Video Games and Literature: Beyond Stereotypes – 20 June 2018: Day 1

By Angie Spoto

Games industry professionals, accomplished academics, PhD and Masters students whose studies ran the gamut from interactive media, game studies, literature, creative writing, philosophy, and film ignored the unusually sunny Scottish weather and ducked into the Arts Building of the University of St Andrews. This motley crew of (yes, debateably all quite geeky) people shirked the sun to spend the day challenging their expectations of video games and literature.

Day one of the Video Games and Literature: Beyond Stereotypes conference, jointly hosted by University of St Andrews Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, Abertay University and the University of Glasgow, boasted an inspiring itinerary of speakers, panels, and a game jam, determined to explore the (often ignored) connections between literature and video games.

Rhianna Pratchett & Don Paterson in Conversation

The conference kicked off with video game writer Rhianna Pratchett in conversation with renowned poet Don Paterson. Pratchett divulged her unique position as a video game writer in an industry that historically didn’t hire writers. Pratchett, who has worked on numerous games including Tomb Raider and Overlord, likened being a video game writer to a ‘narrative paramedic’, someone who swoops in in the nick of time to save a video game after it’s already been written.

She talked about how writers of video games have a unique set of tools to play with: game mechanics, worldbuilding, etc. can be used to shape the narrative in a particular way. “There’s a lot of invisible work [writers] can do,” she said.

Paterson asked Pratchett about the experience of being a woman in the video game industry. Pratchett admitted that as women are a minority in the industry, they tend to get “spread out across projects, tokenized sometimes” but she’s made long-lasting friendships with other women in the industry even if she may not always get the chance to work with them.

Hearing Pratchett talk enthusiastically about her career created a buzz in the lecture theatre. Paterson and Pratchett’s conversation laid the perfect inspirational foundation for the day, and the excitement was palpable when they announced the theme of the two-day game jam.

Game Jam

“A place long forgotten” was the theme of the conference’s game jam. 53 conference-goers participated in the two-day jam, and were tasked with crafting a game inspired by this theme. In line with the conference’s goal to bring video games and literature together, the jam placed literature folks and games folks together on teams, each bringing  their unique set of skills to video game creation.

The jam was held over two days, and the results of the jam were announced on day 2 (see Day 2 blog post).

Game Think 3.0

While the game jam was underway, Game Think 3.0, a series of four quick-fire presentations by emerging academics, kicked off.

‘Not Geek Enough: Crafting a Ludic Novel for the Non-Credentialed Nerd’ by Angie Spoto

Angie Spoto, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow studying creative writing raised the question “How can we as creators, consumers, and academics reshape the geeky cannon of video games?” through her presentation exploring ludic novels, in particular, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Spoto argued that Cline’s novel relies on a geeky cannon that excludes creators and characters who aren’t white, hetero men. She challenged the audience to craft their own ludic stories, drawing on their own unique experiences as geeks, in order to redefine a more welcoming geeky world.
Follow Spoto on Twitter:  @Angie_Spoto.

‘The Video Game Avant-Garde’ by Steven Harvie

Steven Harvie, a recent-graduate of the Masters in Fantasy Literature at the University of Glasgow, explored the possibility of the video game avant-garde. He wanted to uncover how video games have broken from the conventional in the the same way as writing did during the literature avant-garde movement. Harvie introduced the audience to a number of fascinating games that, he argued, played with postmodern concepts. Games like The Stanley Parable and What Remains of Edith Finch he likened to Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace and Gertrude Stein in that they subvert players’ expectations of game-playing and move beyond stereotypes. Follow Harvie on Twitter:  @Steve2603.

‘Playable text in sonic worlds: how language and sound can be combined to make bookish games’ by Alison Bown (written by Steven Harvie)

Alison Bown, a Bath Spa University and University of Bath interdisciplinary PhD student, shared her experience of crafting a “bookish game” that incorporated sounds alongside language. Frustrated by the difficulty of describing what the project is like, Bown decides to show us one of the prototypes she’s been working on. The audience are grateful for this impromptu demonstration, because it looks and sounds remarkable. Sentences appear on the screen, describing the narrator’s location, and as it does so we hear the background noise of a windy street, then in another scene the characteristic cacophony of an airport. The reader/players clicks a button on the screen and the text moves on, more words and sentences carrying the narrative forward with subtle and elegant changes in typography to accompany particular tones. A writer first, Bown tells us she had to learn how to code from scratch in order to realise her vision for a bookish game. Off-the-shelf software does exist for text/sound mashups, but not for the particular and unique project she had in mind. The research behind the curtains draws from cognitive linguistics and psychology; Bown explains that “sound contains memory and space”, and reminds us that “language is physical”. I’m really excited to see more of this promising project, and I think it would be very popular with reluctant readers. I for one would have loved this experience as a teenager!
Follow Bown on Twitter: @Southwestrushes.

‘Focalisation and character “ownership” in Literature and Games’ by Cailean McBride

Game Think 3.0 ended, as it began, with a creative writing PhD student from the University of Glasgow. Cailean McBride applied Genette’s categories of focalisation to video games. He used the example of Skyrim to explore the relationship between player and character, questioning who is privy to more information than the other and how this affects game play. Ultimately, McBride concluded that the literary concept of focalisation will only get you so far when applied to video games. “Video games,” he said, “are not books”, and some concepts cannot be nicely carried over from one form to the other. Rather, he called for a “modern iteration of narrative focalisation designed solely for engagement with this exciting new artform.”
Follow McBridge on Twitter:  @CaileanMc.

Christopher Brookmyre: ‘”Video Games Are An Impediment To Our Children’s Imaginations”: On Writer’s Experience of Why This Is Cobblers’

The renowned Scottish novelist Christopher Brookmyre brought his humor and wit to a talk on how video games have hugely impacted his writing. Although some writers “try to deny they are influenced by film — God forbid, video games”, Brookmyre was inspired by the video games he grew up with. “Literature,” he said, “is creating a world and inviting people to explore it.” Video game worlds are ripe with inspiration for writers.

Quake, a first-person shooter from the 90’s set in a gloomy medieval world, changed the direction of Brookmyre’s writing. One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Brookmyre’s fourth published novel, was set in a place that reminded him of Quake. Since then, his novels such as A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away and Pandemonium are filled with references to the games he loved to play — Half-Life, Doom 3, among others.

He ended by sharing his experiences of working on Bedlam, a first-person shooter that plays with form, allowing the player to explore various worlds inspired by classic video games. “Once you’ve mastered a genre, you next want to break it, go outside the map,” Brookmyre said of Bedlam. Interestingly, Brookmyre wrote the novel version of Bedlam before working with developers on the video game version.

Brookmyre ended with a sentiment that echos many of the panels and speakers of the day: that hopefully the video game industry more openly welcomes working with professional writers and that, in turn, writers recognise video games as a legitimate art form worthy of collaboration.

Panel Presentations

‘Interactive Friction: Narrative Games and the Age of Information’ by Robert Gallagher (written by Steven Harvie)

Robert Gallagher, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London, discusses video games in the context of their relationship with the communications technologies which define contemporary life. In other words, Gallagher argues that the form of the video game is built upon and in conversation with our age of information. Gallagher argues that the shift from literary narratives on the page to the awkward integration of these same realist narratives in video games speaks to a telling “friction” caused by cultures advancing in communications technologies. The much debated term “ludonarrative dissonance” can be seen in this light as a symptom of “a historical shift away from stories and towards statistics and simulations”. Gallagher notes how the traditional Victorian novel is associated with an “autonomous reader with a rich intellectual life”. In this scenario, psychic interiority is bound up with reading/writing, practices in which we record and express our private lives, and discover others: “to immerse yourself in a book is to render yourself invisible.” Fast forward to the contemporary moment with all our sophisticated tracking technologies and we have a “datafied sense of self” in which the psychic interiority of the solitary Victorian reader is instead spilled out into social media, Google maps, internet cookies etc. Yet most video games insist on using pre-information, traditional narratives. Gallagher therefore shows how video games, with their “often uneven blends of traditional storytelling and ludic simulation,” can help navigate us through this strange cultural friction. Through two excellent analyses of recent games Tacoma and The Tearoom (the details of which I shall omit in case I spoil them!), Gallagher demonstrates the importance of thinking through our changing media landscape with a mind towards what it means for our frictional identities. I found this so compelling that I aim to snatch up his book Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity the next time I’m in the library.

Follow Gallagher on Twitter: @r_gealga.

‘Narrative Education Exploration Systems (NEES): Engaging pupils through creative gaming literary adaptations’ by James Butler and Rebecca Hutcheon

The Chronotopic Cartographies for Literature project run by a team of researchers at Lancaster University attempts to map that which can’t be mapped — narrative places like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The project translates text into an interactive format using Minecraft with the goal of engaging school pupils.

James Butler began by presenting on the Lakescraft Project, which attempts to use written descriptions of the Lake District from 1700-1900 to create an interactive map. He expounded on the challenges of making such content interesting and engaging for school pupils. The choice to use Minecraft was influenced by its popularity with young students.

Rebecca Hutcheon then presented on her project, a mobile app that attempts to map Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ The project connects the poem to the Somerset landscape where Coleridge did much of his thinking and writing. The app joins the act of writing to the act of reading while exploring the influence of place on literature.

Follow the project on Twitter: @Chrono_Carto.

