Video Games for the Curious Reader

Hello, friends—I hope you’re doing well in the wake of this strange week.

For a short while when I was an adolescent, my favorite book was Secrets of the Video Game Super Stars, by Len Albin, a paperback published in 1982. It was a collection of tips and tricks, presented by young celebrities who had been swept up in the new video-game craze, for playing the games then popular in video arcades, laundromats, and supermarkets: Pac-Man, Defender, Tempest, and the like. I used it to improve my skill at the games I liked, but the thing I enjoyed most about it was reading about the games I hadn’t played. (In those days, if the particular game you wanted wasn’t at a pizza parlor within walking distance of your house, you were out of luck.) There was something impure about actually playing, and failing at, the games I ostensibly knew the secrets to, and something sacred about the ones I’d never see. These chapters might as well have been metafiction, and I read them in the same spirit I’d later read the Oulipian pastiches, exercises, and borrowed forms that have inspired my creative midlife.

I drifted away from video games in my late teens, and only returned to them a few years ago. A lot has changed. Even the most videogame-agnostic are at least vaguely aware that games are no longer the clever but primitive entertainments they once were; instead, they’re now broadly perceived to be bewilderingly complex and detailed murder simulations, enjoyed by solitary men who dislike feminism.

There’s no denying that there’s a strong retrograde strain in gamer culture; it came to public attention during the “gamergate” scandal, which I wrote about here for the LRB blog in 2014. But the industry has slowly expanded its scope to include not only different kinds of themes and game mechanics, but different stories as well, some that would be difficult to tell through any other medium. The latest generation of game consoles and computer video cards, introduced in the last few months, have given developers the tools to make the experience of playing a game more immersive and seamless than ever before, offering the promise of disappearing into one the way one might disappear into a book or film.

My interest in games has affected my fiction over the past few years—I’ve come to see the self-contained worlds of novels and stories as akin to the detailed worlds of games, and games’ puzzles, mechanics, and level designs as akin to elements of literary style and structure. Subdivision in particular applies a gamelike series of tasks and limitations to the processing of personal trauma, in a kind of inversion of the way developers gamify life skills—hunting, crafting, skill building—in their virtual adventures.

I thought I’d offer a few recommendations for game-curious lovers of literature. These are games that can be played on equipment you probably already have, for not much money, and require no particular skill or dexterity. At the very least, they might satisfy you in some of the ways literature does; they’ll also give you a little bit of game literacy, should you want to try out some of the more challenging examples of the form. One note of explanation: some of these games must be bought through Steam, an application that lets you buy, install, and play them on a computer. It’s free and pretty easy to figure out.

In my True Stories first-year nonfiction seminar at Cornell, one of the works I teach is The Beginner’s Guide, a game from developer Davey Wreden. (Wreden is best known as half the team that made The Stanley Parable, a comical branching-narrative game that I would wholeheartedly recommend, if a new, expanded edition of it weren’t due later this year. Sit tight and wait for that.) This game takes about two hours to play, and is as much documentary as game; Wreden leads the player through his years of depression and creative self-doubt through a semifictional memoiristic device. In my class, I use it to raise the question of how “true” a memoir is supposed to be. The game can be played on Mac or PC via Steam.

Many games feature an “open world” that the player travels freely around in. Some of these are rendered in third person—you can see your character on the screen, generally from behind—and some in first, where you see what the character sees. Firewatch is a great intoduction to first-person narrative games; you play as a man named Henry who, in the wake of a personal tragedy, takes a job as a forest-fire lookout in a remote part of Wyoming. He develops a relationship with his supervisor, a woman named Delilah, entirely via walkie-talkie. Together they try to solve a grim mystery that haunts the forest, while he tries to come to terms with his past. The game’s art style is distinctive and lovely, and its vocal performances (from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones) memorable. It takes around six hours to play and is available on Mac, PC, and game consoles.

Her Story is a detective game played through the interface of a fictional computer, circa 1994. The player is tasked with searching through video clips that span seven interviews with a female suspect, played by actress Viva Seifert, in order to determine who is responsible for her husband’s disappearance. As the player gathers clues, they learn more and more about the couple’s lives and relationship. The game is about three hours long. You can buy it for Mac, PC, Android, or iOS.

The protagonist of Life is Strange is Maxine, an 18-year-old photographer and art school student who learns that she can reverse the flow of time. She uses this skill/curse to save a friend’s life, and develops a relationship with her over the course of the game’s five chapters. There’s a love story, a missing girl, and premonitions of a destructive storm, all set against a backdrop of a Pacific Northwest fishing village. The game is a moody melodrama that uses branching dialogue: the plot moves in different directions, depending on what you choose for Max to say and when, like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of my youth. This one is more of an investment in time; it’s a couple of seasons of prestige TV in length. It’s available on Mac, PC, and consoles.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a multi-generational family saga, a collection of interconnected “short stories.” As the titular Edith, sole surviving member of the evidently doomed Finches, you explore the now-abandoned, highly eccentric family mansion, discovering new scraps of family history in each room through a series of clever minigames. This game has a distinctive, fanciful art style and serves as a great introduction to various game mechanics. It’s also an excellent illustration of the the form’s unique narrative potential. Mac users are out of luck—you can play it on PC or consoles only. It’ll take you a few hours to get through.

Sadness and death are prominent themes in these games, but they don’t require the player to shoot or kill. (Well—you do shoot some beer bottles in a junkyard in Life is Strange.) If you don’t mind some violence, though, you could try The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption 2, or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which are excellent recent narrative games that feature sometimes-intense combat. If you like puzzles and want harder ones, go for The Outer Wilds or The Witness.

I’ll be back to writing about fiction next week.

Take care—
John.