Games Due for a Lit Course

Games Due for a Lit Course

Games have a long-running love affair with film. The fruits of this passion are evident in almost any game developed over the past five years, palpable in their lavish action cutscenes, cinematic set-pieces and increasingly professional voice acting. Ask almost any developer how they derive their inspiration, and a familiar sequence of filmic influences is rolled out; the word ‘cinematic’ is something to which most modern games aspire. They are homages to everything from noir to western, Romero to Woo. Those that look to literature for their inspiration are considerably rarer. It makes sense; as a primarily visual medium, videogames have more innately in common with the often glamorous and gory world of cinema than with the quieter introspection and thematically laden, slow-burning plots of serious novels or the considered precision of verse.

Look to our history, though, and numerous games exist that have prompted us to cast around for literary compatriots; games whose writers have managed to walk the line between screenplay and novel to create eloquent games that capture our attention as readers, as well as gamers. Games have an enormous set of tools at their disposal for absorbing us: and they often do, through their visual detail, the depth of their worlds, their art or cinematic direction or their beguiling playability; but what of those that absorb us with their articulacy?

Examples, admittedly, are few. Descriptive text is a comparative rarity in modern games, and ill-fitting writing and clunky dialogue are common complaints in even the best-produced contemporary titles. In a film-obsessed industry, developers may yet have much to learn from literature. “Movies and TV are fine as sources of inspiration,” posits Sheldon Pacotti, who played a pivotal role as a writer on Deus Ex, a game that remains one of videogames’ most revered examples of quality writing. “But I don’t think they can teach you how to construct an experience for others. That process is slow and deliberate, as much a quality of mind as it is anything else. Reading novels is good training for the imagination, for anyone in the entertainment business.”

Chris Avellone, a creative director at Obsidian Entertainment who is probably best known for his  work on Planescape: Torment, also cites literature as a chief influence in his work. “Many of the ideas for Torment were bred from blending ideas and characters I had read in books and novels and loved, and they were ideas that could only have been communicated through text, simply because no one would have the budget or resources to fully realise many of these fantasy works through TV or movies,” he says. “I think novels and literature have much to offer in taking stories and plotlines beyond the conventional.”

The early text adventure, still alive and evolving today as interactive fiction, has a closer relationship with literature than any other form of videogame. “The old text adventures, as pure prose, came pretty close to integrating writing and interactivity into a coherent artform, one closely allied with the novel,” suggests Pacotti, although modern interactive fiction has much more in common with literature than Zork could ever have aspired to.

Robb Sherwin, whose text games have won numerous awards, finds the marriage of prose and interactivity enthralling as a writer. “[An interactive fiction writer] is able to digress and tell anecdotes and develop the scenery and backdrops of his games,” he says. “I don’t know how that power can’t be completely intoxicating to authors, and in a perfect world it would pull published writers to the text game medium.”

Games have an enormous set of tools at their disposal for absorbing us: and they often do, through their visual detail, the depth of their worlds, their art or cinematic direction or their beguiling playability; but what of those that absorb us with their articulacy?

Modern interactive fiction, much more than its technically limited earlier counterparts, displays an incredible range of literary influences, tributes and styles. For Sherwin’s part, science fiction is an inspiration, but the greater part of his text adventures’ efficacy comes from the unique and anarchic style of his characters’ dialogue. “I have been greatly influenced by the late George Alec Effinger,” he says. “He was the first guy I read that was able to write science fiction chock-full of characters that I not only deeply cared about, but characters that drove the plot due to their strong wills and personalities.” In text adventures, literary influences are naturally more evident; text game writers are free to attempt to emulate the same literary devices as the authors who perhaps inspired them, whether in their dialogue styles, plot development or written motifs.

Gamers in search of an edifying read could hope for nothing more than the surreal eloquence of Adam Cadre’s Photopia, or the superbly idiosyncratic dialogue of Sherwin’s own Fallacy Of Dawn. Sherwin cites Stephen Bond’s Rameses as “the best character study in the history of videogames” – outside the world of the text game, one would be hard pressed to find characters and situations as lovingly and artfully developed and described as they often are in interactive fiction.

However, text games enjoy a luxury not afforded to videogames in any other form; they communicate exclusively through the written word. Without needing to integrate visuals, sound or 3D gameplay, they are free to concentrate wholly upon their writing, and thus are able to achieve a focus that is usually beyond the reach of a medium as multi-disciplinary as videogames. Pacotti relates this coherence to that of books. “The novel, typically created by one person working exclusively in language, strives for a coherence only occasionally seen in film and almost never in games,” he explains. “This coherence – the integration of the smallest details into a single vision – is the basis of good art.”

And when we look at games that have impressed us with their writing, it is often this detail and coherence that proves so memorable. Players remember Fallout’s stark descriptions of devastated urban wastelands and graphic combat commentary, Planescape: Torment’s amazingly sharp, varied dialogue, sheer volume of developed characters and bewildering descriptiveness. Games have the unique privilege of being able to develop their worlds over the course of 20, 30, 50 hours, layering them with description and infusing them and their characters with hidden depth. But they don’t believe in characters whose dialogue is incongruous with their situation or their world, and can’t enjoy game writing that is so disjointed and mixed in quality and tone that it becomes frustrating to read. It’s essential, in game writing, to strive for coherence: to make every line of dialogue and description consistent and believable in the context of the game.

It’s a creative ethos that was key to the writing process of Deus Ex. “The inhabitants all had elaborate histories behind them, histories which I was more than ready to accept as fact,” says Pacotti. “Just as the designers endeavoured to build real-world and realistic places, I tried to make every line of dialogue sound like it was coming from a real person living in those places. Deus Ex offered me this vast canvas spanning all strata of society, from drug addicts to scientists to politicians. It was the perfect opportunity to prove to myself that I had that kind of range, so I went deep on practically every character. A random guy on a subway got eight or nine one-liners, scripted to play out like a conversation, and we almost never shared these conversations between instances of the same 3D model. They’re different people, right?”

Deus Ex looked more to literature for context and inspiration in its writing than perhaps any of its peers – even the standout PC RPGs of the late ’90s, whose literary influences could be incorporated perhaps far more easily into their text-heavy structures. That, more than anything else, might go some way to explaining why Deus Ex achieves such a rich sense of context, depth and, most importantly, coherence. The game was littered with philosophical and literary references and texts, all of which managed to remain strikingly relevant, and its characters were positively fizzing with different dialects, methods of speech and linguistic variety. The writing team’s literary influences were as diverse as one would expect. “A lot of the team took inspiration from Stephenson and Gibson, for instance,” explains Pacotti. “At the time, I was very interested in voice both as theory, as in Bakhtin, and as a writing technique. I was reading transcripts of juvenile gang members, copying down things I overheard on the bus, trying to learn tricks from dialect-heavy novels like Underworld by Don Delillo or Faulkner. And meanwhile I had this interest in professional and technical languages, being a Pynchon fanatic. I was often reprising Foucault and Levi Strauss, especially when a character waxed philosophical.”