Walking through the forest, I see the house. Deformed and old, it stands over the forest with a troubling hunger. I sense the curse before I even discover it was real, the woods suppress the secrets the wind wants to tell. I could feel the wind begging me not to take a step further, urging me to stop because I would find things I did not want to know, but I continued.
“The woods around the house have always been uncomfortably silent. As if they’re about to say something, but never do” Edith Said, almost reading my mind.
Exploring the pages of journals and letters, holding the tales of a family’s misfortune. I discover a tale of a boy, who loop-de-looped a swing set and flew into the sea, also a tale of a young girl, who turned into a cat, a shark and a monster. The final story, of a man lost in an imaginary world, to escape the mundane life he lives, ends violently.
Repressed within these memories are the chance to explore subconscious desires of flight, triumph and happiness all stopped, by a curse that an older generation turned to fact. A house turned into a museum for the dead, whilst others try to get on with life surrounded by reconstructions of what once was.
If I had sat you down in a classroom and introduced a story like this, one that we would be analysing. I can guarantee you would think it would from a book unless you know the story. But this is from a video game called What Remains of Edith Finch, a game in which a young girl visits her family home to find answers about her family’s curse. This story is ripe with things to analyse from the unreliable narrator to the contemporary and the game’s message on modern life and individuality. Ideas and themes we already look to literature and film for, but why not video games?
With novels being the leading teaching material in classrooms around the world, could there be room for a change? One of the most consumed forms of media today is Video game’s, ask around any classroom and I can guarantee that the majority of students will have/or do play video games on a regular basis. Moving the player’s role from a passive one to a proactive one, inviting new experiences and storytelling possibilities in ways we have never seen before. So why are we ignoring them?
Personal Projection onto Narrative.
When I started writing for UnCapt, I decided that I was going to explore the narrative that video games presented. As an English and Creative Writing student, I wanted to dive into a world that was not being taught on my course. As this new form of media grants the passive reader control, I am interested in how that would affect how we interpret or experience a story. Is my experience in Skyrim the same as yours? Even though it is the same story, told to millions of us, do we all have a different story to tell?
One of the many modules that we study for English is a module called: Nationalities, Identities and Places. We study books that deal with characters who struggle to find how they relate to the world, who either have an identity, are missing one or have one imposed on them. In his book, Universal Play: How Video Games Tell Us Who We Are and Show us Who we Could Be, Alexander Kriss explores the notion of placing your personality within a game. What he gives thought to is how our own personalities affect our gameplay styles, so for example in the recent Outer worlds game by Obsidian you are tasked with saving the galaxy, you can do this in many ways, you can sneak your way through, talk your way through or blast your way through. Myself, being a person that does not like, but can deal with confrontation, it would be a safe bet to say that I would play the game in a way that I would as if I was there. However, I chose to simply blast my way through the game, I killed anyone who stood in my way and got what I needed through the use of guns or blunt objects.
Now, this in an analytical sense can be taken in many different ways, could I have been projecting a more confident version of myself? Could the anger and aggression showed within my playstyle be a newfound way of reacting to a grossly capitalistic controlled world? The control given to players unlocks a whole new level of ‘reading a text’ instead of just being able to analyse the characters within the text we get an opportunity to explore our own feelings through actions.
Could this help within the classroom, prompt people to think more about themselves as individuals. Regardless of the world, we are thrown into, whether it be a peaceful world or a world full of violence and tyranny, do we play ourselves? Or to what extent do we role-play with the character we have been given?
With games such as What Remains of Edith Finch, there is no deviation from the story. The narrative that is presented is what everyone experiences, with the exception of exploration. Games such as this allow you to explore your surroundings and hide hints within the surroundings. Presenting an opportunity to analyse what the developer chose to include, we can use this to create an idea of what happened and interpret the show-not-tell elements of the game.
Experience over complicating analysis?
A big problem or opportunity affecting video games is something that I touched upon in the last section, experience. Now, If you have multiple people reacting differently and playing a game in their own way, which one do you analyse? Or better still, how do you section these off?
