November 19, 2010

The writers who would be gamers


The other day a coworker, studiously engaged in research on the internet, just happened to come across this rather addictive point-and-click flash-based video game inspired by Moby Dick (be prepared to lose 5 minutes if you click on the link). It’s a very limited game, requiring only that you guide the whale around by moving your mouse and then try to knock whalers from their boats and eat them with a click. Not much story there, really–giving it the title from Melville’s classic is just a gimmick to get people like us to this site to play. Which it did.

It seems the lines between literature and video games are poised to become even more blurry than this. In August, Nicholson Baker wrote a story in the New Yorker about the immersive quality and increasing levels of artistic sophistication in games. Now Dan Duray has  this story (“Scrawl of Duty”) in the New York Observer that helps explain why that may be the case.

Journalists and novelists have been breaking into the video game world. One of the journalists Duray writes about is N’Gai Croal, a former Newsweek staffer that took a buyout in 2009 and started his own video game consulting company, Hit Detection. Other writers like Rhianna Pratchett (journalist, daughter of Terry), Austin Grossman (novelist, Soon I Will Be Invincible), and Alex Garland (novelist, The Beach) have all broke into the business at one level or another. Duray points to examples like Faulkner and Fitzgerald working in Hollywood as historical analogs to illustrate, presumably, the connection between modern writers getting involved in something as seemingly lowbrow as video games. But with a generation of novelists coming of age who’ve grown up playing video games, the distinction between high and low brow is becoming irrelevant:

“I still read to look at how much better games need to be,” said Marc Laidlaw, a novelist and a writer at the video game company Valve. “My models are still the really good writers, wanting that kind of level of storytelling that you’d find in a really good novel. Not movies so much. I think you learn a lot about writing dialogue and stuff from movies, but games just compare more closely to novels, I think because you immerse yourself in them and they take up a big part of your life for a very long time.”

While it’s interesting that more and more writers are working in game development, bona fide literary journals are also getting into the act. Example A: The ubiquitous Electric Literature has started developing games. Andy Hunter, EL‘s editor in chief, says they’re currently adapting a play by an unnamed author into a game to be played on Xbox 360 or Sony’s Playstation, and he hinted at how grey this new area is. “We first started calling it virtual theater. But it’s become more. We haven’t named it,” he told Duray. “We should really name it.”