Videogames As Literary Experiences

Literature doesn’t need to include the words Labyrinths or Metamorphosis in its title to be experimental. Definitely not. If you ask me (e.g.), the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books published by Bantam from 1979 to 1998[1] were definitely experimental. Two of my favorites, in fact, were The Cave of Time and Deadwood City. A flip through the virtual pages of Wikipedia reveal that these books were ostensibly 2nd person “game-books” designed with the intention of putting “you” in the middle of the story—a somewhat disconcerting premise considering “you” oftentimes died along the way and had to restart your adventure, being sure to choose a wiser path upon your next read-through.

While definitely geared toward a younger audience, the books demanded the reader use his or her critical-thinking and problem solving-skills while reading, and, more importantly, to understand that a story doesn’t necessarily have to unfold linearly.[2] The reader also felt he or she had more to gain or to lose, given their own personal investment in the story—because if “you” die, you’ll never know what would have happened next!

These books also did something Charlotte’s Web and The Cat in the Hat could never do: they created a literary experience rather than simply just providing a story. Indeed these books opened up an entirely new universe for me and gave me a taste of something I never knew I actually loved so much (an experience). As I got older, my tastes became more refined and my hunger for complexity grew insatiable. Sometime during the late 1980s/ early 1990s, I discovered videogames, specifically, Japanese role-playing games (RPGs) and even more specifically, Squaresoft’s ultimate blockbuster series, Final Fantasy.

The Final Fantasy games[3] provided players enormous, fantastical worlds replete with dragons, wizards, kingdoms, warriors, ghosts, mages, goblins, airships, moogles, chocobos and various guys named Cid. Where Bantam’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” books forced readers to rely solely on their imaginations, Final Fantasy provided these wonderful 8- and 16-bit animated sprite-based, two-dimensional visuals to enhance the player’s experience. The games also provided players with the ability to feel as if they were actually “in” the game by allowing them to name the characters anything they wanted.

However, for all of the flexibility and interactivity the Final Fantasy games provided, their storylines were still, to the chagrin of more than a few gamers, somewhat linear. Final Fantasy 3 (i.e.—perhaps somewhat confusingly—actually the 6th game in the series and my personal favorite game of all time) was released in 1994. In 1995, Squaresoft revolutionized the genre and released what is still considered by some[4] to be the definitive role-playing game of ever, Chrono Trigger.

First of all, if you haven’t played Chrono Trigger and are even the least bit interested in videogames and/or epics, stop reading this column and go play this game, ASAP! The original version was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) but remakes were released for the original Sony Playstation and Ninntendo DS, and will also soon be released for your favorite Apple iOS devices. And, if you are a cheapskate, you can also find some really good SNES emulators for both your Mac or PC and ROMs (i.e. the actual emulated games) all over the Internet.[5]

But moving on…

Chrono Trigger is packed with so much pure, unadulterated awesomeness, the mind simply reels at where to begin. The game’s protagonist, Crono (aka, in my game, of course, “Joe”), is a strong, silent type. In fact, he’s ostensibly mute. In a move that has caused controversy since it was announced, Squaresoft decided to have a hero/protagonist who did not speak a line of dialogue. The idea was that Joe/Crono would be the player and would, thus, be a vehicle for the player’s personality, emotions, reactions, etc.

I personally liked this narrative choice. Others loathed it. But whatever, the game still universally kicked megatons of ass!

Joe/Crono wakes up on the morning of the Millennial Fair (c. 1,000 AD) and is supposed to meet his genius inventor friend, Lucca, to see her new invention she’s unveiling later that morning. On his way, Joe/Crono bumps into a precocious young woman named Marle who decides to accompany him (you/me) to see Lucca’s invention. Right off the bat, Chrono Trigger offers gamers a chance to break the linear cycle of books and previous video games. Instead of simply progressing (A à B-like) to find Lucca, Joe/Crono and Marle can tromp around the Fair playing mini-games (such as a test of strength), bet on a foot race (never count out the Green Ambler!), enter a soda-chugging contest, practice your swordsmanship versus Lucca’s giant-cat robot (Gato), find a little girl’s lost kitten, collect silver points that can be exchanged for useful items, and get your fortune read—all before the first major sequence of the game unfolds!

Once you are done screwing around, Marle stops to buy some candy and you proceed to check out Lucca’s dope-as-hell new invention, a mutha-fkn’ teleportation machine! Joe/Crono tries it out; it works—he disappears, he reappears; the crowd goes wild! Marle is basically like, “hell’z yeah, I wanna try!” and hops up there to take a turn.

But, of course, you just know shit is bound to hit the fan, and it does in a big way! The pendant Marle is wearing around her neck starts glowing weirdly and doesn’t react well to the whole teleportation thing, and, rather than reappearing where Joe/Crono did just a few moments ago, she disappears into who-knows-where(?)! The only trace of Marle is her mysterious pendant that’s now resting on one of the teleportation pods.

Of course I—I mean, Crono—ain’t no punk-bitch, so he picks up the mysterious pendant and puts it on just before signaling to Lucca that he’s ready to go find the hottie who just vanished into thin air. Lucca is hesitant at first but decides to get on board and flips the switch. Joe/Crono disappears just like Marle did and reappears in the same spot,[6] only 400 years in the past! I won’t give too much more of the story away, but the game really gets rolling here.

As you could probably guess from the title, Chrono Trigger has a lot to do with rocketing forward and backward in time. The best part is meeting various characters from different years, both the distant- past and future, a timeline which spans from 65,000,000 BC to 2,300 AD—the latter, a future where a catastrophic and apocalyptic event has taken place and it’s up to Joe/Crono and his band of time-travelling merry-men (and -women) to figure out when it’s going to happen (i.e. the apocalyptic event) and prevent it.

