Video game

Are video games coming for the novel? – Financial Times

A teenage girl called Edith comes home for the first time in several years. Every other member of the family has died. She roams around the deserted house, grieving for what she has lost. Her brother Lewis died when he was about to turn 22, beaten down by a job at a salmon cannery. As Lewis’s depression worsened, he began to construct an alternate life in his mind, in which he ruled a utopian kingdom — a fantasy that started to take over. No longer able to bear the pain, Lewis put his head in the salmon guillotine. 

The story I’ve just outlined comes not from a film or a short story, but from a video game, What Remains of Edith Finch, first released in 2017 on platforms including PlayStation and Xbox. It is one of the most moving narrative experiences I’ve ever had. I played from Lewis’s point of view as he stood in the factory, using the controller to feed salmon into the machine with his rubber-gloved hands. It became more and more of a struggle, as his fantasy — where he strolled around a sunlit city, followed by adoring subjects — took up more and more of the screen. I tried to keep going at his menial job, but was too tormented by the desire to be somewhere, or someone, else. When I played it at my friend August’s house last year, both of us cried.

A video game scene showing the abandoned yard of a former family home
A scene from the 2017 game ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ — ‘one of the most moving narrative experiences I’ve ever had’

The debate about whether games will ever be considered an artform on a par with fiction, theatre, film or TV is surely over. Major studio series like BioShock and Baldur’s Gate pull in players not just for the allure of killing enemies, but for the richness of their lore and worldbuilding. 2019’s Disco Elysium, an indie game in which you play an amnesiac detective who must investigate a dead body in a rundown port town, contains roughly a million words of anarchic, beautiful script, written primarily by the Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz. Author George RR Martin composed the back-story for the much-admired 2022 game Elden Ring. Last week’s Bafta Games Awards may not have received the red-carpet attention of their film and TV equivalents, but a jamboree that celebrated titles such as Baldur’s Gate 3 and Alan Wake 2 received widespread mainstream coverage nonetheless.

Needless to say, games are now huge business: while the fiction books market is thought to be worth around $11bn globally, the worldwide gaming market truly dwarfs it — projected to reach revenues of over $280bn this year, growing at nearly 9 per cent annually. Research suggests that it is not far off generating as much revenue as publishing and filmed entertainment combined. 

When The Last of Us, the hugely popular post-apocalyptic, pandemic-themed game, was adapted into a HBO series starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in 2023, there was much discussion about how TV and film were starting to take creative cues from gaming rather than the other way around — not just in shoot ’em up or family franchises such as Tomb Raider or Sonic the Hedgehog but games with more layered or challenging narratives too.

Traditionally, the quality of writing in games hasn’t been seen as the point — design and gameplay mattered more. Many “indulge in a form of narrative carpet bombing in which story fragments are simply dropped on to the world from a great height,” the game critic Keith Stuart wrote in 2016.

But is that, too, starting to change? Is the influence starting to flow the other way? And, if so, what can novelists learn from the way game-makers think, write and visualise the narratives they create? And where might fiction in all its forms go next?

When August and I played What Remains of Edith Finch, we had just begun writing our second video game. Our first, How We Know We’re Alive, which came out last year, is set in Sweden’s Bible Belt and follows a woman returning to her hometown to learn about her estranged friend’s death. I co-wrote it at the same time as writing my first novel, Deep Down, which focused on a pair of siblings renegotiating their relationship after their father dies. Now I’m writing the second game and my second novel concurrently too. Storytelling in the two mediums has been much on my mind.

While game writers grew up in a culture profoundly affected by the novel, now the reverse is often true, and not just in my case. Some novel writers have spent their whole lives playing video games. Occasionally the influence is clear, as in J Robert Lennon’s 2021 novel Subdivision, in which a woman checks into a mysterious small-town guesthouse. The chapters, which present puzzles for the reader to solve, feel somewhat like game levels. In Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (2022), the protagonists are literally game designers; one section of the novel takes place entirely within one of their games.

Elsewhere, the effect is yet more subcutaneous. Lyle Skains, a researcher and creative digital writing teacher at Bournemouth University, suggests that Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), in which a woman dies and restarts her life dozens of times, owes a subconscious debt to games. “That definitely has a gameplay feel,” she told me. “Your character died, so let’s go back to the beginning and restart.” Personally, I’ve found myself thinking of video games reading novels like The Power (2016) by Naomi Alderman (herself a game writer), even Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books.

In some ways, it could be said that games have the edge creatively. Whereas a novelist is forced to use the page to deliver words, gaming offers overheard conversation or other techniques. The American short story writer Carmen Maria Machado is drawn to NPC (non-playable character) conversations in games she’s played, exchanges you can overhear happening between other characters: “The dialogue kind of accretes and repeats itself and adjusts,” she told me. Meanwhile, the British novelist Eliza Clark has included artefacts like blog posts, text messages and web pages in her stories. Gaming has helped her feel freer. She said: “There’s lots of different stuff you can pick up.”

