Some of the points raised on the Andrew Jackson thread about the limits of Interactive Fiction (IF) are I think worth discussing without reference to the specifics of that project, because they touch on what a lot of us are trying to do to one degree or another.
I’ve got to disagree with this, as the pretentious git who’s chosen IF as the medium for my epic novel on politics, religion, and social order (plus, you know, evil blood magic fantasy empires). I don’t think games, video or otherwise, are an inherently trivializing medium.
In my day job, games are increasingly used to get people to engage with complex realities. People learn differently when playing a game than they do when they hear a story (let alone read a dry explanatory text); the immersion is on a whole different level, as is the ability to really grasp a complex system.
The Red Cross Climate Center is constantly having to justify its work on game design to adult professionals who feel it’s a bit above their dignity to be playing a game – until they’ve actually done it and realized how effective it is.
So I see IF as bringing together two of the most immersive, effective media we’ve invented: games and novels. We’re well past the point, culturally, where people argue that putting something into a novel is inherently trivializing. I’m hopeful that within a few years we’ll all agree the same about video games.
I agree with everything in this except “even fun.” The makers of That Dragon, Cancer clearly felt what they were developing was worthwhile, and a lot of thought and effort went into making it immersive and engaging. But it sure doesn’t offer fun.
Ditto for the forthcoming We Are Chicago. As the developer says, “We’re not trying to make a game that’s super fun. We’re trying to make a game that’s telling an important story, and trying to engage people in a subject they might not have experience with.”
A game that leaves people with a feeling of, say, horror or shame or grief or disgust or fear (or a complex catharsis that combines elements of all of the above) is unlikely to be as commercially successful as an escapist romp or power fantasy. But it may be just as worthwhile as a great novel or movie that has that kind of effect.
Putting the main character in the shoes of someone who chooses genocide is obviously a dangerous authorial project – as it would be in a novel or a documentary. But novelists and documentarians have found powerful ways to tell those stories that don’t trivialize the horror, romanticize the genocidaire, or justify/glorify the killing. We shouldn’t assume it’s impossible to do in a game.
One key tool that novelists and documentarians use in such cases is shifting between multiple perspectives. That’s a technique no less available to IF writers, as we already know from Divided We Fall and as several people recommended on the Jackson thread. So I don’t agree that:
Multiple perspectives are just used less often than the single second-person perspective. A novel that shifts from the self-justifying perspective of the killer to the perspective of one of their targets could be devastatingly effective. (Or just exploitative, if done badly; but the risk of failure shouldn’t deter us from trying, any more than in other literature.)
People do lightly play murderous psychopaths in video games, and that’s something any writer of an IF piece about genocide would need to take seriously. (Including, I’d argue, fantasy or sci fi genocides, which often get let off the hook for not being historical.)
But in an IF novel, even more than, say, Skyrim, it’s possible to make the murderous experience less fun for the prospective spree killer or genocidaire – possible to write the game in a way that gives real weight to the lives of others.
Doing that will get some one-star reviews for heavy-handedness and spoiling the fun. And at the end of the day, some readers will still no doubt be able to close their minds to the author’s intent:
But the world is still (to my mind unquestionably) a better place for having literature like Lolita and movies like They Live in it. We mustn’t let the minority who insist on misinterpreting a work dictate what we write and publish.
One of the great things about COG, as I said way back in my pre-mod days, is that it takes stories seriously:
That’s why we care so much about not thoughtlessly replicating stories that exclude people or glorify horrors. But stories can and must be told about the ugly and uncomfortable things, too. We need to humanize and explain our monsters if we’re to understand them, not just write fantasies where the monsters are conveniently unrecognizable. And I believe those uncomfortable but illuminating stories can potentially be told even better in IF than in other forms of fiction.
I’m disagreeing here with people I respect, and look forward to their thoughts in response.