The Gaming Club

How Playing a Video Game Is Like Writing Fiction
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Dec. 13 2011 4:32 PM

The Gaming Club

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Playing Portal 2 is like writing fiction.

Portal 2.
Portal 2, a contender for game of the year

© 2011 Valve.

Dear Chris, Michael, and Tom:

I’m excited to be joining your elite multiplayer team, although I’m sure you’ll all quickly realize that I’ve brought a knife to a gunfight. (Or perhaps a gun to a shoulder-mounted-RPG fight.)

Tom, for some reason I was relieved to hear you admit that you don’t finish games. I don’t either, but I suspect in your case it is an actual decision, a conscious choice to stop playing. For me, the “decision” usually involves dying for the fifth time in three minutes even though I’m playing on the “Easy” setting. You mentioned that you have become “more content with getting a basic sense of what a game is up to and moving on.” I wonder if this has something to do with the larger point you made about narratological possibilities.

I have some thoughts on that, but before I go any further, I should make full disclosure: To call me a “gamer” at the present time would be generous. There was a period when that term would have applied (i.e., most of the ’80s and ’90s), but for various reasons (some of which I hope to mention in a later entry), it no longer does. On the spectrum of gamers, you might say I’m casual+. That’s what I think I can offer: the perspective of someone who grew up with games, currently owns an Xbox, plays it a bit, but quite honestly feels more than a little intimidated by the complexity and difficulty of many new games. In other words, part of the reason I’m a casual gamer is because I suck at them. My hope is that, among the Slate readership, there are people who might be interested in the point of view from over here in the shallower end of the pool. To the people who want to dip a toe in, but are scared off by all the expert swimmers and so decide instead to stay away completely, I say: Come on in, the water’s fine!

Michael, I’m glad to hear your assessment that games are increasingly varied in terms of design palette, and I’m looking forward to checking out a lot of the games you mention. I’m assuming that the increasing stylistic diversity you are seeing is in indie games, or at least not in the AAA titles, because there wasn’t much variety to speak of in the big-budget games I played this year. I’m not saying Gears of War 3 looks exactly like Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3, but they don’t look all that different, either. While I understand that there are going to be basic similarities within a genre, honestly after a while they all started to blend in to each other. And I actually liked these games. So my first question for the group is: What am I missing? Do any of you want to set me straight, or do you agree that they all pretty much look the same? I’m not talking about gameplay here, or story, or anything other than visual style. Is the similarity partly due to the common goal of developers, who are constantly striving toward more realism? Because if it is, I’d gladly trade a lot of verisimilitude for a little more variety. Or surprise. Or weirdness.

The fault here partly lies with me. I need to seek out a wider range of games, especially El Shaddai (based on Michael’s description) and Catherine (based on Tom’s recent review). I admit that, given my infrequent purchases, I gravitate toward games that have commercials on television, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that I’m finding myself buying the same type of game over and over. I guess I’m the person who only goes to the movies between Memorial Day and Labor Day and then wonders why they’re all about superheroes or robots.

Chris, you are correct in surmising that video games have influenced my writing. I’ve written a couple of stories that are actually about video games, one of which is about an imagined video game in which the goal is to gain self-knowledge and another story, titled “Hero Absorbs Major Damage,” which takes place in an open-world RPG. Other fiction that’s about or influenced by games includes Walter Kirn’s The Unbinding (published on this very site!) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. And the influence is not limited to subject matter. My novel is an example of work that is not expressly about video games but was informed by games in a less obvious yet more fundamental way. I conceived of the form as a kind of “possibility space”—not as rigorous as a “formal abstract system” (as Raph Koster refers to it in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design), but a sort of fictional analogue.

On a more collective level, I would say the active, participatory culture of the gamer community has its own influence on various forms of entertainment. Gamers, as much as any other fan base, make it their business to know about the business of games: who is developing what, using what engine, etc. And from that discernment and sophistication comes, at least as I see it, a sense of ownership, a feeling of entitlement (not necessarily unjustified) to have some kind of input, even if it’s retroactive input, into the games they are buying. Some of this is part of the interactive nature of the medium, of course. And maybe it is also partly a byproduct of the Golden Age of Geekdom that we are living in. This is the Age of Fs: forums, fan fiction, fanboys and fangirls who can forever watch and dissect their beloved canceled series on DVD. Game developers get feedback—detailed, knowledgeable feedback—from gamers, and I think that level of engagement has spread to other fan bases as well, including those of speculative books and movies.

I was going to try to smoothly segue from that point into my favorite game of the year, but I couldn’t connect the moves. (I’ve never been great at combos.) So I’ll just have to say it: My favorite game of the year was Portal 2. For a whole bunch of reasons: the wit, the humor, the brilliant Stephen Merchant. Compared to other games, it has so much less in the way of exposition and narrative (especially cut scenes), and yet I found it more generative of concepts and ideas than any game I’ve ever played. Wrestling with the problem in each chamber takes creativity, logic, and perseverance. You learn the rules and physics of your environment, and based on those rules, develop a kind of grammar with the tools provided in order to build causal chains of events. Playing Portal 2 is solitary problem-solving (with all of the attendant self-reflection and self-doubt that accompanies that activity). At times it was even like the process of writing fiction: I’d get stuck, get blocked, sleep on a problem, and then wake up in the morning with a little a-ha moment. And all of this from a game that is not only not an open world, but is pretty much the opposite.

Portal 2 is the ultimate closed-world game. And yet I felt freer in this highly constrained environment than I did wandering the fields of Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong. It’s neat to be able to walk up to any one of thousands of people and interact with them. But when I approached a dude in Skyrim, I was generally allowed to do one of only three things: pick his pocket, push A to talk to him, or sock him in the face. In contrast, there’s almost no one to talk to in Portal 2 and just a few different kinds of objects. Skyrim gives you the world and says, here, admire it. Portal 2 gives you a bunch of nearly empty rooms and says go ahead, let’s see what you can come up with.

Which brings me back around to Tom’s hope for a “sweet-spot combination of … narratological possibilities.” Tom, I agree with you that Portal 2 is rigidly authored, but don’t you think that its gameplay offers a vision of a kind of storytelling that is not derived from a cinematic grammar? I’m imagining a game like Portal 2, with the same basic mechanics and minimalist sensibility, but combined with … um, uh, well you guys can probably imagine a better mashup than I can. So, I’m throwing it out there, for Tom, and for Chris and Michael, too: Please design me a game that combines the best features of all the current types of games. Let’s call it Elder Scrolls VI: Portal 3: The Ascension of the Metafiction.

Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collection Third Class Superhero, for which he received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids.