By Steven Harvie
Day 2 of the ‘Video Games and Literature: Beyond Stereotypes’ conference at St. Andrews University kicked off with two fascinating key speakers. Espen Aarseth, from the University of Copenhagen, argued that we should start to understand massive single-player games (MSG) as a literary genre, because not only do they include a lot of text, they combine ‘semi-narratives’ with ‘quest-landscapes’ to create unique storytelling experiences. Aarseth quips that while MSGs are not typically deemed literary masterpieces right now, the same treatment was given to Shakespeare at the time of his writing. MSGs are popular today, so are they destined to be literary classics in 2150? I asked Aarseth about what he thinks of the concept of an MSG/video game canon, and how this might emerge. He responded by encouraging us to ‘resist canons’, arguing that, although they are inevitable, they are unhelpful and exclusionary. I think the idea of a video game canon is compelling, but even more so than in literature, there are so many strands, niches, subcultures and genres in video games that constructing one seems incomprehensible.
Following Aarseth’s presentation with a more direct comparison between the mediums, Ted Bergman (University of St. Andrews), in collaboration with an absent Mark Chen (University of Washington-Bothell & Pepperdine University), delivers a unique talk about the parallels between literature’s ‘pastoral romance’ and the video game genre of the ‘dating simulator’. Although Bergman acknowledges the few subversive dating sims on the market, he concedes that most dating sims are problematic: they often perpetuate gender/sexuality norms, celebrate rape culture and reward objectification. Bergman and Chen argue that pastoral romances be seen as an early form of the dating sim, and that video game dating sims can learn a lot from the subversive nature of satiric romances like Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Bergman concludes with an amusing description and analysis of how a video game adaptation of Don Quixote could be a valuable contribution to the emergence of subversive video game dating sims.
After a brief break Game Think 3.0 continued on from yesterday with six more speakers discussing their research projects, ranging from linguistics analysis of game dialogue, the cultural implications of game localisation/translation, and a renewed appraisal of the relationship between children and video games, amongst others. You can read about all the speakers and their abstracts on the Contemporary Studies website: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/lincs/scotland-2/
Following these fascinating academic papers, it was refreshing to hear from a seasoned game developer about the industry and the process of game development. Judy Tyrer, developer of the Jane Austen-inspired MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game Ever, Jane, gave an insightful presentation about her work before joining Dr. Kate Garner (University of St. Andrews) for an extended conversation and Q&A session. Tyrer explains that part of the reason for creating Ever, Jane was to open a video game market not just for women but anyone interested in ‘less violence-oriented’ forms of play. The success of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the game shows that there is a clear demand for this.
Tyrer takes many of the familiar features of MMO role-playing games and reconfigures them for the events that take place within Austen’s novels. For instance, typical MMO statistics within character creators (Strength, Magic, Intelligence etc.) are replaced with personality traits; violent player-versus-player combat is replaced with ‘gossip’, false rumours which can be weaponised to destroy player reputations; the RPG staple of crafting items, weapons and clothing is replaced with ‘Sewing’; and the ‘end-game raids’ of popular fantasy MMORPGs are refashioned as ‘Grand Balls’.
Dr. Garner asks Tyrer how she decided on which of Austen’s novels or characters to draw on for the game’s quests and events. Tyrer replies that, for the most part, she found and used most of the gossip within Sense and Sensibility and described the process in which she skims through the books looking for snippets of gossip to use for building quests. As a result, there is a lot of text from Austen’s novels in the game, creating a fun intertextual experience for fans of Austen’s work. The game also acts for many as an introduction to Austen’s world: Tyrer mentions that her company sells private servers to educational institutions, claiming that ‘the world comes alive so much more when you play out how the world worked at her [Austen’s] time’.
Perhaps the most fascinating and ingenious system in Ever, Jane is the business model. Like many MMOs, Ever, Jane is free-to-play, but players can pay for subscriptions to enter the higher echelons of society, gaining access to privileges unknown to those playing for free. Tyrer elaborates: ‘play online for free for 30 days – and if you want to play on, but don’t want to pay, you need to be ‘hired’ by another player’. Tyrer effectively creates a ‘servant class’ out of her free-to-play players, synchronising her business model with the class structures and hierarchies of Austen’s England. During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked how players received this system, to which Tyrer replies, ‘people hate it, but when they say ‘pay to win’ [an accusation referring to game design which favours players who pay more], I respond that there’s no winning, so that’s rubbish!’ Indeed, there exists no typical ‘win-state’ in Ever, Jane. The pleasure is instead derived from role-playing and inhabiting the kind of characters we read in Austen’s fiction.
