My favorite games to read
I’ve been reading a really great story recently. By which I mean I have been playing a really great video game. Specifically, I’ve been playing adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, now on its fourth episode (of five). Despite being a video game, it is also one of the best magical-realist stories I’ve read in years. Kentucky Route Zero’s existence is a testament to the steadily improving quality of prose writing in video games.
It certainly wasn’t always this way. For decades, with the exception of the text-adventure genre, writing in games was merely functional: It was for labels, instruction or only the faintest of character-building. It was riddled with typos, infamous translation errors and unclear meaning. This was just fine, because the stories that video games were trying to tell — when they were even trying to tell one — were usually very simple. “Text-adventure” games by companies like Infocom told intriguing and clever stories — but these were very much in the Dungeons & Dragons vein, and catered to niche audiences. But as mainstream video games entered more cinematic territory in the ’90s, they embraced storytelling and narrative like never before. To do this, developers generally adopted two techniques: cutscenes (pre-rendered cinematics) and lore-dump text files. These text files — which described character, backstory, settings, props, weapons, etc. — were often found in the margins of the pause menu, in a file called the journal, the codex or something in this vein.
In role-playing games, these “journals” evolved into actual digital books that piled up in your inventory (perhaps you are familiar with playing Skyrim and having a Deathlord about to smash you in the face when you pause the game, freeze time and whip out a book about the reign of Uriel Septim and start reading). Because they were now putting lore in things that looked like books, video-game developers felt compelled to try their hand at writing. The results were, er, hit and miss. Skyrim books are full of purple prose, derivative stories, and tons of telling at the expense of showing. On the other hand, the books in The Witcher 3 inventory are wittier and full of character (perhaps because they were rooted in honest-to-God literature; The Witcher is itself an adaptation of a long-running novel series).
But games like Kentucky Route Zero have taken a different tack, completely embracing story, making it the core subject of the game. The story in these games has sometimes displaced traditional gameplay mechanics (often, there is no way at all to “win”). In doing so, they have created hybrid works of fiction that depend upon the quality of their written word, while most games would rely on the quality of their bullet physics. They have blurred the line between interactive fiction and the kind of respectable novels your English teacher would assign.
The central narrative in Kentucky Route Zero is about deliveryman Conway’s journey down the mythical “Zero” highway to deliver a package. However, it’s not really about him. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, the meat of the experience lies much more in the exploration of the ensemble cast that accompanies Conway, and its complex web of relationships, desires, and regrets. The primary gameplay mechanic revolves around selecting people to speak with, and then making dialogue choices to shape a conversation. The writing in these conversations is crisp and compact, bursting with Southern-fried flavor straight out of a Flannery O’Conner short story.
The characters, though they are animated with blank faces, strike vivid, fully realized figures thanks to their dialogue. You can subtly shape who they become through your choices, but the options you don’t choose can also reveal something about these mysterious, troubled people as well. Instead of a descriptive paragraph of prose, the background art in the game paints mysterious images that still allow the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Playing Kentucky Route Zero is like interacting with a deconstructed and digitized novel: You have to assemble the setting, the characters, and the story yourself at your own pace, but what you create is a rewardingly intimate and layered narrative about the human experience.
Eighty Days for iOS tilts even further into interactive-fiction territory. The game is a retelling of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. The experience consists of actual gameplay mechanics: You plan a route around the world on a map, and you stop in at markets to buy and sell your goods in order to fund your trip. But the game’s real genius lies in the deftly written prose and the subtle relationship development between player-character, Passepartout, and his employer and adventurer, Phileas Fogg. Sure, it’s about the journey around the world, but it’s just as much about crafting the dynamic between these two characters. And though it has startling power as a narrative (it was Time magazine’s “Game of the Year,” while The Telegraph lauded it as one of the best “novels of the year”), 80 Days remains very much a traditional game with a clear objective and win state.
But some works blur the line between game and story even further; for example, The Silent History. This iOS app is actually classified as an “e-book,” despite several highly gamified elements. The story is set in a world where new children have been born without the ability to comprehend language, and the main narrative is a serialized, thought-provoking story of parenting that delivers on a high-minded literary pursuit: the exploration of how language shapes our world. And yet it’s also iPhone app for which, like Pokemon Go, you need to physically hunt down and download geolocated side stories that flesh out the world. This design choice makes the fiction feel more realized, but it also makes the book feel a lot like a video game.
There has also been a resurgence of text-adventure games of late in the classic Infocom style. Plenty of young writers and developers in the Interactive Fiction Database and on other small indie-game platforms like itch.io, are creating compelling, heartfelt and funny stories using Twine, open-source writing software tailored for interactive fiction.
It’s clear that great prose is no longer confined to the page — it has found a welcoming new home in the medium of games, and this should come as no surprise. It’s always been the mission of great literature to transport the reader to a fantastic new land. So too has it been for great video games. It was only a matter of time till the twain did meet.