Do you simply, for open-world RPGs, split it into;
- Aggressive – Where the player decides to play in a way that is direct.
- Passive – A player who decides to sneak, or play it safe.
- Mixture – The person who floats between each playstyle depending on the situation.
But do we do this now? Well, yes. We read texts in many different ways, people read texts with a feminist critique or a postmodern opinion. Whilst these critical styles can be applied to games, it shows that people read books in many different ways, people may read Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World as a dystopia, whilst others may argue it could be a Utopia. What stays the same is the text itself.
The story of a game can relatively stay the same unless actions affect plot points. Overall, games are normally a scripted story, with the only influences being characters changing and settings being altered slightly. Could this make teaching video games like you would a book in the classroom, longer and more complicated? Or could it lead into a much more in-depth analysis of the relationship between player and game?
The difficulties facing video games.
The question that still bothers me is why are video games being ignored? And my main answer is violence and shame linked with gaming and whilst the arguments for and against get everyone angry, I am choosing not to take a side for this post. What I am suggesting is not to give children access to games with shocking images and themes, but grant them access to games that show little violence but a strong narrative. PEGI, the governing body of age ratings for video games, will definitely have to be adhered too. Whilst, yes their ratings can be controversial, with games such as FIFA 20 promoting gambling within a game said to be for ages 3+. Unfortunately, it is the best we have at the moment.
Funding can be an issue, yes video games are expensive and not everyone owns a console or a computer that can support games. I can only talk of experience within my own university, but there are hundreds of computers spread within the I.T suite, why can’t these be used? They are often stocked with many different applications that students use, so why can we not have a narrative-driven game on one or two computers? For those students that wish to explore the narrative power of videogames. With the improvement of mobile phone technology and streaming, we may be able to see this become a nonfactor.
In terms of literacy, videogames will do little to help this. So written texts are needed to help with this, again I’m not calling for texts to be eliminated just supplemented by videogames.
The final problem I wish to mention is preference, not everyone likes video games. True and that is fine, people are entitled to enjoy what they want, but not everyone enjoys reading. As an English and creative writing student, I have to read, a lot and sometimes it can be frustrating and unenjoyable. But there is a mutual enjoyment, storytelling, regardless if you enjoy novels, poems, movies or videogames, it’s the narrative that we enjoy. Why only limit the people on courses to people who only enjoy reading? We ignore visual storytelling on these courses, maybe that could be because of the number of people working on these projects. Within English, we tend to study one author and look at that author’s influence on the piece, within video games, we have a range from one person to thousands working on them.
Games of interest
On the blog, I have spoken about some games that I find interesting for this topic, games that combine control with storytelling to explore a narrative in different ways. Some games to consider from me are:
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – A game in which you play two brothers who have to travel far to find a cure for their dying father. A story we have seen plenty of times. However, the game plays with controls by having you play as both brothers at the same time, exploring a world full of mystery and danger you have to work together. The game has you use each of your hands to control two separate characters, which can be frustrating and difficult.
There could be analytical potential in talking about how working together can be tough and how the control scheme is trying to represent a working relationship.
A Plague Tale: Innocence – One of my stand out games of 2019 takes a human look at a brother and sister who are being chased by the inquisition during the black plague. We see a real human portrayal of the main character Amicia, giving room to analyse what the game is trying to explore with human morality when faced with disaster.
There can be links drawn with to the title of the game and the characters, questioning whether Amicia is actual an innocent character as she kills to protect her brother, slaughters animals to clear a way through dangerous paths and does other morally ambiguous actions to protect her family.
There are plenty of games that can be explored as we do with novels, some that require a more complex approach and bring in the subject of the player into the analysis. I believe that videogames deserve an opportunity to show what they are capable of. To teach people to read into these stories and how to craft them, in the future means better stories for us to explore… well… hopefully.
What do you think about this? Do we need a better infrastructure to monitor what games are accessible?
There is a lot of room for discussion and it is a topic that has been on my mind for a while, I would love to know what you think.