No pressure at all.

Maybe this “reluctant-hero-saves-the-world” story sounds familiar to you; maybe it doesn’t. But if it does, what makes Chrono Trigger an experience unlike any other epic I’ve ever read or played, is the game’s feature-set.

For starters, remember all of the things you did at the Millennial Fair? They have/will have an impact on later stages of the game. Crono will stand trial in his own year of 1,000 AD for kidnapping the princess (Nadia) and witnesses will, at the trial, testify to your character. Did you find the little girl’s lost kitten? That might sway a few of the jurors in your favor. Did you eat the old man’s lunch after battling Gato a few times to replenish your energy? That might not go over so well in court. These are just a few of the bazillion examples of your (seemingly unimportant) choices affecting the outcome of the game.

But wait, there’s more!

Chrono Trigger has no less than 11 completely different endings, each one accessible only at certain points in the game (i.e. you don’t have to play to the end to beat the game) and only with certain characters. The coolest thing about this is that each separate storyline stands on its own as a unique experience. This multi-threaded approach gives a literary experience like Chrono Trigger a veritable shitload of replay value. And I call Chrono Trigger a literary experience not at all tongue-in-cheek—I mean, there are some seriously mature and complex themes running through this “game” such as: death, reincarnation, time travel, parallel universes, apocalypse, romance, dark magic, extra-terrestrial life, etc.[7] Perhaps most importantly, very little, if any, of the storyline comes off as cheesy.

This sort of immersive, multi-threaded experience tends to spoil you. It’s like watching TV in high-definition for a week and then being forced to go back to basic, rabbit-ears style, over-the-air television. While (arguably) perfectly adequate, you’ll still inevitably long for those extra pixels. While reading books is perfectly adequate—and I submit that sometimes you actually will prefer to simply receive, rather than participate in a story—when I’m seeking out an incredibly immersive experience, I turn instead toward these multi-threaded RPGs.

But there is no reason books and literary-participation need to remain mutually exclusive.

This is where eBooks, as an underutilized up-and-coming medium, can still totally blow us away.[8] The digitizing of books has thus far only scratched the surface of what is possible. Of course I am not suggesting that every book published from here on out be basically a Choose Your Own Adventure experience, but authors and publishers could definitely add in a few “Easter Eggs” here and there the same way Extras are included with DVD and Blu-ray discs. There could be “cut” chapters that did not make the final draft, expanded storylines for characters whose role became less important in the manuscript’s later versions, plot outlines, high-resolution scans of handwritten notes, etc.

The possibilities are nearly limitless.

It seems to me that consumers of media definitely want these extras, these other glimpses into the world the author has created. Just think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. There is an entire twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, The Silmarillion, The Book(s) of Lost Tales and many other texts pertaining to the world Tolkien created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The supplemental texts are ultimately longer than the original works.

Anyway, this is all just a thought. I’m definitely a fan of participating in the literary experience. It could probably be argued that if a work is written well enough, it should stand on its own without the reader needing to step in and become a part of it. That seems fair too. Perhaps it’s all just a matter of preference.

Though it’s possible “we” are simply getting less interested in other peoples’ stories. Maybe this is what I’m actually guilty of. A passage from Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land comes to mind:

What’s with this storytelling stuff, anyway?… Ever notice how whenever anybody says… “You simply must hear this story,” …you find yourself wishing some wheezing and pustular people-snatcher would burst through the wall and carry you off to some dank cave to feast on your viscera?

There’s a reason you wish this.

Nobody likes a story, especially a good one.

Nobody likes a story, that is, unless he’s in it. Are you familiar with that searching twitch on people’s faces when you relate some tale to them?

Where am I in this? they are thinking. When is he going to get to me?

Maybe it wasn’t always this way. Maybe when the Cro-Mags sat around the cookfire scaring the crap out of each other with yarns about saber-toothed tigers, or even the pustular people snatchers roving the outer dark, those in the audience had the opposite in mind: Please, please, pantheon of local animistic deities, please don’t let me be anywhere near this story.

But it’s all very different now.

It must be the video games.

* * *


[1] Though it could certainly be argued that the very best in the series were the very earliest books penned by Edward Packard.

[2] Especially given that, depending which choice you made, Packard had you flipping pages both forward and backward even though you were still moving ostensibly ahead in the narrative—a complexity that you sort of take for granted as an elementary school kid.

[3] And for reference, here, I am mostly talking about the first three American releases—although Final Fantasy 2 and Final Fantasy 3 here in the States were actually the 4th and 6th games (respectively) in the series. However, due to various circumstances, not limited to translation- and potential audience reception issues, the Japanese versions of Final Fantasy 2, 3 and 5 were not originally released to the U.S. market. Remakes of those original games, however, have finally made their way to American shores.

[4] Especially among RPG purists.

[5] The legalities of this last option are ultimately questionable, at best, and going this route is not exactly “endorsed” by myself or Specter Magazine, however, when it comes to Chrono Trigger

[6] I.e. where the Milennial Fair would be only…

[7] And speaking of mature and complex themes, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Squaresoft’s 1998 sci-fi epic, Xenogears which probably has about the most complex storyline of any game or book I’ve ever played or read, ever.

[8] I’ve actually written more on the topic of eBooks as an underutilized medium at InDigest Magazine, but figured I’d talk a little about it here as well. http://indigestmag.com/blog/?p=8476

 

8 thoughts on “Videogames As Literary Experiences”

  1. … those books where my first step towards videogaming… do you know if there´s some kind of narrative experiment of similar nature before choose your own adventure?

  2. I personally don’t know of any. I was born in 1981 so I came along at the perfect time for those CYOA books. There were a few text based RPGs that ran on DOS powered computers around the same time (like Shadowgate). Those would be about the only other things I can personally think of.

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