Hey everyone! So this is another of our new series for this year, the companion to our "Games folks on libraries" series. In it we will be asking folks from the world of books and libraries about games.
For our first entry in this series I decided to try to go big. About the most respected book person I could think of was William Shakespeare, but nobody seemed to have any contact details for him. (Also people kept saying something about plays not being books. But this is the International Games Day @ your library blog so play is OK too, right?) Thankfully I came across one of his most recent collaborators: Ryan North.
Ryan North is the (Eisner-award winning, New York Times bestselling) author of the Adventure Time comic, the web series Dinosaur Comics (qwantz.com), and To Be or Not To Be: That is the Adventure (hamletbook.com): the book that turns Shakespeare's Hamlet into a choose-your-own-path adventure which became Kickstarter's most-funded publishing project ever when it launched. The book is even better than it sounds, and it already sounds pretty great!
(For starters, its authors are William Shakespeare, Ryan North and YOU! So I could have just read the book and interviewed myself as an even more recent collaborator with Shakespeare... but modesty forbids.)
Welcome Ryan, and thanks for kicking off our series of book folks on games! Clearly you have a love of literature both classic and modern. What can you tell us about your history with games?
My parents got me a NES for my birthday, and the only game we had was Super Mario Bros, and I remember playing that game until I could beat it in a single run without ever getting hit. This was before things like "the internet" so I had no idea that doing runs like this was a thing: if I'd come up with the idea of speed runs on my own, I might've never wanted another cartridge.
At the same time I was reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are basically books in game form. Basic games, for sure, but they're lots of fun. To me they seemed like the next step in the evolution of books: sure, you start out on baby books where there's only one story and you don't get to make any choices, but when you're awesome enough you can graduate to non-linear branching-narrative books (ie: Choose Your Own Adventure books) with dozens of stories and reader interaction. It makes sense, you know?
Where do you see games right now, culturally speaking?
In a lot of ways, games are undergoing the same transformation that comics were doing in the 80s. For decades, comics in North America were seen as kids stuff: juvenile distractions that you were meant to outgrow. And then in a cultural shift happened and people started realizing that comics wasn't a genre (ie: superheroes, Archie comics) but it was a medium, and you can do anything in a medium. And we started getting all sorts of stories getting published, and comics started becoming more and more mainstream and more and more acceptable, and now today tons of the most popular movies of the past five years started lives as comics (Batman, Avengers, Ghost World, etc). And while there's still echos of where comics started from ("Biff! Pow!! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" being a headline that I'm sure comes out at least once a year no matter what we do) there's a much larger mainstream acceptance that comics can be anything.
Including, critically, art.
And also including, just as critically, "in libraries".
I feel like right now games are in that "they're for kids" phase, where we mistrust them because they're fun, and things that are fun must not be good for us. And there are lots of creators working now to show that games IS a medium, not a genre, and that games CAN be art. Computer games like Bioshock Infinite are pushing the first-person-shooter genre as far towards telling an adult story as it can, while at the other end of the spectrum games like Gone Home are figuring out how to tell a meaningful story in a medium where you, as the player, are in control of what happens. Tabletop games are shaking off the hangover from decades of Monopoly and showing that a board games can be fun, entertaining, and don't NECESSARILY have to result in six-hour slogs that leave everyone hating everyone else - and again, Monopoly, I am looking in your direction.
In Toronto we have board game libraries springing up in the public sector (cafes like Snakes and Lattes have a huge library of board games that are free to play, and it only costs you $5 to get a seat at a table) and I would love it if, in a few years, you could take out games from the library (both tabletop and computer) in the same way you can take out books and movies now.
There's a lot of very exciting, very important work being done in games, and it'd be a shame not to have that in libraries just because it's not in the normal book form we usually expect.
Where do you see that going? Where could it go?
I'd love to see games take the same trajectory as comics: more mainstream acceptance, less raised eyebrows at the idea of "games as art", more art being produced that's really really great. If we end up in a future where "I write gamebooks" has the same cachet as "I write books where you DON'T make any choices", where "I design games" carries the same weight as "I design narratives", then I think we'll be in a world with a lot of really interesting art being produced. I can't wait to play it.
In a lovely piece of synchronicity, our second game designer profile is from one of the founders of The Fullbright Company, Johnnemann Nordhagen. (You may remember that the Fullbright crew were responsible for one of the games we covered in last month's Game Profile piece, Gone Home.) Johnnemann talks about how his love of literature - specifically, Sir Terry Pratchett - got him into a successful career as a creator himself, and then reflects on how those opportunities can be expanded.
