On Literature

    Inspired by Literature – Inspiration for Literature
    Computer Games as an Art Form

    For a long time, computer games were viewed as a popular pastime with no cultural value. Now, however, it is acknowledged that computer games are closely related to both film and literature and have what it takes to become an independent art form. Literary promoter Thomas Böhm explains the role literature is playing in the computer game’s cultural coming of age, and looks at the potential that lies in this exciting combination.

    There is a thought experiment that gamers love to conduct, which goes like this. If computer games had been invented before books, parents would now be saying to their children, ‘Don’t just sit there all alone, staring at those little black marks on the page. Why don’t you go online and play with people from all over the world?’

    Games and literature are all too often played off against each other, especially when an (anti)-educational impetus is involved. So let’s use a good book and play along, in the interest of understanding: Death in Venice by the German author Thomas Mann.

    Dead in Venice ... or perhaps not?

    Christian Schiffer, publisher of WASD, the most advanced German-language magazine on gaming culture, sets the ball rolling with the following line of thought. In this novella, Thomas Mann lets the writer Gustav von Aschenbach eat over-ripe strawberries in Venice. As a result, von Aschenbach becomes infected with cholera and dies, even though he should have known better! Shortly beforehand, an English travel agent had told him that Indian cholera was rife in the city, and even that a woman, a greengrocer, had recently died of the disease, which she probably got from eating contaminated food. But no, Gustav von Aschenbach simply has to eat strawberries. Regardless of whether one studies Mann’s novella with the greatest concentration or simply leafs idly through it to while away an hour, every time Gustav von Aschenbach will eat strawberries, and every time he will die as a result. Schiffer continues: ‘That’s the way it is with books. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train every time at the end of Leo Tolstoy’s novel; Werther shoots himself in the head every time; the Trojans drag the wooden horse into their city every single time – another stupid thing to do. No matter who reads them, no matter how often, stories in books always remain the same, apart from minor formal deviations in different translations or editions.’ If, on the other hand, Thomas Mann had been a games designer, he could have given the player the freedom to decide whether Gustav von Aschenbach eats the strawberries or is content to finish his meal with an espresso.

    This example illustrates the elementary differences in the ways computer games and literature tell stories. In a literary text the plot is written in stone, but the plot in a computer game is, within a much larger framework, open: every game can develop differently. This doesn’t mean that the reading of a book can’t be different every time we read it. For example, the reader learns more about, or can obtain a greater (or lesser) insight into, why von Aschenbach decides to eat the strawberries, even though he probably should have known better. It should also be pointed out here that many games do have a fixed ending. However, the paths leading to that ending are many and varied and full of dead ends.

    There is another decisive difference between literature and computer games, namely the characters’ motivations. In literature, the question, ‘What does the character want?’ is fundamental to the plot. Whatever it is they want brings them into conflict with others, sends them off on heroic adventures, or causes them to reflect and consider. In a computer game, the question is rather: ‘What can a character do?’ In other words, what skills or abilities have they been given by the programmer? Can they jump? Dive? Do they have X-ray vision, the ability to talk to animals, operate magic weapons, rise from the dead? etc. Looking at the development of games, there is often a tendency for developers simply to build on what has gone before with each new version, especially regarding the abilities of the characters and, therefore, the players, giving them ever new, superheroic, surreal, and superlative abilities.

    Hollywood budgets

    This is related not least to the conditions under which computer games are produced. While literature, from poetry to multi-volume novel projects, is still written with the simplest of tools – pen and paper – the effort and expenditure that go into creating computer games are much greater. An interesting niche has emerged in recent years for games that are developed quickly and cheaply, ready to play, sometimes within the space of a day. However, the technical and financial means generally required for computer games are far greater than for literature. It can safely be said that about half a million euros are required to create an ‘average’ computer game. In the case of major, so-called ‘Triple A games’ (AAA) or ‘blockbuster games’, these costs can often run into millions. The most expensive computer game in history, Grand Theft Auto V, cost $260 million to develop and brought in sales revenues of over $1 billion within a few days of its release. Triple A games are created in development studios, which are reminiscent of the major Hollywood studios in terms of both their structure and the variety and complexity of the production details involved. When it comes to distribution, computer games benefit from the sales opportunities on the Internet, and the high willingness among gamers to play games, especially American ones, ‘in the original language’, i.e. in English.

