—narrative fiction and nonfiction feature an authorial hand guiding you along, while the recent wave of “open-world” games have allowed players a greater degree of autonomy.22When I compared my experience playing Dragon Age: Inquisition to that of a friend, we noted that we had had wildly different experiences in terms of the characters we’d played and the decisions we’d made. There are some notable literary exceptions, a few of which predate the world of video games, but reading them in the present day comes with a set of unique hazards. I can’t be the only reader who, upon reading Julio Cortazar’s landmark novel Hopscotch, got to the first point where the narrative diverged and briefly flashed back to reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child.33And now I wait for the restless ghost of Julio Cortazar to begin haunting me for this literary sacrilege. The full exploration of a space promised by open-world gaming and the narrative coherence promised by non-experimental narratives may be fundamentally incompatible.

The new anthology Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, examines some of the overlap between these sorts of stories. “Exploring video games,” Adams posits in his introduction, “has become one of the primary ways we create and experience narratives.” He also points out that a number of writers (including several contributors to the anthology) work in the video game industry as well, further evidence of the blurring of the lines between the two disciplines.

That overlap may be a finite space, however. Tom Bissell has both written about video games (in the book Extra Lives, among other places) and worked as a writer on some games themselves—specifically, Gears of War: Judgment. In a 2013 interview, he makes a case for the delineation between the two mediums:

I used to think that games were a great storytelling medium, potentially, and that idiot writers were fucking it up. I don’t believe that any more. I now believe that whatever the purpose of this medium is, it’s not quite to tell stories.

That divide becomes even clearer in Press Start to Play. The stories are wide-ranging in tone: some are science-fiction or fantasy in which games are an element around which familiar scenarios coalesce (demonic invasions, alternate worlds, the secretive existence of artificial intelligences), while others riff on specific experiences of gaming (the notion of respawning, or the existential and physical crises spurred by a character creation screen, such as the pain felt by that character as a player runs through different body shapes and sizes). And still others focus on particular gaming communities: Holly Black’s “1Up,” for instance, about a group of friends sent on a kind of text-adventure-based treasure hunt after gathering at a funeral. Of the stories in the anthology that do seem to draw direct narrative inspiration from gaming, the deepest ones come—perhaps not surprisingly—from such text adventures. Chris Avellone’s “<end game>” and Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” both incorporate aspects of some of the earliest video games, but do so in a way that riffs on them in a novel fashion. It might be that the gulf between the two is too wide to go too deeply. Or it might be that the great video game novel has yet to be written.

Where video games have undeniably left their mark on the literary world, however, is on works of nonfiction. The independent press Boss Fight Books44Full disclosure: I’ve contributed to two of Boss Fight’s Kickstarter campaigns, primarily as a way to pre-order books that looked interesting. has released a number of books in which writers zero in on a particular video game, a model seemingly based on the 33 1/3 music book series; so far, Boss Fight has featured the likes of Matt Bell, Michael Kimball, and Ken Baumann exploring their own histories with particular games. (I interviewed publisher Gabe Durham in 2013 for an earlier piece dealing with another side of the overlap of and games and literature.) As with the 33 1/3 series, the approaches are disparate here: Baumann uses the early role-playing game EarthBound as a means to analyze his own life, from his upbringing in Texas to his time as a child actor. Bell’s book, on the other hand, focuses on Baldur’s Gate II, and explores his experiences playing it both in adolescence and now, and draws in his own experiences as pseudonymous co-author of a novel set in the Dungeons & Dragons world.

As a 38-year-old whose first video game system was an Atari 5200, and who still has brief moments of anxiety related to Hunt the Wumpus, plenty of moments from both Baumann and Bell’s books resonated with me; there are details that brought back decades-old memories of my first experience with video games, and the hold they can exert over a young mind. And I’m not alone: there’s a sizable cohort of writers of a certain age for whom video games were as innate a part of growing up as sports were to generations past. Michael W. Clune’s memoir Gamelife is the story of his problematic coming-of-age, but it’s structured around the experience of several of the games that he played as he grew up. These are a varied group, ranging from the Nazi-killing of the Wolfenstein games to Sid Meier’s Pirates! to Suspended, a text adventure game involving an immobile hero and a series of robots unraveling a conspiracy, which delved into landscapes of paranoia and sensory deprivation.

Plenty of video games play out as heroic narratives, and the blend of nostalgia and analysis that predominates in the gaming memoir creates a kind of parallel origin story. In some cases, this is an uplifting one: Baumann’s book on Earthbound juxtaposes the game’s unique, philosophical approach with his own desire for self-improvement. Clune’s book is a bleaker work. This is his second memoir; his first, White Out, was centered around his addiction to heroin. In a recent essay for Vice, Clune argued against easy parallels between the two: “Computer games have enhanced and enriched my life while drugs and alcohol turned me into a walking corpse,” he wrote.

Gamelife focuses almost entirely on its author’s childhood in the 1980s in the suburbs of Chicago. There’s a brief, oblique reference to Clune’s subsequent addiction, but there isn’t a direct line made between the two. The experiences he describes here are indeed wrenching to read about—his nascent video game fandom clashing with his mother’s religious beliefs, the growing gulf between his parents, the general shittiness of middle-school boys—but without the perspective of his older self, it can at times be difficult to assess the damage they did.

Clune’s mode here is both philosophical and, occasionally, grandiose. When discussing his playing of the Wolfensteinseries, he juxtaposes the experience with the religion in which he grew up. But it’s also one of the few places where his choice of words can seem over the top: “World War II games have this advantage over Christianity: It is not your own suffering that weds you to the cross of redemption. It is the suffering of Nazis.” Often, Clune is able to capture the way that games can prompt obsessive playing—whether as escapism or as a kind of addiction-like behavior all their own. But sometimes, the evocations of gaming as a kind of alternative theology can wear thin.

When Clune takes a wider approach, he makes a number of salient points about gaming’s effect on young minds. Here, he looks at his first time playing a text adventure, and how it shaped him for years to come:

The generation of humans who were approximately seven years old when PC games first became widely available, we remember the first time we did something methodical.

One could argue with the generational aspect here; there are other factors (class among them) that might also contribute to whether someone did or did not begin playing PC games at a certain age. But certainly, it’s a shared memory for a vast array of people. And it’s an experience that has had, and will continue to have, an effect on the way stories are told.

And for people like Clune, the experience has had a real effect on storytelling. As a result of playing games, Clune writes early on in Gamelife, “I began to imagine more.” But it remains to be seen whether that sense of imagination will largely act as a muse to other artistic disciplines, or if it will spark a shift in the way narratives in other mediums work. For now, we’re still standing in an open field west of a white house, waiting to see what comes next.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House, Midnight Breakfast, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, and Underwater New York. His collection Transitory will be released by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.