The conference then returned to its scholarly tone with two more academic key speakers. The first was Darshana Jayemanne (Abertay University) with a presentation about how the temporal concept of ‘chronotypology’ can be used to explain and define the narratives of performative media, especially video games. Jayemanne explains chronotypology by way of two key elements: synchrony and diachrony. ‘Synchrony’ describes games which resemble a still image, where ‘everyone waits for you to turn up and no one’s capable of solving their own problems’. This description characterises a lot of the action in Skyrim, for example, where there is a ‘stillness to the design of the world’. Diachrony, on the other hand, is associated with play, the more fluid, unpredictable, and perhaps chaotic sibling of synchrony. Jayemanne gives examples such as the silent video game hero, a diachronic event compared to the synchrony of the scripted voiced narrator. The tension between the two elements can help illuminate the notoriously contested phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, redefining it as a failure to synchronise synchrony/diachrony. Indeed it is this tension between the two temporal ideas which Jayemanne finds at work within his main video game example, Life is Strange. In Life is Strange the player-character possesses the ability to reverse time, but this power proves useless in the face of a dangerous storm which is unleashed near the game’s conclusion. Jayemanne explains that in Life is Strange climate change appears as a paradigmatic diachronic figure. The struggle against diachrony (the player-character’s synchronic ability to effectively stop and change time) underwrites the narrative in Life is Strange. ‘Chronotypology’ is therefore a useful concept to remember when approaching performative texts like video games.
When asked how the practice of speedrunning (where players compete to complete games with the highest speed) figures into his discussion of chronotypology, Jayemanne responds by describing speedruns as ‘temporal sculptures’. Isn’t that beautiful?
Like many other popular games, Life is Strange’s supernatural teen drama also contains a loose detective story, and it is to the detective narrative that we turn with Nia Wearn’s (Staffordshire University) and Esther MacCallum Stewart’s (Staffordshire University) joint presentation on the overlooked video game genre of the ‘Hidden Object Game’ (HOG). Stewart is unable to make the event so Wearn speaks for both here. HOGs describe a type of ‘casual game’ in which the player acts as a detective solving various mysteries, from the mundane to the grisly. Wearn argues that the often dismissive ‘casual game’ label unfairly misrepresents the genre, failing to take note of the rich and diverse narratives and gameplay styles HOGs offer. For example, the popular Crime Case series currently contains a whopping 253 episodes to play through, allowing for long, drawn-out and multiple interconnected narratives and character perspectives (there’s nothing casual about that!) From their marginalised position as ‘non-proper’, time wasting casual games, we can find in HOGs some parallels with the kind of literature treated with similar scorn, such as romance, mystery and crime fiction. These products share similar audiences, namely women, older people and those on low incomes. Wearn claims that part of the reason critics dismiss HOGs is due to a hierarchical disposition to ignore certain audiences in favour of the more traditional gaming demographics. Yet scholars often observe how ‘romance, crime and mystery’ media are able to provide subversive readings of contemporary culture, or reflect some of its strongest anxieties’. Wearn concludes that HOGs too can serve the same function for audiences eager to consume the so-called ‘trash culture’ of TV and novels in interactive media. For these reasons Wearn demands we take seriously the hidden object of the Hidden Object Game.
Repeating the pattern established earlier, the next and final key speaker of the conference is game developer Andy Payne, a member of the team currently working on the ambitious task of adapting George Orwell’s famous political satire Animal Farm into a video game. Payne first discusses the reasons why he and fellow developer Imre Jele wanted to adapt Animal Farm, citing recent controversial political events such as Brexit and the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. Payne reminds us that although Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a critique of Stalinism, the text endures as a critique of many forms of political oppression. The game will therefore be designed to make players think not only about the totalitarianism of the 20th century, but also the global power dynamics at play in the 21st.
Payne discusses the team’s 18 months of trial and error development, creating several different prototypes of the game. ‘Over 18 months we’ve discovered what game we don’t want to make’. The game will feature a narrative, but the narrative will be framed around the gameplay of management simulation, replicating the choices of resource management made within the novel. Payne believes the messages of Animal Farm can find powerful expression in video games, a medium defined by rules and systems: ‘We want to remind players Animal Farm is about oppression, and rules are oppressive. Some rules are necessary, others curb freedom’. Like Papers, Please, a highly political indie game criticising Western immigration policy, Payne’s Animal Farm will force players to confront difficult choices. Crucially, Payne tells us, ‘you can’t win Animal Farm’. Indeed the idea of a ‘win-state’ seems entirely inappropriate and fundamentally incompatible with a narrative designed to question and criticise power and its corruption.
Payne couldn’t tell us too much more about the game, but it certainly whetted our collective appetites for it. I for one am highly anticipating controlling my pig through a dystopian nightmare!
Game Jam Presentations
While students, academics and game developers were doing all the talking, those brave souls participating in the Game Jam were busy generating ideas on the theme of ‘a place long forgotten’ and developing them into small, playable games. Below is a snapshot of the fascinating results.
‘Alternate Existence’ by Cation Games & Buchanan’s Brains imagines a future in which you can buy and sell your identity in the marketplace of memories. As one of the developers said, ‘make your memories great again!’
‘Long Story Short’ by Papercode is a competitive card game in which players create stories backwards from a given ending, using a random assortment of cards. One of the creators describes it as ‘Cards Against Humanity meets Memento’. The funniest or weirdest story wins!
‘The Real Guide To St. Andrews’ by One Star Games mimics the apps used to explore and learn about historical sites, but this irreverent satire pokes fun at them, highlighting mundane and bizarre fictional events in St. Andrews (Bill Murray’s chewing gum stuck on a bin, or a witch hunt activity in which tourists can role-play being burned at the stake!). You can play it at https://t.co/UUraekQRS2
‘1976, on Record’ by Got Milks? explores the nostalgic connections between objects and memory.
‘Kill Your Darlings’ by Technofluid, in which the player is interrogated about their memory and they can only respond by choosing certain objects in rooms, and in doing so other options vanish. The player constructs and possibly manipulates memory, a tension played out in physical spaces. The Technofluid twitter page reassuringly notes: ‘Think the whole team walks away a little bit smarter after working directly with narrative scholars’.
During the breaks and lunches across the two days of the conference, I caught up with some of the speakers to ask about the stereotypes that surround both game studies scholars and literature scholars. Alison Bown, the speaker responsible for the remarkable ‘bookish game’ project, told me ‘literature critics can be overly obsessed with context and what the story has to say about culture’, while Robert Gallagher notes that game critics tend to be ‘very omnivorous’ in their research and methods, a generally rewarding approach but one which risks inconsistency. Jacob Wayne Runner, based within literature, echoes these sentiments, describing games criticism as ‘a bit more wild west and all over the place’, but because of this ‘it feels fluid and feels easier to have new ideas’, whereas literary criticism tends to be ‘more comfortable’ and ‘specialist’.
Alicia Copeland, a PhD student with her feet firmly fixed in the game studies realm, praises game scholars as ‘innovative’ and jokes that lit critics remain ‘snobs’. By understanding each other’s disciplines more, Copeland argues, we can transcend these unhelpful and divisive stereotypes. Kieran Wilson, another speaker in the game studies corner, agrees, saying they are often ‘at odds with one another’. He describes the typical lit critic stereotype as someone ‘set in their ways, stuck up and often hostile to new media’, but, being self-aware, jokes that the average game critic is a ‘white man in his early 20s who doesn’t care about literary texts, and maybe feels marginalised by literary culture’. The way to bridge this gap, Wilson says, is to host more events like this one, where fruitful interdisciplinary discussions and connections are encouraged.
On the question of ‘interdisciplinarity’ Runner had some interesting things to add, namely that a lot of departments are simply uncertain about what research fits under their respective umbrellas, creating confusion about postgrad study and funding decisions. I think it’s worth repeating that events like this one are a necessary and creative step towards addressing these issues, for the benefit of students, seasoned academics and those who allocate research funding.
If you can’t already tell, ‘Video Games and Literature: Beyond Stereotypes’ was a delight, and I hope to see more events like it.
Steven Harvie has just completed a Masters degree in Fantasy Literature, a new programme at the University of Glasgow which traces the history and development of the nebulous fantasy genre. Within the vast ‘Fantasy’ umbrella he finds himself most attracted to the surrealist narratives of those who contribute to and expand the project of the ‘weird’. He is now keen to pursue further research in the domain of Game Studies, looking specifically at the relationship between video game play and capitalist subjectivity.
You can find him on Twitter: @Steve2603