    The next stage

    These immense production costs are, however, coupled with high financial risks, which leads to the above-mentioned tendency simply to improve on the previous version, for example by adding more realistic graphics and new ‘missions’ for the characters, the aim of which is primarily to confirm their image as a super hero, i.e. to show that they haven’t changed.

    However, the comparison with Hollywood is revealing in another respect too. Gundolf Freyermuth, head of the Cologne Games Lab, describes computer games as ‘the third largest narrative medium of the modern age after theatre and the linear audio-visuals of film and television’. According to Freyermuth, computer games are now at the point films were at in the mid-1920s: they have a relatively interesting visual language and highly developed mechanisms. What film lacked at that time, however, was sound. As we know from the history of cinema, there were aesthetic arguments against the introduction of sound. It was said, for example, that sound would ruin the already intrinsically perfect art form that was the silent movie. It was only the advent of talkies that made clear that speech added psychological depth to film. But what is the equivalent of sound in the development of computer games? Freyermuth’s answer is a surprising one: ‘Listening,’ he says. ‘Games must be given the media ability to understand us. Once NPCs [non-player characters] have enough artificial intelligence to communicate with us – not necessarily to philosophise about God and the world, but to communicate with us within the fictional game, within the given narrative and situational framework – once that happens, digital games will make the next major aesthetic leap.’

    Upgrading through literature!

    But where are the NPCs (nice term, isn’t it?) supposed to acquire their knowledge of humans? What’s more: how do they behave during the game? One frequent criticism of computer games is that they lack psychologically credible characters and linguistically convincing dialogues. This ‘literary’ criticism of computer games, combined with the development trend outlined by Gundolf Freyermuth, could open up new areas of work for literary authors.

    However, for a writer to work as part of the computer game development process would require some considerable reorientation. First of all, the writers would have to integrate themselves into the studio system described above. Secondly, new forms of notation for non-linear narratives would have to be developed. By way of explanation, consider this: the script is the foundation on which a film is built. This script can be used by anyone involved in the production – from the set designer to the cameraman – to establish what has to be done in each scene. There is, however, nothing comparable in the world of computer games. The main reason for this is that such scripts would be virtually endless, as they would have to cover all eventualities that could arise as a result of the characters’ various opportunities to act. However, because these would probably also be supplemented by graphics and texts, computer game scripts would necessitate the building of something like Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Library of Babel’, where every possible combination of letters was stored in book form.

    Despite these difficulties, which will not be easy to overcome, those involved in the numerous discussion events as part of the ‘New Level’ project have always ultimately agreed on one thing: computer games are one potential future for literature, in terms of both the telling of stories and work opportunities for authors.

    In the heart of darkness of the first-person (or third-person) shooter

    The comments made thus far may seem like a lap in a Formula One simulation, one of the most successful computer game genres of all. It’s still not clear how the steering, gearbox and accelerator actually work, let alone how one is supposed to take in the background, which has been designed with great attention to detail.

    So let’s go through it all once more – slowly this time – and allow our gaze to take in the wide-ranging landscape of links between computer games and literature.

    The direct link between them would be the adaptation of one medium by the other. There are, for example, several computer game versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but none are worth mentioning, either in terms of their aesthetics or their popularity with gamers. Games based on decidedly literary concepts and motifs are much more interesting. Of these, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released by the Berlin development studio Yager in 2012, is head and shoulders above the rest. In terms of its gameplay, Spec Ops: The Line is a ‘third-person shooter’ game, which, together with ‘first-person shooters’, is one of the most controversial forms of computer game in pedagogical debates.

    Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai. The storyline is as follows. Violent sandstorms have caused serious damage to the city. Colonel John Konrad, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his lengthy deployment in Afghanistan, is sent in to help evacuate the civilian population. When he’s commanded to abort the mission, he refuses and deserts with his entire unit. Several weeks later, a Delta Force Team is sent in on a reconnaissance mission to find out what has happened to Konrad and his unit and report back to headquarters. The player manoeuvres this reconnaissance team through numerous battles in which it becomes embroiled. At first glance, then, this game is no different from conventional war games. It includes some horrific scenes. The worst involves the killing of civilians, the consequences of which are presented with incredible brutality. In one scene, the player is confronted with the corpses of a mother and her small child who have been burned with napalm. At the moment of death the mother bent over the child to protect it: she has died transfixed in the Christian pose of the pietà, that of the Virgin Mary weeping over the body of the dead Christ. Moments like these show the gamers the horrors of war: the consequences of the violence they wanted and have caused within the game. The player looks into his or her ‘heart of darkness’ – which brings us to the literary inspiration for this game, the eponymous novel by Joseph Conrad, alluded to in the name of the game’s main character.

    Playing complexity and utopias

    In the same way that Spec Ops: The Line is a perfect example of a computer game that was fundamentally inspired by literature, Peacemaker, released in 2007, is an outstanding example of a computer game for which a literary author was involved in the development process. In this case, it was the Israeli author Assaf Gavron, who has described the game as follows: ‘The players opt either to be the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister, and have to overcome diplomatic, military, financial and other hurdles to find the best way to take carefully-considered action to keep the peace between opposing groups and those representing their interests. They can launch peace talks, but they have to convince their sceptical citizens that they will ensure their security. They can command the army or the police to push through their decisions, if necessary with violence, but then they would have to show the other side – or even the whole world – that they are also compassionate and are willing to reach compromises and make financial concessions. Naturally, as in real life, it’s not just about the initiatives taken by one particular side. The gamer playing the president or the prime minister repeatedly has to react to unexpected events such as suicide bomb attacks or settler rebellions. A wide range of polling mechanisms measure the players’ popularity ratings among various groups. In other words, the player has to weigh up his or her actions carefully in order to make progress on all sides.’

    This, then, is a game in which the players learn about the complexity of the Middle East conflict. The possibility of switching characters also enables players to empathise with ‘the other side’ and see things from their perspective. What a fantastic way to use the potential of computer games!

    Even if such examples are rare, they do illustrate that in addition to – and in some cases even within – the commercial mainstream of the computer games market, there are artistically convincing, philanthropic projects. I would like to conclude with a particularly nice example, especially as it explicitly does without the means of literature: in other words, it uses no language at all. The game in question is Journey, released in 2012. The game begins with the player as a character in a beautifully-designed environment reminiscent of a painting. After a certain amount of time, in which the character can get his or her bearings, a second character appears. The player knows that this character is being played, via the Internet, by a second person somewhere in the world. However, the player cannot make any kind of contact with this other person, cannot send e-mails, cannot Skype etc. The only way of communicating is through the movements and gestures of the characters, who set off on a journey towards a great mountain on the horizon that lasts the duration of the game. This is the only ‘objective’ of the game, for which there is no map and no detailed instructions.

    During the journey, on the way to this mountain, the players can help each other by contributing knowledge they have gathered in previous rounds. In addition to the poetical magic of the situation – you’re playing, with another person, a game about which you know nothing – Journey also has a utopian element to it: the idea of a universal sign language. After all, what would happen if, by playing a computer game, all the people in the world were to learn a common language – even if, to get things started, this were a sign language?

    In this future world where everyone communicates via a common sign language, I can imagine two strangers communicating with each other as follows. One of them signs the words: ‘Show me a story.’ The other, knowing that both forms have their own beauty and discovery potential, signs back: ‘As a computer game, or as literature?’
    Thomas Böhm is an author, promoter of literature, and organiser of literary events. His latest book is called New Level: Das ideale Computerspiel [New Level: The ideal computer game], in which renowned authors think up and describe computer games they would like to play, regardless of whether or not these are feasible.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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