‘Worlds at our fingertips. Navigating the multiple readings of walking simulators’ by Mona Bozdog and Dayna Galloway (written by Steven Harvie)

Mona Bozdog from Abertay University presented her joint research with Danya Galloway on walking simulators. Through an examination of the game Dear Esther, Bozdog argued that walking sims are ideal for experimentation with literary forms. Looking at walking simulator games like Dear Esther, What Remaine of Edith Finch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, among others, Bozdog introduces a thoughtful discussion about the connections between walking, space and narrative. “Walking is our way into the story, not only over time but over space”, Bozdog says. “The moving body becomes a narratological device.” Bozdog’s discussion reminds me of literature’s “psycho-geographers”, writers who walk through cities, countrysides and everything in-between while recording the experience of space in writing. Walking simulators embrace this deep link between environment and experience to construct fictional narratives which often revolve around familiar literary themes of memory, loss, place, and death. Unlike a novel, however, walking simulators allow players to inhabit the walker, and in lieu of textual description the player must explore their physical surroundings. This is what we call “environmental storytelling”, and it is especially compelling in walking simulators because, as Bozdog explains, “it allows the player to actively search for the narrative”. Indeed the house/environments within walking simulators often feel like the main character of the game and, as Bozdog says, “have a voice and identity independent of the player-character”. Finally, Bozdog concludes by hailing the walking simulator as a form of protest aginst mainstream narrative design, “a relocation of meaning to a personal level.” “Walking unlocks the imagination,” and video games are starting to realise that power.

A member of the audience asked if she thought there was any reason for the wistful, nostalgic nature of so many walking simulators. Bozdog replies: “I think it’s to do with where we like to walk to. Places that fascinate us, like islands, castles, desolated landscapes.” But Bozdog says these areas are also chosen for pragmatic reasons, to create a “play space” that’s not too ambitious yet not too limited in scope. Another member of the audience shared her anxious experiences with some walking simulators, saying that, “being the player alone in these environments is sometimes unnerving and scary because of how we usually associate empty spaces with danger/threats.” The speaker was concerned that these feelings can be counter-intuitive to the designer’s intentions, removing the player from the desired mental space of meditation and self-reflection. Bozdog answers by saying these atmospheres are usually deliberate, not to frighten, but certainly to maintain the mystery and ambiguity of the game’s narrative. She encourages the speaker by saying that “once you’ve played it once, you know nothing bad will happen!” Bozdog concludes the Q&A by claiming she returns to walking simulator games not necessarily for the plot, but for the rich emotional experiences its environments inspire.

Follow Bozdog on Twitter: @MonaBozdog.

‘Playing with God: Dante’s otherworlds in the digital age’ by Claudia Rossignoli

Claudia Rossignoli, medievalist and lecturer in Italian at the University of St Andrews, ended the day’s academic presentations on an examination of the video game Dante’s Inferno in comparison to its source material. Rossignoli took the audience on a journey through the game’s design choices, pointing out how the developers and the designers of the game chose to portray Dante’s dark and gruesome inferno. While acknowledging the ways the game was true to its source material,  Rossignoli was critical of the game’s choice to portray Dante himself as a warrior who experiences no moral or ethical transformation through his experience traversing hell. She is also critical of the game’s cultural stereotyping and its portrayal of its female characters, stating that the game “drastically simplifies everything that makes the poem interesting.” Rossignoli ended her presentation with a question or perhaps a challenge: can there be a game that captures the emotional satisfaction of the poem, that not only depicts the violence of Dante’s inferno but also shows a man transformed by his experiences?

Follow Rossignoli on Twitter: @ClauRossignoli.

Simon Meek: The Beckett Project (written by Steven Harvie)

Simon Meek is a writer/director and founder of The Secret Experiment, a company specialising in “literary fiction that defies convention”. Not your typical kind of literary fiction, however; we’re talking about the emerging form of interactive fiction. As it says on Meek’s twitter bio, he is interested in “exploring the space between interactive media, literature and film”. He’s here today to talk about one such experiment, the successful and disturbing Beckett, Meek discusses in detail the art and artists who influenced not only the creation of Beckett, but his artistic ethos in general. Writers such as B.S. Johnson and William Burroughs, whose famous cut-up techniques he employed in Beckett; film-makers like Andrei Tarkovsky whose unique atmosphere finds a place in Beckett‘s sombre tone; and the playwright Samuel Beckett, whose stage designs Meek says were a huge influence on the images you see in Beckett. Meek says he is fascinated by these experiments in form, and is part of the reason why he pursued digital media, to “break things up, twist and reconfigure them”. Meek is also drawn towards the avant-garde because he wants to challenge some of the tired conventions he sees in video games. He expresses his discomfort with his own work being labelled a “game”, wary of some of the negative associations it brings with it.  For example, he talks about how characters in video games are always “identified as competitors, as fighters against something else”. He wants his interactive media to avoid concepts of identity based within this superficial context. Enter Beckett, a character and a narrative designed towards introspection and self-reflection rather than PvP. Meek was kind enough to give away 30 free copies of the game, and I can’t wait to explore the quiet philosophy of Beckett‘s creepy and unpredictable world.