July 21, 2011

Gamification of Literature

[Here is another post that I originally wrote for The Missouri Review‘s blog that I’m archiving here. Check out the TMR’s new website!]

Great Gatsby for NES (Start Screen)

A few news items have popped up this week about Simon Meek and his company’s plans to release adaptations of literary works for game consoles — a version of the spy novel The Thirty Nine Steps is currently in production, and Meek mentions Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment as future candidates.

Meek is quick to say

that he’s not trying to make game versions of these stories; instead, he’s using gaming platforms and game-building technologies to create adaptations of the books:

“Players enter the stories through the events that take place in that story, and at that point experience the story from the inside out,” he explains. “We place them in the world in which the story is set, and are using a combination of original art and games engine to create some truly stunning environments. Add to that audio design and original composition, and the world of the book is brought to life. On this stage, we then let the player progress through an array of media that is directly taken/reinterpreted from the book.” [Source]

These may not be “games,” but he still refers to the audience as “players” and elsewhere emphasizes the interactive nature of this new “experience” of the book. They may not be games in the sense of having a set of rules and victory conditions, but they are clearly being modeled on virtual worlds and the principles of game-based narrative (that is, variable or conditional navigation through a set of planned environments/encounters).

Now, I don’t have a problem with this idea on its face. It’s just one form of adaptation of out many. It will reveal its own artistic strengths and make its own artistic sacrifices as theatric, cinematic, graphic, and all other forms of adaptation do. I have some concerns about the concept that I’ll mention, though, with the understanding that I want to remain open-minded about how successful the actual execution might be. My main concern lies with the idea of experiencing the story “from the inside out.” First of all, is that actually any different from how we experience narratives in printed text? Do we feel alienated from the narration? Do we feel “outside” of the book because it’s just words on a page? If we’re hypothetical members of the generation that doesn’t read for pleasure, maybe text is alienating and foreign, and the idea of reconstructing a world in your imagination as you’re reading is burdensome and undesireable. But I still cling to the hope that such an experience of reading is hypothetical (and if this is a genuine cultural crisis — our kids don’t have the imaginative skills to make reading “work” — then I doubt that adaptations like this would do anything to solve that problem; if anything, they would seem to provide yet another form of “prosthetic” imagination, if you will, that frees you from the necessity of visualizing the story-world and its characters yourself).

In fact, this “immersive” experience of the book as 3d-rendered graphical world is actually more likely to put you at one remove from the characters, compared to what you would get from the text. In the text, point of view can collapse so that you share and inhabit the points of view of the characters (and not always just one at a time, but often in sophisticated and complex layerings). I can’t envision how this game-style version of the narrative can provide many point of view options besides a free-floating camera, that maybe becomes first-person occasionally (I don’t get the feeling from Meek’s descriptions that you would actually play as characters, but maybe you will). To my mind, this management of “the camera” (or however you control the point of view) adds an additional layer of mediation to the story — it puts you at an added remove from what would be “narration” in the text. It emphasizes the way in which you are outside of the text, the way in which you are a spectator, rather than drawing you inside in the way that narration can.

Promotional photo for Hitchcock's PsychoAnother issue with this is that if control of point of view is suddenly ceded to the reader/player, that removes a major aspect of the artistic craft of the original. Film adaptation is already more limited in the kinds of points of view it can present, but it has its conventions and artistry in managing point of view. But if the idea is that I can observe the scene from any angle, if I can choose to look at whatever I want to look at, then a fundamental change has occurred in the nature of the art I’m looking at. It ceases to be the experience of precise selections and composition by the artist and becomes something like an architectural exercise. It ceases to be Hitchcock framing the looming Bates house in a low-angle shot (looming only because of that choice of angle) and becomes you the tourist with a camcorder wandering around the Universal Studios backlot. [If I were more familiar with The Thirty Nine Steps, I’d use a more appropriate example from it, but I’m not, so I won’t.]

One could counter-argue that this freedom allows the reader/player to become an artist themselves, to create their own cinematography for their individualized adaptation. And sure, maybe that’s true. There are musicians that have made all the individual tracks make up a single recording available for fans to make their own remixes from, and there’s certainly value in that kind of creative experience. But it would be a mistake to overlook or understate the value that’s lost, as well. Perhaps the positive side is that people playing with “directing” their own version of the book through one of these game interfaces might develop a greater appreciation of the very challenging arts of cinematography and film editing, when they see how far short their own initial efforts fall. But I’m not convinced that this experience necessarily does much for furthering appreciation of point of view in the text, which is really a very different kind of technical challenge (despite the fact that so many creative writing texts lean on the cinematic metaphor as a crutch to describe point of view — to the ultimate disservice of their students, I suspect).

And that brings me to my last point, which is the naivete that I think is present in the assumption that books need “saving” through digital enhancement. I’m curious and intrigued by the idea of these virtual world adaptations, and I do think there’s something compelling (if not necessarily revolutionary) about the idea of transforming stories into these kinds of architectural constructs that can be navigated at will. But there’s a revolutionary streak the rhetoric here (the article I’ve been quoting from, for example, is ridiculously entitled “The Reinvention of Literature”), that seems totally unearned. Meek really rubs me the wrong way when we’re told:

Meek says he doesn’t like that electronic books still have people reading printed words on white pages that need to be turned. “Which doesn’t make any sense in a digital world,” he tells me. These electronic books are still too rooted in the form that gave them birth, the physical side of the media, he believes.

To me this sounds a bit like music industry people in the early days of MTV suggesting that music videos are the future of music consumption: why would you want just boring old music when you can have music and images? (I’m not sure if anyone actually argued this, but if they did the analogy would hold.) We’re already seeing a trend for e-books to be “appified” for the iPad generation, filled with links and embedded video and background sound effects or music that plays while you read specific scenes. And I’m not opposed to such aesthetic experiments, but I don’t think they’re the next step (much less a necessary one) in the evolution in literature. After all, if we really felt that text alone was insufficient, almost all our books would be done in the style of Illustrated Classics or graphic novels. Most audiobooks would be dramatizations performed by casts of actors rather than single narrating voices. But it has not been so. Meek may be bringing something interesting to the world of digital, game-like entertainments, but I don’t think he’s revolutionizing literature by any stretch of our apparently stunted imaginations.

Digital model of the Bates house from Psycho

P.S.: Anyone interested in a game that is literally about navigating a literary text should check out “Silent Conversation,” a lovely, atmospheric browser-based game by Gregory Weir. I think Weir achieves something far more aesthetically compelling with his particular approach to digital adaptation than it sounds like Meek will manage, even if does just boil down to an advanced version of concrete poetry.

[Hint for “Silent Conversation”: if you just want a quick experience of what the game is like, I recommend that you do the brief tutorial (which you must do to unlock the first set of other texts), and then do William Carlos Williams’ “XXII” and Matsuo Bashou’s “There is an old pond…” so that you can then unlock and play through “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The prose texts are quite interesting in their own way, but they’re pretty long and best tried after doing a sampler of the poetry.]

Also, for laughs, literary gamers might also enjoy the retro parody The Great Gatsby for NES or Moby Dick: The Video Game.

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