Welcome Johnnemann, and thanks for your time! Please tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in a small resort town in Colorado, and began working on video games when I was a teenager. I was drawn to text-based games called MUDs, specifically Discworld MUD, based on the books by Terry Pratchett, and I learned how to code so I could help make the game. After college I got a paying job in the video game industry, starting as a tester and working my way up into Research and Development at Sony, then working on the Bioshock series and The Bureau: X-Com Declassified at 2K Marin, and most recently moving to Portland to help make Gone Home with the Fullbright Company.
What is your history with/past experience of libraries?
Libraries have always been one of my favorite places. My family are big believers in libraries, and I first began visiting our local library as a small child. As I grew, I developed a lifelong passion for books, and my biggest gripe was that the library would only allow me to borrow 6 at a time! After school the town library would be the place I spent time, reading or doing homework (but more often reading). I got to know the librarians and the local collections as well as the inter-library loan system, and how to navigate the paper and electronic catalogs.
In school I made friends with the school librarians, and ate lunch every day inside the library with friends. I still read, but we also branched out into games - we started a chess club, played Dungeons & Dragons (quietly) in the corner, and used the computer for Lemmings, Legend of the Red Dragon, BattleChess, and various other titles that the librarians had gotten.
In my rural high school, the librarian was also an IT worker and advocate, pushing for and supporting the computer labs and services. I started working as a computer technician for the library, supporting the games and technology that the school district used.
So, long story short - libraries were my sanctuary growing up, as well as the source of most of my entertainment, both books and games.
What is your sense of where libraries are now, especially in relation to games?
I don't feel that I have a good sense of that. I have seen some libraries starting video game collections, but it doesn't seem to be a universal program and it seems like a very difficult thing to do well. I know that I don't think of libraries as a source for video games, which is a shame. But as popular games are a hit-driven medium that is very dependent on the new hot products, it seems hard for libraries to compete with rental services or retail purchases for video games.
Where do you see things going and where could they go?
However! That said, video games are more than ever in dire need of curation and preservation. The current rise of the ability of so many people to make games, especially people from diverse backgrounds, is spectacular. However, with the explosion of available games, players really need knowledgeable guides to the medium, people who can steer them towards the best games, or the ones that will resonate most with them, and not just the most popular games. Game librarians would be an excellent fit.
In addition, most people's experience of digital games is focused only around the current technology, and when consoles or computer technologies go out of vogue or are superseded by more advanced versions, often the ability to play the games for those platforms is lost. In an ideal world, libraries could provide the hardware and software necessary to let people experience those games even years after they stop being sold in the retail world. Providing access to the most important historical games would be a valuable mission for libraries!
And lastly, I'd love to see libraries branch beyond digital games, and curate collections of card, board, and roleplaying games - these perhaps fit better with the traditional paper worlds of libraries, and offer an immense amount of value to players, game designers, and those seeking to better understand the medium.
Thank you Johnnemann! A very cogent outside view of our field.
In fact, if you'll permit a little editorializing, I would point out one thing: that the problems with electronic game curation Johnnemann points out are not limited to old tech, or bleeding-edge-too-new-to-be-affordable tech. Gone Home is a PC game that runs comfortably on my older laptop... but because it's on PC, there's currently no way to lend it. This means that - at best - we can have this well-known, well worth sharing, still-being-talked-about game installed on an in-library computer and hope people get through the game before their booking expires (the flow of the game matters, and it's a shame to interrupt it if you can avoid it). And of course not too many libraries even have games PCs when consoles are simpler! Given that independent developers, including those actively seeking to make the most interesting and experimental work, are heavily concentrated on PC because of lower costs, this means that our communities are missing out on exactly the kind of material we like to provide. I don't have any solutions, but if we're serious about promoting access to culture - especially the good stuff - this is one to fix.
Back in the early days of massively multiplayer online games, Richard Bartle, one of the developers of MUD1 - one of the first multi-user online virtual spaces - developed a taxonomy (later turned into a test) to describe which activities most motivated individual players. It assigned each player a score in four areas: Killing (character vs character combat was one part of the game), Socializing, Achieving and Exploring. Still used today (though not without criticism) the Bartle Test's categories are pretty recognizable even to outsiders - or most of them are.
Two of these four activities are, of course, readily compatible with popular conceptions of games: competition, or "Killing", and Achievement are perhaps central to how most people understand games. (This is perhaps why "gamification" is often equated with "awarding points and publishing a leaderboard".) Socialization is increasingly understood as part of the draw of games - though it should perhaps rather be recognized as part of their inherent nature. But not many non-gamers understand that exploration is also a key element of the appeal of games. (Though, to be fair, "non-gamers" is a steadily dwindling population.)
Yet just as a novelist will include details that reward close reading, or a television series might include recurring characters or throwbacks to previous episodes as a kind of insider's wink to longstanding fans, a game will have hidden details - or even hidden areas - which are only accessible through extreme luck or careful exploration (or, of course, walkthroughs or other spoilers) to reward those who are engaging closely with their fictional worlds.
