You are on page 1of 8

Justin Baeten

Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
Video Games and Interactivity in Contemporary American Literature

According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature: contemporary literature

values heterogeneity in its forms and pluralism in its cultural influences. This literature assumes

a context wherein the nature of reality changes. (Norton, 1082). While this is helpful in

determining what contemporary American literature values, it is not a definition of what form

contemporary American literature takes. However, the heterogeneity (meaning difference or

diversity) in form, that contemporary American literature values, suggests that it contains more

than the traditional forms of literature. Contemporary American literature is no longer comprised

only of the traditional forms of poetry and drama, novels and short stories. Contemporary

American literature desires new and innovative media to express content through like movies,

music, or even video games. Video games may be considered a part of contemporary American

literature, through their interactivity video games provide a unique way of experiencing

literature. The unique nature of video games as a literary form comes from the intersection of

narrative and interactivity that can only be experienced in a video game.

First we must establish a connection between video games and literature through

narrative, one of the key features of literature. While narrative is often seen as a written

construction, it existed long before writing in the form of oral tradition and now in a necessary

part of most movies and video games. In her essay Thinking Literature, Thinking Narrative:

Liaisons dangereuses Donata Meneghelli states the following: narrative denotes a way of

understanding heterogeneous [theres that big word again] and separate phenomena. Actions

and/or events become intelligible and endowed with meaning due to their structuring

(Meneghelli, 42). By this definition narrative is the method by which events, in a work of

1
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
literature, are organized and combined into a coherent whole. As such, narrative is not unique to

written literature but is key to any form of media that tells a story. Without a narrative, every

movie would be a series of unconnected events and it would be impossible for it to tell a story of

any sort. In the same way, video games require narrative to give meaning and structure to their

events. Video game narratives have a unique aspect that is not common among other literary

mediums: the interactive nature of video game narrative.

Interactivity between the experiencer of literature and the work of literature is not a new

concept. From plays where the audience is a character in and of itself, to poems or novels that

require the reader to work at interpreting certain themes or passages to understand them.

Experimenting with interactivity in literature was common during the Modernist movement of

the early twentieth century when many authors were searching for new ways to engage the

reader in the work of literature. One such work is William Faulkners The Sound and the Fury

which begins thusly:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster
was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were
hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the
other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from
the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and
I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass. (Faulkner, 3)
This passage is quite confusing on first read and, since it is the beginning of the book, it prepares

you for the rest of the novel. After a second read we gather that the I is watching men play golf

while Luster hunts for something, likely golf balls. The poetics of the story force you to work for

an interpretation and, while the whole book it not written in the same manner, a good portion of

it is. On top of the difficult writing style, the sections of the book are not in chronological order,

2
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
forcing you to piece the events together as you go. These combined poetic and narrative choices

make you put in work to determine what is happening in the novel at any given time and is an

example of interactive narrative in literature.

Video games take that interactive narrative to its logical conclusion. In a video game, you

are not a passive observer, working to understand the events taking place in the story, as you are

when reading Faulkner. Rather, you take control of a character inside the world of the game and

interact with that world and other characters directly through the player-controlled character.

This is the unique nature of video game narrative, that you are a character in the game, and it

gives video games a place in contemporary American literature. However, just as not all

published works of fiction are considered literature, neither should all video games be viewed the

same way. Some video games emphasize action above story or are based solely on competition,

rather than narrative. These games are pure escapism and are comparable to the likes of the

Twilight books and the Fast and Furious movies. However, plenty of games take a more

thoughtful approach in their narrative and, by combining that narrative with the inherent

interactivity of a video game these games achieve a unique affect that cannot be found in any

other form of media.

In this essay, I will be focusing on one such game that tells its story primarily through

interaction and not words. The game is Brothers A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze Studios AB.

Visit this website for the accompanying videos and a synopsis of the game. The narrative of

Brothers is quite simple on the surface: two brothers go on a journey to find a cure for their

fathers illness. This journey is a rather brief (around two hours, which is short for a video game)

adventure through a collection of fantasy set pieces and is not very remarkable. So far so generic,

3
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
but the two key features that set Brothers apart are that, you control both characters at the same

time, and there is not a single intelligible word of dialogue in the whole game.

Controlling two characters at once is quite tricky and makes playing Brothers a challenge

in and of itself. The best method of controlling the game is with a controller, as shown in image 1

and demonstrated in video 1. The controls are divided into left and right, the left stick and trigger

control the older brother while the right stick and trigger control the younger. This control

method is unique, not only because directly controlling more than one character at time is very

rare and difficult, but also because it directly associates each brother with their respective side of

the controller. This can make walking across a room challenging since, if the older brother is on

the right side of your screen and the younger brother is on the left, you will likely automatically

try to control the older brother with the right stick and the younger with the left until, after a few

seconds of running into walls, you get it straightened out. This simultaneously creates a lot of the

challenge in the game and drives home the correlation between the two boys and their respective

sides. This helps engage you in the plight of two boys who only communicate in gibberish.

