The Gamification of Literature
The other night, a friend called and invited me to dinner. This friend is happily married and rather well-to-do, though without the sort of style and wit I possess myself. His name is Trip; his wife’s, Grace. (I should disclose that it was in fact I who put these two together!) So, “Right ho!” I replied to Trip, and prepared my best outfit. But as I approached the door that night I could hear the two arguing, and upon knocking, I could hear Grace complain to Trip about how she was told I’d be here an hour from now when, in fact, I had arrived just at the time I’d arranged with Trip. Quite awkward. Trip let me in and Grace took a moment before she appeared, bright and shiny as ever.
Shortly after the first drinks, Grace started to get really pissy at Trip. “Trip, Grace is really being a bitch tonight,” I said, going for the blunt approach. His eyes widened and he simply stared. “Did he…?” Grace asked in disbelief. “Grace is a fucking bitch,” I said, and Trip kicked me out and that was that, game over.
Really, it was the end of a game—Trip and Grace are not my friends (what a sorry state that would be!) but are actually artificial intelligence chat robots living in a 3D rendition of an apartment (and a poorly decorated one at that; black walls? Hell no!) I imagine you’re wondering why I’m talking about a game, as I am primarily a rather bookish sort of fellow. Always trying to keep current in the state of narratives, I was drawn towards this “interactive drama,” this one being called Façade, the first, or at least most technologically advanced, one of its kind. This sort of narrative makes the e-book, which has driven the publishing world mad as of late, look comically tame and, dare I say it, puritanically conservative.
I believe that in the future, the masses will hunger for interactive narratives such as this, just as we’ve gravitated towards interactivity and freedom of choice in everything else where there previously was none (look at on-demand television, or podcasts) and, of course, the rising popularity of videogames over other forms of narrative entertainment. But one thing videogames are severely inferior compared to books and film is the fact that their plots are pretty formulaic, unpredictable, repetitive and all too often downright cheesy. How many times will we have to save Princess Toadstool? While Nick Paumgarten, in his profile of Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto last year in the New Yorker, compared a recent installment of the game series to Kafka’s novel The Castle, many will agree that there’s usually no literary value to most games on the market today.
In Façade, though, which I would rather call a digital theater performance, perhaps, than a game, the emphasis is entirely on character and plot; there are no goals except to achieve whatever motive you have. Here is the situation: with each play-through, you visit the couple for dinner and drinks at their apartment, though things turn quickly sour as the two take to bickering. You have choices: should you help fix your friends’ marriage, drive them apart, or pursue one of them for your own romantic ambitions? You can say whatever you want to the two, and after a couple plays you may want to interact with them just out of sheer curiosity for how they’ll respond. In fact, there’s quite a bunch of YouTube videos people have made showing just that, to the delight of viewers and likely the cringe of Façade’s creators.
Despite its flaws—instances where the couple will shut down completely, becoming unresponsive and creepily staring at you without saying a word; Trip’s kicking you out of the apartment for saying the word “melon”; responses to phrases that don’t make sense given the context—Façade is interesting for its conflict and for its characters, who are surprisingly three-dimensional: to get to the heart of what’s the matter between them, you’ll have to try to latch on to both Trip’s and Grace’s insecurities, and discover their past hopes and current fears. And once you do that, you’ll want to play it again, trying new options. The story is always vaguely the same, but how you navigate it, what you learn, and how it ends will usually be very different as you play again.
This “replay value” of the drama feels like an advantage over the dusty paper books we’re beginning to throw out today in favor for their digital counterparts. But then I thought about my own time re-reading books, how the story stays the same but how one can take a new viewpoint after many years.
Does an adult reading Gulliver’s Travels embark on the very same journey as he did when he first read the book as a child? This autumn I have yet to take up my yearly reading of Dracula, though I can say that every time I return to the book I am made aware of some new detail that I hadn’t realized in the reading before. Reading may be a passive activity, but that doesn’t keep one from being an active reader. “…The experience of reading requires that the imaginations of the author and reader work together to create the story,” JK Rowling says in her initial announcement of Pottermore, a website that promises to allow fans of the Harry Potter book series to re-experience the books with interactive elements. While these features will provide incentive to bring in new fans (“the digital generation,” Rowling calls them in the video) as well as appease the old ones, the question begs to be asked if an interacting reader will be more invested in a narrative than a reader who cannot interact. If all goes well, Pottermore may be just the beginning of the “gamification” of literature.
Of course, it is difficult to group something like Façade with an interactive e-book or whatever it is Pottermore will prove to be. It is certain, though, that the question of interactivity versus none will arise in literature, so we best put aside whatever prejudices we have and understand that a “game” can in fact be literary—and realization of this may just save the quaking publishing industry.