From very early on, games have told their stories through environmental details - the discovery of notes and recordings from past inhabitants of a space, often hidden away in caches and crannies where their authors had sought to conceal themselves, frequently provided a layer of backstory and narrative meaning. Titles such as the System Shock games, and their inheritors the Bioshocks, in particular relied on this technique to explain the contrast between the apparent purpose of the environments you navigated and their current state.
However, those games still had a healthy dose of recognizable game mechanic layered over the top of this exploratory play: RPG-style character customisation, and some form of combat. But in recent years, independent designers have experimented with pure exploration as the core of the experience - to notable effect. This post covers what you might call "first-person promenade games" - games where you play simply by moving around.
Dear Esther, the first such game we'll discuss here today, was one of the early trailblazers in the recent resurgence of exploration games. The game consists entirely of wandering around a mysterious, and rather stark, Hebridean island, noticing the curious details scattered around the landscape, and being rewarded as you cross various trigger points with readings of fragments of a strange sort-of-correspondence addressed to Esther that drop tidbits of information about the island, various inhabitants, the author, and of course Esther herself. Playing the game is done purely by walking around and discovering these audio samples. I don't want to spoil the experience - or give away the story that is gradually revealed as you explore the island - so I'll just say that it could be a mystery; it could be a ghost story; it could be a one-sided epistolary novel; but it is certainly atmospheric and - despite its decidedly sombre tone, and the fact that literally all you can do is move around - intriguing.
The next game in this vein is The Fullbright Company's recent indie darling, Gone Home. Set in 1995, in an isolated mansion in Oregon, a young woman called Katie returns home one stormy midnight to a house she has never seen before - during her year in Europe, her family has moved into a residence inherited from her uncle, known locally as "The Psycho House". When Katie arrives, the house is mysteriously empty, and the letter she wrote home to tell her family to expect her is waiting there unread. As she explores, she begins - inadvertently, at first - to learn a little about the secrets her parents and her little sister have been keeping and the tensions that have been brewing in the house... and to worry about what exactly has happened to her family.
As with Dear Esther, the absence of other characters with whom to interact drives a close attention to the environment and the clues about its inhabitants. Unlike Dear Esther, Gone Home does allow some degree of interaction with the environment, with some of the traditional game elements of gathering keys and clues, and the ability to rearrange and fiddle with quite a range of objects. But the basic process is the same: wander around a single environment, learning as you go. It sounds straightforward... but by clever pacing of the information and the possibilities it suggests, there is a distinct and well-crafted emotional arc to what you learn. Again, I don't want to offer spoilers, so I'll leave it with a recommendation: if you're interested in storytelling technique you should definitely check it out; it's a novel expression of timeless principles.
The Path, a game by Tale of Tales based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, also has a degree of environmental interaction; it also adds the twist of changing the character controlled by the player. The game features 6 sisters, representing 6 takes on (or ages of?) Red Riding Hood; different sisters interact with the environment in different ways. Each play of the game, you choose a sister and walk to Grandmother's house along a path... whether or not you stray from the path, and whether you meet that sister's Wolf, is up to you. If you're interested in the symbolic power of fairy tales, The Path explores a number of permutations of this particular myth in a way no other medium could. (Note that this game has obvious overtones of horror; this fairy tale is not for children... though the Brothers Grimm might disagree.)
The final promenade game for today is The Stanley Parable, a game that explicitly plays with the tension between narration and action in interactive media. You play from the perspective of Stanley, an office worker whose office is unexpectedly devoid of colleagues, and whose adventures are narrated as you play them... or don't. Unlike the previous two games, where the gameplay consists of uncovering the story embedded in the virtual environment of the game, in The Stanley Parable, you are exploring a possibility space mapped out by your relationship to the narrator of the game (and other elements that define game expectations, such as Steam Achievements). The narrator has a story he wants to tell... but what happens if you decline to play [sic] along? And, of course, what does it mean that the game's able to tell that you're doing that, and has responses prepared? A sort of videogame equivalent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler..., The Stanley Parable explores our relationships to the systems and contingencies thereof that make up a game... and, in my view, manages to transcend the specific context of games to get players thinking about their relationship to the systems around them in their own lives. It's also, at times, rather funny.
It is interesting to compare these sorts of titles to books. In some sense, they are passive in a similar way: fixed sets of preordained stimuli requiring the active involvement of the reader/player in order to proceed. In others they are quite different; depending on the game, the player has a greater or lesser ability to "steer" the course of events. But then there are of course books like this too... perhaps a conversation to have with a Games Club at your library?