The Rise of the Digital Narrative - Video Games as Literature

Video games offer a narrative form unlike any other, and because it’s focused on the player, there’s often the misconception that video games value entertainment over meaning. The reality is that video games can be as entertaining and meaningful as art or literature.

The art of storytelling is always changing, and so should the way we perceive literature. Books will always be books and the classics will always be classics, but the definition of what is and is not literature is often based on antiquated ideas that do not leave room for growth. In an evolving world, stories and their mediums should be expected to change. One way that literature has changed in recent years is through the rise of the digital narrative: video games.

The argument that video games are not art isn’t new, but criticism of the genre is often misplaced. Video games suffer from the same stigma that genre fiction does in the literary world. However, just like good genre fiction, good video games can possess the same lasting artistic merit that separates general text from literature.

Defining Literature

Literature is a restrictive classification that doesn’t define every text. For a work to be called literature it must be considered an “art form” or its writing “deemed to have artistic or intellectual value.” According to Gotham Writers, most works of literature use specific forms of literary techniques, such as “dimensional characters, a pleasing arc of tension, evocative language, and thematic purpose,” often associated with the literary genre. This is where the line blurs.

Good fiction, whether it’s literary or otherwise should posses these elements. The biggest difference between literary works and narratives, like those found in video games, is that the literary genre often values meaning over entertainment. Which raises the question, what if a story has both?

Art doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to emphasize meaning by sacrificing entertainment. Good fiction can deliver both and video games do just that. Just like with books, not all video games are created equal, but narrative driven games have become more popular in recent years.

Games like the Metal Gear Solid franchise are heavily narrative driven and possess complex characters and themes also found in literary fiction. The series offers more than just action and espionage. It deals with historical fiction and themes like "nature vs. nurture" that players can contemplate long after they have completed the game. Metal Gear Solid is also well known for extremely long and immersive cutscenes that further develop the narrative between missions.

Games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt similarly deal with themes often found in classic literature. Like Metal Gear Solid, The Witcher looks at "nature vs. nurture," but it also deals with predestination vs. free will, racism, religious intolerance, class systems, and fear of technology.

Unlike Metal Gear Solid, The Witcher is based on the book series of the same name by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, so some of these themes were inspired by previous prose. What makes The Witcher stand out from similar adaptations is that it doesn’t sacrifice meaning for the sake of entertainment.

Interactive Narratives Push the Genre

Like good literature, video games often task players with thinking critically about the narrative, especially in more interactive stories. Some companies use interactive narratives to further shape how the literature unfolds. In games like Infamous and Mass Effect, morality systems and player choice dictate the protagonist’s traits and shape the narrative in new ways. Morality systems offer moral dichotomy to games that already have layered narratives.

Developers like Telltale have taken interactive narratives even further with popular adaptations like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Wolf Among Us. Telltale maintains themes found in the traditional works, but further complicates the narrative by letting players make choices to shift the direction of the game.

This encourages a deeper understanding of characters and forces players to closely analyze the story to avoid a bad ending. While a player’s analysis of the text is more critical to the story’s outcome, it’s no different than analyzing literary fiction.

Not every video game is a piece of art, but that doesn’t mean the genre as a whole has no artistic value. The digital narrative isn’t lesser than any other art form. It’s just different. Old, archaic definitions may need to change to make room for new ideas.