High Literature or High Brow Literature? Really, Who Cares

Maybe it’s because I’m writing from 2015, and graphics, memory, hardware, and AI have advanced so much since the advent of digital technology and computer gaming, but I cannot understand the argument that computer games are not narratives. Literally, what else could they be at this point? Even games without narrative – old arcade classics like Pacman or complete open world games like Minecraft – are bestowed with narratives and alternative stories to fill some kind of alleged void. Certainly, there are games that uncomplicated and nebulous narratives, so much so that it seems as if they are only there to pave the way for the “true” or “essential” part of the game – generally, the multiplayer experience – but even a small narrative is not enough to dismiss altogether, I think.

Avatars of Story was published in 2006, which was a long time ago in terms of technological development, yes, but were there not plenty of narrative games available by then? Off the top of my head, I can name Halo, Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid, or even Pokemon. How would you classify these games, then, if not pieces with narrative? Shadow, certainly, was one of the formative narratives of my teenhood and has influenced my taste in gaming, television, and literature ever since, as well as my own fiction.

Marie-Laure Ryan writes that the ludologists, those against the idea of conflating video games with narrative works, struck an unlikely alliance with literary narratologists, enforcing the definition of narratology as related strictly to the written word. I had not even known the strict, original definition of narratology until I read this chapter.

Narrative: the recounting . . . of one or more real or fictitious events communicated by one, two or several (more or less overt) narrators to one, two or several (more or less overt) narratees. A dramatic performance representing many fascinating events does not constitute a narrative, since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage. (1987, 58)
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 February 2015.
Copyright © 2006. University of Minnesota Press. All rights reserved.

As a student of theater, this definition is utterly ludicrous and should have been thrown out all together when it was conceived, and as a musician, I can confirm that narrative absolutely transcends written media, and can completely comfortably encompass things like cultural context, authorial intent, stylistic convention, as well as the audience’s imagination. All of those categories can be applied to video games, easily.

While I realize that I am not necessarily arguing against Ryan, as she seems to be of the idea that video games are narratives as well, I have to question the entire point of this debate, and repeat my claim that the definition of narrative should be discarded. In the 21st century, even the concept of a medium has been warped by postmodernist philosophy and has been utilized, remixed, or forgotten entirely at the whim of the content creator. And, as Ryan comments, this distinction between what is narrative and what is not narrative seems to be in place to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, the “high” fiction from “low” or “pulp” fiction.

The pursuit of large audiences by the game industry and its reluctance to take risks explains in part why it has been sticking so far to stereotyped narrative themes and formulae, such as medieval fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, horror, and the mystery story. But through their emphasis on action, setting, and imaginary creatures of fantastic appearance, these narrative genres are much more adaptable to the interactive and fundamentally visual nature of games than “high” literature focused on existential concerns, psychological issues, and moral dilemmas. Literature seeks the gray area of the ambiguous, while games and popular genres thrive in the Manichean world of “the good guys” versus “the bad guys” (Krzywinska 2002): if players had to debate the morality of their actions, the pace of the game, not to mention its strategic appeal, would seriously suffer.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 February 2015.
Copyright © 2006. University of Minnesota Press. All rights reserved.

To me, any debate that tries to define what is “high” fiction reeks of classism and a fear of developing technology. I say this as someone who is a very big fan of “classical” literature, Shakespeare, Homer, Dumas, Dostoevsky, etc., that while these authors are great, there really is no more intrinsic value than Harry Potter or something similar. And, whoever says that games do not have moral dilemmas, has clearly never played the final mission to Fallout 3. That decision will haunt me for the rest of my life, no lie.

0 thoughts on “High Literature or High Brow Literature? Really, Who Cares

  1. I think one of the other issues is how the people who claim video games don’t and shouldn’t qualify as narratives or art, are also people who are usually quite dismissive of video games in general, saying “it’s just kids stuff’ or “mindless entertainment” and because of this it’s not even an issue of if Fallout, Metal gear, or Bioshock do have narratives, but rather that the people who ‘seemingly get to decide what is narrative’ are even giving video games a chance.

  2. I agree that Video Games without a doubt contain beautiful, compelling, and thought-provoking narrative.

    However, I disagree that there is not a difference in intrinsic value in the narrative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet versus Harry Potter. That being said, I do not think Video Games should be auto-relegated to the lower end of the spectrum. For instance, the narrative of Final Fantasy 7 – be it told through literature, music, visual art, or gameplay – I believe has considerable more value and room for appreciation and analysis of the designer’s creation then say, the narrative of Super Mario Bros.

    While I do believe that making such judgments has a considerable amount of subjectivity – I think there is again an ‘objective consensus’. To parallel, I don’t think anyone is comparing the artfulness or musical ability shown in Mozart to that shown in Justin Bieber.

  3. I agree with most of your points here. For me, this raises the question of who gets to decide what is defined as “high” literature? Who defines what art is? I think a lot of the time this immense question is put in the hands of the moneyed classes- people who can afford to consume leisure products. I think that is changing rapidly with the advent of the internet, but for a long time tastes were determined by what people bought. Now, there are many lists on the internet for things like “Video Games that are Works of Art” and things like that.

    I am inclined to agree with Andrew’s stratification of value, though. Would you consider a game like Papers, Please to be of the same narrative value as Angry Birds? That is not passing a judgment on the game itself, but merely the content and form of the actual story being told.

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