Why Video Games Are Like Novels

cropped-screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-8-16-39-pmBecause I’m dumb, I didn’t bring any of my video games to Dublin with me. I figured I wouldn’t have time to play them (I don’t) and that I probably wouldn’t miss them much, anyway (I do). But I’m surrounded by them–my brother has been Snapchatting me pictures of him playing the recently released Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Final Mix, and fellow gamers comment on my Triforce earrings when I wear them. The GameStop around the corner from my apartment taunts me, and the release date of the new Pokemon games looms ever closer.

(Note: I decided in 2011, when I turned eighteen, that I was now a Grown Up and would no longer play Pokemon games. Apparently, I forgot I was the sister of a boy whose first word was literally “Ash,” as in Ash Ketchum from the Pokemon anime series, and who has more than lived up to that first word in his fourteen years of life. Let’s just say that was the year Pokemon Black and White came out, my brother bought them, and I became a green-eyed monster whenever I saw him playing. So I bought Pokemon Black. Now I no longer care about being a Grown Up and will play my goddamn Pokemon games. But I’m digressing).

The point of all this is that video games have been weighing on my mind lately. It lead me to thinking about myself as a consumer of fiction. I have never been one who spends a lot of time watching TV or movies, not even when I was in them. The only shows I currently watch are Doctor Who, Legend of Korra and So You Think You Can Dance, and the latter one mostly serves as a way to bond with my family (I also started Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, but I’m not caught up and haven’t watched in several weeks). People gawk at me when I list what timeless movies I’ve never seen (never watched a full Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie, nor have I seen The Godfather, Bambi, Rocky Horror Picture Show, etc.).

No, my favorite forms of fiction are books and video games. This puzzles people sometimes, as if they’re two categories of nerd that don’t often intersect. It’s as if someone who will spend hours agonizing her way through the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and someone who will spend hours poring over a Tolstoy doorstopper cannot be the same person.

Actually, my preferred fiction mediums make sense to me, because they are very much alike.

First of all, when I think of books and video games, I think of characters, stories, and settings you must spend a lot of time with. Some books can be finished in a day, but most of them can’t, and shouldn’t. Even the ones you devour in a single day take several hours, at least. Their length requires you to put the book down, move about your daily life, and come back to it later. You repeat this process until the book is finished, and by the end, you’ve spent days, weeks, perhaps months visiting that world. It’s like a portable wardrobe to Narnia that you may enter and exit at will.

As a result, books take on a kind of existence that it is more difficult for, say, a two-hour movie to achieve. If the book is good enough, it’s easy to imagine the characters are out there somewhere during those in-between periods when you’ve left the book in limbo. You stopped reading for the moment, but that doesn’t mean the characters stopped, and you know that because of all the pages left to read. The characters are alive, and so is their world. And, since you’ve spent so much time there, you attach to it like you would a home. It becomes familiar.

Video games are the same way. They take hours to complete, you often can’t finish them in one sitting, and the characters become part of your daily life, if only for a week or so. They also take the whole “living world” thing literally. Most games have a narrative, and to beat the game you have to follow that narrative and complete tasks pertaining to it. But many games, including those in my three favorite franchises mentioned above, have sidequests, extra places to visit, secret treasures. The world seems real because it’s explorable. Again, if you spend enough time in it, the world of the video game becomes a home. I probably know how to get around Kingdom Hearts’ Traverse Town better than I know how to navigate my own neighborhood.

“But wait,” you argue, “people literally spend years following television shows! They (hopefully) take longer than any book or video game to finish! You can’t tell me the TARDIS isn’t as much a home as your dang Traverse Town!”

Well, hypothetical person, you’re right. I would sooner equate a television series with a book “series” or video game “series,” and count individual episodes alongside individual novels and games, but I see what you’re saying. What makes video games and books really stand apart, though, comes through in my next point:

Books and video games are the only forms of fiction I can think of that require your participation.

Part of the reason I struggle with watching very many shows or movies is because, while I’m sitting there letting the show or movie happen to me, I get this itching feeling that I’m wasting time. It’s not an altogether rational feeling, since there are some fantastic pieces of cinema out there, big screen and small. Nevertheless, I’m physically doing nothing while I receive visual and auditory stimuli. That is it.

Books and video games literally cannot be enjoyed, understood, or completed without your engagement. If you don’t feed a book’s words into your imagination or make an effort to interpret what’s being said, you won’t be able to visualize what’s going on, nor will you be able to follow the plot, form attachments to characters, etc. Yes, similar brain work is required for following TV and movie plots, but you don’t have to expend as much effort because the sights and sounds are displayed for you. If you’re playing a video game, and you don’t strategize well or load up with enough items, BOOM! The boss kills you, and your narrative will not continue until you overcome that obstacle.

How wonderful is it that such interactive modes of fiction exist? There’s a real give-and-take relationship between the creator and consumer going on here, and it’s beautiful. A writer who describes a room as “large and white” leaves the rest of the experience in the reader’s hands, because every reader’s imagination is different. Some readers will dream up an off-white room the size of a school auditorium. Others will think of a place so white it blinds you, and it’s as big as freaking Buckingham Palace.

On the video game side, the creator decides much of the larger things that make up the game, but allows the player plenty of agency. What keyblade will you choose in Kingdom Hearts? What Pokemon will you start with in Ruby Version? Even in games with more limited options, there’s freedom: will you run straight for the character that has the Thing You Need To Proceed With The Game? Or will you run around and around one of the computer characters, jump on his head, and light him on fire while he just stands there, because it’s hilarious? It’s up to you.

I love books and video games because you have to work for them. What’s more rewarding than feeling like you’ve earned your fiction?

-Morgan

*Avatar by Charlavail

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