Phone puzzle games, time travelling save-the-world adventures, basketball simulators, dystopian open world games, elegant narrative art pieces, many more: gaming offers a dizzying multiplicity of formats. “Even to play Candy Crush versus Chrono Trigger, versus NBA 2K, [they’re] almost completely different mediums,” the novelist and longtime gamer Tony Tulathimutte told me. “Whereas reading a sci-fi novel and a staid, conventional realist novel — if they’re all formatted in paragraphs with scenes of dialogue . . . they’re going to resemble each other.”

There is, of course, a history of books offering readers the chance to choose their own adventure, sometimes called “LitRPG”, dating back to the world of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise of the 1980s. Some postmodern novels have attempted radical experiments with the ordering of narrative — works like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, whose 155 chapters are preceded by an author’s note offering readers different orders in which to read them, or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, in which the story of a Mexican girl who moves to the US is told through a patchwork of letters, dreams and drawings. But whatever tricks writers have tried — stream-of-consciousness, overlapping perspectives, Oulipo-style word games, autofiction — in many respects the mainstream novel has remained remarkably consistent in its basic form.

What about conveying psychological interiority, often held up as the novel’s great innovation? Well, I certainly felt like I was learning about the interior world of Lewis Finch. And take a game like 2021’s Unpacking, by the indie studio Witch Beam, which requires you to sort through an unseen person’s belongings as they move home. Humdrum as this may sound, as you play you learn their life story through their possessions: a stuffed pig, the photograph of an ex-partner.

Or think about turning the lens the other way — outwards rather than inwards. Sure, we have a palpable sense of Dickens’s London, Rushdie’s India, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Fitzgerald’s Long Island (even if your version of Middle Earth is likely different from mine). But game designers and writers have to visualise and populate every last corner of the worlds they create. Breath of the Wild, the massively popular 2017 Zelda game, is set in Hyrule, a sprawling kingdom covering many square miles, much of which contains narrative material the player can explore over hundreds of hours of gameplay. The most lushly designed movies can’t compete for immersiveness. Even Infinite Jest might not detain you that long.

Yet if there’s one element that feels revelatory in gaming — at least to me — it’s the space it offers for choice, discoverability. You wander off the path in a forest and find a cabin; inside there’s a letter that tells you something about the person who lived there. You could easily have stayed on the path and not gone inside. You might only encounter the letter much later, or perhaps never at all.

Eliza Clark and Carmen Maria Machado are enthusiastic players of role-playing games, RPGs — ones in which you inhabit a fictional character and go on an adventure. Both agreed that choosing both your character and the adventure you want to have make for enormously satisfying narrative experiences. “The more options I get, the more a game works for me,” Clark said. “I can write my own narrative as I’m playing.”

Rather than simply observing characters have a conversation, the player selects how they want the protagonist to respond, which changes what their interlocutor says next. Instead of creating a linear script, game writers are forced to shape what look like trees of dialogue: sprawling branches that reach different possible outcomes, plot directions, maybe even dead ends.

In a novel, you have to find the “right” way through the story; when writing a game, you have to consider different ways the narrative could plausibly proceed. All might be “right” in their own way.

As a writer, I find it freeing, the idea that there are so many potential paths. As Eric Hayot, a literature academic who teaches courses on video games at Penn State University, described it to me, a game has “a wide diversity of meaningful pathways to an ending, such that the meaning of the game as a whole is not derived from a single ending but, rather, is composed, like a symphony, of the sum of all possible endings.”

The novelist Alexander Chee, yet another enthusiastic gamer, cited a 1945 essay by the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, “Notes on Writing a Novel”, which argues that plot is what remains after all of the other choices have been taken away. Yet in the gaming universe it can never be that simple: all we have are choices, and the story develops from that. Real life is arguably like that too.

So will video games be considered another kind of creative choice for the writer, simply another artform among many — a vehicle for story that feels as valid as a poem, novel, film or play? Young writers in particular are already there, argues Skains. Some of the students she teaches arrive wanting to write their novel, and switch very quickly to creating games. “Video games are culture too,” she said. “And they’re influencing young writers a lot more now than anyone gives them credit for.”

Novels have had 400-odd years to mature as a medium. We’re still in the first 50 years of gaming. Will games displace the novel as the dominant literary artform of our time? Will online games emerge where creating collaborative narrative is the primary goal? Will novelists be able to write their works to be experienced by the reader-turned-player in virtual reality? Who knows. It’s all to play for.

Imogen West-Knights is co-author of the game ‘How We Know We’re Alive’ and the novel ‘Deep Down’

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café and subscribe to our podcast Life & Art wherever you listen


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.