Speaking of gibberish that is all they speak throughout the game. As you can see and

hear in any of the videos, the brothers communicate in nonsensical sounds, as well as gestures

that help you understand what needs to be done next. The only communication that you can

understand is the simple indicators of how to continue the game. Because of this the story is

entirely visual and physical as you move the characters through the story. This lack of intelligible

conversation puts even more pressure on the interactivity to engage you since you cannot

understand anything said by any of the characters. Imagine watching a movie you have never

seen before in a foreign language you know nothing about without subtitles. In that case the only

4
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
thing you could understand would be the visible actions of the characters without any of the

context provided by dialogue. Brothers makes this idea work by putting you in the story and

giving you control of the main characters. This bridges the language barrier through the

interactivity. By allowing you to control, even in a small way, the characters actions, the game

allows you to build context through the work you put into the narrative.

At the end of the game, the interactive narrative is what gives weight to the death of the

older brother (spoiler). The game establishes early on (video 2) that the younger brother cannot

swim and, whenever they have to cross water, he must hold onto his older brothers back. This

becomes important later in the game and I will get back to it in a moment. As the game wraps up,

the brothers finally reach their goal: a giant tree that holds some unexplained magic liquid at its

top that is needed to cure their father. However, the older brother was injured previously while

fighting a giant spider woman (see the synopsis on the companion page). The younger brother

must leave the older at the base of the tree to retrieve the magic liquid. Upon returning he finds

that the older brother has died and no amount of magic tree juice can save him. At this point the

interactive narrative comes to bear, forcing you to bury the older brother as shown in video 3.

This burial not only marks the end of the older brothers character but also the end of the left half

of the controller.

I have played the game twice and each time the affect is profound. After the older

brothers death, I felt his loss, not only emotionally through the younger brother, but also

physically through the left half of my controller. The left half of my controller died each time.

Throughout the game I was always moving both sticks and squeezing both triggers, but at the

end, there is only one. The drastic change, from constantly controlling two characters to only

5
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
one, is jarring and the disruption adds to the theme of loss that runs throughout the game.

However, lost is not necessarily gone. When the younger brother is returning home, he must

travers obstacles alone that he needed his older brothers help with before. In order to swim (told

you I would get back to swimming), pull the lever, and climb the cliff you have to hold down the

older brothers left trigger (video 4). If you release the left trigger while swimming the

younger brother will stop moving and begin to drown. Similarly, the only way to pull the lever

and climb the cliff is by holding down the left trigger, all the while you can hear the older

brothers voice whispering in the background. This connection between themes, narrative, and

player interaction is an example of the strengths of video game storytelling. It is also an example

of the direction contemporary American literature may be going.

In contemporary America, everything is getting easier and less time consuming. With

technological advancements constantly improving, Americans have more free time and less

physical work. The days of a farmer following a house-drawn plow are long gone, replaced by an

air-conditioned tractor. These advancements have created a unique scenario wherein many

Americans do not have jobs that require physical labor. The traditional view of working a job, in

America, is going to work for eight hours, doing some kind of physical labor, then returning

home and relaxing. However, with the growth of non-physical jobs in America, that traditional

physical interaction is being lost. Filling in that empty space, for a growing number of

Americans, are video games. Despite the small amount of the work that goes into a video game

there is still the sensation of laboring towards a goal. Even though the goal in a video game has

no effect on the real world, that sense of accomplishment when the goal has been achieved is

real. With the video game industry championing new technologies like virtual reality and

6
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017
augmented reality, both allowing a greater level of physical interaction between you and the

game, it is clear that video games are pushing contemporary American literature in a more

interactive, labor intensive direction. Which may in fact be the direction contemporary American

literature needs to go.

7
Justin Baeten
Professor Nurmi
LIT 313
2 May 2017

Works Cited

Baym, Nina and Levine, Robert S., editors. American Literature Since 1945. The Norton

Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Eighth Edition. Vol. 2. pp. 1071-1087. W. W.

Norton & Company, Inc. 2013.

Meneghelli, Donata. "Thinking Literature, Thinking Narrative: Liaisons dangereuses." L'Esprit

Crateur, vol. 54 no. 3, 2014, pp. 40-52. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/esp.2014.0032

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury, Modern Library Edition. Random House, Inc. 2012.

Starbreeze Studios AB. Brothers A Tale of Two Sons. 505 Games. 2013.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/225080/Brothers__A_Tale_of_Two_Sons/